Intelligence Scandals: The Politics of Oversight

March 29, 2014–Today’s news is that Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who currently serves as the chairman of the House oversight committee, is going to retire to become a radio talk show host. Rogers cites his frustrations at accomplishing anything in Congress, and believes he can contribute more as a media pundit. Interesting. On a number of levels.

Just to recapitulate: Mike Rogers has driven the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) exactly where he wants it to go. And where he has gone is into the pocket of the intelligence mavens. Rogers, an FBI special agent before he became a congressman, seems never to have met an intelligence project he did not like. Whether it was CIA drones, NSA dragnet eavesdropping, or whatever, Mike Rogers was for it all. He acquiesced in the intelligence community’s purposeful evasion of oversight, its hookwinking of Congress right down to refusal to discuss even the legal basis for drone strikes that target American citizens. Instead he needled intelligence officials to increase their use of drones. At the height of the Snowden revelations Rogers appeared on TV with former NSA/CIA spy chief Michael Hayden to gush about how he would like to throttle the whistleblower. Where, over in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein has finally rebelled under the weight of the spies’ excesses (see “Senator Feinstein Comes out of the Closet,” March 11, 2014), at HPSCI Mike Rogers made sure his committee made no investigation at all of the CIA’s hostile interrogation techniques.

Moreover Rogers has operated in a permissive environment. With an ironclad majority in the House, HPSCI-sponsored legislation was assured of passage. Only a less-permissive Senate stood in the way of Rogers’s pet projects becoming law. Until Snowden that is. In the Republican-dominated House last summer, congressmen outraged at the NSA dragnet came within a handful of votes of defunding the National Security Agency. James Sensenbrenner, the man who wrote the provision the NSA has used to justify its dragnet, has disavowed his legislation and wants to repeal it.

Now Mike Rogers is frustrated because he can’t accomplish anything. Kind of like the kid at the schoolyard who, failing to win his dispute over interference with the last shot, picks up his marbles and heads home.

This would be amusing except that it is calculated. As it happens, the provision Jim Sensenbrenner authored, whether or not it is repealed, is scheduled to expire next year unless it is renewed. A whole lot of politics is going to revolve around that fight. Senate passage will be dicey. The House is no longer a done deal. The high tech corporations, stung by the effect of the NSA dragnet on their bottom lines and international sales, are quite likely to lobby against the program with which they have been working for years. Public pressure will be important. My guess is that Mike Rogers calculates he can help mobilize the public to demand the extension of the intrusive eavesdropping. Mike Rogers can “save” the NSA dragnet. Now that would be an accomplishment!

 

Poles of a Magnet: Jim Schlesinger and Lawrence Walsh

March 27, 2014–Sometimes events pile atop one another, almost too quickly to respond. That’s the case this week, where almost simultaneously we see news of two important passages, the deaths of Lawrence E. Walsh and James R. Schlesinger. Once I got a moment I’d intended to write something about Lawrence Walsh because of his role in the Iran-Contra Affair, but before I could put finger to keyboard, this afternoon’s news brings word that Mr. Schlesinger, too, has passed away. The two men, both staunch Republicans, are linked in an unusual way, not due to their political affiliations but each figured in one of the central upheavals of America’s late 20th Century.

Lawrence E. Walsh was a lawyer, active from the mid-30s on. He served as an assistant district attorney and in other legal posts in New York City, as a counselor to New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, at the time the latter ran for president against Harry Truman in 1948 (losing in a breathtaking upset), as a federal district judge, and as deputy attorney general during the last part of the Eisenhower administration. For a long time Walsh worked as a lawyer in private practice, emerging briefly during the Nixon administration as deputy chief negotiator in the Vietnam peace talks in Paris. But his most important service by far was as special prosecutor in the investigation of the Iran-Contra Affair from 1986 to 1992.

Walsh had great respect for the law as well as for the political dimensions of legal matters. Whether he learned that as a DA, with Thomas Dewey, or in the Eisenhower Justice Department, which was obliged to enforce civil rights rules after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, I don’t know. But when it came to Iran-Contra, where his political inclination was to help protect President Ronald Reagan, Lawrence Walsh worked steadfastly to get to the bottom of the morass of one of the most extensive cover-ups of the age. The special prosecutor would be stymied at every turn–his evidence tainted by Congress’s insistence on immunizing witnesses at its Iran-Contra hearings, by lack of cooperation from Edwin Meese’s Justice Department, by the mass amnesia of National Security Council staff aides and CIA officers who professed not to remember activities with which they had been intimately associated over a period of years.

Despite every obstacle Walsh and his investigators succeeded in building cases against fourteen U.S. government officials and obtained convictions in eleven of those cases, including those of national security adviser John M. Poindexter and conspirator Oliver L. North. Most of the convictions were set aside by higher courts on the strength of the congressional immunities previously extended to the defendants. The remaining culprits were pardoned by the first President Bush when he was headed out the door at the end of his presidency and Walsh was on the point of prosecuting the former secretary of defense, Caspar W. Weinberger.

Walsh’s investigation concluded that both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush–at that time the vice-president–bore significant responsibility, that CIA director William J. Casey had been a major player, abetted by Secretary Weinberger and others, and that the highest levels of the government had conspired to evade U.S. law in selling weapons to Iran, with subordinates smuggling some of the resulting money to Nicaraguan contra rebels run by the CIA. Walsh found Reagan and Bush not in criminal jeopardy, but certainly guilty of poor management and potentially vulnerable if their foreknowledge of the affair was other than had been represented.

I have written before in this space of certain secrecy rules enacted by the second President Bush–George H. W.’s son–when he came to office, which gave former presidents a say in the declassification of records pertaining to them. In my view these rules were almost certainly instituted to protect the first Bush from the consequences of his role in Iran-Contra. These rules have made a mockery of declassification regulations as they pertain to the Reagan-Bush era.

Like the pole of a magnet Lawrence Walsh attracted the opprobrium and criticism of many from his own political party.

I never met Lawrence Walsh, but I did meet James R. Schlesinger, first in his early guise as a nuclear weapons expert and analyst at the RAND Corporation. Schlesinger was a Harvard-trained economist who came to defense analysis, which I studied at the time, as a proponent of what was called “operations research.” Richard Nixon brought Schlesinger into his administration to lead the Office of Management and Budget. In that capacity, in 1971 Schlesinger conducted an efficiency study of the U.S. intelligence community on Nixon’s behalf, at a time when the president sought an excuse to pare the CIA’s budget. Mr. Nixon later appointed Schlesinger the CIA director. It was Mr. Schlesinger who commissioned the notorious CIA report called The Family Jewels. It was that document that lay directly behind the CIA and NSA abuse scandals of 1975, the “Year of Intelligence,” about which much has appeared on this website of late. Needless to say, CIA and NSA officers were outraged that U.S. government authorities presumed to investigate their activities. Schlesinger soon left to head the Pentagon, where his fights with Henry Kissinger became the talk of Washington.

I saw Mr. Schlesinger on a number of occasions in later years, often at CIA-hosted events, where he was always honored. His role as Mr. Nixon’s gunslinger had apparently been forgotten. I’d not be surprised to see Kissinger show up as a speaker at Schlesinger’s memorial service. Perhaps Mr. Schlesinger’s was an opposite magnetic pole–opposites attract while like poles repel. How else to account for the very different treatment accorded these two Republicans? We’ll see.

House Rules Rule

March 27, 2014– News that Hasbro, the game company, has asked players of its classic Monopoly to write in with their favorite “House Rules” in hopes some of them may be formally included in new editions of the boardgame opens up a vein for discussion. (Personally, my favorites are “Free Parking” gets $500 plus all the fee and fine money; and the one where, if you land directly on “Go,” you double your income.) Media attention has centered on the supposition that Hasbro is updating the game, as they did last year by pulling the Shoe token, holding a poll, and then substituting a Cat. But I think there’s a more interesting question regarding House Rules.

People acquire all kinds of products–including games– which they adapt to their personal preferences. Zero in on boardgames specifically and you’ll find that one of the most frequent adaptations is the adoption of House Rules. For those who’ve never delved into this juicy subject, House Rules are changes you make in the specific rules of a game when you play it at your place (your friend may have different ones at his). Like when you play Poker (five-card draw) and declare that Aces, Deuces, and One-Eyed Jacks will be wild cards, or when a National League team plays at an American League ballpark (and vice versa).

The recent coverage of Monopoly has included some discussion of specific House Rules that seem to be common, like the ones mentioned earlier. What struck me is that so many of the House Rules I saw cited are ones I’m familiar with, either having used myself or played with someone else who utilized them. Coincidence? I think not.

Game rules are littered with ambiguities and questions that may require interpretation. The popular “family”-style games, which skimp on rules to the maximum extent possible in order to bring in the players, are especially prone to this. The more complex games and simulations, as the wargames strive to be, also have ambiguities, plus more perplexing contradictions where the designer or developer changed one aspect of the game without accounting for all the ways that rule interacts with some other. The bottom line is that ambiguities and contradictions can be minimized but never completely eliminated.

My advice has always been to go for it. The game won’t be perfect but it can be what you want it to be. If a House Rule makes the boardgame work better, play faster, or make better sense, by all means use it.

Meanwhile the Monopoly example shows something else very interesting about House Rules–that different players, from a wide variety of backgrounds, in different places, have all come up with the same or similar solutions to game issues. There were only one or two of the House Rules mentioned for that game which I’d not heard of. That was amazing. And amusing. Great minds and all that. So go for it–and keep on gaming!

NSA Eavesdropping Scandal: The Dam Cracks

March 25, 2014– The ground has begun to shift under the dam that has so far protected the National Security Agency in its dragnet metadata program, much as appears to be happening for its sister three-letter agency across the Potomac. Yesterday in Amsterdam, tastefully posed in front of the Rembrandt painting “The Night Watch,” President Barack Obama put his first nail into the coffin of NSA domestic spying. So far we have only sparse details of the Obama scheme and there will be more to say about it once the picture focuses, but the change in the president’s tone and the general direction of his proposals is already clear. This is about showing that the White House is in charge.

It seems the impact of broad public criticism, the weight of the accumulating pile of blue-ribbon panel reviews and court findings that find the NSA dragnet illegal, and, most particularly, the vocal opposition of the high technology corporations whose bottom lines are being clobbered by the NSA’s stubborn resistance to changing its intrusive spying, have had an effect. Historians may one day tell us this was inevitable–and sharp analysts have seen it coming all along. James Clapper and Keith Alexander, the spy mavens who tried to plug the dike with their fingers (was Obama sending a message by staging his Rembrandt scene?) way overplayed their hand, relying on the secrecy card to protect eavesdropping that skirted close to the precipice of the law and could not be justified on its merits.

This was inevitable because it is inherently political. To preserve their presidents’ freedom of action, White House staffs work to show movement and responsiveness. The present situation tracks very well with the events of 1975, the “Year of Intelligence,” the time of the Family Jewels.

Mr. Obama reacted to the Snowden leaks by setting up a presidential review panel, which surprised him by delivering a negative judgment on the NSA eavesdropping. He tried to protect the program, which became steadily more controversial. Against mounting pressure, in January the president gave a speech promising reforms, and invited the hi tech corporate heads in advance to outline his proposed remedies. Those reforms were essentially cosmetic. He invited Clapper and Alexander to a White House state dinner to denote his continuing support. Evidence of the spies’ extravagance continued to mount. The president had said he would deliver details toward the end of March and he did so, yesterday, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. That Mr. Obama chose a foreign locale to articulate his detailed proposals is significant–European, Latin, and other nations have been among the most strident critics of the NSA dragnet. This time, like the last, Obama had the tech chieftains to the White House in advance to unveil his design and solicit their comments.

During the “Year of Intelligence,” the White House moved swiftly to show activity when evidence of abuses emerged. President Gerald R. Ford created a blue-ribbon commission, headed by Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller, to examine the allegations. It was unable to deliver a clean bill of health because the abuses were real. Investigative committees formed in both houses of Congress. White House staff crafted a plan to defend the intelligence agencies, carefully vetting every document they permitted to be given to the congressional investigators. More abuses were revealed. The White House then set out to demonstrate its responsiveness by drafting an executive order that President Ford would issue which established the first detailed charter for U.S. intelligence activities. Mr. Ford could then take the credit for action.

Sound familiar?

What is different between 1975 and 2013-2014 is that during the Year of Intelligence the CIA chief, then William E. Colby, realized that the intelligence agencies had to respond to allegations. In the present crisis Jim Clapper and his colleagues at NSA and CIA tried to stifle criticism by stonewalling, evoking false visions of threat, and making phony claims of achievement. That strategy, weak on the face of it, is now revealed as bankrupt. As I have said in this space before, Clapper should go.

What is the same is the evolution of the situations. There is a pattern to Family Jewels crises. It is time to create a mechanism to avoid them.

What do You Say About a Country like Ruthenia?

March 24, 2014– Remember Ruthenia? I thought not. How about Carpatho-Ukraine? Transylvania? Bessarabia? Bukhovina? Danzig? The Curzon Line? Maybe Sudentenland. I’ve no time today for anything very ambitious–and my pardons to the songwriters of The Sound of Music–but I just wanted to put one disturbing issue on the table. All those (Central European) places have in common that they were subjects of claims and counterclaims based on national preferences and/or ethnicities in the period between the two world wars of the 20th Century. Some of them were even awarded from one nation to another, or made into free state enclaves during various diplomatic parlays of the time.

Here’s the issue: the latest rumblings to emerge from the Crimean crisis are mentioning a Russian interest in Transnistria (never heard of that either?–not surprised). It’s a piece of land in between Ukraine and what is now Moldova. I mention these places–you could pick any continent and find similar examples–because the current problems in Eastern Europe increasingly seem to be opening the door to assorted territorial claims. There used to be a word for this. In the 1919-1939 period it was called “irredentism” and considered by some to be a cause of World War II.

The Balkan wars in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s show very clearly the dangers and insanity of the use or threat of force to impose border and nationality changes based on claims of national preference or ethnicity, real or imagined. At the moment this is being driven by Russia, which ought to have learned better from Chechnya. Regardless of the border change there is always a significant minority population, suddenly oppressed, to become restive and resentful. The better solution to changing borders is to eliminate them by fostering political inclusiveness within and among states. Someone should stop a minute and think this through. The world has enough problems already.

Panzerkrieg in Play

Pictures which show the post-Kursk alternate history scenario of the game being played

Pictures which show the post-Kursk alternate history scenario of the game being played

March 22, 2014–A session of the boardgame Panzerkrieg in progress, this general illustration shows the board overall. Once we master the posting problem there will be some close-ups that illustrate the Kharkov and Mius sectors as well. The picture appears, and the set will eventually be posted as a product in “Downloadable.” Enjoy!

Spy Scandals Update

March 20, 2014–Don’t think for a moment that the Spy Scandals involving the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) have gone away. Today there are several relevant items to report.

A week ago I argued in this space (“The Family Jewels Crisis,” March 12, 2014) that presidents circle their wagons when controversy that arises from the intelligence agencies rises to a certain level. In my book The Family Jewels I showed how that works. Now we have more evidence that that is happening. You’ll recall that the CIA filed a criminal notice to the Department of Justice alleging that investigators from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence broke the law in obtaining a document demonstrating the CIA’s response to the Senate torture report is disingenuous. Now Attorney General Eric Holder has commented. In his first public remarks on the matter Holder says that the Justice Department receives many criminal referrals and often declines to investigate or to prosecute.

That sounds suspiciously like an intention to cut the CIA loose and leave it flapping in the wind. You can be sure there will be more on this.

Meanwhile there’s also a fresh development in the NSA eavesdropping scandal. National Security Agency officials showed up yesterday to testify at PCLOB, the awkwardly named Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which continues to be quite alarmed at the agency’s dragnet eavesdropping (see “Funny Name, Serious Business,” January 23, 2014; “”Independent Agency Trashes NSA Claims,” January 24, 2014). Appearing at PCLOB’s latest hearing were the Director of National Intelligence’s top lawyer, Robert S. Litt, plus NSA general counsel Rajesh De. Their testimony ought to raise eyebrows.

Robert Litt here added to his growing reputation as an apparatchik. Referring to PCLOB’s recommendation in its January report that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) be required to approve each NSA use of its dragnet-gathered data, Mr. Litt did two things. First, he admitted that the number of NSA uses of the data was far greater than previously thought. Second, he asserted that “the operational burden” of requiring the FISC to make those judgments would be excessive. The judges, Litt declared, “would be extremely unhappy if they were required to approve every such query.”

Translation: the system should operate for the convenience of the judges (and of the NSA) rather than for the protection of the public’s civil and privacy rights, which, of course, was the purpose for which the Court was created.

The arrogance here is breathtaking.

As for Mr. De, he told PCLOB that an NSA rule previously touted as protecting Americans–that agency personnel must be at least 51 percent confident their target is a foreigner–is a myth. It does not exist. Rather, determinations are made based upon the “totality” of the circumstances. In effect this means that the NSA, which is dealing with anonymous phone numbers, is freed from employing any objective criteria whatever.

No doubt there will be more here too.

The Mission: Crimea, Dien Bien Phu

March 20, 2014–Sixty years ago today it was foggy in Long Island Sound—much like it was in Washington this morning–as the trans-Atlantic flight lined up on its approach to Idlewild Airport (today Kennedy). The plane bore a top French general on an emergency mission. He was General Paul Ely, the chairman of the French Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the mission was to beg for all kinds of U.S. military aid. In Indochina the French garrison in the mountain fortress of Dien Bien Phu had come under attack and suddenly all the old assumptions were in question. The Ely mission was a desperate gamble to secure U.S. help. General Ely went in thinking merely of planes, guns, and ships. But while he was in Washington the question of an American intervention was put on the table by U.S. officials.

You can read all about the Ely mission here. But my purpose today is more immediate. The Dien Bien Phu crisis of 1954 bears useful comparison with the maneuvering today over the Crimea. Russian president Vladimir Putin is using his military forces to annex the Crimea, which used to be Russian but became part of the Ukraine until this past weekend. Ukrainian forces are weak, no match for the military power Russia can bring to bear. Leaders in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, are as desperate for American help as the French at Dien Bien Phu.

The two crises are different in any number of ways. In the Crimean crisis we are talking regular troops, not a guerrilla army versus a Western one. The present crisis is a matter of state power, not revolution. But what is similar is the structure of the two situations from the point of view of the American president.

Indeed, there is a mission involved here too–Vice-President Joseph Biden’s sudden trip to Poland and Lithuania, lands abutting Russia (the former the Ukraine as well) who are alarmed at the events unfolding. Biden’s reassurances to concerned leaders mirror those American officials gave France in 1954.

Like Dwight D. Eisenhower then, Barack Obama would like to sustain the Ukraine and preserve its territorial integrity. (We’ll leave aside the question of the respective Russian and Ukrainian claims on the Crimea.) But from Washington’s perspective the question must be one of deployable military force. In 1954 President Eisenhower had plentiful naval and air power with which to intervene. Officials who opposed that course argued that those kinds of forces would prove insufficient and that ground troops would be necessary to make an intervention work. Eisenhower took measures to signal his intentions while his top advisers dickered over their course.

Obama is acting in the same fashion. The Biden mission is one signal, as is an invitation to the Ukrainian prime minister to visit Washington. Air Force F-15 and F-16 fighters have been sent to Poland and Lithuania to betoken U.S. capabilities to act. Just a week ago the main strength of the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, the task force built around the nuclear aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush, made a port visit to Turkey, at the entrance to the Black Sea, where lies the Crimea and the littoral nations of Russia and Ukraine. One warship from that force, the guided missile destroyer Truxton, went on into the Black Sea, where it visited a port in Rumania and conducted exercises with the Rumanian and Bulgarian navies. Authorities in Washington say the naval moves are all long-planned actions but their function as signals is still clear.

Washington’s problem today, just as in 1954, is the mismatch between U.S. capabilities and the measures that would be required to obtain the outcome it prefers. A guided missile destroyer and a few fighter-bombers are not going to stop the Russian army. The whole Sixth Fleet also lacks the necessary capacity. Boots on the ground would be required. Most American boots are in Afghanistan or in the process of returning to the United States and being reconstituted. The only nearby available U.S. ground force is the reinforced battalion combat group that is the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit in the Mediterranean, which recently participated in maneuvers in Greece.

If anything, in 1954 Dwight Eisenhower possessed greater capacity to act in the local situation–but there it did not work either. In the current situation, if the signals are too many or too forceful there is a danger of inadvertent escalation. Mr. Obama will need considerable diplomatic dexterity to get out of this situation without harming relations with either the Ukraine or Russia (the latter being already bad enough).

Meanwhile Kiev is sending its own signal–instructing Ukrainian military forces to evacuate from the Crimea. Mr. Putin may have succeeded in his annexation. Let us hope that this crisis does not sharpen any further. But some attention to historical precedents like Dien Bien Phu might help officials to clarify their thinking.

Games: On to France ’40

March 17, 2014–Time to leap ahead a century and more. I just wanted to put in a word about the next project for you gamers out there. Some of you will know that Against the Odds Magazine is setting up to do one of its “Four Roads” projects in which four different designers present their alternative visions of the same subject, in this case Germany’s 1940 invasion of France and the Low Countries. I’m among that group. Here are my preliminary thoughts.

It seems to me that the challenge in this subject, from a design point of view, arises not so much from the events of the German invasion as from the time preceding it, an epoch the French know as “the Hollow Years.” So what I am going to try and accomplish is to meld a pre-war arms race and military buildup, which will include an intelligence element, with a simple but classical simulation of the war itself.

Players will have military budgets and be able to spend them on the forces they most desire to build. Certain capabilities will become available only with the passage of time. Budget levels will be based on the historical but influenced by events and intelligence developments. In addition to forces, players will accumulate “Command” and “Intelligence” points they will be able to use when the time comes. The timescale will shift as the sides draw closer to war, and as they enter the war force building will stop and the players will have to utilize what forces they have. In this fashion the players will do the best they can within their available resources to optimize forces for the coming conflict. These mechanics will also ensure that every game develops differently.

Unit representation will be at the Army and Corps level. The combat system will be simple and classical, somewhat akin to what I used in Bodyguard/Overlord but with some wonderful new elements. This system dispenses with the usual combat results table in favor of a dice-based mechanism.

The board will take in France down to Paris and west to the Channel Coast, the Low Countries, and the eastern part of Germany. As in Leipzig it will be an area map with terrain features.

Bear with me while I put this game through design testing.

Yesterday as Today: Comment on Hot Documents on CIA and the Church Committee

March 15, 2014–Today I’m posting a set of documents from 1975, the time of the first great congressional investigations of U.S. intelligence. In today’s swirling arguments over access to CIA records by Dianne Feinstein’s Senate committee the unseen issue is what were the CIA-Senate access arrangements and who approved them. In 1975 access to CIA records for the committee led by Senator Frank Church posed the same dangers during the presidency of Gerald R. Ford. The documents show that, far from keeping hands off the Senate-CIA dispute, the White House held center stage. The same circumstances applied during the Iran-Contra Affair, starting in 1986. Although we still do not know the truth it is a high order probability that the Obama White House has taken a similar approach.

The specific papers in this selection show that White House officials laid out the issues for President Ford, that they devised restrictions to limit what congressional investigators would be permitted to see, that they held meetings with agency officials to hammer out the details, that Senator Church tried to set out his own investigative terrain, and that the CIA prepared a final set of restrictions. These it sent to the White House, where they were sent for approval to the deputy assistant to the president, Richard Cheney.

The Hot Documents are available as an item in the “Downloadable” section of this website. Follow the instructions there. The item appears under several categories in Downloadable.