Almost There on the Senate Torture Report?

October 30, 2014–Straws in the wind suggest that the logjam of interests that have been blocking declassification and release of a portion of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigative report on Central Intelligence Agency torture projects may be breaking. If so the public might be on the verge of obtaining a clearer view of just what was done in the name of Americans.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has recently been quoted as saying that he will not step back from his insistence that the Senate report summary be released in its integral form and without substantial deletions. It has also been reported that the major remaining sticking point concerns whether to retain the pseudonyms of CIA officers responsible for the torture–which boils down to the question of placing criminal culpability–and which the agency predictably resists on the grounds that (some unknown) persons who know who the pseudonyms stand for will go after them. Langley appears to have backed down on its demand that the Senate document report only what the CIA approves (supposedly for purposes of presenting a “fair and balanced” view). Beyond the particulars of this report, the specificity of the discussion says to me that a final disposition is now close enough that individuals involved are prepared to discuss the remaining issues in some detail.

Another very significant indicator came in today’s New York Times, where a piece on President Obama’s senior advisers reports both that White House chief of staff Denis R. McDonough has pitched in to pinch hit for national security adviser Susan E. Rice, who had previously been handling the thorny issue of the torture report, and that McDonough recently visited Senate committee chairwoman Diane Feinstein at her California home to discuss the secrecy issues. McDonough was close to John Brennan, the current CIA director, when he was at the White House on the National Security Council (NSC) staff. As an intermediary he is in a unique position with the confidence of the president, the CIA chief, and the NSC boss, plus he has a senior enough position to make promises that stick.

I infer from these assorted indicators that the Wyden declaration amounted to a signal to Senator Feinstein that she had better not weaken, that the stall on the CIA report has become embarrassing enough that Obama is taking a direct hand in releasing it, and that Langley is signaling it will back down if agency operatives are protected. Of course, the purpose of the report was to obtain accountability, which takes us back to Feinstein and her position. The senator previously had been attacked by the CIA on phony grounds of secrecy violations. She was enraged then. How much of that attitude remains will determine how willing she may be to compromise now.

In any case it is becoming possible we shall shortly see something happen on this issue. Stay tuned.

Leyte Gulf and ISIS

October 26,2014–Seventy years ago today the United States fleet was off the Philippines, hurling bolts of lightning at the remnants of a Japanese fleet in frantic retreat from what was the greatest naval battle of World War II. The fight was the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Americans were in the Philippines to make good on General Douglas MacArthur’s promise that “I shall return!” The Japanese responded because loss of the Philippines would cut the Home Islands off from their major source of raw materials and fuel. The Imperial Navy was being destroyed without a fight. It might as well make a last stand.

In history, the Leyte Gulf battle climaxed yesterday in October 1944, with U.S. warships pursuing the fleeing Japanese down Surigao Strait, where the Allies had soundly defeated the Imperial Navy; while other Americans mopped up the last active Japanese aircraft carriers off of Taiwan, and yet other American ships desperately sought to defend themselves against a huge Japanese battle fleet that had suddenly materialized out of the dawn.

It is that last piece of the story that’s of interest here. In October 1944 all the decks were stacked in favor of the Allies. The fleet supporting MacArthur outmatched the Japanese in numbers in every category from torpedo boats to battleships, way more in tonnage (therefore size of the fleet) and in numbers of aircraft; with huge advantages in combat logistics and organization–plus highly capable intelligence. It had been a full year since the Japanese fleet had laid a glove, other than pinpricks, on the Allies. The Imperial Navy had no chance. The admiral who led that battle fleet which came out of the dawn told his captains, “You must all remember there are such things as miracles.”

As it turned out, Leyte Gulf more or less followed the pattern. The detached Japanese force in Surigao Strait was largely destroyed, the core of the carrier force was sunk, and the battle fleet suffered tremendous damage. But what is most significant is that three years into a war Japan was losing by a wide margin, its sailors, by dint of determination and fighting spirit, were able to turn the tables on the Allies despite all their advantages, and put that battle fleet up against a greatly inferior detachment of the Americans. The miracle seemed like it was happening after all.

The Japanese squandered their opportunity. Thus seventy years ago today it was Americans mopping up fleeing Japanese and not the other way around. But that is a story for another day. What is more interesting for right now is the parallel we can draw with the jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the foe whom Americans and other allies are today fighting across both those countries. Today again the allies have many advantages. The ISIS fighters have only a small amount of heavy equipment, limited to what they have been able to capture from the Syrian government. The allies have air power–and complete control of the air–and can strike anywhere in the region with complete flexibility against an adversary who must move on the ground under the constant threat of air attack. ISIS fighters are also far outnumbered by the troops of the Iraqi government, the Kurds, and the other Syrian partisan factions, not to mention the forces of the Syrian government.

But like the putative Allied dominance at Leyte Gulf, the situation in the Middle East today is not so clear cut as would seem. Like the Japanese seventy years ago, what ISIS has going for it is determination and the willingness to die. That has carried it a long way under the rain of aerial munitions already. The Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga have proven much less determined. The Syrian islamist fighters other than ISIS have been divided against multiple enemies. The Turkish government, having promised to help, is effectively dragging its feet.

Those Americans at Leyte Gulf who took a complacent view of the Japanese were destined to be shocked. Do not be surprised if the same happens with ISIS today.


The Spooks Love Their Secrecy

October 22, 2014–Fifty-two years ago today President John F. Kennedy made a nationwide television address from the Oval Office to reveal that U.S. intelligence had discovered the Soviet Union was sending nuclear-armed missiles to Cuba. The news was stunning, and inaugurated one of the most dangerous crises of the Cold War. President Kennedy and those around him knew that dangers lurked, so for over a week after receiving the critical intelligence they took measures to keep it a secret. That secrecy had a point. It helped Kennedy craft a response to the Soviet move before the political pressures of the crisis began to mount.

There are secrets that are important, that are legitimate, that serve to protect United States national security. The discovery of missiles in Cuba, until the president chose to reveal them, was one. But in the years since the secrecy system has gotten out of control. Readers of this space will know that I write often of this. Today I am driven to do so again. The morning papers report that Leon Panetta, erstwhile director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who has just published a memoir, had to fight the agency to get his book into print. The Panetta book, called Worthy Fights, has now become an example of secrecy with no point, of the CIA’s addiction to cloaking its dagger, and its delusion that it can hide behind classification regulations.

In point of fact Panetta was a light touch. He has nothing bad to say about the CIA, supported its activities as director, and avoids going near such controversies as Langley’s fight with Senate overseers seeking to examine its torture projects–a fight that began on Leon Panetta’s watch. Worthy Fights is complimentary to the agency and its people. Why should former director Panetta have had a problem?

As the holder of a security clearance that entitled him to view top secret information Leon Panetta signed a contract that bound him to submit things he writes about the agency to a CIA unit called the Publications Review Board. This board operates under regulations that specifically prohibit it from withholding its approval on any grounds other than dangers to national security–but as I showed at great length in my book The Family Jewels those rules are often honored in the breach.

The Publications Review Board (PRB) was created in the late 1970s during the Carter administration. The only CIA director writing a memoir at the time was Bill Colby and he ended up with a $10,000 fine levied against him for going to press before the board had approved. Admiral Stansfield Turner was the director at the time PRB emerged. When Turner wrote his own memoir later, the PRB obstructed him at every turn. The admiral estimated that he spent as much as fifteen percent of his time on that project just dealing with the Review Board. Much of Stan Turner’s text ended up on the cutting room floor.

Only two of the eight CIA directors between Turner and Panetta ever attempted memoirs (Robert M. Gates, George J. Tenet), plus there was Richard Helms, whose tenure had preceded the existence of this system. All of them went through the PRB wringer. All of them have commented on the Review Board’s work as usually helpful and courteous. What happened? The war on terror.

All the memoirs just mentioned were far more substantive than Leon Panetta’s panegyric. Panetta might have been critical of Barack Obama but of CIA he is very complementary. But the PRB sat on his manuscript, risking his publication schedule. The Washington Post reports that the former director finally appealed the delays to his present successor, John Brennan. On specifics of the text Panetta complained to a Brennan deputy that the Review Board demanded excessive changes. He failed. The Post reports, “even signature moments of [Panetta’s] tenure that were covered extensively in the press are obscured.”

As a result, you won’t get the low down on CIA drones, or on its torture projects, from Leon Panetta. Nor, as discussed here previously (“Senate Torture Report 1.75,” July 27, 2014), will you get it from John Brennan. The agency whose mission is to tell the truth is heavily invested in an effort to mislead the public at any cost. Regulations be damned. That is the Publications Review Board doing its job.