Two Steps Backwards on CIA Torture

November 21, 2014–I was wrong. I wrote that the Obama administration, having used the existence of the Senate intelligence committee report to tell United Nations monitors that the U.S. is meeting its treaty obligations to investigate violations of statutes against inhumane treatment, was now moving to release the report. Instead that argument, tabled recently at an international conference in Geneva, now appears to have been primarily rhetorical. Today’s news is that the White House is collaborating with the CIA to suppress the Senate report. The cynicism exhibited here is breathtaking. A nation argues that accountability has been achieved by means of an investigative report that finds violations and is therefore suppressed. (I have no doubt that had the investigators found the CIA to be without blame this report would long since have been released, even publicized.)

Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, last reported here as traveling to California to meet the Senate committee’s chair, Diane Feinstein, should no longer be viewed as clearing last minute details before a release. Rather that visit now appears to have been a gambit to get the legislators to make further concessions on what their report can say. McDonough failed–and has now resorted to meeting with a larger group of Senate committee members in a bid to outflank Feinstein. He failed there too.

The Obama White House and the Senate intelligence committee are now at an impasse. This has several implications. Most critical, having now certified to an international body that the Senate investigation meets U.S. obligations for accountability, then suppressing the report, Mr. Obama considerably increases his stake in this poker game.

John Brennan’s remark of some months ago that the agency’s interest lies in ensuring an “objective” account of its activities is as cynical as Denis McDonough’s White House antics. There should be no doubt the CIA’s main interest in deleting pseudonyms for its officers from the report has nothing to do with exposure to attacks by terrorists. It is to insulate them from indictment before the International Criminal Court. The CIA has already had a narrow brush with disaster in Germany where U.S. spooks have come near to criminal charges, and in Italy a CIA snatch crew and its helpers were not only indicted, but convicted for war-on-terror activities (they have now run out of appeals). In Poland, those who collaborated with the CIA on the black prisons are being prosecuted. The (in)action on CIA declassification of the Senate torture report is not about after-the-fact criticism of the Bush administration, the real issue is that the activities of American spies have strayed so far from accepted practices that they are no longer acceptable to our international partners.

By going out on a limb to protect the agency President Obama buys responsibility for the coverup. That is way more dangerous for this nation than to let the denizens of Langley take the licks for their excesses. In particular because letting CIA off the hook means diluting our alliances with intelligence partners–and even the CIA admits (as a rationale for not releasing information elsewhere) those alliances are critical to its performance.

We are at the point where “intelligence effectiveness” requires releasing this investigative report.

From the White House point of view, it is equally distressing that chief of staff McDonough’s intransigence now threatens to trigger a seismic shift in the customs that have prevailed for congressional oversight of the intelligence agencies. The Senate committee has all along had the power to release this document unilaterally, as noted in this space a couple of times previously. It has been a customary practice–but is not a statutory requirement–for the congressional bodies to permit the CIA (or other agencies) to vet and redact committee documents. Senators are now actually talking about unilateral release. If that happens the secrecy mavens at Langley, the DNI and everywhere else in the intelligence community will lose a major tool they have traditionally used to cloak their daggers. Fearful Leader Clapper, the DNI, must be quaking in his boots! Stay tuned.

New Panaceas at the CIA

November 20, 2014–Remember when torture practiced on prisoners held at CIA black prison sites was going to win the war on terror (by revealing terrorists’ plans)? Or how about the time when the NSA’s dragnet eavesdropping was going to do the same, by making the terrorists’ identities pop out, after which they could be apprehended (there have been three payoff cases after trillions of pieces of data intercepted over more than a decade). Less known, but the same general idea, when Michael V. Hayden (who had also started the NSA eavesdropping) led the CIA he started a campaign to up its “operational tempo,” and get at the terrorists by means of a blizzard of activity. Every intelligence director, it seems, feels a necessity to contrive some new formula that will bring us victory. Let’s put aside for a moment the victory “over what” question and just focus on this matter of presumptive panaceas.

Today brings news of a fresh attempt at a perfect solution–revamping the CIA. Its current director, we are told, is considering a scheme to create offices that mix intelligence analysts and operatives to focus on some special subject or area. That ought to sound familiar too. It is the latest version of the idea of creating “fusion centers,” which actually traces as far back as the CIA of the 1990s. For a time, in fact, fusion centers seemed the wave of the future and not just at CIA. After 9/11 the entire homeland security regional organization based itself upon fusion centers that brought local police and federal agencies together to pool their data. John O. Brennan, our CIA chieftain, headed an early incarnation of a fusion supervisory staff that was known as the Terrorist Threat Integration Center. That, in turn, was a precursor to the National Counterterrorist Center, which is a fusion unit.

The notion of mixing analytical and operational skills is superficially attractive but the issue is more complex than that. The CIA has traditionally consisted of an intelligence directorate that comprised offices which specialized in either regions of the world (e.g. Near East and South Asia) or particular subject areas (such as “global issues”); plus an operations directorate (now called the National Clandestine Service) whose branches were either comparable or functional (things like “special activities”–paramilitary operations).

With the end of the Cold War the idea of functional foci became popular and the fusion centers–which actually harked all the way back to successful intelligence operations of World War II–were born. But breaking down the walls between analysts and operatives has not actually brought the hoped-for results. One of the first units of this sort focused on counternarcotics. The drug trafficking has never been eliminated. There was the counterproliferation center. That had mixed success, inducing Libya to dispense with its nuclear program but succumbing to Bush administration desires for CIA endorsement of an Iraqi nuclear threat in service of its plans to invade that country. The fusion center in charge of intelligence on ground weapons also fell into line with the Iraq invasion scheme. The CIA’s counterterrorism center failed to eliminate Bin Laden in the 1990s, and way oversold the prospects for obtaining intelligence by means of torture in the oughts.

A significant drawback of fusion centers that have an operational role is the drive to find reasons (read contrive intelligence reporting) why their operatives should be in the field on an issue. Now let’s bring back the question of “victory” as it pertains to the intelligence reporting. Al Qaeda has been virtually wiped out. The local and regional terrorist groups that exist do not have the heft–or represent the same threat. No terrorist strike has taken place in the United States–“imminent” or otherwise–since 2001. Yet the National Counterterrorist Center (NCTC) steadfastly resists any conclusion that the threat is diminished. Instead it argues the threat is greater. In the Yemen, in North Africa, Somalia, and Iraq (now Iraq-Syria) the NCTC has each time pictured jihadi movements as Al Qaeda offshoots, which is true only in the sense that the various movements are made up of religious fundamentalists. The NCTC is probably relieved right now that the jihadists of ISIS/ISIL seem so fierce because it lends some credence to their hard line.

To reorganize the CIA into a collection of fusion centers like this appears to me as a long step in the wrong direction. The last thing we want is an intelligence agency made up of wannabe operators.


Intelligence Matters: Food for Thought

November 14, 2014–Neglect, even if benign, has never been a good thing. In the intelligence business that’s even more true because the picture changes with such rapidity. But I’ve been focused on other issues of late and I’m sorry. I realized while writing about Fearful Leader Clapper the other day (“Mr. Clapper Goes to Pyongyang,” November 10, 2014) that several hot subjects have gone untreated for some time. Let’s catch up.

NSA Blanket Eavesdropping: Our electronic spooks made a lot of noise about how this form of spying was of no importance (at least that no one ought to be concerned about it) and was fully overseen by Congress and the Courts, then they talked President Obama into a set of cosmetic “reforms” that carry little weight. Then the fresh face at NSA, Admiral Michael Rogers, patiently explained to all and sundry that the issue of the day is cybersecurity–which it is, to judge from the most recent indications of companies and governments hacked and so forth. The legislation that underpins the NSA eavesdropping is up for a vote in this lame duck session of Congress, and the authority may disappear altogether.

But the more tangible development is quite direct, and it is the product of the inevitable market forces the NSA unleashed by its extravagant spying. The tech companies are suing to win the right to protect themselves by informing the public more amply. But more than that, under intense pressure from their international customers and all the rest of us, the producers of all that technology are moving swiftly to demonstrate they are faithful guardians of customer privacy by designing equipment endowed with deep encryption programs. All of a sudden we have a parade of officials–to include Clapper, the FBI director, James B. Comey, and even the head of the British GCHQ, its electronic spy service; horrified that the new-generation devices will prevent spy service access altogether. What did they expect? By far the preferable strategy was to have kept their spying sufficiently within bounds that citizens–and whistleblowers–would have acquiesced on patriotic grounds.

Upheaval on Capitol Hill: Now the spooks are desperate. The next great hope is that the mid-term election result will save their acorns. With the Republican Party taking over the Senate, plus an improved majority in the House of Representatives, maybe the NSA can get the Patriot Act passed after all. Certainly the chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee will change, with Diane Feinstein out and a Republican (possibly Saxby Chambliss) to replace her. Chambliss seems never to have met an intelligence operation he did not like, so that augurs well for the spooks.

The Torture Report: Hopes are especially high on suppressing the CIA torture report done by the Senate intelligence committee. The agency has been pretty good at its stalling so far (notice that we are verging on eighteen months since the CIA was supposed to be reviewing this document for release–and that the scope of release has diminished from the full report to just a fractional portion of it). And, of course, the Republicans were against this Senate investigation in the first place. John Brennan or Jim Clapper might be able to persuade the Senate committee to stop pressing for release of the report.

Denizens of Langley–not to mention Fort Meade– seem to have a hard time learning the lesson that what you do is more important than what you say, or permit to be said about it. Or put differently, that the big, embarrassing things come out no matter what. To stay in front of the story you need to be ready–to explain, justify, demonstrate effectiveness–to the public not to some chief executive in the White House.

It no longer matters whether the CIA can succeed in suppressing the release of the Senate intelligence committee report. Government officials in Poland are now under criminal indictment for cooperating with the CIA in the “black prisons” affair. A United States delegation, at an international forum in Geneva, has acknowledged to an authoritative United Nations panel that the U.S. tortured individuals in the wake of 9/11. Under international law the responsible party (the U.S.) is required to investigate and provide accountability in such instances. American diplomats have described the Senate intelligence committee report as a document that meets this requirement. Presumably such a document cannot then be suppressed. Equally to the point, the American Psychological Association has now approved an internal investigation into how its own mores and responsibilities were observed by psychologists in the CIA torture program. Long story short, these developments guarantee the CIA torture issue will not go away. The secret warriors cannot have their way.

The same thing applies to the NSA eavesdropping. The spooks may succeed in getting Congress to approve the spying, but the market forces that oblige the corporations to spite the spooks function without regard to the politics. If the spooks get Congress to force the corporations to provide watered-down security systems, the American economy will take a worse beating than it already has. Republicans are supposed to be interested in corporations. There is no good way to crack that acorn. Let’s hope for an end to wishful thinking.

Gamers’ Corner: Favorite Designer Stories Contest

November 12, 2014– Here’s a bit of a tease, just in time for Christmas. I’m planning an occasional series of profiles of favorite game designers for my “Simulation Corner” column in Against the Odds magazine. To supplement my own recollections of the various characters in our hobby I ask for your help, but do it in the form of a contest.

The prize will be a copy of one of my ATO-published games, delivered via postal service. Which exact game will be decided by consultation between the winner and myself, subject to which titles I retain copies of. If your interest is the new Arminius, that will have to be subject to when the game actually emerges from production.

To enter, simply go to the “Contact” section of this website and post a message giving your story. Only one story per message, please. The deadline for entry will be 11:59 PM, Monday, December 15, 2014. Be sure to include sufficient detail and color. Made-up stories are not acceptable.

You may enter as often as you like.

Entry in the contest will constitute your permission to publish parts or all of the stories you submit. Stories may be used in “Simulation Corner,” on this website, or in other writing that I do. There may be  posts during the contest that update status and that feature designer stories you send.

I shall be the sole judge of the winning entry or entries. I expect to choose the winning entry around the first week of December. The winner will be notified directly by email and also by means of a summary posting on this website.

Your story may relate to any game designer of a published boardgame title, active or past. Stories may relate a personal encounter, a gaming experience, a play or playtest experience, a simulation matter, or any other item of interest. The primary concern is that your story be dramatic, or colorful, or interesting or important.

Enter early and often. Gook Luck!

Mr. Clapper Goes to Pyongyang

November 10, 2014–If there is a senior U.S. official in need of some good PR–other than President Barack Obama, of course– that person would be General James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). So, unlike when Clapper denied under Senate questioning that hundreds of millions of citizens are being spied upon by the NSA, last week when the opportunity arose for a good photo op Clapper was right on the case. Even better, the occasion was a quintessential feel-good moment–when American citizens are being released from hard labor in a hostile land and Clapper can be seen to be rescuing them.

Kenneth Bae, held by the North Koreans for two years, has been in declining health, in and out of hospitals. The Koreans alleged he’d planned a “religious coup d’état”–a novel way to characterize Christian evangelical proselytizing. Matthew Todd Miller reportedly sought to defect. He entered North Korea this past spring, destroyed his visa, and reportedly sought asylum. The North Koreans prosecuted him instead–and sentenced Miller to hard labor for “unruly behavior.”  Pyongyang’s release of the two Americans comes on top of another liberation last month. It’s an odd sort of charm offensive the Koreans are up to, but they have done it before. Lately the state of that nation–and even the status of its dictator, Kim Jong-un–have been uncertain, and Kim may need all the help he can get.

North Korea is an enigmatic nation. Its leaders have received basketball stars as potentates, politicians as government emissaries, and senior diplomats as the equivalent of heads of state. The seizure of foreign nationals as bargaining chips, and the presentation of visits from foreign officials as tokens of international esteem, seem to have become standard devices in Pyongyang’s tool box–as have missile tests and preparations for nuclear explosions.

But don’t ask the CIA! North Korea has been a “denied area” in the agency’s jargon, a place into which it is impossible to insert spies, recruit enemy agents, or obtain much information at all. At the moment the spooks have not even decided whether Mr. Kim is still alive, much less the status of his power in Pyongyang, or whether North Korea has a weaponized nuclear warhead for its latest-generation missiles.

The Obama White House portrayed General Clapper as having gone to listen to what the North Koreans would like to say to us. He is a senior enough official to satisfy Pyongyang that Washington is serious about dealing with them, and he can be depended upon to relay North Korea’s messages to Washington. If Clapper’s quick visit last weekend encouraged Kim Jong-un out of hiding, the CIA may even get an intelligence windfall out of this operation.

On the other hand, Fearful Leader Clapper can be expected to retail North Korean developments in the most alarming light possible. Back in mid-October, at a conference held at the University of Texas, Clapper was virtually taking a victory lap on the war on terror–underlining observations in this space previously about the extent to which the real terrorism threat has receded. But that means the DNI and CIA need a new threat to help fill their rice bowls. which can help shield U.S. intelligence budgets from the chopping block during the months ahead. And the photo-0p rescuing Americans from a despotic regime shows General Clapper in an active, positive role. I, for one, would be more comfortable with a DNI who was less political.

Gamers’ Corner : Set Europe Ablaze Bibliography

November 6, 2014–Just a head’s up! We have now posted a product which lists the various histories consulted in the course of designing the game Set Europe Ablaze and compiling the historical articles that appear with it. Not everyone will be interested in the bibliography, but for anyone who wants to look into Resistance to the German occupation of Western Europe in World War II, the history of the Special Operations Executive, and the French and American (OSS) special services that matched it, this listing furnishes a useful compilation of the sources. This product can be found in the “Downloadable” section of the website. It is a premium content item.