Big Brother Almost Won!

September 24, 2015–The story of what happened with the National Security Agency’s massive domestic eavesdropping program just keeps getting blacker, even as it comes into better focus. Today’s entry in the NSA sweepstakes concerns what we learn from a new redaction of a review of the program codenamed Stellar Wind that resulted from an investigation by the inspectors general of five agencies. A more heavily expurgated version of this document had been declassified a while back, but the New York Times sued to get the full report released. Among the details in the latest version are ones that should make your skin crawl. During George W. Bush’s presidency, Big Brother almost succeeded in extending his umbrella across the land–and I don’t mean simply the big ear of the NSA.

Stellar Wind is the real name for the so-called “President’s Surveillance Program,” the innocuous-sounding name someone dreamed up when news of the NSA surveillance program leaked midway through Bush’s years and the administration scrambled to defend and extend it. I wrote about this at some length in my book The Family Jewels. We generally understood that Mr. Bush had approved the eavesdropping a couple of days after the September 11 attacks, that it aimed at terrorists, that he re-approved it every 45 days. There was a remarkable confrontation in March 2004 at George Washington University Hospital, where Attorney General John Ashcroft had gone for treatment of pancreatitus, and White House officials (chief of staff Andrew Card, top lawyer Alberto Gonzales, and vice-presidential counsel David Addington) went there in an attempt to induce Ashcroft to sign the latest renewal. Press accounts previously indicated that the dispute centered on NSA’s desire to widen its collection to cover all Americans. In the new declassification we learn that it was much worse.

The NSA program–like the CIA’s torture project–was based on faulty legal advice (in fact, the same faulty legal advice) from Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, with his imperial vision of presidential power. Once Yoo left the Department of Justice (DOJ) in the spring of 2003, his superiors looked at the legal advice underlying Stellar Wind and found it wanting. The problem was that there was a law that laid down conditions for what the NSA was doing and that Yoo’s analysis had wholly failed to take this into account. Yoo’s successor was not initially permitted to know of Stellar Wind and could not craft a new justification for it. Then Dick Cheney’s lawyer told DOJ it would have to justify the request before he would ask President Bush to bring the DOJ official into the circle of those who knew of Stellar Wind.

I note that because we’re seen Addington’s footprints before, all over both CIA and NSA Bush-era actions, and sure enough he’s got a central role here. Anyway, the problem in May 2004 began when DOJ found the NSA had already exceeded its authorities and was collecting beyond what the legal memoranda provided. Late the previous year DOJ officials had informed Addington and Gonzales at the White House that they had doubts regarding Stellar Wind. The White House lawyers bristled when DOJ officials asked permission to inform Deputy Attorney General James Comey. As it happened, even before Comey was formally brought into the circle he harbored doubts, which he talked over with John Ashcroft only hours before the latter had his medical emergency and went to the hospital. It was at that point, with Stellar Wind up for its latest re-authorization, that Alberto Gonzales phoned DOJ asking for a letter certifying that John Yoo’s (now discredited) legal opinions still applied. Top DOJ officials determined that the Yoo memoranda failed to accurately describe, much less justify, the NSA spying. The Justice Department refused.

At noon that day senior White House, NSA, and CIA officials convened to consider how to proceed. Vice-President Cheney told the group they might have to re-authorize Stellar Wind without the participation of the Justice Department. At that point the FBI director declared such a move would be a problem for him too. This was when the Bush people decided to have the meeting with congressional officials that Mr. Cheney makes so much of in his memoir (claiming Congress approved when he was doing)–when the White had been blocked from proceeding.

This is also the backdrop  for the rush to Ashcroft’s bedside, where Card, Addington and Gonzales pushed their way into the hospital room over the protests of Mrs. Ashcroft; and DOJ officials too rushed in to stiffen their boss’s backbone. The Justice Department officials got there first. Ashcroft told the Bush people that Mr. Comey was the man they had to deal with so long as he remained in the hospital.

At that point Mr. Bush’s subordinates left, and they presented the president with a re-authorization document the next morning that George W. Bush signed. It had no Justice Department certification, and there were three more big differences from previous iterations of Stellar Wind:

(1) the document asserted that Chapter 119 of Title 18 of U.S. Code was “displaced” by a president’s authority as commander-in-chief;

(2) explicit statements replacing language requiring some terrorism-connection for a telephone metadata connection with a stipulation the collection merely had to be in pursuance of the authorization document itself; and

(3) a disingenuous invocation of Attorney General Ashcroft’s support with an assertion that DOJ had approved similar authorizations in the past.

In the paperwork that circulated around this dispute is a memo from David Addington–the man who used to carry a vest-pocket copy of the Constitution in his jacket–saying that with this authorization President Bush had decided to reinterpret the laws of the United States.

It was at that point when the ranking officials of the Department of Justice, plus the FBI director, threatened to resign en mass if this maneuver was permitted to stand. Over the next few days President Bush met with Mr. Comey, a different renewal was crafted with the old terms, differences papered over, and the move begun toward putting Stellar Wind within some kind of legal framework. In many posts on this site I have argued that framework was unconstitutional, but at least it was not a direct usurpation of the legislative power of lawmaking in the United States, as was contained in the NSA renewal document of March 11, 2004. That document was the equivalent of a coup d’état. It would have ended constitutional government in the United States. Big Brother still has to wait.

 

The Real Deal on PDBs

September 17,2015–I wanted to be wrong this time. I really did. I was hoping that the intelligence folks had broken with their past and were really doing what they said, releasing a mountain of information to permit historians and citizens to forge a new understanding of our past. What we have is a mountain of paper, with nuggets of new detail but vast expanses of gaps. You read it here first. Before the Spooks’ Show began in Austin yesterday I said that this material would be “opened for research,” and predicted the documents would be laced with deletions of words, sentences, passages and whole pages (“Freeing the President’s Daily Brief,” September 16, 2015). That’s exactly how it is.

Someone at the event held at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library used the figure 80 percent to quantify the amount of the material released. That claim is completely phony. It can only have been derived by including every blank back cover and front title page (and many of the 2,500 PDBs have four of them) as a page of declassified content. I’ll come back to secrecy in the PDBs further along but first there are points to be made about the practice of these CIA events and the specifics of this one.

Joe Lambert is the CIA official who runs the agency office called Information Management Services. This unit houses the CIA’s declassification unit, its Historical Review Panel, the Publications Review Board, and more. At Austin Lambert bragged the PDB event is the twenty-third such conference held by the agency since 2003, when one was organized around release of the agency’s official biography of Richard Helms. This would be admirable–or more admirable–except for the CIA’s penchant for taking double or triple credit for every thing it does. I noted in the last post how CIA had been forced into a review of the class of documents called PDBs as a result of court order. At Austin agency officials spoke as if the Historical Review Panel had noodled the idea of declassifying PDBs all by themselves. So they have to do the thing–so they have a “conference” to “release” the material.

This is not the first time. Not long ago another one of these conferences dealt with the CIA’s role in bringing Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago to the public. There, a reporter had FOIAed the documents on the CIA op, the agency looked good, it declassified, cooperated, and capitalized on the public’s surprise by holding the conference. At one conference on the Missile Gap most of the documents had been declassified previously, except for passages from the agency’s U-2 history it was being forced to relinquish. Veterans of the CIA proprietary Air America, originally called Civil Air Transport, were agitating to go public with their own history, and when they did that at one conference, CIA followed up with another. Caught holding lemons, each time the agency chooses to make lemonade. And those thousands of pages of cover sheets in the PDB? You can bet that when the time comes to report to overseers the amount of material the CIA has declassified this year, every one of those covers will count as content.

A few words on the actual event in Austin. The practice of hosting these kinds of events began under George Tenet, and at that time the conferences were authentic, with the CIA voluntarily choosing to release material, multiple panels to cover different facets of the material, bringing together numerous agency veterans and a significant number of outside historians. The conferences today are pro-forma,  more often than not (though not always) focused on material coming to light by necessity. There may be just one panel. The panel itself may be indifferent to the material. In Austin CIA director John Brennan delivered the keynote address, marking this as one of the more serious CIA events. Brennan devoted roughly half his time to the present and future of CIA. He managed to layer in a bit of nice background on the real documents, but relied upon chief CIA historian David Robarge to make sure the bases were covered. Both Brennan and Bobby Inman, former deputy director of central intelligence, emphasized secrecy–Inman used part of his time to denounce Edward Snowden. John Helgerson, a former deputy director of the unit that produced the PDBs, talked about CIA briefings of presidential candidates. The most substantive of the panelists were former CIA director Porter Goss, who recounted spending more of his time on the PDBs than any other single task; and Peter Clement, an officer who has participated in all aspects of producing and briefing the PDB. William McRaven, the former SEAL chieftain who took down Osama bin Laden, spoke for fifteen minutes and said “PDB” exactly twice. The supposed outside historian, William Inboden, extolled the range of material. General James Clapper ended the day by gushing over Admiral McRaven, John Brennan, and Bobby Ray Inman.

As an introduction to the President’s Daily Briefs this event rated a C – at best. It gets an A as a demonstration of the CIA’s m.o.

Now to the material itself. You’ve heard me rail at the keepers of the keys in the secrecy system. In his remarks John Brennan talked of President Obama’s dedication to bringing the American people “a clear picture of the work done on their behalf–consistent with common sense and the legitimate requirements of national security.” I submit the PDBs demonstrate my concerns, not Mr. Brennan’s clear picture. Let me give a few examples.

Some historians consider October 27, 1962 the most dangerous day of the Cold War. Amid the Cuban Missile Crisis, with nuclear-tipped Soviet rockets attaining an operational status, anti-aircraft missiles shoot down a U.S. U-2 aircraft and the generals want to retaliate. The report to the president for that day has about half the Cuba item deleted. Among the crucial issues of this history which historians debate is whether or not the U.S. knew that the Soviets’ tactical missiles we called “FROGs” had nuclear warheads. The report specifies that photographic intelligence had found “FROGs” and then deletes the details and any analysis. It also deletes everything regarding Soviet ships bound for Cuba–where maps that illustrate precisely where every Russian vessel was located have long since been declassified. Roughly half of everything in the report on reactions to the crisis in the Soviet bloc is out. Director Brennan shook his head, during his speech, in wonderment that PDBs might contain comments on the reception of the New York City Ballet performing in Russia. It turns out that that item appears in this very report–and isn’t it perfectly understandable intelligence officers might want the president to hear that at this moment of extreme tension Russians were turning out for the ballet as if things were normal.

Much was made at the Austin event of the very first of these reports, handed to President Kennedy as he sat by his swimming pool. Deleted from that report is everything about Brazil, Japan, and Egypt. Actually, during the early 1960s Egypt fought a counterinsurgency war in Yemen. Survey the PDBs and you will find Egypt and Yemen material gutted at every turn. The presidential report for August 28, 1963 came at a time when Kennedy was considering CIA support for a coup against South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem. Excluding the back cover this report totals six pages. Though the Vietnam item remains largely intact, nearly four and a half pages of the rest are deleted save for a comment about European squabbles over Common Market poultry pricing. The coup actually took place on November 1 of that year. There the report is sparse on the coup, as the next day it is uncertain over the murder of Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu.

In the August 31, 1965 PDB a full page is denied along with much of the substance of an item about fighting in Kashmir that started the Indo-Pakistani war of that year. Take out the cover, back page, and 1 1/2 pages deleted and the majority of this report is on the cutting room floor. Fast forward a year and we are in the run up to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The 11-page PDB for August 17, 1968–one of those with four pages of covers–loses another 4 1/2 pages to deletions including the item about the Czechs and East Germany.

Many of those extra covers result from President Johnson’s desire, continued for at least a year and starting in 1967, for a special section on North Vietnam. I surveyed 20 of these PDBs, including the ones just prior to the Tet Offensive and the Soviet invasion, but most at random. In nearly every case the North Vietnam material is gutted. Think about that for a minute.  The secrecy rules provide that agencies must obtain specific presidential authorization to keep secret material over 50 years old. We are observing the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam escalation, and in three years we’ll be passing 50 on the whole Johnson presidency. The Vietnam war is over. South Vietnam doesn’t exist anymore. North Vietnam doesn’t exist anymore. Today we have the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). Granted that is the successor state to the old North, but that’s hardly enough. The secrecy regulations require identifiable damage to U.S. national security, and place this material in a category where the predisposition should be to release. American relations with the SRV are excellent. The revelation that the U.S. spied on North Vietnam during the war is not going to affect them. Not only is there no identifiable damage to the national security, all of this is in service of secrecy authorities that will soon sunset.

Quite a lot of the bases for secrecy I see in these redactions of the PDBs are equally flimsy, even where it relates to specific weapons. Where is the national security damage in showing what the report says about FROGs in Cuba? In contrast, the PDBs are laced with references to sources (as in “sources and methods”)–U.S. embassies and consulates, foreign politicians, BLACK ORCHID (SR-71/A-12 flights), and so on. Whatever the secrecy mavens think they’re up to, it isn’t protecting sources and methods–and it’s not what Bobby Inman thundered about yesterday.

Because of what was done here, every single PDB that was supposedly “declassified” yesterday will have to continue to live in an expensive SCIF–a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility–under 24 hour guard because it contains any secret information at all. Requests to release every little snippet in these documents will have to be separately decided, by platoons of officials. Same with the appeals after those officials deny. All that costs. The dollars add up. This is neither common sense nor is it a legitimate requirement of national security. Shame on John Brennan. Instead of Barak Obama sending the CIA flowery letters congratulating them for making this  artificial concession to openness, he should be telling them to get on with the job.

 

Freeing the President’s Daily Brief

September 16, 2015–Today the big pooh-bahs of the security services–Fearful Leader Clapper, the Machiavellian Brennan, former SEAL chieftain Admiral McRaven, and a number of their predecessors, have gathered in Austin, Texas, at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library. Their purpose is to preside over an event at which the government agencies and the National Archives formally open for research the key intelligence reports for the ages. Today these are called the President’s Daily Briefs (PDBs). Jack Kennedy knew them as the PICKL (predictably, “pickle”), or President’s Intelligence Checklist; Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff had even more awkward names like “Synopsis of Intelligence Items Reported to the President.” (They never could find an acronym for that one.)

If you’re familiar with the PDB at all it is probably due to the now-notorious issue of August 6, 2001, in which CIA analysts reported their sense that Al Qaeda terrorists were likely to employ large aircraft as weapons. The Bush White House, which paid no attention, moved heaven and earth to keep that PDB out of the hands of 9/11 investigators. Michael Morrell, Mr. Bush’s CIA briefer, went on to great things at the agency after his time with the PDB, so you can see it’s serious business.

The PDB is literally the president’s daily secret newspaper. The Johnson Library alone has 38 boxes (an archival box typically contains roughly 2,500 pages). Kennedy another 17, and Eisenhower records together possibly contain that many more. Who knows how many boxes of PDBs accumulated during the Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush (I and II), Clinton, and Obama administrations.

These documents have a long and storied past. The very first PDB was crafted on February 15, 1946. In Ike’s day they were written right inside the White House by the president’s trusted staff secretary, Colonel Andrew Goodpaster, and started simply as his notes. He, and John S. D. Eisenhower, the president’s son–and Goodpaster’s assistant–had the advantage of knowing precisely what the president worried himself about.

But like most things that go to presidents, the PDBs became the focus of fierce jockeying. (Still today: In an attempt to assert that it was always the oracle of the PDB, the CIA maintains that its publications Current Intelligence Bulletin and Central Intelligence Bulletin, precursors to the National Intelligence Daily, all lower-level organs, were “PDBs.”) Responsible for the actual information utilized in the PDB the CIA sought to gain control over the drafting. They succeeded when John F. Kennedy occupied the White House. The PICKLs, as they were then known, were delivered by the president’s military aide, General Chester V. Clifton. Then a focus of infighting became who would be present when the president received his daily dollop of intel. McGeorge Bundy often attended, Walt Rostow wanted to be a recipient of the document himself, Henry Kissinger did not want the PDB delivered if he wasn’t there to hear it; Zbigniew Brzezinski, I am told, sought to prevent CIA director Stansfield Turner from delivering the document, to take over the delivery duty himself, or at least be there for the event. In Ronald Reagan’s time security advisers did not trust the president to understand the issues and were almost always in attendance.

Bill Clinton started off by reading PDBs as part of his morning national security briefing. Then he read them only when he was in Washington, often cancelling the remainder of the briefings. People at the agency got the sense the president was not interested. When that got reported in the media, Clinton made a show of the PDBs, receiving them together with Vice-President Al Gore, both their national security advisers, and deputies, and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta. George W. Bush read the documents and plied his CIA briefer with questions. Bush’s father, having once headed the CIA, paid careful attention to the PDBs. Barack Obama has the big multi-official palavers on Friday mornings and small briefings every day. (See more on the PDBs and see some samples on the National Security Archive website, http://www.NSArchive.org.)

The CIA might have gotten control of the process, but it had no handle on the president’s interests. The customer has always been the problem for the intel pookies. President Kennedy would question Mac Bundy or General Clifton and they would pass the queries along to the agency. LBJ went through Rostow and Nixon through Kissinger. Carter often relied upon Vice-President Walter Mondale, who had been a member of the Church Committee, as his conduit to the intelligence agencies. CIA director Bill Casey heard President Reagan express a desire for more information on Poland and had the PDB redesigned to include a special Polish section. Casey arranged for Richard Lehman, head of his PDB unit and the designated briefer, to discuss the president’s mood and concerns after his return each day. These “backbriefs” have remained the standard procedure ever since. (After Bill Clinton appeared to shun PDB reports the CIA tried spicing them up with foreign inside gossip and direct reporting from clandestine sources.) The final printed edition of the PDB went to the White House on February 15, 2014. Mr. Obama now receives his daily intel on a secure tablet.

With whatever exceptions exist, all this vein of rich historical material will remain classified even after today. I say “opened for research” because those who control declassification at the agency have demonstrated a proclivity for gutting the record in the name of information security.  The big brass aren’t coming to Austin to give out the PDBs, only to acknowledge they have become fair game in the secrecy jousts.

Return, with me, to the days of Clinton, when the Cold War had ended and the winds were so fair that a serious political philosopher could ventilate about the “end of history.” Secrecy was already a problem then, and Clinton recognized it with a project to institute “automatic declassification” of records older than 25 years, with “exceptions” to be carved out by agencies requesting “exemptions.” The overall project failed (the Air Force and CIA claimed exemptions for 100% of their work), but the specific angle for the Presidential Daily Briefs was CIA boss George Tenet’s assertion that the PDBs needed secrecy to protect  intelligence sources and methods. That marked the beginning of an Alice in Wonderland story that ended only today.

“Sources and methods” are spookspeak for intelligence tradecraft or for specific agent identifications or information compartments (such as overhead imagery, communications intelligence, or the like). But the PDBs are information reports, not efforts to create new intel channels or technologies. Names of agents and whatnot can easily be removed from ancient documents or are, in a number of instances, already known from the CIA’s declassification of specific cases. (For example, Tenet asserted sources and methods protection for PICKLs of the Cuban Missile Crisis in spite of the fact the agency had already released portions of those very documents, plus the actual transcripts of interviews with its Soviet spy Oleg Penkovskiy, whose information lay at the heart of that reporting.) A number of PDBs, bearing on Vietnam, Chinese nuclear weapons, the Six-Day war in the Middle East, and other subjects had already been declassified, with the secrecy apparatus considering them as simple information reports. Currying favor with the press and enhancing his stature as maven of top-level information, Henry Kissinger permitted the PDB to be photographed, a picture published in Newsweek on November 22, 1971. There’s no way a true “sources and methods” issue would have been treated in such a cavalier fashion. But suddenly the sources and methods bugaboo descended to chill the entire declassification process.

In 2004 the National Security Archive joined scholar Larry Berman to challenge this idiocy. Berman had requested and had been denied release of a pair of innocuous PDBs. The Archive joined him in a lawsuit for release of the material as is provided under the Freedom of Information Act. Though we lost the suit for the two specific PDBs in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2007, the justices ruled that CIA could no longer claim a blanket exemption for the class of documents, and that PDBs from the Kennedy and Johnson eras had to be considered for release.

What is happening at the LBJ Library today is a direct result of that court battle. Notice that the agency took its sweet time–8 years– to cough up any of this material. Without seeing the rest of the documents I nevertheless expect the collection will be laced with redacted passages, pages, and whole documents. The organizers of this event promise that PDBs will be posted on the CIA website, presumably today after the event. I have argued elsewhere that the agency’s declassification process has been corrupted. It functions to protect proper secrets only at the margin and is far more concerned with preventing embarrassment–a stance explicitly prohibited in the regulations supposed to govern secrecy and declassification. I’ll have more to report on the PDBs once I get the chance to see what the agency has done.

Spooky Lawyer Still Peddling —-

September 10,2015–Better late than never. While running down a remark by our top spook, Fearful Leader Clapper, this morning, I ran right into his senior shyster, the ever-entertaining Robert S. Litt. I missed this when it happened back in May but the message of unreconstructed arrogance is important enough to bring to you today.

As general counsel to the Director of National Intelligence (Clapper), Mr. Litt furnishes advice on all manner of DNI actions, from new directives to the intelligence community to prepping his boss for congressional hearings.

You will recall that two years ago Fearful Leader was caught in a lie before the Senate intelligence committee when he testified under oath that the National Security Agency had no program under which it spied on hundreds of millions of Americans. That Clapper was under oath made the lie perjury. The failure to require Clapper’s resignation for misinforming Congress became another of President Obama’s favors to his spies, but that’s another story. This one is about Bob Litt.

General Clapper actually was more forthcoming than his lawyer. Clapper told reporters that he had tried to answer the question in a way that would be the least damaging for the spy agencies he commands. That represented accepting a measure of responsibility. But Mr. Litt stepped up to insist that DNI Clapper was innocent because he had forgotten about the NSA dragnet surveillance program. Litt compounded that performance, sending letters to the editor of the Washington Post, New York Times, and New Yorker magazine insisting on that construction of events. Fast forward eighteen months. This May, at a panel discussion hosted by the Advisory Committee on Transparency, Robert Litt repeated this preposterous story. At the time he was sitting right next to lawyer F. A. O. Schwarz, who had served as chief counsel to the Church Committee when it investigated the intelligence agencies in the 1970s. It was the secrecy queen and the apostle of openness together at last.

The story from Mr. Litt’s point of view is actually worse than that quick summary. Litt was preparing Clapper for the hearing. He knew that Senator Ron Wyden would be asking General Clapper about the dragnet surveillance–the senator observed protocol and informed the DNI of what he’d be asking. If Clapper forgot Litt’s job was to remind him. If Clapper confused the Section 715 eavesdropping with the Section 702 spookery, correcting that was Litt’s job too. Plus Law School 101 surely teaches that the commission of an act is not excused by innocently thinking something else. Worse, after the perjured testimony Clapper was offered the opportunity to correct it–and there again Litt’s job would have been to alert his boss to the danger and get Clapper to insert a correction. That didn’t happen either.

Now Mr. Litt is sorry. Of a correction letter he says, “I wish we had done that at the time.”

Robert S. Litt is the principal compiler of the ODNI’s chronology of intelligence appreciations and activities in respect to the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. What should we believe about that?

 

CIA Torturers Talk Back

September 9, 2015–Remember last December, when the Senate intelligence committee released its investigative report on CIA torture programs? Many CIA officers, principals in the story, mounted an across-the-board effort to discredit the SSCI investigation, spin doctoring every aspect of the Senate report. The former officials put up their own website, flush with copies of op-eds, transcripts of interviews, and an array of documents declassified to support their position. The former agency officers have seemed quiet of late–not even adding to their website–but it turns out this was simply because they were repackaging the same information in book form. That book is being released today.

I kid you not when I say the website involved many principals in the sorry story of CIA torture, otherwise euphemized as the “RDI Program,” for rendition, detention, and interrogation. Editor of the new book is Bill Harlow. Mr. Harlow previously served as the CIA’s top public relations man, and he is the coauthor of the memoirs of both agency chief George J. Tenet and gung ho spook Jose Rodriguez. Both of them are contributors to the new book too. So is Michael V. Hayden, a man who loved operations, held the reins as the last prisoner was tortured, moved heaven and earth to keep CIA’s authority to torture intact even after President George W. Bush shut down the program, and is cited in the Senate report as systematically misleading Congress on what had been done. A third agency director who contributed to this new bit of PR, Porter J. Goss, is the man who stood aside while clandestine service director Rodriguez engineered the destruction of videotapes that documented CIA officers engaged in criminal acts–an obstruction of justice.

Both website and book are contrived to rebut–indeed that is the book’s title–the Senate intelligence committee report. In fact Rebuttal is built around the June 27, 2013 CIA response to the Senate report, for which the agency held up declassifying the investigation in the first place. The idea that this agency rebuttal hasn’t received sufficient attention is just wrong. First off, Senate investigators and CIA officials met multiple times to discuss the substance of the agency’s objections to the Senate report. If you look at the Senate report you’ll find many instances where the investigators take up specific claims in the CIA rebuttal and introduce additional evidence to counter them. I am told there are also places where the investigators accepted agency contentions and changed their text to accommodate them. In other words the CIA response has already been taken into account. The agency’s rebuttal document is nevertheless worded as a wholesale rejection of the Senate report.

Second, the CIA response is not so coherent anyway. Langley’s general counsel, Stephen Preston, would be appointed the Pentagon’s top lawyer in the course of the haggling over the Senate report. As part of Preston’s nomination hearings he was obliged to answer questions regarding the CIA’s preparation of its response, in which the general counsel had a supervisory role. Preston described a process where CIA director John O. Brennan simply farmed out sections of the Senate report to different officers for each to refute, where no one read the entire text of the Senate investigation, where the emphasis was on scoring points rather than reflecting on the evidence, where the Senate’s text was manipulated so as to optimize it for refutation.

For example, there are twenty major conclusions of the Senate investigation. The CIA rebuttal also contains twenty sections that are labeled replies to Senate conclusions. Not a single one of the CIA rebuttals corresponds to that numbered and labeled conclusion in the SSCI document. This makes a jumbled up hodge-podge of the Senate report. Its last two conclusions are not even taken up in the CIA response, several others were addressed only indirectly, and Langley’s mavens put words in the Senate committee’s mouth, making up an alleged SSCI conclusion, apparently so that it could use the phrase “saved lives.”

“Saved lives” appears in the name of the CIA’s officers’ website as well as in countless agency statements, speeches, and claims. If asserting a thing makes it so, in the classic propaganda technique, then this debate would have been over a long time ago. But like Richard Nixon steadfastly asserting his innocence in Watergate, the issue won’t go away because it is real. There is a fire behind the smoke and mirrors.

Lawyer Preston insisted that he had no writ to ensure the CIA responses were accurate or responsibility for the overall document, and made only spot contributions to its contents.

Asked about the forthcoming work that embodies the CIA response document, Senator Dianne Feinstein says, “”The new book doesn’t lay a glove on the factual accuracy of the Committee’s report.”

The truth about the secret war against terrorism is that the CIA and its cohorts replicated every one of the abuses that got the agency in trouble in the 1970s, this time on a global scale.

From the standpoint of citizens attempting to obtain accountability from their government institutions, the coddling given this crew of CIA officers is also deplorable. The fight over getting the Senate report released went on for nearly two years. During the last six months of that time the cabal were actively planning to counter the investigation before it was declassified. It took time to create and design their website and to obtain content for it. In particular, declassification of documents is an issue here: the CIA crew obtained preferential treatment in the declassification of documents. In fact, it appears that CIA work product may have been created especially to be released to this cabal (an Office of the Historian paper on CIA-congressional relations to uphold the claim the agency was square in its briefings to Congress). The bulk of these documents were released in September and November 2014, in good time for them to be placed on the crew’s website before release of the Senate report that December 8. In addition, the secrecy mavens were quite permissive in what they released to this crew, providing, for example, virtually complete versions of CIA records that the American Civil Liberties Union had already applied for, been denied, sued, won the case, only to be given completely gutted redactions.

The fact is that this whole crew–there are plenty more in here whom I haven’t named–have been treated with kid gloves so far. They are lucky to have escaped prosecution. Not satisfied with that, the crew apparently wants Americans to sign on to the monstrous acts committed in the nation’s name, perhaps even congratulate them for heroism (??!!?). Too much more of this and the thinning veneer of protection may be stripped away. Less swagger needed. Like the classic image of the spy these fellows should be gathering their cloaks around them and disappearing into the night.

Dien Bien Phu: America Casts its Lot

September 6, 2015–It was Harry Truman who involved the United States in the Vietnam conflict, “recognizing” French efforts to combat Viet Minh revolutionaries there as a contribution to fighting the Cold War. Truman started up military aid. The 200th shipload of U.S. military aid docked in Saigon in July 1952. By the fall of 1953 shiploads were nearing double that amount. A new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had taken the helm. While “Ike,” as he was familiarly known, had expressed certain reservations regarding French colonialism in his diary earlier in the decade, and had made public statements at press conferences and such that seemed to show reluctance to dispatch U.S. forces to Indochina, the proof of intentions lies in policy, and there the American approach helped lead France to its ultimate crisis at Dien Bien Phu. This subject came up recently in conversation and I thought I would amplify the comment I offered then.

It happens to be a good moment to take up the antecedents of Dien Bien Phu, for it was in September of 1953 that Washington made up its mind on furnishing extra military aid for the French in their Vietnamese war. There is much more on this in my book Operation Vulture.

Ike had perfectly good reasons not to do so. A new French commander-in-chief had been sent to Indochina, Henri Navarre, and that general had cobbled together what became known as the Navarre Plan. General Navarre insisted he needed additional military aid, along with reinforcements from France, in order to proceed with his operations. The French government, reluctant to supply all that Navarre wanted, thereby gave Ike an automatic out. America’s military attaché in Indochina, an air force general named Thomas Trapnell, had big doubts as to the efficacy of French methods in the war, also grounds to rule out the assistance. On the other hand, President Eisenhower sent a special military survey group to Vietnam to look at the French effort in the specific context of the Navarre Plan aid request, and General John O’Daniel, chief of that group, reported in very optimistic regarding Navarre’s chances. But in late August of 1953, reversing the advice of his predecessor (Omar Bradley), Admiral Arthur Radford, incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended against funding the Navarre Plan. Radford’s view became the official advice of the Department of Defense.

So here is Eisenhower, with advice on both sides of the question of whether to fund the Navarre Plan. The weight of advice seemed to be against moving forward. The U.S., already funding the French to the tune of $3.6 billion (in 2015 dollars), was giving plenty of assistance. Why need there be more? Enter the secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, a man with a Manichean view of the world. For Dulles, anyone fighting communism had taken the side of the angels, and he did not bother himself with such issues as the narrow political support for the French operation, or the reluctance of the French themselves to reinforce Navarre. President Eisenhower listened, at a National Security Council meeting on September 9, 1953, as Dulles opined that the Navarre Plan actually had poor chances of success but that the aid had to be given because the French government of the day was the last that would have a free hand to prosecute war in Indochina, that any successor government would be forced into a negotiated settlement. Dulles argued the United States did not want a negotiated settlement to the Indochina war.

President Eisenhower took the point. Before the end of September he released a joint United States-French communique that stated Washington would accord France an additional $3.445 billion to prosecute war in Viet-Nam. Together the existing assistance plus the extra aid for the Navarre Plan amounted to more than $7.0 billion. To put that in a present-day perspective, in 2013 the entire military aid program funded by the United States came to about $14 billion, just twice the Indochina line item alone, and much current aid is in “nonlethal” categories or comprises loans, while help to the French in Indochina was all grants and all intended to help kill the enemy.

By his decision to support the Navarre Plan, President Eisenhower took the United States significantly closer to participation in the Vietnam war. (I will return to this subject some weeks from now to consider French preparations for the actual attack on Dien Bien Phu.)

Winnability versus Balancing

September 5, 2015–As noted here the other day (“When is a War ‘Winnable,'” September 1) the operational method of remote/proxy war, as applied to Syria, is not likely to succeed. This is for a host of reasons. The ISIL adversary’s system is simply too distributed to be seriously impacted by isolated air strikes or drone attacks that hit at one or a few control nodes. The remote campaign lacks the weight required to inflict serious losses by itself on ISIL ground strength. The air campaign does not directly impact ISIL relations with the populations it controls, except to the degree that collateral damage drives Syrian citizens into the arms of the enemy.

More damage has been done to ISIL by the worldwide drop in oil prices than by the United States air campaign.

As for the ground effort, covertly arming anti-ISIL Syrians to fight the new enemy, President Barack Obama walked into that with his eyes open. He asked for–and the CIA produced–a study of past covert paramilitary operations. The secret study reportedly shows that the overwhelming majority of these projects fail, while those that succeed do so in unanticipated ways. These are not striking conclusions. I could have written them myself. In fact, I did. Twice. In the books Safe for Democracy a decade ago, and Presidents’ Secret Wars, reissued a decade before that, those were leading conclusions in both cases. No one should have needed spooks with crystal balls to have appreciated the obstacles to success.

Still, despite the cautions in the open literature and whatever wisdom his secret soothsayers imparted, President Obama went ahead with his campaign. On the ground he started up a paramilitary training activity, and had the CIA arm what we considered reliable Syrian resistance groups. This led to immediate difficulties. In Syria the Nusra Front, among the most successful of the partisans, is affiliated with Al Qaeda, America’s sworn enemy. To have any chance a Syrian resistance group must have some relationship with Nusra. There is also the issue of what weapons to give “our” partisans, starving as they are for food, medicine, and everything it takes to wage war. Some of our weapons will end up on the black market. Too potent and they will hand our own enemies a stinger. Too feeble and our partisans get nowhere. Which is, in fact, where they are. So Obama pulled in the Pentagon and had them fire up a parallel resistance training and arming activity. It has had equally poor results.

The most recent signs are of escalation. They involve the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). This past spring an Army Delta Force band (for more on Special Forces see  my recent book on this subject) inserted into Syria for a raid against a purported senior ISIL commander. He escaped, but his wife was apparently captured, along with computers and other records. The records and interrogations led to other attacks, and in recent weeks several top ISIL commanders have been blasted in drone strikes. This week, as I traveled to Chicago to give a talk, it emerged that JSOC has now been melded with the CIA–the agency’s Counter Terrorism Center is now supplying intelligence Targeting for JSOC drones. The administration describes this as an integration of the expertise of both services.

However successful, the drone attacks represent but a tiny fraction of the campaign. In Iraq there have been more than 4,000 air strikes in the year since this operation began. Cost is said to be $9.9 million a day, which would make it $3.6 billion so far. There have been 2,450 air strikes in Syria. Even at that cost, and counting all strikes in both countries, that amounts to an average of 17 aircraft flights per day, hardly enough to cover the territory much less exert significant weight of force. Increasing efficiency by employing JSOC and the CIA is working at the margins. The Pentagon and CIA covert ops are said to amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s a fraction of the air campaign.

Mr. Obama cannot much increase the intensity of operations without engaging the war powers issue. Plus, we infer, the president is aware that as a covert operation the Syrian venture has little chance of success. So what’s up here?

Analysts of geopolitics used to talk about different approaches to power. One was “hegemonic,” a quest for total power or control–“winnability” or victory. Another was “balance of power,” the employment of quantities of force sufficient to prevent any of the warring factions from winning, in hopes the fighters will simply exhaust themselves. Mr. Obama may be engaged in precisely this sort of balancing act.

But balancing has consequences of its own. In the Syrian case, the conflict is rapidly turning into a humanitarian disaster, with cities destroyed, services wrecked, and populations fleeing. Citizens are becoming refugees at an exponential rate. The current European quandary in the face of a refugee tsunami is a direct consequence of the fighting in Syria. A balance of power strategy, deliberately extending the war, directly contributes to the refugee problem. Obama’s policy in the Syrian war, to be complete, therefore requires a United States that helps to cope with the Syrian citizens fleeing their war torn land. Think of that over this Labor Day weekend.

When Is a War “Winnable”?

September 1, 2015–This is a question everyone ought to be asking. In place after place today, most recently in Syria and against the fundamentalist group known as ISIS (the Islamic State or “caliphate”). American tactics centering on the use of air power and unarmed aircraft, or “drones,” have proven insufficient. Some observers are calling for boots on the ground. Already U.S. troops have returned to Iraq, which we left only a few years ago, to resume training an Iraqi army that failed miserably against ISIS. The CIA and Pentagon have both spun up operations to train and arm Syrian resistance fighters against ISIS, bands that have not gained much ground against the fundamentalists. Special operations forces have entered Syria too, on pinpoint raids against enemy leaders or hostage rescue missions (for a light primer on Special Forces see my new book here). The U.S. bombing campaign in Syria has just passed its first-year anniversary. So far the only apparent results are lengthening casualty lists and more destruction. The same kinds of activity characterize U.S. operations in the Yemen. The lack of results there runs in exact parallel.

Any pattern of military and paramilitary operations that assumes a routine shape can be said to have become a tactic or operational method. The pattern used in Syria and Yemen, developed to its present state of sophistication by the Obama administration, can be called “remote/proxy warfare.” Operational methods can be usefully reviewed and analyzed. The most direct avenues do so by asking, what does the tactic accomplish against the adversary, how practical is it in the context of friendly forces and capabilities, and what are foreseeable consequences of the interaction. It is also important to ask whether relevant information has been left out of the review.

Sometimes the most experienced and creative practitioners, taking full advantage of capabilities and their imaginations, fail to achieve the results anticipated. When that happens it is fair to ask if the conflict is winnable.

Here’s an example from the bad old days of the Vietnam war: Major General William E. DePuy led the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, renowned as the “Big Red One,” in the region north of Saigon over the period from March 1966 to February 1967. DePuy is a great example not just because he was an innovative military officer but because he actually did innovate the operational methods utilized by an allied coalition to win the First Gulf War of 1990-91.

General DePuy was also perfectly placed to produce results. Like others of his generation, the man was a product of World War II, and a small circle of officers from his unit, the 90th Infantry Division, became very notable moving between conventional and special warfare assignments. They were, perhaps, more open to unconventional thinking in their tactics. DePuy moved back and forth from the Army to the CIA (where he worked on covert operations against China), and from field units to operations staffs. It was one of his colleagues from the 90th Division cabal, Richard G. Stilwell, who not only brought DePuy into the CIA behind him, but also to Vietnam as the operations officer for General William G. Westmoreland’s top Vietnam command, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). There DePuy gained Westy’s full confidence, and he had two years to develop his understanding of the nature of the conflict.

Thus when General DePuy assumed command of the Big Red One he had everything going for him–a powerful and capable force, the full confidence of his commander-in-chief over the intervening level of command) and MACV headquarters, an imaginative and innovative nature, and a developed idea of the nature of the war. So what happened? DePuy performed exactly as his superiors must have hoped. He introduced new tactics–right down to giving his troops an improved way to dig their foxholes–kept up a high tempo of operations, emphasized helicopter assault techniques, and so on. The Army’s official historian ranks the Big Red One’s performance in a series of operations called “El Paso” up with the 1st Cavalry Division’s actions in the Central Highlands in late 1965 (the ones popularized in the book We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young). DePuy even changed field on the National Liberation Front (NLF) armed forces by staging a reverse ambush, where the 1st Division baited a trap by sending a road column into NLF-controlled territory after carefully preparing intervention forces to support it, artillery to match, and making sure to leak (only) the part about the road column to a known NLF spy. By several accounts General DePuy’s performance at the 1st Division shone.

Back in Washington the general was assigned to head a special office at the Pentagon that controlled military special operations and liaised between the armed services and the CIA. Then came the Tet Offensive of early 1968. Now, DePuy had been a very successful division commander. His successors had continued to attrite the enemy, which was General Westmoreland’s strategy. Yet at Tet the NLF and North Vietnamese were able to attack all across South Vietnam. President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) ordered his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to inspect the front and propose countermeasures. When they came back with Westmoreland’s request for a huge new troop contingent, Johnson asked a group of advisers he called the “wise men” to look at the claims. General DePuy would be tagged to present the military briefing to this group, which included generals and statesmen, past and present. DePuy briefed Tet as a U.S. military victory and relied upon his experience to describe the Vietnam war optimistically. Next the wise men turned around and told LBJ that Vietnam had become a disaster.

The president, stunned, demanded the briefers who had addressed the wise men repeat their presentations for him. DePuy later conceded that the briefers were perhaps a tad overwhelmed by the Washington point of view (pessimistic) on Vietnam, but the general stuck to his guns. The encounter proved chaotic–President Johnson was making phone calls even while the briefers droned on, and entertaining his grandson, a toddler at the time, giving him drinks from a bottle of Coca-Cola. But LBJ concluded there had been nothing wrong with what DePuy and the briefers had told the wise men.

What had happened was that William E. DePuy, the maker of victory, had been present at the moment when senior government officials decided the Vietnam war had become unwinnable.

The Big Red One, despite the ingenuity of DePuy and others like him, left Vietnam in 1970 having suffered 20,770 casualties, more than its toll in World War II, and nearly 85% of its losses in World War I, the division’s most costly conflict. Of its losses, 3,181 names are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, combat deaths in the field.

Now, back to remote/proxy warfare. That operational method did not work in Libya, its first major application, which seems at this writing to have disintegrated into a warlord state. In Pakistan, the province of the CIA, the proxies pocket the money and follow their own agenda, while the drones serve as a recruiting tool for the enemy. In the fight against ISIS the air campaign has had a modicum of value as a mechanism for tactical air support of proxy troops fighting ISIS, but very little value against the adversary as a movement. That is because the ISIS “state” is a very distributed network, while the air campaign has nowhere near the military weight that would be required to seriously impede ISIS logistics, exports, etc. –Plus, that weight of effort cannot, as a practical matter, be generated. If it were, as in Pakistan, it would be a recruiting tool for the enemy. A ground intervention is not sustainable in terms of public support or budgetary commitments. U.S. efforts to rally other nations to prevent individual persons from going to Syria to join ISIS will, in my view, involve such a level of social intervention as to also be unsustainable. The remaining question is when will we decide the war is unwinnable–and will there be a William DePuy character there to see it.