The Spooks & Trump–No Match Today

August 20, 2016–By now you will have heard that this past week presidential candidate Donald Trump received his first intelligence briefing from America’s top spy organs, led by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). You’ve probably also heard what Trump had to say going in about how he trusts our spooks: “Not so much from the people that have been doing this for our country. I mean, look what’s happened over the last ten years. Look what’s happened over the years. It’s been catastrophic. And, in fact, I won’t use some of the people that are sort of your standards . . . because they’ve made such bad decisions.”

On the other side you have former senior CIA officials like Michael Morrell saying the country cannot afford to have Donald Trump for its president, or agency director Michael Hayden insisting that if Trump is in charge and wants to carry out his promise to torture people, he’ll have to bring his own bucket.

This is really quite an odd circumstance. Think about it. Mr. Trump has based his entire campaign on selling fear, the fear of an existential threat from which only he can rescue the nation. Meanwhile our intelligence community has been selling fear also. The continuing terrorist threat and so on, so much so that in this space we have taken to calling the present DNI, General James Clapper, our Fearful Leader (and Michael Hayden–who devoted his tenure at CIA to an attempt to preserve the torture program– a fabulist). That sides with such comparable worldviews eye each other so darkly says something about the reality of the United States today.

First to Trump. Take his ten year standard. Actually you can do better and go back to September 11, 2001. No American has died on U.S. soil from an islamist terrorist attack since then. There have been a host of remote conversions and gun massacres, from Orlando to San Bernardino, to Aurora; but it remains debatable whether those represent disturbed individuals grabbing the cloak of jihadist justification or true terrorists. There have also been an even larger number of cases where weak individuals have been converted in entrapment schemes by our own security services and then condemned as terrorists. If Trump’s point is that the FBI and others made dubious decisions in those cases, he’d be right, but somehow I don’t think so. He would also be right if he meant the intel pukes miscalled the growth of ISIS, or Iran’s alleged rush to the bomb, but that’s not Trump either–he is about threat to the homeland. Anyway, bottom line is that on his decade-long measure of merit, intelligence performance has not been “catastrophic.”

As for the spooks themselves, it is a matter of both relief and concern that they speak up about the Trump candidacy and his specter of fear. The intelligence chieftains’ protests give us relief because they show the spies themselves recognize the danger inherent in the stoking of paranoid fears, and they agree that Trump, as the personification of that irrationality, would be dangerous in the White House. But the spooks themselves seem not to understand that their own fear-mongering created the atmosphere of hysteria in which a Donald Trump could flourish.

Suddenly the spies find themselves in a situation where Mr. Trump could actually become President of the United States. And the Donald has promised to sweep their halls clean of the old spooks if he wins. Fearful Leader and the others ought to have thought long ago about the consequences of their fear-mongering.

Peruvian Days

August 5, 2016–In a virtually unnoticed exchange in February 2010, Michigan Congressman Peter Hoekstra called the CIA to task for its incredibly ham-fisted handling of the April 20, 2001 incident in which American missionaries were killed by the Peruvian air force, in collaboration with a CIA air crew, working as part of a joint program to interdict drug trafficking. In an angry tone the Republican congressman denounced the CIA’s response, released the actual film of the incident, and triggered an official statement from the agency—conveniently left off the CIA website to attract as little attention as possible. This episode is important not only to the continuing effort to bring accountability to CIA operations, but also particularly because in the war on terror, the CIA’s Predator attack program is now resorting to similarly low standards of identification and evidence in selecting its targets. It’s a fair bet that accountability issues will arise in the Predator operation, and the Peruvian incident offers stark illustration of how the agency treats these kinds of things.

In brief background, toward the end of 1994 President William J. Clinton approved a project—buttressed by interagency recommendations and duly diligent Department of Justice memoranda—to halt or hinder airborne shipments of drugs from Peru by means of a common effort between the CIA and Peruvian authorities. Agency flights would identify traffickers and call in the Peruvian air force, which would either force the planes to land or shoot them down. Called the Air Bridge Denial Program, this project continued until April 20, 2001, when a CIA flight summoned the Peruvian air force to tail a plane which actually contained an American Baptist family, the Bowers, who were returning from vacation to their mission in the Andes. The CIA contract operators who had identified the plane as a possible target began to doubt their original suspicions, but their calls to Peruvian authorities went unheeded. After making little effort to communicate with the missionaries—a radio message beamed on a frequency the plane was not monitoring—the Peruvians shot at the plane, killing wife Veronica and infant daughter Charity, and wounding pilot Kevin Donaldson. Missionary husband Jim Bowers and his seven-year old son Cory barely survived the crash landing of the aircraft. George J. Tenet, CIA director at the time, gives this moment the “sad distinction” of being “my worst day as DCI before 9/11.” [At the Center of the Storm, p. 49]

The key facts became known within ten days of the tragedy. In its hustle to defend itself the CIA revealed some, and the U.S. government released other data in protecting the larger initiative. That Peruvians had done the shooting, that the CIA aircrew had not followed their own standard procedures for identifying the aircraft tail number, but that they recanted their initial suspicions and had tried to call off the attack—and that all of this was on tape—were revealed. Within a month it became known that at the outset of the program State Department lawyers had recommended against participating in a program that would involve shooting down civilian aircraft. By July 2001 results of a State Department internal investigation had leaked and showed that joint training between the CIA and Peruvians had been spotty, embassy oversight lacking, that cautionary procedures had gone by the boards while the CIA contract employees knew little Spanish. All this and more was confirmed by an October 2001 report from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which additionally revealed that a similar rush to shoot had already occurred, in 1997, but got no attention because that time real drug traffickers were involved.

What did the CIA do? Bury all of this as deeply as possible. The government paid $8 million to settle 2002 claims filed by the Bowers family and pilot Donaldson. The Justice Department did conduct a criminal inquiry but in 2005 decided against bringing any charges. My book Safe for Democracy contains numerous examples of similar sorts of shenanigans.

Not until August 2008 did CIA inspector general John Helgerson complete his report on the Peruvian aerial incident. That it required seven years to complete this investigation already draws suspicion. According to Representative Hoekstra, the CIA engaged in “repeated failure to follow procedures that resulted in loss of life; false or misleading statements to Congress by CIA officials up to and including former Director George Tenet; and potential obstruction of justice by CIA employees with respect to a Department of Justice criminal investigation.” [Letter, Rep. Hoekstra-Director Michael V. Hayden, October 6, 2008]

Hoekstra drew these conclusions from Helgerson’s report, which additionally found that no one involved in modifying the presidentially-mandated intercept procedures had had any authority to do so, that within hours of the attack CIA officers had begun falsely saying that the shootdown was a one-time error in a well-run program, and that the agency had not met legal obligations to keep the NSC and Congress fully informed, including suppressing adverse results of internal inquiries and ignoring a direct question from national security adviser Condolezza Rice.

It was only after Representative Hoekstra made an issue of the Helgerson report did CIA director Michael V. Hayden review it and decide to convene an accountability board. That board decided upon minor sanctions for sixteen individuals—ABC reporters Matthew Cole and Brian Ross learned that one, for example, received a reprimand letter for his file that would be removed after a year. The individuals involved included the CIA counter-narcotics chief, its chief of station in Lima, and the base chief of the facility dispatching the spotter planes.

Even more disturbing, Director Hayden initiated a CIA internal investigation of the Inspector General. Thus, some minor slaps on the wrist for field officers are combined with a major pushback at an agency watchdog.

Lax accountability for CIA operations is not surprising but remains highly problematic. Today’s CIA Predator attack program, like the Peruvian project, involves remote target identification, instant attack, and high secrecy. The criteria for selecting prospective victims are supposed to be very tightly drawn—but that was supposed to be true in Peru also—and American citizens may be targeted. The CIA as judge, jury, and executioner? Apart from the unintended consequences of this program on American-Pakistani relations, it can only be a matter of time until an accountability moment falls from the CIA’s Predator drones.

The brouhaha over the Senate torture report demonstrates an agency virtually breaking loose from supervision. This situation is not acceptable for a security agency responsible to citizens in a democracy.

Kurita’s Surprise

August 2, 2016–More than six decades out  it is astonishing that the greatest naval battle in history has garnered as little attention as it has. This, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, was “the greatest” in lots of ways. More ships participated, more sailors, the stakes were the fates of an entire invasion fleet, the awesome combat power of one side such that its losses would be minuscule compared to those of the adversary. Measured by its decisive aspect—the tonnage of ships sunk, the destruction of virtually all of a mighty fleet—Leyte Gulf shines. For the Japanese Navy, defeat at Leyte Gulf duplicated in reverse their greatest achievement, when Japan’s fleet destroyed a Russian one at Tsushima in 1905. Apart from anything else, Leyte Gulf set the trajectory of the final phase of the Pacific War that ended with the Japanese surrender ten months later.

There is another aspect of the Leyte events which astonishes too. In this lopsided contest the Allied side held every advantage. Allied forces were far superior to the Imperial Navy’s remaining vessels, in every category of strength from battleships to submarines. Allied airpower, both carrier-based and flying from shore also far outweighed that of Japan. And Allied intelligence, photographing Japanese garrisons at will, reading Japan’s coded messages, benefitting from captured Japanese documents, saw the enemy’s cards like an open hand. Like I said, the Allies enjoyed every advantage.

In the face of all that, the Imperial Navy managed to put an immensely powerful surface force up against an isolated portion of the Allied fleet. In these days when so many speak of “asymmetrical warfare” the Leyte Gulf experience demands more attention. Now the book Storm Over Leyte meets that need in detail. One aspect of Japan’s success in getting at one fragment of the Allied fleet in isolation was a huge intelligence failure, one virtually unbelievable for the side that had attained such a great advantage.

This is only a part of the story but it is an important one. The month of October 1944 began with an Allied misreading of radio intercepts. The major Imperial Navy fleet command at mid-1944 had been the so-called “Mobile Fleet,” that had been hard hit in the Battle of the Philippine Sea (aka “Marianas Turkey Shoot”). Afterwards the Japanese had split up their forces, with the main surface units going to the Singapore area while the remnants of the aircraft carriers regrouped in the Home Islands. Messages the Allies intercepted in early October were read to indicate the Mobile Fleet had rejoined the surface force led by Vice-Admiral Kurita Takeo, Japan’s Sir Harry Hotspur for this desperate venture. That interpretation proved mistaken and U.S. intelligence realized its mistake within a few days.

Admiral Kurita had charge of the bulk of Japan’s surface combat ships. At his Lingga anchorage and in Singapore they were out of range of the usual Allied aerial reconnaissance units. The Allies could have run photo missions with China-based B-29 bombers, but the leader there, General Claire Chennault, refused. Chennault had already been pulled into agreeing to make a B-29 strike on Taiwan in support of a carrier raid there, and evidently thought he was giving the Pacific oceanic forces enough help as it was.

The window on Japanese fleet activities therefore came down to radio intelligence. Allied spooks were sharp enough that to develop a good indicator entirely by watching Japanese operating practices. They discovered that by tracking movements of Japan’s oil tankers, especially the fleet oilers needed for underway replenishment, they had a reliable predictor for naval activity. As Allied forces closed in for the Philippine invasion, the radio spies detected enemy tanker movements of the kind that indicated a fleet sortie.

But radio direction finding of messages sent by Kurita’s fleet continued to put it in the Singapore area. Allied forces in the Pacific fought an entire battle over Taiwan, conducted a series of supporting air strikes on the Philippines, and began their invasion in Leyte Gulf, without the Kurita fleet stirring. On October 16, 1944, as Allied invasion fleets closed in the spooks still located Kurita near Singapore. That same day the radio spies acquired fresh intelligence on tanker movements and began expecting Kurita to sail. The admiral actually did so on October 18 (the 17th in Washington, where the Office of Naval Intelligence, the next day, still only “expected” a fleet sortie.

Admiral Kurita headed for Brunei, a micro-state on the north coast of Borneo, where he had sent tankers to wait for him. As it happened, Allied intel authorities had previously debated the chances the Japanese would come out to fight, and the chiefs of General Douglas MacArthur’s spy unit had asked for extra aerial scouting of Brunei. A B-24 scout plane actually sighted the Kurita fleet and the Japanese monitored its contact reports monitored. But somewhere up the line the messages were misplaced and the warning lost.

Existing accounts of Leyte Gulf make much of the submarine attacks and aeronaval battles of October 24, as the Kurita fleet closed in on the Philippines, but in truth the Allies were responding instantly to reports just reaching them. Had General MacArthur and his Pacific theater opposite number, Admiral William F. Halsey, had the advance warning they could have had, the scale of their attacks would have been ferocious and Kurita might have been stopped right there.

In truth the Kurita fleet, grievously wounded during its advance toward Leyte Gulf, arrived in a weakened condition, but it pressed ahead. The next Allied element to fail would be aerial scouts over the San Bernardino Strait, a passage Kurita main force had to transit in order to reach its target. For a variety of reasons the scouts failed that night. From Pearl Harbor the Allied Pacific theater commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, discovered from his radio traffic analysts that the Kurita fleet had passed the strait to debouch on the Pacific Ocean side of the Philippines. Nimitz sent messages to Halsey and other invasion commanders—revealed for the first time in Storm Over Leyte—urgently passing on the location data and identifying it as “ULTRA,” the Allied codename for its supersecret radio intelligence. Nimitz’s action could have given away the source, so they violated all the classification rules for ULTRA. The messages demonstrate his horror at the front-line situation.

The Japanese appearance was actually preceded by a series of intelligence failures—to detect by aerial reconnaissance at Lingga-Singapore or Brunei, to detect by radio direction finding at the moment of the sally, and to detect transiting the San Bernardino—to the extent that Pacific commander Nimitz felt it necessary to send messages that broke all the rules. Usually Admiral Nimitz is associated with a message that needled Halsey on the activities of his fleet, but the ULTRA messages were a far greater act of intervention. Thus our old understanding of the Battle of Samar—the action Kurita’s fleet fought off of Leyte Gulf—needs revamping.

Storm Over Leyte: The Philippine Invasion and the Destruction of the Japanese Navy (PenguinRandomHouse) is available today.