Obama’s Legacy on Torture

December 16, 2016–With Barack Obama’s presidency rapidly drawing to a close there will be reflections on his accomplishments in many fields. In this one, on CIA torture, the record is distinctly mixed. The president declared his rejection of it, acted to end it, and then opened the door to continuation of these abominations. Obama assertedly did what he did because he wanted to look to the future rather than the past, but his administration has made it possible to turn back the clock.

In his very first days in office President Obama issued an executive order explicitly ruling out torture, limiting all entities of government, CIA included, to interrogation techniques listed in standard military field manuals. In a panic the CIA rushed to get the president to change a companion order that restricted custody and closed black prisons to permit it to still handle prisoners. The public clamored for a “truth commission” that would probe the dark arts practiced by the CIA in the war on terror. The spooks quaked in their boots. Mr. Obama, who had denounced torture in the U.S. Congress and on the campaign trail, looked ready to go the distance.

The president’s decision process remains murky even today. Instead he employed an intermediate strategy, ruling out any truth commission, simply declassifying the amazingly flawed legal memoranda used to “justify” CIA torture on George W. Bush’s watch. Even there he battled CIA officers desperate to prevent the opening of this material. The showdown came at an Oval Office confrontation between Obama and a slice of CIA brass in the spring of 2009. The president left his attorney general to decide whether or not to prosecute any CIA officers for actions in torture or such concomitant transgressions as obstruction of justice.

Attorney General Eric Holder kept the potential targets of these investigations on tenterhooks for a time, but one by one he took prospective prosecutions off the table. By then, of course, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) had begun its inquiry into CIA torture, which led the agency back onto the dark side as it strove to monitor the investigators and minimize their impact. The SSCI inquiry, and its torture report, completed in December 2012, dragged the White House directly into the center of the torture issue–and there Barack Obama failed to rise to the level of his convictions.

While the CIA was still at the level of surveilling the senate investigators, CIA actually stole documents from SSCI computer databases and justified its action as coming on White House orders. Presidential counsel denied that–but Obama’s lawyers never obliged the CIA to restore the purloined records. Once the SSCI report had been completed, the CIA dragged its feet on permitting its release. President Obama, who had publicly expressed support for opening the report, did nothing to hasten this action. When pressed to declassify the report himself, Obama gave the job to the CIA. When the CIA again stood intransigent, Obama had a senior official of his own staff act as mediator, primarily taking the CIA’s side. All these things helped the CIA evade accountability.

Barack Obama no doubt saw himself as protecting government officers who had carried out distasteful orders. But the practical effect of these actions has been to signal that CIA operatives can, with impunity, go so far as to torture. Enter a new presidential candidate–now president-elect–who promises far worse than waterboarding for CIA detainees. That Donald Trump can do that is possible, to a considerable extent, because of what Barack Obama did not do.

With no fanfare, shortly after the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, President Obama reportedly designated the Senate torture report as a “federal record.” This act will supposedly prevent further efforts to shred all copies of the SSCI report and totally erase it. That is too little and too late. Had there been a truth commission, had CIA officers been prosecuted for criminal activity, it would now be abundantly clear that torture is beyond the pale. Instead it is quite likely the American public will have to have this fight all over again. This will come out as a significant failure of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Hillary Not Convincing? Try Trump Security Adviser

December 15, 2016–Previously this blog has argued that, when secrecy becomes so onerous that senior officials can’t do their jobs without breaking the rules, it’s time for the rules to change. The controversy over Hillary Clinton’s emails and the classified information therein ought to have demonstrated that in endless detail. In case you didn’t take in the point here’s an example from the other side–Donald J. Trump’s national security adviser-designate, former general Michael T. Flynn.

The United States Army has just declassified documents summarizing its 2010  investigation of General Flynn–not for inadvertent disclosure of classified information, as in the Clinton case, but for willful, purposeful disclosures he made while heading the intelligence staff serving our military command in Afghanistan. Those familiar with classified information will know that it comes in many flavors, and that there are “compartments” that divide information into categories to which differing secrecy restrictions apply. One basic one is “NOFORN,” which reserves information for American eyes only, with no foreign dissemination.

General Flynn broke those restrictions in at least two instances, both deliberate. At a briefing that included British and Australian allies, he showed briefing slides which they were not supposed to see. In the second case, Flynn told Pakistani security authorities how the United States used its intelligence capabilities to watch one of the islamist networks in northeast Pakistan. Flynn minimized these secrecy transgressions and made our very point–why should he not be able to tell allies of information that affected them?

These and other incidents, including a still-murky stint in charge of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), affected Flynn’s career. His promotion to lieutenant general was delayed. An assignment as assistant director of national intelligence was denied. When Flynn was later fired from the DIA job he assumed the sinister shape he now maintains.

It is a fair bet that as national security adviser in a Trump administration, Michael T. Flynn will carry out a vendetta against the CIA, DIA, and other American intelligence agencies. The shame is that overzealous secrecy rules here play a part in creating a back alley fight that will surely damage United States national security.

Coming Out of the Woodwork: The CIA Purge

December 13, 2016–Already you can see the storm clouds gathering over Langley, Virginia, headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which is being shunned by President-elect Donald J. Trump and seems to be headed for trouble. So much so that the “Formers,” the newfangled lobbying group of past agency directors and deputies, are coming out of the woodwork to defend it. The immediate issue, of course, is the widely-suspected Russian hacking of American political parties ahead of the 2016 presidential election, which the CIA has now concluded formed part of a purposeful intelligence operation intended to influence the outcome, throwing the election to Mr. Trump.

Trump, who has expressed sympathy for Russian leaders and is packing his appointments list with like-minded prospects, resists the analysis, CIA’s briefings, and has done nothing to keep his security adviser-designate, one-time Defense Intelligence Agency chieftain Michael Flynn, from indulging in even more inflammatory remarks. It is fair to expect a purge at Langley is in the offing.

Meanwhile the Formers are speaking with loud voices. Among the loudest is retired general Michael V. Hayden, who hardly ever misses an opportunity to grab a soapbox, and has been ranked here as a fabulist. Hayden continues telling tales in today’s Washington Post, where he has an op-ed article castigating the Trumpists with a damaging disregard for intelligence.

Mr. Hayden makes some good points–and the issue of Russian interference in an American election is a vital one–so perhaps we should not be too hard on him. But the irksome thing is that Hayden’s past fabulism weakens his warnings against dismissing the Russian intervention. Where the general, a past boss at CIA and NSA, plus a deputy chief at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, deplores Mr. Trump’s resistance to “facts and fact-bearers,” he once said of the President’s Daily Brief (PDB)–the locus of many of these facts–that “if it’s a fact it’s not intel”–and doesn’t belong in the PDB.

In today’s sally Hayden raises the question of the statute that requires the CIA to keep Congress “fully and currently informed” on all significant intelligence activities. That’s something he resisted doing as CIA director. When it came to the agency’s torture program, for example, Hayden left Senate officials enough material at a single April 2007 briefing to fill twenty closely-printed pages with examples of misleading representations. As a matter of fact the same oversight statute Mr. Hayden invokes in his op-ed article to cite a CIA obligation to inform Congress goes on in the very next passage to stipulate the agency cannot deny anything necessary for Congress to accomplish its oversight duties–and at his confirmation hearing for CIA director General Hayden professed complete ignorance of that text.

The Formers, to include the present outgoing squad of spy chieftains, are now hoist on their own petard of misinformation, disinformation, and outright lies. Their efforts to keep the American public stoked up with fears of terrorism and other threats contributed mightily to constructing the atmosphere which enabled Mr. Trump to win this election. Now, when there is a real threat of foreign cyber action capable of disrupting American institutions, the response may be crippled by the politics of selfishness and the stupidity of partisanship.

Pearl Harbor, the Emails, and the Purge

December 11, 2016–How often hopes are dashed! I had been working up to do something around the 75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor when the latest email developments emerged. Sad for me, the absolutely crazed email scandal must take precedence, so I’ll turn to that. The Russians, the elections, the CIA and FBI, Trump–it all swirls around in some cosmic stew, morphing repeatedly into new configurations that lead in unanticipated directions. Let’s start by reviewing where this story came from.

For Americans it began with the “Clinton emails.” Readers of this space will recall our refrain that Clinton was being lambasted for creating communications channels that were legal at a time when authorities had yet to order the emails  preserved as government records, and for handling “classified” information when no one knew what was actually secret, and where a lot of the heat was generated by after-the-fact attempts to make secret what had not been. The argument here has been that Hillary’s alleged transgressions were no different than those of many high officials and that–to the extent any of this should be deemed illegal–it’s time to change the law so that the conduct of policy can be straightforward.

For some foreigners the story begins much earlier, with so-called “cyberwar.” The latest reportage maintains that as early as the presidential campaign of 2008, Chinese hackers penetrated the online communications of both Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns. Over the past two years a new wave of this activity, traced to Russian sources, has again penetrated private communications. At first this was represented as only those of the Democratic National Committee, but later the circle of victims expanded to the Clinton campaign committee, and to the personal account of committee chairman John D. Podesta. Latest reports add the Republicans to the victim list. (NOTE: No reports claim that any of the Clinton emails from the original controversy are involved in this one.) Cyberwar turned into political warfare when the (alleged) Russian hackers began leaking inside information from the Democratic emails in a way so as to damage Hillary Clinton’s election campaign.

During the summer of 2016 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) let it be known it suspected Russians as the hackers responsible for these penetrations. In the fall our Fearful Leader– the Director of National Intelligence– and the Department of Homeland Security together repeated that message on October 7. In the days since the election, says new reporting, the Central Intelligence Agency affirmed the conclusion the Russians are behind the hacking, traces it to the Russian military intelligence service GRU, identifies specific officials supervising the project, and finds the activity part of a political warfare plot to influence American politics.

Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump used the Clinton email issue as a political weapon to impugn Hillary’s discipline and even insinuate criminality. When charges of Russian hacking first surfaced, Trump not only denied that, he invited Russia to hack Hillary in search of missing emails. When intelligence agencies began confirming the hacking charges, Trump denied the substance again, and charged the spooks with being off their rockers. His spindoctors refute the most recent allegations by charging intelligence with being the same people who told us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Trump is clearly set to purge the intelligence agencies–something predicted here before the election.

Meanwhile there is the most curious behavior of the FBI director. Having found that Mrs Clinton had not committed criminal acts in her handling of email (June 2016), Director James Comey chose to resurrect that issue just ten days before the election in a way that was most damaging to Clinton: action aimed not against her but the estranged husband of a close aide, with no actual knowledge or even suspicion that classified information was involved, and against advice of both Fearful Leader and the Attorney General not to do it. If it now emerges that Comey knew the Russians had hacked Republican computers and kept that quiet, while drawing attention to leaks aimed at Democrats, that raises serious questions about whether Director Comey had political intentions, especially in the context of his sudden late-campaign action that also damaged Democrats.

Maybe I can get Pearl Harbor in here after all!!!– One of the arguments about Pearl Harbor that has raged down through history is whether the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941 represented the last step on a back door road to war. Historians Charles Beard and Charles Tansill were among the first to assert that President Roosevelt sought to provoke Japan as a means of getting the US into World War II. There have been other versions of this story too–Winston Churchill did it, factions within the U.S. government did it, there have even been allegations that Adolf Hitler did it, prodding Japan to attack the Americans. The 2016 election is sure to echo down the years–and there will be disputes about the outcome. Did the Russians engineer it? Did the FBI? Did Mr. Trump win the election? Did Hillary Clinton lose it? Meanwhile Donald Trump is set to purge the intelligence community.