November 7, 2017–Mentioned here in passing ten days ago, CIA lawyer Robert J. Eatinger, Jr. has been at the heart of agency business for a very long time. It looks as if Eatinger learned his tricks very early. The counselor, for those who are unaware, figured as a major figure within the CIA Counterterrorist Center in the 2005 destruction of the notorious videotapes documenting the torture of captives held by the agency. As the CIA’s acting general counsel from 2009 on he rode herd on the CIA’s response to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s (SSCI) investigation of the agency’s detainee interrogation program, with which he had been intimately familiar at the time as a Counterterrorist Center lawyer. In fact the SSCI chairwoman has said on the floor of the Senate that Mr. Eatinger’s name appears in her committee’s investigative report more than 1,600 times. You can read much more about him in my book The Ghosts of Langley.
Late in 2013, with the CIA actively dragging its feet on declassifying the SSCI report, Counsellor Eatinger spoke at an American Bar Association panel meeting on national security law. “Because you can do it,” Eatinger declared, doesn’t mean you should . . . That’s what we spend our time defining to the director.” Sounds quite responsible. But less than two months later, as detailed in The Ghosts of Langley Mr. Eatinger was telling the director that the CIA would be obstructing justice if it did not recommend the Justice Department investigate the Senate Intelligence Committee on criminal charges of espionage–this after Eatinger’s CIA monitors of the Senate investigation had been caught hacking into SSCI computers.
In 2009 Robert Eatinger, along with the CIA’s then-acting general counsel and another agency lawyer, figured in another legal disaster, a suit in which a former Drug Enforcement Agency operative accused the CIA of eavesdropping. Federal judge Royce C. Lambeth found that the agency lawyers, Eatinger among them, had withheld evidence about the CIA officer involved. The plaintiff walked away with a $3 million settlement.
Now, the release of formerly secret records related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy reveals a new side to Bob Eatinger. The lawyer had gone to work at the CIA Office of General Counsel (OGC) in September 1991. Not long afterwards the Oliver Stone movie JFK garnered so much attention for its controversial charges of conspiracies against the president that Congress passed–and President George H. W. Bush signed–a law empowering a blue ribbon Assassination Records Review Board to examine and make its own decisions on the declassification and release of documents relating in any way to Kennedy’s murder.
Then-CIA director Robert Gates approved a policy of full responsiveness to the Records Board investigators. The inquiry turned into the widest review of CIA covert operations until the SSCI torture inquiry. The CIA made Robert Eatinger its point man on all matters related to the Kennedy Records Board. The attorney’s first excursion into the rarified world of the assassination records came when he issued OGC policy guidance for agency employees considering appeals to the Records Board to preserve the secrecy of documents. The December 14, 1992 instruction found that the law had been tightly constructed and required Langley’s cooperation. Spooks had to apply a balancing test even before developing arguments why a document could be kept secret. There were pretty tightly circumscribed grounds for the appeal to secrecy.
After that promising beginning the secrecy mavens at Langley walked it all back. The CIA successively interposed more and more objections. –To searching certain categories of records, to revealing the names of agents or even agency officers, to admitting that the CIA has “stations” in foreign countries, to releasing basic data on agency organization, to admitting there had been telephone taps and photographic monitoring of the Russian and Cuban embassies in Mexico City, to giving up histories of the Mexico City station and the one in Miami, to documents in the files on Lee Harvey Oswald and Yuri Nosenko, more. Bob Eatinger absorbed the coloration of the CIA footdraggers. In April 1993 the lead attorney recommended options for excluding records of CIA brass wrangling with Kennedy assassination matters that the agency had been ordered to give up in a lawsuit. In May 1993 Eatinger recommended that Langley withhold from the Records Board anything about specific Americans surveilled by the notorious Project MHCHAOS, which had aimed directly at Americans. In November 1993, when the Kennedy Board discovered that a Cuban exile leader, prosecuted in the late 60s, had actually been arrested by a man on the CIA payroll, the General Counsel’s office wanted advance word if the assassination investigators got near that fact. In January 1994 Eatinger advised CIA personnel to stonewall on MHCHAOS data for Americans abroad, extending his previous advice. In November 1995 Robert Eatinger would be reassigned as a line counselor for the agency operations directorate. By then, it looks like, he knew all the tricks.