Trump and the Hack: Whose Witch Hunt?

January 6, 2017–Yesterday Director of National Intelligence James Clapper sat before the Senate Armed Services Committee and, referring to president-elect Donald Trump’s jibes at U.S. intelligence, said “I think there is a difference between skepticism and disparagement.” As Clapper said that you could see Robert S. Litt, the DNI’s general counsel, sitting behind him. Litt has been referred to here as a consigliere, and also sat at Clapper’s side when the Fearful Leader perjured himself, swearing to a different Senate committee a few years ago that U.S. intelligence had no collection programs aimed at masses of American citizens. This time around you could see Litt let his head fall, hold it in his hand, and shake it “no.” His gestures suggested the consigliere had a bad feeling about what was happening around him.

Today that is confirmed. General Clapper and the mavens of the intelligence community made their pilgrimage to Trump Tower in New York and presented their detailed findings on the Russian hack to the incoming president. I had thought Trump would give them the courtesy of at least pretending to think over their brief for a day or so but, no, hardly were they out the door when Mr. Trump disparaged the spooks’ findings on Russian hacking as a witch hunt.

Trump looks set to win the public relations contest. Not only have his spin doctors–and the president-elect himself–hammered constantly to repackage a question of a covert influence operation from an historical adversary as a mere case of political sour grapes, but U.S. spooks have left themselves vulnerable to that tactic. The DNI has now had three runs at this affair: a joint statement he issued with the Director of Homeland Security on October 7, 2016; a joint report with DHS last week, and yesterday’s Senate hearing. In all three instances Clapper chose to go with anodyne pronouncements that gave hardly any detail regarding the Russian hack that affected an American presidential election, buried those details released among a mass of generic B-S regarding protective measures against hacking, or submerged it among descriptions of hacking by other states and entities. On top of that DNI Clapper failed to restrain FBI director James Comey from the related action of calling in the computers of the ex of a senior Hillary Clinton aide which, apart from anything else, served to muddy the waters about charges of a Russian hack. All of these actions exhibited exaggerated fears for secrecy–and show why here we call the DNI a Fearful Leader. The effect of Fearful Leader’s actions and omissions has been to leave daylight for Mr. Trump to manipulate this matter as an artifact of politics rather than national security.

Donald Trump’s stance of stiffing those he regards as witch hunters now requires him to point out the real enemies. Top of the list has to be U.S. intelligence. You can see the purge coming.

 

Part 2

January 7, 2017–In his Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times, former CIA deputy director Michael Morrell write, “Mr. Trump’s attacks on the agency surprised me, but they shouldn’t have.” Precisely. This space has been commenting on the attacks for many weeks now. The president-elect chose to make intelligence a political football as an alternative to accepting a serious objection to his simplistic attitude toward Vladimir Putin and Russia. The head-in-the-sand obtuseness of U.S. intelligence under Fearful Leader Clapper helped make Trump’s maneuver feasible.

Yesterday we commented on the shortcomings of previous releases and reports from Director Clapper that were so bland and uninformative they permitted Mr. Trump to dance away from their implications. Yesterday DNI Clapper and his agency directors had their detailed briefing with the president-elect. Afterwards the DNI released an unclassified background paper that purported to detail the charges against Russia for hacking the U.S. election. The news commentaries today, Mr. Morrell’s article, and many other speculations, are based on that summary paper.

Unfortunately the DNI presentation again illustrates the same deficiencies already noted here. Barely more than one quarter of the 25-page “intelligence community assessment” is actually substantive. There is almost as much blank paper (cover and back covers, contents, title pages) as that. Five more pages are given over to explanations of what is an intelligence report, a scope note, and tabulations of the probability levels the spooks attach to judgments that range from “remote” to “almost certain.” By far the meatiest element in this report is an only tangentially-related paper–years old we are told, and as lengthy as the entire substantive hacking report–of the way the broadcast outlet RT Television essentially functions in the same fashion as the Voice of America.

The substantive report contains three “key judgments.” These were by nature assessments, not facts. The only real factual statements were that Vladimir Putin ordered the hacking campaign, and that the Russians did not target or compromise systems involved in vote tallying. The analysis underlying these conclusions lies in a five-page paper jointly produced by the CIA, NSA, and FBI, labeled “a declassified version of a highly classified assessment . . . [that] does not include the full supporting information on key elements of the [Russian] influence campaign.” Aside from such public record details as when various Russian outlets, including RT Television, began their coverage of the U.S. election, and characterizations of the content of Russian media coverage and the statements of notables, there is very little in this report. In terms of the massive hacking, the most substantive elements say that Russian intelligence gained access to Democratic National Committee networks in July 2015 and maintained that access at least through June 2016. Russian military intelligence (GRU) joined in by March 2016, compromised personal email accounts of officials and party figures, and within two months “had exfiltrated large volumes of data.” That’s it.

“Scope Notes” are of little value when their purpose is to disguise lack of content. U.S. intelligence understandably wanted to safeguard its sources, and wished to preserve a step-level distinction between the depth of the information it provides top officials versus the public, but General Clapper again failed to make his case to the public, and to Donald Trump the issue is politics, not intelligence. Trump’s response was to declare he will order an investigation of how NBC News found out about some things in Clapper’s report. He referenced hacking by outsiders (including, but beyond) Russia, and said he will seek a report by late April 2017 regarding general countermeasures against hacks. The only Trump statement recognizable from the U.S. intelligence report is his insistence no voting machines were tampered with.

 

Fearful Leader Against Loose Cannon: CIA’s Purge Begins

January 5, 2017–For all his bombast, expressed in 160 character sound bites, Donald J. Trump is a loose cannon. One of his targets has been United States intelligence. Regardless of his latest–“The media lies to make it look like I am against ‘Intelligence” when in fact I am a big fan!”–what is consistent in the Trump messaging, for months now, is that American spies are in his crosshairs. This sense is well enough established that since before the American elections you’ve been reading here of the coming purge of the spooks. The message carries beyond Trump–his minions spout it at much greater length and with blatant exclamations the CIA lacks evidence for a conclusion that Russia sought to influence the U.S. presidential election.

As this is written the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and his top agency directors are appearing on Capitol Hill to acquaint Congress with their conclusions in more detail. The DNI, General James Clapper, has long been an obsequious apparatchik, so much so that it’s amazing he wasn’t able to get in with president-elect Trump. In any case, the DNI has assembled a report on Russian hacking, which goes to President Barack Obama and Congress today, and which is supposed to be briefed to Trump in New York tomorrow.

There is more than a little irony that Donald Trump thinks little of U.S. intelligence and its charges. To start with Clapper, who has been a Fearful Leader, seeing threats behind every bush and creating an atmosphere that helped make possible the emergence of Trump, is now being slapped down by one he built up. This DNI also pictured his own employees, American spies, as the major threat to U.S. national security and then, when he finds a foreign (Russian) threat, can’t get that taken seriously by the incoming president. In fact Mr. Trump is evoking Julian Assange of Wikileaks–a person whom Fearful Leader and associates have wanted put away (or worse) to refute the reported intelligence findings. A further irony lies in the fact that FBI director James Comey, who played a key role in Trump’s election with a panicky eleventh-hour allegation against the president-elect’s opponent, is part of the delegation who will go to New York to brief Mr. Trump on the hacking findings. Trump has already rejected regular receipt of the top secret President’s Daily Brief. The notion he will be receptive to the message on Russian hacking is wishful thinking.

Here’s my prediction on what will happen: Mr. Trump will emerge from that meeting to say he is taking the intelligence on board. That will endure for about 24 hours, long enough for Fearful Leader and his own acolytes to get back to Washington and report how tense was the encounter with The Donald. The U.S. intelligence community, which is already reeling from charges of complicity in torture, obstruction of justice, foundering amid an operations-oriented reorganization, will add deep disarray due to its stock in trade, analysis, being rejected out of hand.

Mr. Trump has already asserted that he knows things the rest of us do not, and pontificated (rightly, actually) on the inherent insecurity of computers, while inviting the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton, and then asserting that some 400-lb guy sitting on his bed could have been the hacker. Trump cannot accept the intelligence on Russian hacking because it challenges the legitimacy of his election.

What is truly disturbing in this is that intelligence is being read with rose-colored lenses.  The field is full of arguments about the disastrous effects of what observers call “politicization,” but that has traditionally referred to spies self-censoring, serving up what they think the president wants to hear. No one has ever dealt with the situation where the “validity” of intelligence depends on whether it can pass the test of the president’s pre-existing beliefs. The politicization here is demanded by the consumer. CIA calls into question Trump’s rosy picture of the character of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. It has got to shape up. That is why there will be a purge, half of it made up of honest professionals fleeing this craziness. The CIA that emerges at the other end of this will be desperate to regain President Trump’s esteem, ready to do anything at all.

Nuclear Dilemmas: Between the Tragic and the Absurd

January 1, 2017–We are moving to a new presidency. Our new president promises a widescale construction program in new nuclear weapons, reversing the trend of reducing dependence on these dangerous instrumentalities that has been underway since Ronald Reagan’s time. In part Donald J. Trump seems to regard this as an answer to Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s similar promises to build new nukes to counter the system of U.S. missile detection radars and defense mechanisms going into place in Eastern Europe. In part a nuclear buildup will form part of a larger, poorly conceived, Trump administration Pentagon budget that will simply increase spending in every category rather than imposing fiscal discipline on programs that have long run without it.

Our outpourings of grief for people lost in the past year have been heavily tilted toward musicians, actors and cultural personalities. Two of the names missing on those lists could have been vastly helpful in the period we are about to enter. They passed away within a week of each other in December 2016–not quite as close as Carrie Fisher and her mom, Debbie Reynolds, but awfully evocative. One was Harvard economist Thomas C. Schelling, the other Sidney D. Drell, the theoretical physicist who trained at the University of Illinois. Schelling made seminal contributions to game theory, including the escalation dominance and hedging mechanisms that lie at the heart of nuclear strategy. With Bernard Brodie and Herman Kahn, Schelling can indeed be viewed as a father of this school–and in fact he was a plankholder in the creation of Harvard’s Kennedy School. Drell became a founder also–of the JASON Group of scientific experts who counseled the Pentagon on all manner of issues. Drell’s contributions to particle physics were considerable and he remained associated until his death with the Stanford Linear Accelerator. But for our purposes today it is Drell’s forthright advocacy–over decades–of nuclear arms reductions that is important. He sought earnestly for a world without nuclear weapons. Both provide insights to us today.

First, what is Trump talking about as a nuclear buildup? Only certain things are possible. The most obvious is expansion of the ballistic missile defenses currently being installed in Alaska and Eastern Europe. These are represented as oriented toward stopping potential North Korean or Iranian missile attacks. But these deployments are precisely the ones that have aggravated Putin–and accounted for a good measure of the decline in Russian-American relations that began during George W. Bush’s presidency and until now has not been reversed. As president, especially one who esteems Putin as he claims to do, Mr. Trump would be unlikely to focus his buildup here.

What other possibilities are there? As a matter of fact there are no new-generation U.S. ballistic missiles, bombers, or other weapons carriers under design or in production. Efforts for over a decade have actually centered on creating more powerful conventional explosives to de-nuclearize ICBMs and SLBMs. New nuclear weapons designs have been projected, and may have been modeled using the more sophisticated simulations that have become our substitute for actual weapons tests. These are the only nuclear force elements with anything like near-term prospects, though building next-generation warheads is often spoken of as a multi-decade initiative. If so, a buildup based on these elements is likely to incur Russian anger today, while not offering any practical result for a long interval past Donald Trump’s presidency. The engineering development of new nuclear weapons would increase demands for real, physical nuclear tests, and that, too, would spark Russian hostility. Sidney Drell would surely label that course absurd.

The last time the U.S. was embarked on nuclear deployments we were on the verge of producing new-generation guidance systems when arms reduction agreements and the end of the Cold War changed the dynamics of international relations. A resurrection of accuracy-enhancing programs (such as the Maneuverable re-entry vehicle, or MARV)would be a likely avenue for the new arms race. The destructive power of nuclear weapons depends on a combination of accuracy and yield–and of the two accuracy is the more probable near-term development. However, Mr. Putin, in threatening to counter U.S. missile defenses, has to be aware that maneuverable re-entry vehicles (though expensive) offer greater benefits than other types of penetration aids. Igniting an arms competition for MARVs is not in U.S. interest. Tom Schelling would mark it down as a stupid, tragic, strategy, in particular because it would trend toward unraveling many of the confidence-building measures of past decades (emptying the pre-stored target parameters of guidance systems; taking missiles off alert status, etc).

A nuclear arms buildup will not improve United States security. To speak of engaging in an arms race “until” other countries “understand” nuclear weapons, as Mr. Trump has done, is the height of folly.

 

 

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.

Secrecy Obsession: An Example from the CIA

November 3, 2016–While we spend lots of our energy incredulous over the FBI and James B. Comey’s apparently stupid (or worse) intervention in the United States presidential election, all that attention draws us away from another secrecy “event” that further illuminates the insanity of the present system. This is the CIA’s recent declassification of the final volume of its internal official history of the Bay of Pigs, the disastrous project that mobilized a force of Cuban exiles to invade their home island to overthrow Fidel Castro. That April 1961 fiasco is one of the most famous in CIA lore. If you want the chapter and verse on what I’m about to say, just visit the National Security Archive where you can download a copy of the newly-released document.

As you can imagine, there were testy and treacherous internal debates at CIA over what went wrong. There was also an obligation to draw lessons from the failure. One thing President John F. Kennedy did, right after the operation, codenamed Project ATE, was to reactivate a watchdog board that had kept an eye on intelligence for his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. One of the first things that unit did was to ask the CIA’s inspector general (IG) if he was investigating the Bay of Pigs, and when they could expect to see his report. Agency director Allen W. Dulles summoned the IG, Lyman D. Kirkpatrick, and ordered him to assemble such a report. Kirkpatrick did this over the following months and finished up late in 1961, just as Allen Dulles was retiring, to be succeeded by John A. McCone.

This timing is important to the story. Rather than pass the IG report on to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, McCone held it back while interested parties at the CIA wrote their own rebuttals to the IG, each more scathing than the next. (Sound like the Senate torture report? Right!) Only when all the refutation was ready did Mr. McCone pass the assessment along to overseers. In effect, McCone had scuttled–or, depending on how you take it, covered up–the IG report on the Bay of Pigs.

Another key to this story is the CIA’s internal debate. All the rebuttals essentially passed the buck, back to President Kennedy. One dominant theme was muddled White House decisions obliging the CIA to cut back its operation. Even more problematical was the contention, by many at the CIA, that Project ATE would have overthrown Fidel Castro if only Kennedy had permitted the agency to execute its full surprise attack planned against Castro’s air force. Both these contentions took the argument outside the CIA. But the Inspector General’s job was to carry out reviews that improved efficiency within the agency. Kennedy’s decisions were not within his purview. Yet here the IG was attacked bitterly by his own colleagues for doing his job–improving efficiency–by criticisms (and there were many) of how the operation had been conducted.

Now let’s skip ahead. Late in the 1970s the CIA commissioned a massive internal history of the Bay of Pigs. Official historian Jack Pfeiffer got the assignment to do the study. He spent five years on that job, splitting the history into microscopic studies of the air campaign, the evolution of the CIA plan, the agency’s dealings with the Cuban exiles, the presidential commission inquiry, and, in this volume, the now-suppressed Kirkpatrick report. The CIA’s chief historian of that time, we are told, judged this volume inadequate. Pfeiffer retired in 1984, before he could complete revisions to this study, which therefore remains a “draft.”

What was objectionable about the Pfeiffer history? Not much, at least in this volume. Scrambling to make lemonade on the occasion of the document’s 2016 declassification, current CIA chief historian David Robarge writes the history was not acceptable “because of serious shortcomings in scholarship, . . . polemical tone, and . . .failure to add significantly to an understanding of the controversy.” But reading the document shows its author correctly footnoting his sources, using relevant official records, and displaying other tools of the historian’s trade. We might say the history is tendentious, in that its author spends a good deal of space on textual interpretation of other CIA histories and documents to make his points–but that precise method is used successfully by many historians. Scholarship is not evidently at issue. The “not adding to the history” part we’ll put aside, since several books of this era made the best seller lists precisely by revealing some of the same information that is in these histories. That criticism is a throwaway line.

The Pfeiffer history is polemical, very much so, in siding with the failed leaders of the project and CIA rank and file who condemned the IG for criticizing agency practice. Pfeiffer still reflects, in the 70s and 80s, the testy attitude that Kirkpatrick was a careerist out to take over CIA’s operations directorate, and he also clearly shares the notion that the Bay of Pigs would have worked if only Jack Kennedy had fully unleashed the CIA exile air force. Both these attitudes were CIA orthodoxy, not controversial at all. As a matter of fact, agency dislike for “Kirk,” as he was called, lasted long after Pfeiffer himself departed Langley. In 1998, when a CIA retiree association newsletter wrote of the Inspector General’s office, it lambasted Kirkpatrick and the Bay of Pigs report in this identical fashion–as the man who wanted to run operations so bad he’d do anything. The criticism seemed so unfair to CIA old timer Tom Polgar that he wrote a letter in protest.

Meanwhile, much of history is polemical, and, in Bill Casey’s CIA, when agency analysis was possibly at its most politicized, it was no sin to be polemical in a history. This sounds like a “those grapes were sour anyway” sort of objection, or perhaps something conjured as an excuse to shoot down a study that made top echelons uncomfortable.

Jack Pfeiffer left the agency convinced that it had covered up the Bay of Pigs failure by restricting access to both the Kirkpatrick report (and rebuttals) and the White House review (called the Taylor Commission report). He notes that “external requests for access to the reports have caused and continue to cause great consternation at the highest levels in the Agency.” Pfeiffer added, “After more than twenty years, it appears that fear of exposing the Agency’s dirty linen, rather than any significant security information, is what prompts continued denial of requests for release of these records.” Not long afterwards Mr. Pfeiffer filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the release of his histories.

Here is where our story really begins. In 1984 the CIA asked Congress for–and obtained–an exemption from FOIA for “operational records.” It described operational records as agent and project case files, substantive materials. The CIA then used the “operational records” exemption to refuse to release its Bay of Pigs histories, calling them operational files. Jack Pfeiffer went to his death still pleading for release of the histories.

History marches on–and that also means records get older and become less sensitive. Redacted versions of the Taylor Commission hearings became available in the 1980s. They were White House, not CIA records, so the agency lacked complete control over them. The Kirkpatrick report and its rebuttals were opened in expurgated form around the millennium. They have since appeared in substantially complete form. National Security Archive analyst Peter Kornbluh even published the IG document and most refutations in a book that appeared in 1998.

Still secret were the Pfeiffer Bay of Pigs histories, the CIA’s official record. The third volume, the one concerning the anti-Castro Cubans and the exile brigade, was released by the CIA’s Historical Review Program in 1998. The JFK Assassination Records Board compelled the disclosure. That’s important–here the agency gave up the claim these were “operational records”–except that it did not. Here’s where the “deliberative process” exemption took a front seat. That presumably meant a document that is advisory in nature and pertinent to arriving at a decision. Under pressure of additional and repeated declassification requests, spearheaded by the Archive’s Kornbluh, in July 2011 the CIA yielded and let out three more volumes of Pfeiffer’s history. But Volume 5 it continued to withhold under “deliberative process.”

The National Security Archive sued CIA over this and won a judgment, but Archive lost the CIA’s appeal, which let stand the absurd exemption. The court found that creators of the exemption had put no time limit upon its exercise. Think about it–the Pfeiffer history explicitly covers the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, in which CIA covered up its mistakes and suppressed the IG report that tabulated them. That IG report itself was already in the public domain. There is nothing of deliberative process about this. And the document is a history not an advisory paper. In due course Dr. David Barrett of Villanova University again FOIAed the Pfeiffer history and, when the agency denied it again, prepared to take them to court. Meanwhile, Congress passed a new law embodying changes in the Freedom of Information Act. Among them is a legal requirement to consider the public interest in the release of documents, and one that limits the deliberative process exemption to 25 years. Both those things, especially the second, would have condemned the CIA to disaster in a court proceeding, and would have ended up costing you, the American taxpayer, when CIA is found liable for the court costs of this mess. The “context note” from the agency chief historian reveals nothing of this history. Instead CIA takes credit for moving to affirmatively release a document to which the new legal strictures apply.

That is how they play the game. You can be sure that the Pfeiffer history would not have been released except that it was the subject of a lawsuit, and that no extensive release of CIA predecisional documents older than 25 years impends.

Finally, let’s look at the actual and “articulable” damage to United States national security that regulations specify must be present for a document to be made secret. There was an IG report on the Bay of Pigs. No secret there. The report was actually declassified years ahead of this analysis of it. The CIA covered up the Kirkpatrick report. Not widely known, but no secret–and no evident source of national security damage. CIA officers thought Lyman Kirkpatrick a careerist. So what?

What’s left is this : CIA officers into the late 70s and 80s still persisted in the delusion–reflected in Pfeiffer’s writing–that the Bay of Pigs would have worked if there had only been a bigger air strike. Embarrassing, but no national security impact. In fact, the regulations explicitly prohibit imposing secrecy for the purpose of avoiding embarrassment. Second, that a CIA historian might write that the agency is afraid to air its dirty laundry. National security damage? No. Also, that the Bay of Pigs coverup continued by means of the secrecy in which the Pfeiffer history was held. There’s the big enchilada. That does not damage the national security either but think of the tortured logic–the document has to be secret because it was secret (and embarrassing), and the secrecy mavens are entitled to invent or utilize any exemption they can think of to maintain that state. What Jack Pfeiffer wrote in 1984 is still true more than 30 years later.

So, watch the FBI secrecy investigation. The classifications, the descriptions of what are true reasons why things on Hillary’s, or anyone else’s computers, are secret have been imposed by the same bureaucracy that held on to the CIA Bay of Pigs history. You’ve already read in this space about those folks retroactively deciding that things are secret (another violation of regulations). The system is rotten at its core. The FBI wants to be seen as diligent enforcers of this system. So be it–but first make the secrecy system worth defending.

COMMENT BY DR. DAVID M. BARRETT: “Your blog’s treatment of the CIA and the Pfeiffer history of the Bay of Pigs, volume 5, was brought to my attention yesterday, and I want to express my admiration for your analysis. I was delighted to have that volume declassified by the CIA, but I was quite annoyed to see the Agency claim that they were doing so because of the change in the law. My attorney and I have (in writing) the Agency’s explanation to a federal judge (in the case Barrett v. CIA) that they were declassifying it due to my (and surely others’) FOIA request(s) and because of the lawsuit. But, as you note, the Agency’s chief historian claims otherwise.”–November 21, 2016.

 

 

Obama and Comey

November 2, 2016–Today’s 90-second comment: Barack Obama has finally taken notice of the mess at FBI. The president says America doesn’t work this way; we don’t operate on incomplete information. Here he breaks ranks with the spooks he has steadfastly protected all through his administration. It is not difficult to discern why–Director James B. Comey’s actions over at the Bureau, threatening to derail the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, also aim at his legacy. A Trump presidency would seek to dismantle everything Obama has accomplished. That is one reason Obama has been on the campaign trail for Hillary, and it also marks the beginning of an assault on the FBI that is sure to intensify.

The latest developments over at the Bureau are reports the gumshoes  sure enough did treat the Huma Abedin/Tony Weiner laptop investigation differently than their other cases. FBI apparently stopped work on a pair of other inquiries that had political overtones–one into Trump aide Paul Manafort, the other into links between donors to the Clinton Foundation and Ms Clinton while in office as secretary of state. If true, this indicates the FBI acted to avoid interference in the U.S. elections, until the latest stupidity.

If you reject the idea Comey is acting as a Republican stooge, there is only one logical explanation left : FBI acted in hysteria over allegations that secret documents populate the Abedin/Weiner laptop. That brings us back to where we began the other day–the secrecy system is being administered in a way that makes it impossible for top officials to do their jobs.

As for the FBI, cancel their expressions of interest in the deal where they are enticing investors to pay for their new headquarters in a Washington suburb. Let them stew in their dump downtown.

And for secrecy, we have reached the point that the secrecy system has damaged the American electoral process. That is true damage to U.S. national security, much more than the content of any email the FBI may possibly find.

Spooks Gone Wild !!

October 29, 2016–By now you would have to be an ostrich out in the Australian outback with her head in the sand not to have heard the latest blast from the Federal Bureau of Investigation–the FBI is re-opening the Hillary Clinton email case on the strength of unspecified, mysterious, material allegedly found on laptop computers shared by Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her separated husband, Anthony Weiner. This requires comment, both in particular and from a broad perspective. Sadly, my house requires upkeep and painting, and I’ve not been able to spare the time the latest horror deserves, but let me put in a few words now. My guess is this story continues to spiral out of control and will be there for further comment in coming days, even weeks.

First of all, the Bureau was investigating Anthony Weiner, not Hillary at all. Of course, it was inevitable, in these last days of a presidential election, where the underdog has been desperately trying to use the Clinton email secrecy issue as a claw to recover lost ground, that a blow struck at Weiner/Abedin would reverberate as a shakedown of Clinton. The Trump campaign is taking it precisely that way. If FBI director James B. Comey thought it would be taken any other way he is foolish–and no one thinks that of him.

So, why this? Why now? Director Comey has been under strong fire from Republicans for, supposedly, shielding Clinton in the original investigation, which found the issue did not merit additional investigation. To revive the investigation might get the FBI a little credit, and at this time in a critical political campaign, a lot of ground with Republicans. The timing is doubtless partly due to this, partly due to the discovery on computer drives seized from Weiner of the Abedin/Clinton material. Comey probably calculated that if he delayed action, that fact was sure to leak, adding to FBI’s political problems. Unfortunately by the action he took, Comey buys into an even bigger problem.

I’ll return to the specifics of the secrecy investigation in a moment, but first a crucial point absolutely needs making: the “October Surprise” revival of the Clinton email investigation absolutely insures that, whoever wins the election, it will be followed by a purge of the intelligence community. Ms Clinton will be furious at the way FBI handled this matter. Comey’s tenure at the Bureau expires in the middle of the next president’s presumptive second term and you can be certain he’ll be unable to protect anyone the White House decides to go after. Comey himself will be frozen out of the halls of glory. If Donald Trump becomes the next president, he will purge because he’ll know that whoever fixed the cards against Hillary can tell that story on him, representing an incredible political danger. Plus, the unnamed culprits could do the same to the Donald, so they must be stamped out.

Yet I say purge of the whole intelligence “community.” That is the entity of sixteen agencies (or however many there are today) under their Fearful Leader, General James Clapper. In Spanish there is a slang word, flojo, literal meaning “flimsy” but used for pathetic weakness. Clapper’s “leadership” falls in that category. Running around with his hair on fire about North Korean missile tests and ISIS militants under every rug, Fearful Leader first casts our own intelligence officers as the greatest danger to American national security, and then he stands aside while James Comey takes an action that undoubtedly does affect national security. Obama was wrong not to get rid of Clapper when Fearful Leader escalated the NSA blanket surveillance scandal by perjuring himself before Congress. Now Clapper has been ineffectual in the face of an FBI action that may derail the prospects of Obama’s favored successor. Add to that that Clapper is unable to energize the CIA to do anything useful in the real ISIS war, in Syria, and you have an intelligence mess across the board.

There’s more painting to do and I have to go. But before I leave, a few words about the actual stimulus here. Director Comey does not know there’s any problem here. He supposes that because the computer was, in part, used by Huma Abedin, it may contain some of the same emails that have figured in the controversy over the Clinton emails and their classification status. Even if so, where’s the beef? For there to be a secrecy issue at all, Hillary Clinton needs to have sent emails with secret information from the Abedin/Weiner computer to another link that was not secure. Message traffic that is retrospectively graded secret does not count. Messages that copied Abedin at this address along with sending to her at other places (ever done that?) do not count. Messages that Abedin sent Hillary do not count. Messages that were mistakenly addressed do not count.

Readers of this space will know I have said repeatedly that the email controversy shows that the security regulations need to change once the system becomes so awkward a senior official cannot function without breaking the regs. This business of the alleged security violation over a secondary computer shows exactly what I mean. It becomes impossible to conduct the business of government this way. The system needs to change.