Trump’s “Satellites”

June 10, 2017–So, like Nixon at Watergate, The Donald does not mind jettisoning minions to avoid the hammer of justice descending upon his own head. There has already been a good deal of attention devoted to a set of individuals directly involved in the Russia Caper, but what about those people who work for President Trump within his own administration? Who might those “satellites” be?

Jeff Sessions: Let’s start with the Attorney General, both because of his prime position but also because former FBI director James B. Comey hinted during his June 9 testimony before the Senate intelligence committee that the Bureau was aware considerably in advance of things in his record that would oblige Sessions to recuse himself from investigations related to the Russia Caper. Apart from his potential vulnerability to Russia Caper charges, Sessions is open to perjury charges for sworn testimony before Congress. If Sessions did have vulnerabilities that required him to recuse himself, then his participation in the firing of James Comey opens him up to charges of conspiracy plus aiding and abetting illegal activity.

Sean Spicer: The president’s press spokesman of course has stood before the public day after day, effectively spouting lies. Some of those lies may have abetted the illegal activity. Also the degree to which he was witting of the rest, and the political advice he gave, may expose Spicer to conspiracy charges.

Political advice, public posturing, and leaking may expose Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus to charges of conspiracy and of leaking classified information.

Dan Coats, Mike Rogers, and Mike Pompeo, respectively the Director of National Intelligence, and heads of the NSA and CIA, have stonewalled Congress, opening them to contempt charges, since the National Security Act of 1947, as amended, explicitly provides that no order, charge, or other instruction may be cited to justify denying Congress any information necessary for its oversight role. Their stonewalling posture also aids and abets the cover up. President Trump also made an affirmative attempt to recruit Coats and Rogers to pressure the FBI to drop its investigation of Mike Flynn. If these officials either did as asked, or indicated to President Trump that they would do so, they would become active participants in an obstruction of justice. Depending on the advice they gave the president, the spooks may also be open to conspiracy charges.

H. R. McMaster : Here we’ve taken to calling the general “Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster for his excuses made for the Trump campaigners who asked the Russians for a backchannel on Russian communications links, an element of the Russian Caper conspiracy (which I am treating separately). Though that action represents a separate transgression, McMaster’s defense of it as completely “appropriate” is part of the cover up. If Donald Trump ordered McMaster to mount that defense, it would be an unlawful order and, as an active-duty Army officer General McMaster would be liable for carrying out an illegal order (Universal Code of Military Justice, 908– 890 (Art.90[20]); 891 (Art. 91 [2]); 892, Art. [1], [2]). If McMaster did this voluntarily and the conspiratorial act is found to have been criminal, then he is open to charges of aiding and abetting.

Stupid Foreign Policy = Damaged National Security

June 9, 2017–When President Donald J. Trump sashayed over to Europe on his first foreign trip, in this space we commented about the stupidity of the foreign policy. The context there primarily concerned NATO and how snubbing our great friends in the alliance was certainly not a good thing. Our coverage mentioned the fabulism involved in thinking that Israel and its Arab neighbors were moving along converging pathways. Now I want to return to the Middle East to show just how stupid all of this has been.

Let’s start with Syria. The cruise missile attack on the Russian-Syrian airbase has come and passed. As Jack Kennedy once said, it’s like taking a drink–after a while the effect wears off and you need another. Trump is there now. The U.S. is upping the ante, sending in more Special Forces for more active roles, and moving ahead with heavy arms for Syrian rebel troops. But since the target is ISIS, America is effectively ranging itself alongside the Syrian government (and against the rebels we are arming) and the Russians. This was a problem for Obama policy too–made in this space years ago now–but Trump has not solved it.

Next to Qatar. This one is all Trump. The president insists he encouraged the Saudis to act aggressively against supporters of terrorism. Saudi Arabia and a number of other locals–some of them on Trump’s travel ban list, by the way–joined together to ostracize Qatar. Now it happens that Doha, Qatar’s capital, is a main transit point for American soldiers headed for Afghanistan and a site for diplomatic contacts, with the Taliban, among others. Qatar also hosts Al Uedid, the major U.S. airbase from which the Syrian war is being conducted, as well as a sophisticated command center that wages it. Trump not only supports the Saudi initiative he went on twitter to claim credit for encouraging it. Saudi Arabia is angry at Qatar for supporting the other side in its Yemeni war. U.S. policy in that affair is completely at odds with our interests in Syria and Afghanistan.

Now Iran. The Trump-era CIA has just refashioned one of its mission centers to target Iran–with which we are supposed to be improving relations because they are keeping their side of the nuclear bargain (something the U.S. concedes). Worse, ISIS is now attacking Iran too. So, in Iran Mr. Trump now has the United States allied with ISIS?

President Trump’s grasp of American national interests is so tenuous that policy careens from pillar to post. Stupid foreign policy damages U.S. security.

[EDITOR: This piece was actually written to appear before the “update” on this website but it appears the posting instructions were entered incorrectly. Sorry!]

 

Update: Senate Torture Report

June 9, 2017–Some days are better than others. Yesterday North Carolina Senator Richard Burr seemed fairly reasonable in his questioning of James B. Comey before the Senate intelligence committee. Not long before that, Burr raised concern when he renewed earlier demands he had made that the federal executive return to the intelligence committee all copies of the SSCI report of its investigation into CIA torture and detention programs. That day was a pretty poor one.

The Obama administration took little formal action on Burr’s demand. Its Justice Department wavered on whether to declare the report a “federal record,” which would have ensured its perseveration and opened it to freedom of information requests. It ordered other agencies not to “open” their copies. The John Brennan CIA working to bury the report, interpreted that as an instruction to destroy copies in its possession. Now, under the Trump administration, Senator Burr is about to get his wish.

The publisher Melville House, which put out one of the printed editions of the executive summary of the committee study, is responding to this effort to put the report back in the secret vault by making its edition available to the public for free. Get in touch if you are interested.

Stupid = Damage : Update

June 9, 2017–The latest gem to percolate to the surface here is that President Donald J. Trump, when encouraging Saudi Arabia to bully the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, did not know that there are 10,000 American servicemembers stationed at a Qatari airbase and command center. (Not to mention that nearby Bahrain, with its port Manama, serves as base for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, our Gulf battle fleet.)

Did not know? What kind of excuse is that? It is the responsibility of the president to know these things. When making decisions affecting U.S. forces, in particular, a president does not proceed without due deliberation. The president has an entire bureaucracy behind him precisely to ensure stupidities like this do not occur. No doubt Trump would like to blame his NSC staff, but the president was shooting from the hip in his conversations with the Saudis, and never consulted them. No doubt he would like to blame the State Department, but it is Trump himself who has done his best to ensure the diplomats have nothing to do, plus empty seats and desks to do it from. And Trump himself went on twitter to claim credit for this stupidity–apparently not even knowing it was that.

On the whole this was an average Trumpian performance. Not worse than usual and definitely not better. The arrogance is only exceeded by the incompetence. No wonder America’s allies now doubt us.

 

Watergate and its “Satellites”

June 8, 2017–Everyone here is abuzz with the testimony of former FBI director James B. Comey before the Senate intelligence committee. Some pundits are saying the remarks move us further in the direction of something akin to the Watergate scandal of 1972-1974, when the presidency of Richard M. Nixon was brought down by initial criminal acts, followed with attempts to cover them up. There are some distinct differences between what happened in America in 1972 and in 2016, but here I want to focus on two kinds of similarity.

The first is the initial conspiracy. In both 1972 and 2016 the future president would be insulated from conduct of the conspiracy. In 1972 that was handled by the attorney general (interesting, huh?) with his campaign unit called CREEP (Committee to Re-Elect the President). The conspiracy was embodied in a political “intelligence” plan presented at a briefing by CREEP official G. Gordon Liddy. Aside from Nixon’s attendance at that briefing there is no direct evidence of the president’s participation in the first stage plotting. For 2016 the political organization of the conspiracy has yet to come into focus, but it involves the characters who have been discussed here. In some combination they include Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, Carter Page, Jeff Sessions, and others. The apparent participation of candidate Donald J. Trump occurs at an April 2016 speech, where he is introduced to the Russian ambassador; and at the Republican party convention, where operatives collaborated to alter the party platform in a way that rewarded Russia, a move that required Mr. Trump’s approval.

The second element is the coverup. In both 1972 and, it now appears, 2016, presidents responded similarly to exposure of conspiratorial plotting. James Comey gave the word today for Donald Trump: in one of his conversations with the president, Mr. Trump (relieved the FBI director was telling him he was not, at that time, a subject of investigation) assured the FBI that he stood with them if they uncovered “satellites” among his campaign staff who had engaged in criminal activities. In other words, Trump stood ready to throw his minions under the bus. Richard Nixon, the same. Nixon first gave up his super-loyal chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, and counselor John D. Ehrlichman; later Mr. Mitchell; then other staff, until the harsh light of suspicion showed right in on him.

Watergate, it is always said, shows the coverup is worse than the crime. With Mr. Comey’s testimony the evidence mounts against Donald Trump. The coincidences in time between key points in the discovery of the Russian Caper and Trump’s actions (or the lack of them), the president’s efforts to get the FBI to shut down parts of its investigation (in Watergate Nixon attempted to get the CIA to shut down the FBI), the sacrifice of “satellites,” are all astonishing.

A few weeks ago a lot of people were swaggering around like lords of the manor. Today in Washington, it seems the worst possible thing is to be a “satellite.”

Midway Mystery: Secrecy and a World War II Turning Point

June 7, 2017–Here’s a story that has everything–spies, lies, a turning point of World War II, journalists, secrecy, desperation, and right thinking. Seventy-five years ago today, this story appeared in the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune: “JAP FLEET SMASHED BY U.S.–2 CARRIERS SUNK AT MIDWAY.” The battle off Midway Island in the Central Pacific was the moment when Japan’s march that had started with Pearl Harbor was blunted. American naval forces were weaker than the Imperial Navy’s. U.S. technology, for once, was equal, not superior to the adversary’s, with some things better, some worse than the enemy’s. What the Americans had for an edge was intelligence–U.S. Navy codebreakers were able to read a series of messages in which the Japanese finalized their plans to invade Midway. Using this knowledge, Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester W. Nimitz planned an ambush to catch the Japanese.

At first it seemed the enemy couldn’t be stopped. But then clouds opened up beneath a strike group of U.S. dive bombers and four Imperial Navy aircraft carriers were right below them. Nimitz’s forces sank all four enemy carriers, at one blow reducing first-line Japanese aeronaval strength by two thirds. That was on June 4, 1942. Over the next couple of days the U.S. mopped up, inflicting more losses on the enemy. Then came June 7 and the Tribune article.

The scary thing about the newspaper story is that its details included identifications of the Japanese warships involved at Midway, including the exact aircraft carriers that had been sunk. This suggested whomever had written the story had had access to information from U.S. codebreakers–and, indeed, Admiral Nimitz had sent a dispatch a few days ahead of the battle warning his sailors of the enemy’s strength. The Navy Department went ballistic upon seeing the Tribune story. Intelligence officer Arthur H. McCollum was able to show that the news story not only had the same information but the same errors as were in the Nimitz message.

United States Fleet commander Admiral Ernest J. King, and Navy Secretary Frank Knox told the press a cover story for why the Americans had been off Midway to meet the enemy, and they handed the leak case over to Attorney General Francis Biddle. On August 7, 1942 Biddle convened a grand jury which listened to evidence for five days. By this time Navy communications experts had traced the Tribune story to one of the newspaper’s reporters, Stanley Johnston, who had been on the aircraft carrier Lexington when she was sunk at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, and had bunked with that ship’s executive officer as both survivors were returned to Pearl Harbor. It is believed that officer, Commander Morton T. Seligman, had shown Johnston the Nimitz message.

The grand jury considered criminal charges against journalist Johnston. In the 75 years from that day to this–despite repeated governmental outrage against media and journalists for revealing leaked information to the public–Stanley Johnston remains the only journalist to come this close to indictment. But here was the thing: the Navy had permitted him to go to sea and cover naval affairs without obliging Johnston to sign any agreement that required him to submit his writings for censorship. The other aspect of the case was that the U.S. government could not have prosecuted the case without revealing more information of how it was reading the Japanese naval codes. A prosecutor assigned to handle the case had recommended, as early as mid-July, that it not be pursued. A trial would only provide opportunities for the Japanese to discover their codes were compromised. On August 20, 1942 the Chicago Tribune published another story, this time with the news that legal investigations were being dropped.

Fast forward many years. In late 2014 historian Elliot Carlson joined with the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of Information and other organizations, including the National Security Archive, to sue for release of the grand jury records from the Midway-Chicago Tribune case. Chief Judge Ruben Castillo of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled in June 2015 that the records should be opened. The U.S. government appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. In September 1916 the circuit court issued an order to unseal the records. In mid-December the government’s window to attempt a further appeal of the decision closed and the records became public. Secrecy has finally ended for the deepest mystery of the Midway leak–there are at least three versions of how Stanley Johnston obtained access to the Nimitz dispatch. Now we’ll be able to see precisely what he said to the grand jury.

The Longest Day for the Allies

June 6, 2017–In these dark days when we need to remind ourselves that, yes, there truly are common interests among nations, and goals for which all are willing to strive, it is good to have history. One shining example of common action took place seventy-three years ago today. Of course, I am referring to D-Day, the “Longest Day,” the Allied invasion of Normandy, beginning the northwest Europe campaign that marked the final stage of World War II in the west.

There were 70,500 American troops plus 83,115 British and Canadian, and 600 0r so French. Roughly 23,000 of these troops arrived by parachute or glider. The armies were supported by 11,000 aircraft sorties and 5,000 naval vessels. Among this armada were warships or aircraft from the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, Norway, and Poland; reserve troops from Czechoslovakia, Belgium, and Holland; resistance forces in France and the Low Countries; plus more. You can see almost the entire line up of what later emerged as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The main country missing from the list would be Germany–and they, in World War II, were the enemy.

The invasion of June 6, 1944 led to fierce fighting. Americans will always think of the battle on Omaha Beach and the bitter field-to-field struggles for Normandy’s bocage country. Our British Commonwealth brothers will forever honor those who fought in the repeated fights over the city of Caen. The Germans will long remember their failed effort to seal up the Normandy bridgehead, the Allies’ breakout, and the battle for the Falaise Gap (for a detailed look at the struggle that followed D-Day read my book Normandy Crucible ).

It is a measure of the strength of our united purposes that wartime enemies became friends afterwards, and that the NATO alliance and that the union has evolved into a mainstay of American foreign policy. On this day let us all remember that.

“Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster’s At It Again!

June 5, 2017–In case you thought I was too hard on Hal McMaster several weeks ago (“H.R. McMaster: Appropriate Dereliction,” May 17, 2017), here’s more–he’s at it again. Remember, by the way, that “dereliction” is his word, not mine. “Dereliction” is what McMaster accused the military’s top officers of doing when, during the Vietnam war, they hesitated to express their hard-nosed visions of reality to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Today, General McMaster is doing the same, covering for our simpleton president instead of educating him. McMaster held that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were derelict in not resigning when LBJ kept to his own course. General McMaster today is also doing the same thing for which he accused the Joint Chiefs of dereliction. The word “appropriate” is also from McMaster. In his previous sally he excused the actions of President Donald J. Trump as entirely appropriate. Hence we have “Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster.

In a speech over the weekend to the “Global Forum” conference of the American Jewish Committee, General McMaster engaged in fantasy and articulated falsity. It is a fantasy to say, as “Appropriate Dereliction” did, that Israel and its Arab neighbors are on converging paths. McMaster and Trump may believe this is a moment of opportunity, but we will be unable to take advantage of any such chances if we misunderstand the national interests of the involved states and the global context which drives them. McMaster also asserted that President Trump, on a visit with NATO leaders, had reaffirmed United States support for Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which Trump did not do. Quoting Trump’s warm up before his denunciation of NATO allies as an affirmation is fake news. There is a reason why allies like Germany are running around questioning America’s steadfastness–and it’s not because Trump supports them. McMaster’s damage control effort is appropriate dereliction.

So is “Appropriate Dereliction’s” comment on Trump and the recent terrorist attack in London. Where the president is poking at British officials and using the incident as fodder for his own political goals, McMaster evades any reference to Trump’s major display and quotes merely the single statement of support the president made before misrepresenting the mayor of London. The United Kingdom is a NATO ally. How does Trump’s action square with Article 5? Appropriate dereliction again.

Seventy-three years ago today American and British troops–plus contingents from many nations that are now NATO allies, were in the middle of the English Channel, on their way to invade France, clear northwest Europe, and end World War II. The Joint Chiefs of Staff approved that mission. The architects of that operation and the postwar alliance would be aghast at the antics of “Appropriate Dereliction” McMasters.

 

Remembering a Spy for All Seasons

June 4, 2017–At the end of April with the death of Howard Phillips Hart, the U.S. intelligence community lost one of its true heroes. Unlike Dewey Clarridge, who tried to appropriate the title “spy for all seasons,” but who was a showboat and ideologue, Hart was the real thing, fortunately on the scene at some very real passages in recent American history. Even as a toddler. Born in St. Louis on the eve of World War II, Hart’s banker father moved the family to the Philippines, where they had the misfortune to be when the Japanese invaded after Pearl Harbor. The family were locked up in a Japanese prison camp at Los Banos and rescued in the nick of time, in 1945, as U.S. paratroopers liberated the camp before the Japanese could execute the prisoners. After the war the family went back to the Philippines.

Howard read in Oriental studies and political science at Cornell and the University of Arizona, learning Hindi and Urdu. He was thinking about joining the Marines when an agency recruiter convinced him to become a spy instead. He joined the CIA in the summer of 1966. The agency did well by Hart, assigning him to India for his first foreign tour. In that he followed Clarridge, who had served in Dehli but at this time was desk officer for India at Langley. The station chief was Clair George. Anyway, the Indians were in the process of edging closer to the Soviet Union, and in 1967 they signed a treaty of friendship and an arms delivery agreement with Moscow. Hart was wrestling with an invitation from an old friend to become a lawyer when one of his agents acquired the operating manual for the Russian SA-2 anti-aircraft missile, mainstay of the North Vietnamese air defenses that were zapping U.S. planes in the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign. That coup convinced Hart to make his career as a spy.

He served three years in India, long enough to see the first rumblings of what became the Indian-Pakistani war of 1971. Hart got an education in the niceties of diplomatic relations–in India, with rising anti-Americanism, the Canadian embassy painted Canadian flags all over its cars so they wouldn’t be taken as Americans. Less than a decade later, Canadian diplomats heroically sheltered Americans in Teheran and helped smuggle them out of the country. Hart witnessed both ends of this show–first in India, then, after a tour in the Persian Gulf, in Iran. Assigned to the Teheran station, in the first phase of the Iranian revolution, the United States decided to greatly reduce its embassy staff–including the CIA station. In the summer of 1979 the spooks operated with a rump unit of a few officers within the reduced embassy, plus an undercover “outside” unit of four, headed by Howard Hart.

There were lots of adventures, including the time Hart was stopped by Revolutionary Guards at a checkpoint, beaten, and ended up blowing them away with his pistol. He got his CIA contingent safely out of the country. When the Carter administration organized the hostage rescue mission that ended so tragically at the Desert One airstrip in the Iranian outback, Howard Hart was the CIA adviser. He was physically at Desert One when the mission came apart. For Iran Hart received the Intelligence Star, an important CIA medal.

Next Howard went to Islamabad as station chief for Pakistan, and from there he directed the CIA paramilitary operation against the Soviets in Afghanistan. This was the crucial early-mid phase of the Afghan op, when U.S. support did not quite rise to war-winning levels. Hart made the best of limited means. He finished his CIA career as an early chief of the agency’s novel “fusion center” to counter drug trafficking. Hart amassed five award decorations during his career–more than almost any other officer–and George Tenet selected him as one of fifty CIA “Trailblazers” in 1997. Unlike Clarridge or George, both of whom were swept up in the Iran-Contra scandal, Howard Hart never became controversial inside or outside the agency. That’s what made him a “spy for all seasons.”

The Other Coverup: CIA’s Torture Report

June 3, 2017–Now for an update on the other coverup underway in Washington. The other day I framed the CIA’s former director, John O. Brennan, as “The Flying Dutchman” (see “John Brennan: The Flying Dutchman,” May 24, 2017). Mr. Brennan received that sobriquet for his brash promises of compliance with accountability norms followed by maneuvers to avoid accountability at any cost. This was apparent when Brennan worked in the White House as Obama’s NSC director for intelligence, where he had a leading role masterminding the drone war. It became glaring when Brennan took up the reins at CIA, then in the throes of a knock down-drag out fight to prevent the Senate intelligence committee from releasing its investigative report on CIA torture. At his nomination hearings Brennan spoke positively of the investigation, the report, and forthrightly defined “torture.” Once ensconced at Langley the CIA director joined heartily in the fight against release. Like the Flying Dutchman the Brennan accountability ship disappeared into the mists.

The point a few days ago was that Brennan’s performance on torture left him up the creek when it came to trying to convince congressional overseers that the evidence he saw for a Russian Caper was real. Now the fight over the torture report has developed even more ramifications–it appears the Trump administration will use it as part of its effort to evade investigation of the Russian Caper itself. It happened this way:

When the Senate torture report emerged at the end of 2014 it became a political football in the partisan wars of Washington. Republicans hastened to picture the investigation as somehow inappropriate, even unpatriotic. The Senate changed hands in the election of that year, and Richard M. Burr (R-NC), the new chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), demanded the return to his oversight unit of all copies of the torture report. The Justice Department eventually met this demand by instructing agencies not to open their copies of the report. Nothing happened–except in Brennan’s shop where the CIA director contrived to eliminate those copies at his agency. But there were lawsuits seeking release of the SSCI report, others to convert it to a “federal” record (putting it beyond SSCI reach), requests to President Obama to release it, and court orders reserving copies for use in several cases involving terrorist detainees.

Mr. Brennan’s successor at the CIA, Mike Pompeo, previously sat as a congressman on the House intelligence committee. Like the Flying Dutchman, at his nomination hearing Pompeo promised the senators he would safeguard the torture report–and even read all 6,700 pages of it. Instead Pompeo supported Senator Burr when the SSCI chairman renewed his call for the return of the report copies.

Meanwhile at this very moment Senator Burr and his committee are mounting one of the key investigations of the Russian Caper, making President Donald J. Trump highly vulnerable. By returning copies of the SSCI torture report to the committee, Trump is doing a favor for the chairman of the unit investigating him, handing Burr a political win. President Trump also does a favor for the CIA, currying support from a rank and file who have felt threatened by the report and its revelations of CIA high handedness. For the moment it looks like Mr. Trump has scored a two-fer.