Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf ? –The CIA

October 22, 2017–The Big Bad Wolf, in this case, is the set of documents related to the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, long kept secret, which by law must be released–declassified in full–by a date certain that is coming later this week. The Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, passed in 1992, provided a 25-year extra shield for those documents that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and others could convince a board were so sensitive and so secret they should continue to be classified. That protection runs out this week. There is a narrow exception provided in the law for agency heads to appeal to the president for continuation of secrecy.  Yesterday in a tweet, Donald J. Trump declared that he was going to open the files. With typical Trumpian two-facedness the president made that declaration “subject to the receipt of further information.”

By several accounts CIA director Mike Pompeo has been lobbying Prresident Trump almost daily to keep up the secrecy. What’s so secret? Philip Shenon, a former New York Times reporter who has written about the Warren Commission investigation of Kennedy’s assassination, provides a fascinating clue. As reported by Ian Shapira in today’s Washington Post, Shenon believes CIA is especially concerned to keep secret papers written in the 1990s. Of course, Kennedy’s murder took place in 1963. The various permutations of evidence, and chains of logic bearing on the CIA, the FBI, Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassination, and the rest have been burbling around for years, even decades. In the 1990s Langley–the CIA–sought extra secrecy for its operations against Fidel Castro, in Mexico and Central America, it’s private knowledge of what Cuban exile plotters were up to, and so on. Langley’s paladins fought hard–the Kennedy Records Board could hardly get the agency to admit there was such a thing as a “station.” Ultimately Langley conceded the existence of several individual ones but burped at admitting the whole.

In 2017 such issues are moot. What are Langley’s concerns about documents originating in the 1990s? Those are the papers that concern CIA’s dealings with the Kennedy Assassination Records Board. The documents show that the agency’s Office of General Counsel initially advised CIA components that they had a statutory responsibility to produce a wide range of records to the Board, which would decide what to open or keep secret. Langley’s fiefdoms, especially the Directorate of Operations balked. Soon the CIA lawyers, gunslingers, were narrowing the scope of their cooperation with a Board that had lawful access to those records. During the later phase of this scorched document policy Langley’s point man in its fight with the Kennedy Board was none other that Robert J. Eatinger, who has recently acquired notoriety in the CIA torture scandal. Eatinger, whose name reportedly was mentioned more than 1,600 times in the Senate torture report, was the person who attempted to get the Justice Department to investigate the Senate for secrecy violations, and who supervised CIA’s countersurveillance operation against the Senate’s own investigators of Langley’s torture program.(Read more about Eatinger in my book The Ghosts of Langley.)

Basic regulation of the secrecy system in the United States is accomplished by presidential regulation. The current authority here is Executive Order 13526 of December 2009. Only a few categories of information qualify for secrecy protection. These include intelligence activities, sources or methods; and cryptography. Information can only be considered for classification if “unauthorized disclosure could reasonable be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to the national security” of the United States. Moreover, no information can be kept secret for the purpose of avoiding embarrassment to an agency or concealing illegal activity. The CIA’s dealings with the Kennedy Board fall precisely into that category.

It is not national security Langley seeks to protect. In 2017 the CIA wants to hide the extent to which it disputed the mandate of a lawfully constituted national board that had the power to open secret records. Plus there is the direct connection, in the person of Robert Eatinger, between that series of events and Langley’s struggle to suppress the Senate torture investigation. These are not security issues, they are fundamentally political. You cannot find national security grounds to justify this secrecy. The Big Bad Wolf of final declassification is barking at the door and the CIA is donning the costume of national security anyway, thinking everyone will fall into line. Don’t be fooled.

 

John Kelly Update

October 22, 2017–John Kelly, the man who forgot his station, abandoning it so as to enlarge the circle of dereliction surrounding Donald J. Trump, has imitated his boss, disappearing from view instead of apologizing to the congresswoman he slandered. Almost needless to say, the White House spokesperson followed up by representing any questioning of Kelly’s outrage as something highly inappropriate. The Trump White House plays politics while pretending it is above challenge. That is not admissible. Here is a short pause to expand on my post on Friday.

Kelly harked back to a childhood when certain things were sacred. Women were “looked upon with great honor.” Ironic today, amid a flood of revelations of powerful men abusing their stations to harass women. And guess what? One of the first, most embarrassing instances occurred when a videotape showed Donald J. Trump literally bragging about exploiting his status to chase women. That man is John Kelly’s boss. The general talked about Life, “the dignity of Life.” As Homeland Security secretary during the months before he went to the White House Kelly showed no dignity at all to the Muslims he sought to keep out of the United States or the Latinos he tried to eject from it. President Trump’s scrawny response to Puerto Rico’s torment by Hurricane Maria also betrays no sympathy for the dignity of Life. Religion? I wouldn’t be the first to say the only religion facing difficulties in America today is Muslim. Gold Star families? It was Donald Trump–again–who picked a fight with the family of Khizr Khan who, like General Kelly, had lost an officer son to the wars of today. Suffice it to say that Donald Trump, the boss, has been battering practically all the things General Kelly laments losing. Yet he joins Trump in heaping opprobrium on an elected representative of the people who simply reflected the hurt felt by a soldier’s wife when the commander-in-chief called–only when prompted by public questioning of his lack of a response to loss–with hard-hearted “condolences.”

One more thing–what was missing from General Kelly’s lamentation? Truth–palpably, since Kelly not only prevaricated about Representative Wilson’s remarks at a 2015 event but insinuated he had been there when he had not. Justice.  –There is no justice at the Trump White House. The American Way–which is not the province of Mr. Trump’s nativist base. Apparently Truth, Justice, and the American Way are not worth lamenting. As I say, the circle of dereliction is widening each day.

Trump White House : Circle of Dereliction Widens

October 20, 2017–John F. Kelly’s tears are real in one sense, but they are also those of a crocodile. Kelly lost a son in the current wars and remained notably reluctant to talk about it–until President Donald J. Trump dragged his chief of staff into yet another of those contrived public squabbles that have become the mainstay of his presidency. Suddenly Kelly is on the White House podium, asserting that President Barack Obama never telephoned him to express the nation’s regrets, extoll Mr. Trump, and condemn Representative Frederica S. Wilson (D-FL) as being “that empty a barrel” as to think a president’s words worth repeating to the public, indeed for sitting in on Trump’s conversation with Myeshia Johnson (whose Ranger husband, Sergeant La David T. Jackson, had been killed in an ambush in Niger), and for breaking the “confidentiality” of the president’s words. Make no mistake about it–this was a political attack.

First off, General Kelly–for he is a general–as a military officer is responsible to civilian control of the armed forces. Congresswoman Wilson represents that civilian control. Kelly multiplied his disrespect in calling her an “empty barrel.” Representative Wilson faced a segment of the American people to be elected. John Kelly has no constituency beyond five officers on a promotion board.

Second, the congresswoman was riding in a car with Mrs Johnson when the president phoned up. The fact Wilson was present when Mr. Trump called had nothing to do with her. Plus Kelly was present with the president when this conversation took place. If it was wrong for Representative Wilson to be there, what do you say for General Kelly?

Third, there was no breach in repeating the president’s words. That is made up from whole cloth. Mr. Trump’s conversations are not–and have never been–secret just because he participated in them. That is the same spurious claim Trump is trying to make for his firing of FBI director James Comey, and identical to the ridiculous position Attorney General Jeff Sessions took at an oversight hearing yesterday. The business of government will grind to a halt if this attitude toward information continues. The president’s words are secret–classified or more–when he speaks of specific national security subjects in council. The secrecy depends on the information, not who said it. The Trump White House’s effort to cloak every aspect of its operations in secrecy will, without doubt, lead to deeper abuses.

All of this was by way of defending Mr. Trump for yet another disastrous performance. He said nothing about the soldiers lost in this African ambush for nearly two weeks. Questioned about it, Trump suggested he had already talked to the families of the deceased–when he had not–and drew a contrast with previous presidents, who he asserted had never done so, then asserted they had rarely done so, then that they may or may not have done so and he was saying only what people had told him. After that is when he got around to calling poor Mrs Johnson, whose name he did not know, nor the name of her husband the soldier man–and his remorse is to say that Sergeant Jackson had known what he was signing up for. That is what John Kelly is defending, and he is doing it by attacking a member of a co-equal branch of government.

On several occasions here we have explored how General H. R. McMaster, who accused the military under a previous president for dereliction of duty–in the United States military a court martial offense–is doing the same thing as Donald Trump’s national security adviser. John Kelly has now joined this crew. These men seem to have forgotten their oath is sworn to the Constitution, not to a man (Trump himself seems equally unaware of this). They function an enablers. You would be right to have a bad feeling about this.

Trump’s Illusion of Victory

October 9, 2017–Victory in Vietnam was an illusion but think–how bad will it be if a national leader feels he must exhibit a “victory” in order to show who is in charge. The last few days I’ve been pondering the wrongheadedness of President Trump’s calling out his secretary of state for attempting a diplomatic solution to the North Korea business, and labeling Rex Tillerson as short on “toughness,” as if the nation’s top diplomat is supposed to be an advocate for war. Back in Vietnam days, Dean Rusk was a supporter of force. In fact, Rusk’s falling off the wagon in early 1968 and giving Lyndon Johnson advice to halt the bombing of North Vietnam except in the panhandle area was a key passage in LBJ’s reluctant choice to give up his pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination to do precisely what Rusk had advised. In general Rusk’s posture had already led to needless delay and obstacles in starting talks about the war.

The situation today is the reverse. While a formal state of war continues with North Korea (because no “peace treaty” ever followed the 1953 ceasefire that terminated hostilities) there is no active conflict. There is no excuse for Kim Jong Un’s posturing, but neither is there for Donald Trump’s bluster. I’ve written here before of Trump’s rhetoric painting himself into a corner the only escape from which is to use force, and this week’s events look like Trump is pushing nearer the precipice. And all this only makes sense if the guy thinks he’s in a contest to show who has bigger hands.

If Trump blasts North Korea the “victory” will prove just as elusive as that alleged in Vietnam. Many South Koreans may be killed as an immediate consequence of the North’s instant response of artillery attacks. Millions of Koreans and American residents of Korea will perish from the radiation and fallout of the nuclear weapons needed to assure the destruction of the North Korean nuclear forces. Americans on Guam may die from a North Korean retaliation. There is a danger of nuclear winter (think of tripling climate change effects in just one or two years). Millions of Japanese will be threatened by surviving North Korean nuclear forces. Any surviving North Korean citizens will become blood enemies of the United States, and you can be assured will strike us the moment they obtain the means to do so–no matter who may lead America then or what their policies may be. The United States will be branded as an aggressor nation. The U.S. Congress will have relinquished its constitutional war power in an unmistakable way. And this is all about Donald Trump’s hands? This victory would be an illusion.

Trump’s Shiny Objects

September 24, 2017–Another day, another outrageous remark from our president. This time it’s Trump in Alabama, stumping for a candidate but pausing for an aside where he fantasizes that football teams should fire players who show “disrespect”–in this case clearly a jab at former San Francisco 49-er quarterback Colin Kaepernick. For the record Kaepernick, in kneeling when the National Anthem was played before a game, was exercising his First Amendment right to draw attention to serious abuses–racially tinged due process. The Donald may not believe it but an act like that–at real cost to Mr. Kaepernick–was in truth courageous and profoundly respectful of the Constitution. Ironically Trump’s attack is forcing NFL team owners and the league’s commissioner to come on the record in support of Kaepernick, whom they have been ostracizing. Many more players will be taking to their knees in short order. Thus does it work in Trump-land.

Mr. Trump tootles on, throwing infuriating comments out, right and left and on twitter. As pointed out here, he’s done the same in foreign affairs, where the president’s mouth, believe it or not, has been a significant driver in stoking to near white hot a full-fledged crisis with the Democratic Republic of Korea. No wonder chief of staff Kelly holds his head in his hands when Trump speaks.

I just want to propose a thought for the day: aside from what it accomplishes, Trump’s bombast multiplies his enemies. As he crosses lines sacred to his “base” he will also cut away elements of his support. One day Mr. Trump will wake up with no support left at all. Americans will be left to patch up relations with nations across the globe who’ve been hurt by this president’s off-hand imperiousness.

Donald the Menace

September 20, 2017–Forget Dennis. For one thing, he’s an innocent. The Donald is not. Trump’s got nuclear missiles and aircraft carriers and Special Forces to back him up. The only real question is whether Mr. Trump is as full of hate as his rhetoric, or whether all the sound and fury signifies nothing. I predicted in this space a week ago that, with the United Nations General Assembly coming up, we’d hear again from Kim Jong-un. Sure enough, two days later the North Koreans held another missile test. Then, at the UN yesterday, President Trump was fire and brimstone, hurling thunderbolts of biblical language that no doubt stunned the world’s assembled diplomats. Donald Trump says he will wipe North Korea off the face of the globe, that “Rocket Man” Jong is on a “suicide mission.”

Remember all those pundits who assiduously predicted that, once become president, the rigors of the office would temper Donald Trump? Wishful thinking. How about the line that “grown ups” like Reince Priebus would hold Trump to a standard of behavior? Laughable. And the felicitous impact of the John Kelly-James Mattis-H. L. McMaster crowd? Nil. Kelly may have injected a modicum of discipline into the president’s office schedule, but he’s had little discernible effect on the president’s spewing of invective and the consequent careening of American foreign policy. The State Department is adrift, stupidly paring way back the roster of diplomats it sends to the General Assembly each year, people who could have tried to take some of the edge off Trump’s harshness. The Pentagon is upstaged, with General Mattis asserting the U.S. has force options other that all-out attack, only to be outbid by Trump’s seven no-trump threats.

Very serious dereliction of duty is underway at the White House. Intellectually disingenuous–McMaster crafted a contrived argument to accuse the Vietnam-era Joint Chiefs of Staff of not giving their honest opinion to Lyndon Johnson (they did)–on the NSC staff himself General McMaster is guilty of precisely the same currying of presidential favor. Anyone who thinks McMaster a grown up trying to rein back the president should think again. It is dereliction of duty for the general not to tell the president that unleashing war on North Korea will be a disaster for the United States. The general is an enabler.

Here Trump wants to cross the war threshold not to counter aggression but simply because North Korea tests weapons and its leader–like Trump–indulges in fervid and hostile language. I am pleased to see that columnist Fred Kaplan has picked up my “launch-upon-test” criticism as an illustration of the thoughtless so-called “policy” involved here, but the truth is that U.S. government is rolling over and playing dead on the constitutional war powers issue–Trump is in effect arguing that he can launch offensive nuclear war on his presidential authority without reference to Congress, which possesses all war powers under Article I of the United States Constitution. Our elected representatives don’t seem to be grown ups–and certainly aren’t playing them on TV. The country continues full steam ahead into uncharted waters. Take care!

Isn’t the Korea “Crisis” Odd?

September 14, 2017–Most Americans have spent, perhaps two weeks or more now, practically glued to screens of one sort or another, following the latest developments in the natural disasters–hurricanes, not national security crises–that have befallen our country. During this time the North Korea “crisis” somehow disappeared. Even more striking, the recent North Korean nuclear test took place during the short interval between the end of Hurricane Harvey and the onset of Irma. How ’bout that? It’s evidence that the North Korean affair is being played as a political action. That, in turn, suggests that Kim Jong-un pitches his rhetoric for moments suitable to attracting attention. Readers of this space will know I have expressed concern about a nuclear war begun by the United States as a “launch upon test,” or even a “launch upon speech.” How sad it will be if a huge cataclysm results from a “crisis” that was a deception in the first place. With this year’s United Nations General Assembly session coming up, you should expect to see a next step in the North Korea affair very shortly. Donald Trump would probably think it worthwhile if he can manage to get our eyes off the Russian Caper.

Got the Pyongyang Blues Again

September 8, 2017–There is a troubling quality to the way this North Korea crisis is ballooning before our eyes. Kim Jong Un’s armaments program is not a phony issue, but neither was the Pakistani nuclear program, the Indian one, the Israeli or, for that matter, the Chinese or French. But, with the exception of the Pakistanis, with whom a few hotheads indulged in fantasies of SOF raids; and the Chinese, made the object of higher-level but equally unrealistic maunderings; no one has threatened anyone conducting weapons development with nuclear war. Those who are analogizing the North Korea matter to the Cuban missile crisis are pouring accelerant onto the pile and playing with matches. The Cuban crisis involved real nuclear-tipped missiles, not hypothetical (that is, technology currently still in R&D) ones, and reliable systems that without doubt put the United States in the crosshairs. The North Korean threat exists mostly in the rhetoric of Pyongyang’s ruler.

As if that were not bad enough, people who should know better are speaking of pre-emptive attack as a rational way out of this morass. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, apart from its many other defects, had the deplorable aspect of suggesting that pre-emption is an admissible form of war. In the bad old days of theorizing about nuclear conflict, analysts conceived pre-emption as a means of blunting the adversary’s nuclear attack by launching upon warning, but in those concepts the war was underway and the pre-emption effectively preserved forces. In its most urgent form this tactic was described as “launch-under-attack.” What we’re hearing today is people talking seriously about “launch-upon-test,” or “launch-upon-speech.” What we’re hearing is ridiculous.

One woman’s pre-emption is another person’s aggression. At Nuremberg an allied world sent people to the gallows for waging aggressive war. The United States helped create the framework of international law that criminalizes aggression. Today there exists an International Criminal Court that could sit in judgment of aggressors. A United States act of force against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would invite that kind of treatment. Moreover, taken together with Bush administration action against Iraq, it would brand the U.S. as a repeat offender. This is no place for us to be.

Just as bad, a pre-emption against the DPRK invokes the issue of war powers in U.S. law. I hate to add to the pile of things which Congress hasn’t done, but the muddled constitutional issue of authorization for war should be high on the list. The Constitution gives the Congress the sole power to declare war. Consider this: if Donald Trump launches a pre-emptive attack on North Korea he will be making war, aggressive war–and if he uses nuclear weapons he will be breaking a taboo that has existed since the one time the nuclear threshold was breached–and that will be without any approval from the body with the constitutional authority for war. It will also be in the face of the War Powers Act. The way this is usually pitched in the U.S. is the president relies on his constitutional power as commander-in-chief of the military. So you can have an aggression, even a nuclear attack, unleashed without congressional approval, by a president with little skill or knowledge of foreign affairs, in “launch-upon-test” mode. What a mess!

Today’s papers contain more deplorable news. The New York Times actually discusses pre-emption as one of the possible remedies to the DPRK weapons program. But its casting of the action involves the idea that U.S. attackers would blow up single North Korean missiles on the launch pad, sort of like kicking over each ant hill as it is built. No doubt some dim official or military officer retailed that idea as an option for arresting the DPRK program. But how do you think Kim is going to respond when the DPRK is struck by force? When you’re speaking of military “practicality,” it is clear that the only feasible option is to simultaneously destroy all North Korean test facilities, all nuclear plants, command centers, air bases, potential weapons bunkers, and more. Since the DPRK’s missiles are road-mobile, the pre-emption would have to include total area destruction of all potential deployment zones for Kim’s missiles. The only way you accomplish that is with nuclear weapons. This is not “tank plinking” in the Gulf War it is massive aggression.

Not to be outdone, today’s Washington Post carries a piece by former CIA deputy director Michael Morell that argues the DPRK already has a functional intercontinental nuclear attack capability. He suggests that former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper, Jr. shares that view. Readers of this space will know we have long labeled Clapper the “Fearful Leader” for his propensity to maximize the perceptible threat. He may be hedging against the CIA being accused of an intelligence failure in the case of North Korea–I was asked just yesterday whether I thought such a failure has occurred. Morell correctly argues against a pre-emptive attack–but he comes out saying that pre-emption may lead to just what Americans want to avoid, a nuclear strike on a U.S. city. There are two points to be made about that statement–first, Morell is thinking of pre-emption as nuke-plinking (as above); second, he confirms our sketch of the “practical” pre-emption option. You can see why we have the Pyongyang Blues.

 

Painting the Corner on North Korea

September 4, 2017–Not long ago I wrote about Donald J. Trump painting himself into a corner on North Korea, into a place where he cannot exit without unleashing the dogs of war. Kim Jong Un’s nuclear test has led our president into issuing yet more dark threats. I’m not going to take up your time this Labor Day with some extended commentary on this idiocy, but I will make a few points:

First, you have to suspect our top people have forgotten–or chosen to ignore–longstanding practice in the military and intelligence business. In engineering development it used to be that our missiles were not considered “ready” until each system had performed to perfection twenty times. Even our intel people, hedging against threats, waited until an adversary missile system had toted up ten successes before considering it had reached “Initial Operating Capability.” Up to now there appear to have been five long-range missile shots from North Korea, three of them partial failures.

Put aside the question of whether Pyongyang is progressing faster, slower, or as expected by U.S. intelligence–something no one will know until the secret estimates are made public, the concrete evidence does not indicate a current global threat from North Korea. The North Korean claims to a hydrogen bomb have the feel of a deception, with a staged photo op and a missile nosecone cowling in the picture to suggest successful weaponization, but a yield the scientists will shortly tell us was only in the moderate kiloton range.

Second, as I’ve written here before, there is no international law or other standard that justifies use of force against a nation for simple weapons development. Indeed, in the 1960s the Soviet Union considered pre-emption against the People’s Republic of China for its nuclear weapons program, and the jury is still out on real (but ambiguous) evidence the Soviets and/or U.S. each considered enlisted the other in the same enterprise. In the U.S. in the early 1950s there were also those who counseled a pre-emptive attack against the developing Soviet atomic capability. Fortunately wiser heads prevailed in every one of those cases.

The military minds that surround President Trump have been counted on to restrain his cruder impulses, but like H. R. McMaster, have often aligned with him instead. Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy used to talk about the “effectiveness trap”–the idea that your options are to stay with the president no matter how irrational he may be, in hopes of accomplishing the kind of restraint necessary here, or resigning in protest to sandbag a president with political concerns. Those considerations stopped many Vietnam war-era officials from doing the right thing. The effectiveness trap is functioning again right here. The supposedly wiser heads have done nothing to prevent Mr. Trump from painting over the actual corner on which he’s been standing.

Red-Handed in Afghanistan

August 31, 2017–Turns out the Afghan reality is even more somber than portrayed here the other day (“Trump’s Afghanistan Strategy,” August 26). The Pentagon has just admitted fibbing–it was a lie all along that only 8,400 United States troops are in Afghanistan. That number avoided counting Special Operations Forces (SOF)–now being put at “over 2,000” among a total contingent of around 11,000. –Sounds like some fudging still going on even now!

There are two points to make here. First, at this putative force level, SOF in Afghanistan constitute a larger proportion of the U.S. contingent there than even at the height of the war. And, unlike the trainers, the SOF are participating in operations, right at the edge of or even in combat. That means commitment and skill in combat is higher than earlier thought. As I discussed at some length in my book The U.S. Special Forces: What Everyone Needs to Know, the SOF had evolved tactics specially aimed at producing fresh intelligence and striking the enemy leadership. The second notable item is that the United States and its Afghan allies have been losing even with the higher troop numbers and enhanced SOF strike capabilities.

This reinforces the basic argument from before: this commitment is a throw-away. Despite Trump’s “attack we will” rhetoric, not only is there no prospect of a U.S. offensive, there is little possibility of anything other than continuation of the current adverse trends in the war. Watch and see.