Who IS that Masked Man?

November 24, 2017–Donald J. Trump continues to inspire caricature even as we struggle to describe and understand him. Stuffed with turkey and pie as I am–and I understand Mr. Trump yesterday did not manage more than to hand out sandwiches–I don’t believe I could come up with a fresh description today. But I found this recently, and it works very well: “He was nervous, high-strung, and mercurial. Caught up in the excitement of the moment, he would threaten and posture, playing the warlord who would lead his nation into battle; later he would take it all back. Military and civilian officials who worked with him learned never to rely on the decisions he announced off the cuff; there had been too many false alarms.

“The accounts . . . show an undisciplined and inconsistent figure, on the childish side, emotionally taut, often on the verge of breakdown, broadly ignorant but with no hesitation about making unqualified announcements about any number of matters about which he knew nothing. Egotistical and inclined to megalomania, he often spoke and even acted as if he were an absolute ruler.” Sound like Donald Trump? Yes. But–that was the late, great historian David Fromkin, writing about Kaiser Wilhelm II before World War I. Yet Wilhelm had been a breach birth, physically crippled by the loss of one arm, with observers speculating he had suffered brain damage from loss of oxygen during that precarious birthing. There has to be a different explanation for Donald Trump.

For more on the troubles U.S. intelligence agencies face in the Age of Trump read Ghosts of Langley, my book on how the CIA broke free of accountability.

CIA Gunslinger: Bob Eatinger Learned His Tricks Early

November 7, 2017–Mentioned here in passing ten days ago, CIA lawyer Robert J. Eatinger, Jr. has been at the heart of agency business for a very long time. It looks as if Eatinger learned his tricks very early. The counselor, for those who are unaware, figured as a major figure within the CIA Counterterrorist Center in the 2005 destruction of the notorious videotapes documenting the torture of captives held by the agency. As the CIA’s acting general counsel from 2009 on he rode herd on the CIA’s response to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s (SSCI) investigation of the agency’s detainee interrogation program, with which he had been intimately familiar at the time as a Counterterrorist Center lawyer. In fact the SSCI chairwoman has said on the floor of the Senate that Mr. Eatinger’s name appears in her committee’s investigative report more than 1,600 times. You can read much more about him in my book The Ghosts of Langley.

Late in 2013, with the CIA actively dragging its feet on declassifying the SSCI report, Counsellor Eatinger spoke at an American Bar Association panel meeting on national security law. “Because you can do it,” Eatinger declared, doesn’t mean you should . . . That’s what we spend our time defining to the director.” Sounds quite responsible. But less than two months later, as detailed in The Ghosts of Langley Mr. Eatinger was telling the director that the CIA would be obstructing justice if it did not recommend the Justice Department investigate the Senate Intelligence Committee on criminal charges of espionage–this after Eatinger’s CIA monitors of the Senate investigation had been caught hacking into SSCI computers.

In 2009 Robert Eatinger, along with the CIA’s then-acting general counsel and another agency lawyer, figured in another legal disaster, a suit in which a former Drug Enforcement Agency operative accused the CIA of eavesdropping. Federal judge Royce C. Lambeth found that the agency lawyers, Eatinger among them, had withheld evidence about the CIA officer involved. The plaintiff walked away with a $3 million settlement.

Now, the release of formerly secret records related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy reveals a new side to Bob Eatinger. The lawyer had gone to work at the CIA Office of General Counsel (OGC) in September 1991. Not long afterwards the Oliver Stone movie JFK garnered so much attention for its controversial charges of conspiracies against the president that Congress passed–and President George H. W. Bush signed–a law empowering a blue ribbon Assassination Records Review Board to examine and make its own decisions on the declassification and release of documents relating in any way to Kennedy’s murder.

Then-CIA director Robert Gates approved a policy of full responsiveness to the Records Board investigators. The inquiry turned into the widest review of CIA covert operations until the SSCI torture inquiry. The CIA made Robert Eatinger its point man on all matters related to the Kennedy Records Board. The attorney’s first excursion into the rarified world of the assassination records came when he issued OGC policy guidance for agency employees considering appeals to the Records Board to preserve the secrecy of documents. The December 14, 1992 instruction found that the law had been tightly constructed and required Langley’s cooperation. Spooks had to apply a balancing test even before developing arguments why a document could be kept secret. There were pretty tightly circumscribed grounds for the appeal to secrecy.

After that promising beginning the secrecy mavens at Langley walked it all back. The CIA successively interposed more and more objections. –To searching certain categories of records, to revealing the names of agents or even agency officers, to admitting that the CIA has “stations” in foreign countries, to releasing basic data on agency organization, to admitting there had been telephone taps and photographic monitoring of the Russian and Cuban embassies in Mexico City, to giving up histories of the Mexico City station and the one in Miami, to documents in the files on Lee Harvey Oswald and Yuri Nosenko, more. Bob Eatinger absorbed the coloration of the CIA footdraggers. In April 1993 the lead attorney recommended options for excluding records of CIA brass wrangling with Kennedy assassination matters that the agency had been ordered to give up in a lawsuit. In May 1993 Eatinger recommended that Langley withhold from the Records Board anything about specific Americans surveilled by the notorious Project MHCHAOS, which had aimed directly at Americans. In November 1993, when the Kennedy Board discovered that a Cuban exile leader, prosecuted in the late 60s, had actually been arrested by a man on the CIA payroll, the General Counsel’s office wanted advance word if the assassination investigators got near that fact. In January 1994 Eatinger advised CIA personnel to stonewall on MHCHAOS data for Americans abroad, extending his previous advice. In November 1995 Robert Eatinger would be reassigned as a line counselor for the agency operations directorate. By then, it looks like, he knew all the tricks.

What the CHICAGO TRIBUNE Case Means Today

October 25, 2017–Over at the website for the National Security Archive I am today posting an “electronic briefing book” that samples the grand jury records, now unsealed, of the Roosevelt administration’s 1942 attempt to prosecute the Chicago Tribune under the Espionage Act. In today’s superheated atmosphere where presidential acolytes and the president himself speak of pulling the licenses of broadcasting networks, or firing reporters who write what they don’t like, the Tribune case holds special meaning.

You can amble among the records at your leisure but here is a brief summary: In June 1942 the United States engaged Japan in a naval battle off Midway Island in the Pacific. Thanks to the efforts of U.S. Navy codebreakers (covered in my 1995 book Combined Fleet Decoded) the Americans knew the Japanese plan and their fleet organization. Admiral Chester Nimitz laid a trap for the adversary and, in the ensuing battle, the most important Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk. This ranks among the decisive battles of World War II. A Chicago Tribune reporter, Stanley Johnston, was on another Navy vessel returning from the South Pacific, and he saw information taken from a Nimitz message that named the Japanese warships and detailed their task organization. When Johnston arrived on the U.S. west coast he wrote the article the Tribune published. The newspaper’s editor disguised the source by datelining the piece “Washington,” and attributing it to “naval intelligence.” The Navy, furious, immediately began an investigation. President Roosevelt, who had once been a top Navy official and now enjoyed the benefit of the codebreakers’ work, wanted to go after both the journalist Johnston and the newspaper Chicago Tribune. The Justice Department prosecutor assigned to the case actually advised against proceeding. At the behest of FDR and Navy secretary Frank Knox, the attorney general forged ahead anyway. A grand jury was convened in Chicago. The case fell apart as predicted: journalist Johnston had not had a formal requirement to submit his articles to censorship, while the Chicago Tribune’s responsibility was to have censors look at material about U.S. forces, not Japanese ones. Further, the Espionage Act aimed at physical documents, not the information contained in them. The grand jury refused to indict.

In actuality the Tribune case was about what legal experts call “prior restraint”–whether government should have the power to determine what can be said in public discourse, and regulate that by suppressing information it does not like. These are hallmarks of dictatorships. In Nazi Germany a Propaganda Ministry decided what news the public could see and hear. In George Orwell’s 1984 the “Ministry of Truth” did the same thing. In America, the Constitution features a Bill of Rights and the very First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech. Those First Amendment rights were further confirmed in 1971 when the Nixon administration tried to enforce a prior restraint against the New York Times and Washington Post, which had begun printing their reporting on the Pentagon Papers.

Today we live in an era where too many, starting with the president, churn out “fake news.” Opinion polls show a disturbing percentage of Americans in favor of actions–like pulling broadcast licenses–that would ostensibly curb fake news. Of course, the problem is who decides what is fake? Only a Ministry of Truth. That is not admissible, yesterday, today or tomorrow. There is no substitute for a well-informed citizenry, and citizens have an obligation to decide for themselves what meaning lies in an issue. The desire not to make that effort, to rely upon potted news, is what opens the door to fakery. One thing that has, for the most part, disappeared from American schools is civics class. Schools used to teach the Constitution, and government, and rights. We equipped citizens for the challenges of interpreting the news around them. In my current book The Ghosts of Langley I write at length about abuses of the CIA torture program in the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Imagine if there had been a Ministry of Truth deciding what we could know about these outrages. Lets get those civics classes back!

 

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 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 prevaricated about Representative Wilson’s remarks at a 2015 event. 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. Johnson, 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 Johnson 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 as 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.