CIA Bamboozles Congress–Again

March 5, 2014– You read it here first! I’ve commented repeatedly in this space on the enormous gaps in, and frailty of, congressional “oversight” of U.S. intelligence. The point has been made repeatedly in my coverage of the National Security Agency scandal but it also appears in pieces I’ve posted about the CIA. Now we’re back in the soup again. The McClatchy News Service first reported, and today’s New York Times confirms, that the CIA, far from acquiescing in the legal right of Congress to oversee the agency, has been spying on Congress.

A month ago a fairly extensive analysis appeared here (“Should We Depend on Intelligence Oversight,” February 1, 2014) on the byplay between the agency and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence regarding the committee’s investigation of the CIA torture program and its black sites. That column discussed how the agency was sitting on the Senate report, refusing to send it back for public release, because CIA careers and rice bowls are on the line. The new Times report indicates the spooks went further than that–CIA officials hacked the computers which it, itself, insisted that Senate committee staffers use in examining the documents it provided to investigators. This attempt to find out how the Senate discovered internal CIA documents which contradict the agency’s official position (that the conclusions of the Senate inquiry are wrong) is a violation of criminal law.

Sources have confirmed that the agency’s Inspector General has conducted an investigation into this spying. The latest information is that the IG has referred suspects in the case to the Justice Department.

All of which is the very antithesis of the principle of oversight. Here we have the watchers spying on those whose charge is to monitor them. This new excess joins an already lengthy list of irregularities that I documented in my book The Family Jewels . “Chilling” barely covers the implications here.

On March 4 Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) wrote a letter to President Obama regarding the torture report’s release, alluding to the impropriety, and requesting that CIA be stripped of the authority to rule on declassification of the document. This is a follow-up to a letter back in January to which Obama never replied.

So guess what? We’ve been here before. The whole notion that an executive branch agency has the authority to regulate what information can be released by Congress is a product of the “Year of Intelligence,” the time of The Family Jewels. More specifically that custom arose from the dealings between the CIA, President Gerald Ford, and the House Select Committee on Intelligence chaired by New York Representative Otis G. Pike, who recently passed away (see “We Miss His Integrity Already,” January 22, 2014). It is a fiction.

So all can understand just what happened here let me relate that story. Pike’s committee had a broader writ than the Senate torture investigation. It was empowered to look into every aspect of U.S. intelligence. The CIA loathed the whole thing. On the other side of Capitol Hill a similar committee under Idaho Senator Frank Church was doing the same thing. Just as with the recent torture investigation the CIA laid down ground rules for what the inquisitors could see. It even drafted the texts of secrecy agreements congressional staff were supposed to sign before being granted access. Their actions were closely monitored by the White House. President Ford designated his counselor, John O. Marsh, to ride herd over the whole thing, backed by none other than Dick Cheney, then the deputy assistant to the president (his boss at the time was Donald Rumsfeld).

At Langley, CIA headquarters, there was early confidence that the agency could keep the lid on the investigations. But these gradually developed their own leads (the Church inquiry into assassinations, for example) and went in directions the agency feared. At a hearing on September 10, 1975, the Pike committee let out four words of a National Security Agency cable that was top secret. The Ford administration seized the opportunity to demand that the committee return all classified documents in its possession and refused to provide any further information. It did not matter that Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state, had given the same information to reporters already.

This maneuver led to a major crisis between the Congress and President Ford. Then, as now, the administration had its spies on Capitol Hill, in this case the Republican members of Pike’s committee. But the White House was aghast to discover that even their congressional allies agreed that the committee had the right to any information it required to fulfill its duty. At the White House Jack Marsh crafted an “action plan for the defense of the agency.” As a CIA lawyer observed on September 22, “The Action Plan is much broader than simply the confrontation . . . . It deals with the future in terms of Executive and congressional oversight.” The Pike committee insisted upon its prerogative to release any information it considered necessary. It began considering Contempt of Congress citations for officials. It subpoenaed documents.

Ford sought legal advice, in house, from the Department of Justice, and CIA did its own analysis. White House lawyers did not give him much comfort. In a September 23 memorandum the president was told that Congress might not have the power to declassify information, “but it has the power to publish the document in its possession.” The Attorney General advised that the president could withhold information–and Henry Kissinger demanded it–but as a political matter that represented the highest risk option.

The same day Pike Committee lawyers told their principals, “the CIA is a creature of Congress, created by statute of Congress . . . . In other words, notwithstanding that the agency is a member of the Executive Branch it is created by Congress. If the subpoena is defied it raises the spectre of Frankenstein. That is, an agency created by Congress, funded by Congress is set loose in the world without any ability of its creator to control its acts, let alone examine them.” Pike stood his ground.

A sort of negotiation ensued. Some of the subpoenas were flawed, being addressed improperly (to the National Security Council for State Department information, for example), but the Pike committee was properly constituted, had the power to do this, and could legitimately regard any less than full response as failure to comply. Finally the sides cobbled together an arrangement under which the CIA would “lend” its documents, and before releasing anything to the public, the Pike committee would “consult” with the president on whether there was any national security objection to their release. President Ford adopted the device of asserting executive privilege each time one of these issues came up.

There is much more. The crisis went on into January 1976. Pike sought a contempt citation against Kissinger. Ford suppressed the Pike Report itself. Significantly, the legal advice then was that the president might succeed with a national security claim but that this dispute between Executive and Congress might very well be held a “political question” by the courts, so Ford’s chances were no better than 50-50. The president instead took the course of lobbying the House to vote against releasing Pike’s report, and in that he succeeded.

It is significant that in the draft recommendations which Otis Pike sent to his committee members on December 19, 1975, he included the provision that “Each such committee [dealing in national security] should be authorized to recommend that specific classified facts and documents be made public . . . after . . . giving careful consideration to the judgment of the executive branch,” with the final determination to be made by senior House leaders. This did not survive into the final set of recommendations, which instead provided that “classification of information be the subject of the enactment of specific legislation.” Forty years later, Americans still lack that protection against malfeasance and abuse.

(Note: I shall tomorrow post the Pike draft recommendations as a Hot Document on this site.)

Bottom line? President Ford relied upon the power of executive privilege to keep the documents secret, not on national security per se. The Pike Report was spiked as a political act, not a matter of security classification. The Church Committee did, in fact, release its Assassinations Report over Ford’s objections. And Section 4 of Senate Resolution 400, passed in 1976 to create the Senate Intelligence Committee, explicitly provides for the committee to declassify information, under a procedure similar to what appears in Pike’s draft recommendation.

The latitude Congress has given the Executive Branch in the release of national security information is a courtesy, not a matter of law. There is apparently some inkling of this within the Obama administration right now. The journalist Jason Leopold filed suit against the Department of Justice last September to compel the declassification of the 300-page executive summary of the Senate torture report. This past January the Department moved for a summary dismissal of the suit on the grounds that the Senate report is a “congressional record” and not an agency document.

The Central Intelligence Agency no longer deserves to be accorded courtesy in the matter of the Senate intelligence committee’s torture report. The Senate should simply release its investigative study. Forthwith.

 

 

Russia’s Crimea

March 5, 2014– Vladimir Putin is at it again. I’ve seen some analysts out there questioning his sanity. No matter. A better way to look at the present Crimean crisis is in terms of Russian history, in which the Crimea has been an on-again, off-again item of the agenda for centuries–since Peter the Great if memory serves me right. In the 19th Century Russia fought two wars with Turkey in which the Crimea figured, including one that featured British and French participation and the famously wrongheaded “Charge of the Light Brigade.” In the 20th Century Stalin deported Crimean ethnics to secure a more homogeneous population there. Crimea (Sevastopol) was the main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and the Soviets’ only warm water port.

That remained the case when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. A lengthy and pernicious negotiation followed in which Ukraine obtained recognition of its sovereignty over the land in exchange for a sort of “Imperial China” arrangement–the Russians keeping certain extraterritorial rights and getting  a Guantanamo Bay-like 50-year lease on the naval base.

The present crisis has all the earmarks of a maneuver from the naval base. The so-called “pro-Russian militia” are armed and equipped in such fashion that there is an overwhelming probability they are Russian naval infantry. A few days ago I told a friend that we should expect to see a Russian sea- and airlift of additional forces into Crimea and that appears to be underway as I write this. Russian naval vessels, we are told, have blocked off both sides of the Kerch straits–the only place where Russian territory abuts directly on the Crimea–and the logical point from which to send in heavy equipment. Numbers of Russian troops on the peninsula were quoted at 6,000 in the press a couple of days ago, consistent with the strength of naval infantry with the Black Sea Fleet, and 15,000 today, which suggests the buildup underway. (Under the lease agreement Russian weapons at Sevastopol were limited, which is why there needs to be a buildup for the “militia” to acquire tanks and artillery.) If you see pictures of Russian tanks and artillery in the Crimea you can be confident that this reinforcement is, in fact, taking place.

What distinguishes the current crisis from a Russian Bay of Pigs–the 1961 U.S. incursion into Cuba–is that Moscow can play on the sentiments of a large population of pro-Russian Ukrainians. Combined with the paucity of practical measures the West could take to sustain a Ukrainian resistance, that makes a Putin power move not insane but logical– if you postulate that Russia harbors real fears as to its security in the Ukraine, or if you assess that Moscow seeks to regain its former territories.

Secretary of state John Kerry is right to say Moscow’s move amounts to an antiquated–“19th Century” was the phrase he used–exercise in gunboat diplomacy.

It is a fair guess that Vladimir Putin considers the 1992 deal on the Ukraine a giveaway. The successor state to the Soviet Union was weak, the democratic forces strong across the entire former union. Since then Russia has regenerated much of its strength while the Ukraine remains marginal. As Moscow showed in Georgia a few years ago, it is quite willing to take military actions in the former socialist republics. But as in Georgia–and as Kerry seemed to allude with his remark–the era of high imperialism is over. Russia ultimately had to withdraw from Georgia. Whether Putin can sustain his Ukraine intervention remains an open question. But for my money the way forward is to reassure Moscow as to the security of its interests in the Crimea while helping the Ukrainian republic to regain its footing.

Tone-Deaf CIA Lawyer

March 1, 2014– Midway through his gossipy, score-settling memoir, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) acting general counsel John A. Rizzo drops the line that his boss of the mid-90s, director of central intelligence John Deutch, used to make remarkably tone-deaf public comments. It’s a charge you might very well want to apply to Rizzo himself. I wrote about the CIA lawyer at some length in my book The Family Jewels.

Back in the Deutch era, when the CIA was caught misleading Congress by failing to reporting that agents in its employ had had a hand in torture and murder–including of American citizens in Guatemala–the CIA boss ordered a review of agency assets for others with blood on their hands. Among others, the Counterterrorist Center’s best spy had been involved in an attack in which Americans had been wounded (the intent had been to kill). CIA hired him later, when remorse led the man to change sides and supply them intel. The agency had never reported the man’s past to the Justice Department–as it is obliged to do–or to the congressional oversight committees. When it got around to doing so after the Guatemala affair this information promptly leaked to the New York Times. Agency officers warned the spy he might be outed and the man disappeared, never to be heard from again. Rizzo seems to want to say, and half-implies, that the spy’s former comrades did away with him. The CIA lawyer then condemns Times reporter Tim Weiner for going ahead with most of this story, and after that trounces him for not mentioning the affair in the book Weiner wrote later about the CIA. (Just parenthetically, Weiner’s CIA history basically stops much earlier than this 1990s episode.)

Fast forward to the drone war of today. John Rizzo was the CIA lawyer at the center of the agency’s “kill list” of people to be taken out by drones. Rizzo essentially bragged about his role to Newsweek reporters for a feature article that magazine published in February 2011. But when nominated for CIA general counsel, at Rizzo’s confirmation hearing he was much less forthcoming to the congressional overseers. And in his memoir Rizzo does not mention his role, or deal with the drone war at all–except to express the antiseptic opinion that he thinks drones are here to stay. Looks just like the offense of which he accuses the journalist.

This is a guy who wore a flaming pink polo shirt on a field visit to a CIA black prison, who finds nothing objectionable about the Justice Department “torture memos”–which he, in fact, solicited–and who shellacks the Bush White House for getting cold feet mid-course. The polo shirt incident led his CIA security man to ask sarcastically why he didn’t just paint a bull’s eye on his back. So who is tone-deaf here?

There is at least one CIA excess which Rizzo does find outrageous. That is agency operations chief Jose Rodriguez’s gambit in November 2005 to destroy videotapes documenting CIA torture at the black prisons. Rizzo recounts that he had never felt as upset and betrayed as he did the morning he found out about it. But Rodriguez’s maneuver was of a piece with countless things that John Rizzo spent a thirty-four year career justifying, and at times contriving.

Hot Document: The NSA’s Been Here Before

February 27, 2014–  Today I’m posting an extract from the White House paperwork on the last go-round in NSA surveillance scandals. That occurred in 1975, when it was revealed that the agency had been conducting warrantless wiretaps and, for decades, taking in all the cables sent abroad by the international communications carriers–yesterday’s equivalent of the cell phone traffic. It was the first time the National Security Agency had ever been required to testify before Congress. President Gerald R. Ford insisted that his staff go through the proposed testimony with a fine-tooth comb. The NSA’s director, at that time Air Force General Lew Allen, complied.

This “Hot Document” is available under “Products” in the “Downloadable” section of the website. The page you will see is the NSA’s proposed answer to the objection that it was conducting dragnet eavesdropping (in 1975 they called it “vacuum cleaner” surveillance). Note that the wording is pretty much identical to what you’ve been hearing from U.S. intelligence officials for nearly a year now. In three-and-a-half decades the NSA’s answer has not changed, nor has its dragnet eavesdropping. It’s also not different that government has maneuvered to minimize objections and controls. The thing that is different is that there is now a law that is supposed to prohibit this, which the Bush and Obama administrations have worked to neutralize.

Two Flavors of International Law

February 12, 2014–Director James Clapper is at it again, this time declaiming his gospel of hysteria to the Senate Armed Services Committee. But that’s for another time. Today I want to focus on law, a little bit domestic, mostly international. In the United States the Founders–those who hammered out the Constitution, most of whom had participated in the American Revolution–and their successors–giants of political philosophy, politics, and law–were fond of saying that America would be a land of individuals under law. There have been various elaborations on this theme–that no one is exempt from the law, that everyone is equal under the law, that the rights of minorities are protected by the law, that laws restrain both the actions of a despotic majority or of an overweening executive power, etc. Officials, from the president to the very spooks who have been of such concern recently, to the soldiers, to the lowest of federal magistrates, swear an oath to uphold the Constitution–the law–not the powers of their agencies, their bosses, or any other leader, including the president.

United States law acts in tandem with international law, and has done so from the very early days of this republic. The U.S. fought a quasi-war with France in the 1790s, and a real one with Britain from 1812 to 1814–which bicentenary the country is fitfully observing right now–to establish norms of international law. At the end of World War II the international trials of defeated enemy leaders and military commanders at Nuremberg, Tokyo and elsewhere were explicitly intended to enforce international norms against the conduct of aggressive war, conspiracy against peace, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, including the use of certain weapons.

International strictures include customary law and treaty law. Around that same time the International Court of Justice, created by Article 93 of the United Nations Charter, was established to enforce the law. Under the United States Constitution treaty law forms part of the law of the land and American officials have a legal obligation to enforce it. The ICJ has since been supplemented by juridical panels specifically intended to prosecute offenses in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, and a globe-ranging International Criminal Court for Nuremberg-type offenses. One of the most creative legal initiatives of recent years has been the increasing willingness of national courts, for example Chilean courts (against Augusto Pinochet, then in the United Kingdom) or Spanish courts (against a variety of human rights abusers) to move toward enforcement measures that may require action across borders.

At the same time it appears that the Great Powers have increasingly been moving in the opposite direction. The United States denied the jurisdiction of the ICJ in 1984, when Nicaragua sued the U.S. over the CIA-directed mining of its harbors. This was despite the fact the United States numbered among the original founders and supporters of the ICJ and the international law movement. The U.S. has since then resisted ratification of the treaty creating the International Criminal Court, which would have jurisdiction over such things as American unleashing of an aggressive war against Iraq or–dare we say it–conducting a drone war that kills numbers of individuals in countries with which no state of belligerency exists. When Italian and German courts indict CIA officers for criminal acts, Washington also acts as if it has no legal obligations. When the president of Ecuador was returning to his country following a state visit to Russia, the U.S. violated international conventions on diplomacy and air transit to make sure the Ecuadoran leader was not secretly harboring whistleblower Edward Snowden on his aircraft.

Meanwhile the United States relies on international law when it files suits, for example, with the World Trade Organization, over tariff discrimination, perceived unfair preference on exports or imports; the extradition of individuals for trail. Washington has denied foreign efforts to evade legal judgments, notably in the Pan Am 107 case, where an indemnity was levied against Libya. And the U.S. has passed laws that permit American authorities to pursue wanted suspects into foreign lands–in much the same fashion as Chilean or Spanish courts extending their tentacles across borders, except that in the U.S. case the federal government actually has capabilities to act. “Renditions” as we know them today began with actions to apprehend suspects abroad back in the 1990s.

To reframe the picture, the net result is that a Great Power insists on international law when this seems to its advantage and denies its application when this might work against it. This is not just the case with the United States. The latest example is the People’s Republic of China, which is demanding that Spain nullify the judgments of Spanish courts that have voted arrest warrants against former Chinese leaders for China’s actions in Tibet. If nations can be considered people–as we deem corporations to be people–then all people are not equal under the law.

This double standard ought not to be tolerated. Not only does it disadvantage lesser nations, it poses a threat to the progress of international norms in general. The most significant development in international law in the past three decades is the progressive enactment of laws securing human rights and their expansion in terms of coverage. Solidification of an international double standard on the application of norms can potentially halt or even reverse that evolution. The interests of peoples–and nations–everywhere (including the Great Powers themselves) lies in making sure that does not happen. Powers rise and decline. Today’s Great Power may tomorrow be just one of the pack. They will then wish there was a single standard for international law.

 

U.S. Intelligence Turned Inside Out

 

February 5, 2014– Is all this really happening? Maybe I should pinch my arm and try to wake up. But it’s not a dream–it’s a nightmare. United States foreign intelligence turning on Americans. This NSA eavesdropping scandal has created such distortions that, at some point, you begin to wonder whether the entire system is compromised. Government responses to the scandal have gone so over the top that one suspects the foundations of the intelligence community may be cracking.

Let’s begin with the fundamental mission. As officials have reiterated ad infinitum since the Snowden revelations began, the purpose of U.S. intelligence is to discover and track foreign enemies. All the powers the NSA, CIA, and other agencies exercise are supposed to be aimed at that goal. The agencies operate in secrecy, on the dark side. But there moments when, for a brief time, they come into focus. The most important of these is the annual “threat assessment” hearings. Every year around this time the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the agency chiefs appear before the congressional intelligence committees to give the public a glimpse of their world view. The spy chiefs talk to the legislators but at the same time speak to the American people. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) are fora in which our agency bosses expounded on the Soviet threat, in the day; efforts to develop ballistic missiles around the world, nuclear proliferation, including the misguided and mistaken claims for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction; drug cartels and international crime syndicates, whatever the issues that have their hair on fire. Since 9/11 our intelligence chiefs have consistently represented the top threat as terrorism. Only last year did it drop to second place, with the threat of cyberwar given the pride of place. Now, suddenly, the NSA eavesdropping scandal has changed that.

Last week the DNI, General James R. Clapper, and his assembled brass, presented their annual threat assessment to the Senate committee. They did the same at the HPSCI yesterday. The two appearances cast a pall on the American intelligence enterprise. Our so-called experts now believe the leading threat is not foreign at all.

General Clapper told the Senate intelligence committee that a leading threat to the United States comes from whistleblowers. (Cue Edward Snowden.) Let’s parse that for a moment: Whistleblowers are employees of U.S. intelligence who become so concerned about the U.S. intelligence programs they see around them that they decide to destroy their careers by leaking to the public the abuses which exercise them. How to cope with that threat? You clamp down on U.S. intelligence. The snake eats its own tail. This is more than a security measure. The NSA, CIA and other agencies depend on smart analysts and operators, willing to go out on a limb to make sense of the welter of obscure and often contradictory information out there, and argue theses which bosses might think fanciful. Nothing could be better calculated to destroy the morale of the intelligence community than to represent its own officers, individually and collectively, as the main enemy.

I’ve written here repeatedly, as have others, on the chilling effect of eavesdropping on the public. Consider how chilling it must be for intelligence officers to be told they are a threat too.

There it is. Just to keep the ball in view, Clapper’s biggest threat this year remains cyberwar. But terrorism–the stated rationale for all that intrusive NSA eavesdropping–has fallen to fourth. Whistleblowers are a bigger threat to American security than terrorists. Of course, the reason whistleblowers pose a threat is the impact their disclosures may have on the powers of the intelligence community. Director Clapper and his minions are substituting the private, parochial interests of their agencies for the national security of the United States.

On the theme of flimsy congressional oversight, featured here several times, we can add that Senator Dianne Feinstein sat still for all this in her Senate committee. At HPSCI yesterday, Representative Mike Rogers did Feinstein one better. Clapper hardly needed to advance his dubious threat analysis. Rogers reached past him, trying to lead FBI director James B. Comey into an assertion that journalists who report the abuses revealed by whistleblowers are “fencing” stolen goods. What congressional oversight is even possible in this climate?

Rogers has, without evidence, accused Snowden repeatedly of being a Russian or Chinese spy, and last fall at a media gabfest with former spook Michael V. Hayden the two bantered about their desire to throttle the leaker. Edward Snowden got the message. Recently he told a German interviewer, in all seriousness, that he could not return to the United States because people want to kill him.

All this gives new meaning to aphorisms–always presented as an error–about shooting the messenger. Do not lose sight of the fact–and it is a fact–that the problem resides in the substance of U.S. intelligence programs, not in what Edward Snowden or anyone else says about them. That intrusive eavesdropping is revealed in the NSA’s own documents. Not only can the evidence not be disputed, it has been further confirmed in the additional documentation the U.S. government has declassified in the course of this controversy.

Should We Depend on Intelligence Oversight?

February 1, 2014– President Barack Obama and his intelligence chieftains, from Director James Clapper on down, tirelessly repeat that citizens should trust their claims that NSA eavesdropping and other controversial spy programs are perfectly acceptable because these are monitored by oversight committees of the Congress. I’ve commented in several places about the inadequacy of the congressional oversight–and the misleading administration claims regarding it. Today I extend my previous comments with a more extensive analysis, ranging back over the history of intelligence oversight, which is posted in the “Downloadable” section of this website. Take a look!

Obama : Syria/NSA = Eisenhower : Dien Bien Phu

January 29, 2014– This is about history, or more precisely what  presidents learn, or think they learn, from history to apply to their current headaches. Many of you will be familiar with the kinds of word associations that college entrance exams delight in confronting us with. Here I want to make an analogy between President Barack Obama’s present approach and one attributed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to argue that it is indeed possible to learn wrong things from history.

The episode from the Eisenhower years occurred in 1954. It was a Far Eastern crisis, one in Vietnam. In the last year of the French war there, our ally’s Expeditionary Corps trapped itself into a hopeless battle against a Vietnamese revolutionary army. Paris, aghast at the specter of defeat, appealed to President Eisenhower to save them. “Ike,” as he was familiarly known, was sorely tempted to intervene with air strikes in support of the French. If those did not work, he recognized that he would have to commit American ground troops.

Ultimately President Eisenhower did not intervene at Dien Bien Phu. I mention the crisis because of the similarity between actions Mr. Obama has taken recently to one explanation for Ike’s course in 1954. The conventional wisdom on Dien Bien Phu is that Ike worked with a “hidden hand” deliberately to avoid intervention by insisting that Congress approve the proposed action, safe in the knowledge that it would not do so. I happen to think that explanation is false. As I argue at length in my new e-book, Operation Vulture: America’s Dien Bien Phu, the president worked to further the intervention project far more assiduously than can be accounted for by an explanation which posits that he opposed this course. We shall see how that historical debate fares, but for our purposes in today’s posting it is the supposed historical lesson of the consensus–the desirability of “hidden hand” action–which frames the point.

Last summer and fall an extended debate raged in the United States over whether the U.S. should intervene militarily in Syria to support a popular uprising against the ruler of that land. Much as Mr. Eisenhower, at Dien Bien Phu, had been trapped by policies he had set and promises made to France; President Obama had been caught in his threats to retaliate against the Syrian government if it were found to be using chemical or biological weapons against its people. When evidence emerged the Syrian regime had done exactly that, Mr. Obama was on the hook. His response? Obama insisted that Congress approve the proposed intervention.

Much the same thing happened with regard to the Snowden revelations and the National Security Agency (NSA) scandal. That issue also emerged last summer. Mr. Obama’s first response was to solicit a national debate on the legal, constitutional, and privacy issues involved in the NSA’s eavesdropping. Privately he ordered intelligence agency chiefs to offer options that might make the dragnet more palatable, and appoint a blue ribbon commission to review the practice. Another review was carried out by an independent agency, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (see “Funny Name, Serious Business,” January 23, 2014).

We now know that President Obama approved of this domestic spying all along. As reported by journalist David Remnick in The New Yorker of January 27, Mr. Obama felt no ambivalence about this: “I actually feel confident that the way the NSA operates does not threaten the privacy and constitutional rights of Americans and that the laws that are in place are sound, and, because we’ve got three branches of government involved . . . it actually works pretty well.” Despite Obama’s feelings, last month his blue ribbon commission reported out a study starkly critical of the domestic spying and a federal judge ruled it probably unconstitutional. Three weeks ago the oversight board emerged with an even darker view (see “Independent Agency Study Trashes NSA Claims,” January 24, 2014). Obama’s response? On January 17 he gave a speech accepting the criticisms of the NSA spying, and proposing a number of reforms that he says should be enacted by Congress.

Last night President Obama presented his 2014 State of the Union address. Among its more important features was Mr. Obama’s lambasting of Congress for its inability to act on anything. The president promised to move forward on social issues by means of executive action if Congress will not cooperate. Of course the political gridlock on Capitol Hill has been evident for a long time, since before Mor. Obama took office, and Republican obstructionism became even more strident with him in the White House. Obama’s speech makes perfectly clear his awareness of this factor–and his willingness to proceed unilaterally. Why, then, on two critical issues–Syria intervention and NSA reform–insist that Congress move the ball forward?

One explanation, cynical but not unlikely, is that the president did not want anything to be done on these matters. This certainly concords with Mr. Obama’s expressed view on the NSA spying, and it is a good fit with his need to escape entrapment on his own laying down of “red lines” with the Syrians. Obama has been playing with Dwight Eisenhower’s “hidden hand” deck.

If Barack Obama drew these lessons from history, they are the wrong ones. Let’s go back to Dien Bien Phu, and Vietnam. The hidden hand approach neglects consequences. After Dien Bien Phu these tactics left Eisenhower with no alternative but to support a South Vietnamese government that progressively embroiled the United States in a war. By not addressing policies the tactics put the U.S. on a track from which there was no escape, except by doing the very thing Ike’s supposed course sought to avoid. At the same time, because the hand is hidden a president builds little constituency for his actions. The effect is thus inherently limited. It is distressing that history can offer the wrong lessons and be invoked in support of dubious courses of action.

We Miss His Integrity Already

January 22, 2014– It was sad to wake up yesterday to the news of the passing of former New York democratic congressman Otis G. Pike. During the fierce debates of 1975, known as the “Year of Intelligence” because the controversies of the day led to the first significant investigations of the actions of U.S. intelligence agencies, Representative Pike held to a steady course in the face of a concerted effort by the Ford administration–and the CIA, NSA, and FBI of that day–to head off any public inquiry. Like the current controversy ignited by leaks from NSA contract employee Edward Snowden, the Year of Intelligence began with revelations of U.S. intelligence spying on American citizens (see my book The Family Jewels). In contrast to the deferential chiefs of the congressional intelligence committees today–Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Mike Rogers–Congressman Pike was in nobody’s pocket and he persevered to the end.

The House of Representatives intelligence investigation of 1975 began under another congressman, Lucien N. Nedzi, who left under fire when it came out that he had collaborated with the CIA–much as current committee chairpersons have with the NSA–in concealing the record of agency abuses embodied in a document that CIA wags of the day had dubbed the “Family Jewels.” The House selected Representative Pike to lead a fresh inquiry. Pike had to start over from square one.

The Pike committee investigation is far less known than the one the Senate conducted under Frank Church. In part that is because his report was suppressed–President Ford lobbied Congress hard to avoid its disclosure, including sending a letter to House members and personally telephoning key figures to nail down votes against releasing the document. But Pike also faced major obstacles. Where the CIA, however reluctantly, permitted Church committee investigators to view some of its materials–ones the Ford White House vetted–its approach with the Pike committee was different. Representative Pike refused to accept the procedures the White House and CIA had designed to limit access for the investigators. The agency countered by refusing to supply Pike with any materials at all, on the excuse his committee could not protect classified information. There was more. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger refused to appear when called to testify, and resisted a subpoena once the House voted that. Some accommodations were made, but executive-legislative cooperation in the case of the Pike investigation would be minimal. And then President Ford intervened to suppress the Pike report. Portions of it promptly leaked. Although the public has never seen the complete report, it is clear from the leaked material that Congressman Pike, despite having half the time the Church committee enjoyed (insufficient in their case too, by the way), and in the face of executive branch obstruction of its inquiry, succeeded in getting to the bottom of several key intelligence questions. Otis Pike’s leadership–and his integrity in resisting White House and CIA maneuvers to affect information–were keys to this achievement.

Congress today would benefit from integrity like Otis Pike’s. The present  intelligence committees seem intent on avoiding issues, not engaging them. Not only is this apparent in their diffident approach to the NSA scandal, it is visible in the Senate committee’s failure to call out the CIA on its effort to stonewall the deep inquiry which the committee majority spent several years assembling on the CIA rendition and torture programs. Otis Pike (1921-2014) would not have let the spooks get away with such shenanigans.

When Does Reform Happen?

Someone said to me that lots of folks talk about reforming the surveillance and secrecy systems and wanted to know when will change actually come. That’s a tough question obviously. It’s our problem–a public problem. Almost every day there’s news of yet another abuse that has been occurring, or more detail on things which have been going on all along. Only public pressure is going to bring reform. It’s up to all of us to make the system respond to its citizens. In my book The Family Jewels I suggest one possible avenue to enforce accountability. Take a look. There are many ways we could go but our important concern should be to build the base of support for key changes, starting with an end to intrusive eavesdropping.