Ugly Image in Critic’s Mirror

June 15, 2014–Last week a very irate diatribe against Glenn Greenwald’s book on Edward Snowden and his leak appeared in the New York Times Book Review. From liberal columnist Michael Kinsley, I cringed as I read some of this–and I hoped it would go away. But I’ve seen yet more commentary on this very review since then, so now I think it’s become necessary to say something.

To set the context, Glenn Greenwald is the journalist who worked most closely with Edward Snowden. The latter gave his secret NSA material to Greenwald, filmmaker Laura Poitras, and a couple of other reporters, and they wrote and published the stories which brought the Snowden leak to the public. The book No Place to Hide is Greenwald’s account of his role, of Snowden the man, and his evaluation of the information Snowden has revealed. Much of Kinsley’s review is ad hominem. Greenwald is a “ruthless revolutionary,” Snowden a “political romantic.” The reviewer drags in Julian Assange of Wikileaks–completely uninvolved in this latest fracas–to call him a “narcissist.” Kinsley makes claims as to Greenwald’s procedures, and Snowden’s supposed goal of martyrdom. As an author myself I often confront the spectacle of a review that doesn’t go my way–and I respect the reviewer’s right to whatever opinion she or he may have reached. So I’m going to pass on the pyrotechnics of the Kinsley v Greenwald pie fight–except to say that it appears to me that Mr. Kinsley got himself so worked up over those aspects of his subject that he blinded himself to far more dangerous doctrines proposed in the course of his diatribe.

In the second paragraph of his review Kinsley jumps right in by asserting the world is complex, not simple, and that laws exist against both government eavesdropping on the American people as well as against leaking secret information. “You can’t just choose the laws you like and ignore the ones you don’t,” the reviewer wrote. The truth is, to quote Mr. Kinsley, “It’s not that simple.” It was  the government (of the people, by the people, and for the people) that first chose to break the law–and more than that, to obtain even more leeway by securing changes to the law, using false pretenses to reduce its vulnerability to criminal infraction.

The first question in “U.S. Government v Snowden,” as this controversy can readily be imagined, is which violation is greater, that of spy agencies trampling on the constitutional rights of all citizens while calling it protection–and legal to boot–or the infraction of the citizen who called out the government for its eavesdropping. Snowden has said, rightly, that he swore an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States, not any particular set of leaders or bosses. The president and all those other officials swore the same oath. The Nuremberg principles, which flowed from war crimes prosecutions after the Second World War, enshrined the proposition that carrying out the orders of a superior officer was no defense against a person’s commission or omission of actions that constitute crimes. Bottom line– the NSA and U.S. government actions are not so white, nor are Mr. Snowden’s acts so black, as Michael Kinsley would have us believe.

The central element in Kinsley’s indictment of Glenn Greenwald concerns the role of the press in publicizing Snowden’s leak. Here the reviewer lets the personal intrude on the institutional. Ask Michael Kinsley on any given Sunday his view of the Fourth Estate as a pillar of democracy and I’m sure he would say the right thing. But, unminded by his vision of Greenwald the revolutionary, here Kinsley writes “it seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies who own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets.”

In that alternate history timeline there is no purpose to a whistleblower, because only government decides what becomes known. There is also no democracy, for that exists only when a people have the knowledge to rein in their government.

Kinsley further writes that Mr. Greenwald, in citing evidence that the majority of citizens now agree on the oppressiveness of this eavesdropping, undermines his own argument. The ability to hold that opinion, the reviewer observes, shows that dissent has not been suppressed. But again, it’s not that simple. Citizens can hold the opinion they do because they learned of what the NSA is up to courtesy of the Snowden leak, brought to them by Greenwald and other journalists. Not Greenwald but Kinsley undermines his own argument.

Let us not forget that government, in the form of the NSA’s superior, Fearful Leader James R. Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, lied to the public, through Congress, when asked directly about this same information. Fearful Clapper did so with no compunction, invented some mumbo jumbo about mental distraction to pass off this serious dereliction of duty, and even took the BS to a higher level by sending out his top consigliere to make the same claim.

These are the people Michael Kinsley would have as the arbiters of what citizens are permitted to know. Kinsley’s imagined America is not our country, it is the land of 1984. If that were to be abetted by an emasculated press it would be a tragedy. Personally I don’t think Mr. Kinsley really wants what he appears to have been writing about.

No Rant on Iraq

June 13, 2014–Don’t succumb to the siren songs of temptresses on the latest Iraq debacle. This is a right wing screed propelled by a feel-good drive to think that something we did there was worthwhile. My time today is very limited but I want to say– remember how we got here.

First off, the United States did not “win” the Iraq war. There is nothing there which we achieved and we have no winnings to protect. Democracy in Iraq? The Maliki government is no more a democracy than that of Saddam Hussein. Maliki has spent his time in power seizing control of more levers of power and excluding ethnic and religious groups other than his own Shiites. Vice-presidents and senior officials of his own government have fled to evade trumped up criminal charges. Is it any wonder Sunnis and Kurds won’t fight for the Baghdad government?

Second, Maliki swore off U.S. aid. His refusal to enter into the status of forces agreement that Washington sought as we withdrew our main forces from Iraq was understandable from a nationalist point of view. But both the U.S. and Iraq understood that refusal meant the end of U.S. training for the Iraqi military. Maliki then undermined the Iraqi military by employing the same tactics he did with the political system as a whole. Maliki buttered his own bread. Intervention now does not prevent Iraqi WMD, any more than it did in 2003, and it does not preserve Iraqi democracy.

Next, Washington’s basic decision was made when President Obama rejected calls to intervene in Syria. The fighters threatening Iraq today have spilled across the border from Syria and represent an attempt to forge a confessional state that will take over that area. For that to happen the so-called ISIS group has to topple not just Mr. Maliki but the Hafez Asad regime as well. Intervention against ISIS in Iraq is actually the equivalent of helping Asad. Americans shouldn’t want to do that.

Military action in Iraq is the wrong intervention at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons.

The Phoenix Program and the Vietnam War

June 10, 2014–Back in print today is a book that, if you’re interested in the Phoenix Program, is a must read. During the Vietnam war Phoenix was a U.S. effort to aim directly at the leadership of the Vietnamese insurgency, what American officials called the “Viet Cong Infrastructure.” There have been few books that zeroed in directly on this subject, and of them, Douglas Valentine’s The Phoenix Program is the only book based on extensive interviews with Phoenix operatives. Indeed, the CIA, which furnished much of the staff for the program, tried to suppress this book when it was written in the 1980s.

You should read that story in my own work The Family Jewels. It is among the actions which show how the CIA, for its parochial purposes of the moment, has so thoroughly manipulated the standard rules for secrecy that it is not to be trusted as an honest broker in a legitimate process. In the case of the Valentine book the CIA used its Publications Review Board, which–as the name indicates–is an entity supposed to approve the writings of CIA employees, in an effort to prevent Valentine from obtaining information for his book.

This maneuver fails the smell test on at least two counts. First, Valentine was not an agency employee and its Review Board had no jurisdiction over him whatever. Second, the Board exists to approve written works and has no authority over speech. CIA officials exhorted colleagues to come to them if approached by Valentine, and congratulated those who did so. To give their intervention a patina of legality they encouraged employees to write down Valentine’s questions and the employees’ proposed answers–which could then be considered written materials that the Board could reject.

Just to add insult to injury, the CIA had initially assisted Valentine, with its personnel retiree section forwarding letters from him to former agency officers as he sought interviews. It was when one of the interviewees, unsure of which particular Phoenix-related issues were classified, asked the agency’s general counsel’s office, that the latter involved the Publications Review Board. From that moment forward CIA’s whole approach changed. In his initial note on the subject, by the way, the lawyer dealing with it acknowledged the CIA had no standing in the matter.

Doug Valentine eventually discovered that the CIA was actively dissuading its former employees from talking to him. At that point Valentine used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to request the agency release the documentation that covered how it had handled his case. The CIA denied the FOIA request.

Let me just emphasize that for a moment– there was a category of information about the Phoenix program that was secret and could be denied under FOIA. But Doug Valentine’s approaches to retirees for interviews were, by definition, not secret. Derivatively, talks inside CIA about how to deal with Valentine’s interviews were also not secret. But CIA rejected the FOIA on national security grounds. You can see why I talk about the agency’s parochial interest.

I first became acquainted with Valentine’s Phoenix program book when a publisher asked me to take a look at the draft manuscript. I saw immediately that it was a major advance in our knowledge. As it happened, in my own research I had taken a long look at French pacification methods during the French war. I knew things about that which I saw Valentine here relate. He was the only writer who had taken the trouble to include that.

Valentine’s text on the French did not survive into the published work, but it does serve as an example of the thoroughness of this book, which I commend to you. –And despite CIA’s obstacles, Douglas Valentine’s interviews yielded a plethora of material which permitted him to tell the Phoenix story in great detail. The National Security Archive was happy to accept the donation of his papers, which are available there to scholars. In the meantime you can read his e-book.


U.S. Intelligence Tied Up in Knots

June 8, 2014–Time for an update. I considered headlining with a question, “What Does Ruthenia Say to U.S. Intelligence?”–then the fanciful rejoinder, “You speak with forked tongue!”–but that was too facetious. I decided it’d be better to let the spooks get themselves into trouble directly. They’ve been very good about that lately, so good that you have to wonder what they are doing calling themselves “intelligence” agencies.

First let’s observe the antics of intelligence community top lawyer Robert S. Litt. The always entertaining consigliere to our spy chieftain, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper, Litt has been working both sides of the street lately. Late in April the nation, along with quire a few other countries, celebrated “Sunshine Week,” a occasion that marks efforts to reduce government secrecy, encourage openness, freedom of information, and the like. Eager to obtain some official pronouncement, sponsors invited intelligence officials. Under pressure to get out in front of the public relations disaster that has been the NSA eavesdropping scandal, Fearful Leader Clapper handed this assignment to his consigliere. Lawyer Litt appeared at American University’s law school on April 20. This was the consigliere attempting to charm his audience.

Part of Mr. Litt’s good cop routine was where he declaimed that “These leaks have forced the Intelligence Community to rethink our approach to transparency and secrecy. We have had to reassess how we strike the balance.” He claimed credit for the ODNI on the website “IC on the,” where the spooks have been posting pieces of legal filings and decisions they have long kept secret. He repeated what General Clapper had said elsewhere–the spooks would have taken less heat if they had only been forthright about their eavesdropping. He concluded with three “principal steps” to be taken: high-level attention to the problem of overclassification, efforts at “proactive transparency;” and, the need for a commitment “to look critically at all potentially responsive documents” that could be released.

It sounded pretty good if you didn’t know the spooks’ real status. Most important, the statement that openness would have trumped the NSA scandal is not open to judgment because the spooks were confidently saying nothing on the assumption that secrecy would protect them. Once the Snowden leaks began to put surveillance issues on the table the spooks still said nothing. Mr Litt took credit for the “on the record” website as if it were the spies being pro-active for openness whereas the truth is that President Barack Obama ordered Fearful Leader Clapper to set up that site and pack it with the NSA legal papers. Odds are that Clapper objected to releasing those documents until he saw he had no choice except to do so.

A different measure of proactive transparency is the content of the intelligence community website. In fact, it contains no document of any nature other than what ODNI was directed to declassify. Contrary to some of the press releases on that very website, even on the eavesdropping projects there are no program histories, no progress reports, no inspector general audits, no cost data, no analyses of effectiveness; just the antiseptic claims of legal memos filed to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. More than that, the website page that deals in “oversight” contains nothing on the extensive congressional controversies ignited by the Snowden leaks, merely the response to one senator’s specific query, plus a series of items to suggest that officials solicited views on how they could protect civil liberties. There is an April report by a brand-new NSA civil liberties and privacy office which contains no analysis whatsoever of spooks’ behavior but reiterates claims the agencies have already made for why citizens should not fear the NSA dragnet. The section of the website that records officials’ public statements, for the man charged with civil liberties protection, contains nothing more recent than August a year ago, when he was claiming to the government’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board that questions it was posing had already been answered by an anodyne (and boiler plate) briefing. The most recent entry for Fearful Leader Clapper himself was two months old.

This is the norm, not the exception. Take the CIA website. Five directors ago Porter J. Goss took measures to reduce CIA’s extent of contact with the public, including making its website less open. Michael J. Hayden, who additionally terminated most outreach by CIA historians, at least compensated by reinvigorating the website and posting his own speeches and press comments, a practice which Leon Panetta continued between 2009 and 2011. But David Petraeus shut that down right away. John Brennan has, if anything, closed the door even tighter. Today the “news” that merits a press release on the CIA site is its pathetic joke, in connection with its first twitter post, that it will not “confirm or deny” its use of those very words in that message. The “press release” previous to that was on May 22 and carried the director’s Memorial Day message. The most recent speech from the director dated from March 11.

If that amounts to proactive transparency I’m a fruitcake.

Meanwhile, Consigliere Litt worked the other side of the street. His speech asserted that “none of the leaks has shown that the government was engaged in any willful violation of law”–apparently constitutional violations do not breach “law.” The assertion ignores the conclusions of two review boards and a federal court decision and is, at best, arguable.

Mr. Litt excused NSA’s efforts to defeat encryption systems built into commercial software–a matter that is the subject of another law–with the glib comment that that’s what spy agencies are supposed to do. All of which makes it rather hard for U.S. high tech firms to convince their foreign customers that American-built equipment and our software are kosher. Small wonder that corporations’ cooperation with the NSA eavesdropping has evaporated faster than a plate of ice cubes in the desert sun, or that corporate officials, like Google’s chief of security, Eric Grosse, are saying, “No hard feelings, but my job is to make their job hard.”

Two days ago Consigliere Litt was back–in an appearance not noted on the ODNI openness site. Now he laments the “unquestionable loss for our nation that companies are losing the willingness to cooperate.” Mr. Litt is quick with the threat too: “sooner or later there will be some intelligence failure and people will wonder why the intelligence agencies were not able to protect the nation.”

The spooks are actively blaming the messenger, resisting any conclusion that their own spying, not the revelation of it by a disaffected employee, is what has damaged the nation. They would prefer to construe their parochial interests as the national security. I know I have written this before but it is more true with every passing day.

By definition every intelligence failure involves an inability to protect the nation, and if there is one element of commonality that extends across the board of these failures, it is the petty jealousies and private competition among the spy agencies, not the fact of whether or not the spooks are sucking up every single type of data that might be technically feasible. More often than not–and that includes 9/11– the data was in the system but the agencies didn’t share it. For 9/11 specifically (which we’ve discussed in this space before), the terrorists who would have been revealed by the NSA metadata, which at that time was not being collected, were in the system at least two other ways. Robert Litt’s invocation of the threat of an intelligence failure to justify intrusive spying is not only scaremongering, it is disingenuous.

So the spooks’ alleged privacy protectors tell us everything’s fine? Well, last week’s news was that NSA is pulling down photographs transmitted on the web, incorporating the ones good enough for facial recognition into its database–at a rate of 55,000 a day. I guess they don’t think that’s a privacy breach. Our new NSA chief, Navy Admiral Michael A. Rogers, hastens to assure the public that the database is only intended to look for foreign spies. Naturally that remains true only until it’s not. Ambitious leaders, unscrupulous investigators, all-important goals–any number of factors can combine to override supposed protections, exactly as happened the day after 9/11. It’s better not to have the temptation.         

Meanwhile, Fearful Leader Clapper, out of character for a brief moment, said this weekend that Snowden’s leaks have not been so damaging after all. Why? Because Snowden did not take with him so many documents as the NSA had feared. Edward Snowden has said that all along. The spooks did not believe him–or they used the larger number to magnify the alleged damage, hoping to obtain a better outcome from the scandal. One of the documents on the DNI’s openness website is the December 2013 preliminary report on the impact of the Snowden leaks. The review board “assesses with high confidence that the information compromise by a former NSA contractor . . . will have a GRAVE impact on U.S. national defense.” Reminiscent of the “declassification” of the now-notorious national intelligence estimate on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, used to justify George W. Bush’s invasion of that country; the released “document” amounts to a few paragraphs out of dozens of pages of detailed argumentation. You could drive a truck through the redactions–and you can make a document like that say anything. Proactive transparency? More like spin-doctoring. All this is so far removed from the intelligence community’s vision of “speaking truth to power” that it’s embarrassing.

Whose Terror War?

June 3, 2014–President Barack Obama remains an elusive character, endlessly confounding. Just when you think he’s gone over the top Obama says something both wise and appropriate. Or, he promises the right thing and then doesn’t follow through. Months ago, Mr. Obama noted that the use-of-force permissions Congress passed in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks had become obsolete and he invited a national debate on war authorities. After that, nothing. In another instance, the president promised transparency in his actual uses of force. But, aside from briefings to congressmen when drones are used the war he is waging remains entirely behind closed doors.

Obama did it again last week. The president went to West Point, where on May 28 he delivered the commencement address for the graduating class of U.S. Army officers. Aside from his declaration of an end to the Afghan war, which will be widely discussed, President Obama observed that “U.S. military action cannot be the only–or even primary–component of our leadership.” Equally astutely he went on to say, “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

Then the president took off the other way. “For the foreseeable future,” Obama declared, “the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.” Listen to someone who has drunk the Kool-Aid: “Today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized Al Qaeda leadership. Instead it comes from decentralized al Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in countries where they operate.”

Let’s unpack all this. America went to war after 9/11 against the perpetrators, Al Qaeda. That movement has been reduced to isolated remnants hiding in mountain wildernesses. Should have been “end of story” at that point. Instead we are now assured the threat is  the “al Qaeda affiliate.” What is that? Anything you want. Today we have intelligence chieftains and supposed technical experts earnestly insisting that because somebody from group x talks to group y, they are affiliates. The public is supposed to read “allies” and to understand them as a direct threat to the United States. At the margin, militant groups are “affiliates” simply because they have certain interests in parallel (such as fighting the governments of their countries).

Mr. Obama actually understands this nonsense. At West Point he said, conceded, that militants have “agendas focused in the countries where they operate.” But did the president draw the appropriate conclusion? No. Take the Syrian civil war–entirely focused on who holds power in Damascus: as it “spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases.” Spills across borders? I guess I missed the memo. The same is true in Indonesia, Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines, most of the places where there are active insurgencies today. In east and central Africa there are exceptions–but there too the focus has remained regional and has not aimed directly at the United States.

We are in more danger from the fights we are picking than from the militants with their agendas. Our so-called security “experts” consistently make two huge errors. First, they pretend to a monolithic enemy–much like the Cold War enemy–rather than a diffuse constellation of corpuscular elements with assorted (and sometimes conflicting) goals. Second, they reject the agendas the militants do have in favor of attributing international aims to them. This kind of projection is for advocacy. It is the opposite of sound intelligence practice.

The truth is the war on terror ended a long time ago. There was 9/11, then . . . what? Remember the last big terrorist attack on the U.S.? I didn’t think so. The bigger danger seems to be rampages by soldiers deranged in fighting our wars on terror or driven by religious beliefs to take sides where really that was not necessary. The number of Americans killed by terrorists in the entire time since 9/11 is less than were lost on that one day. Not just fewer but less by an order of magnitude (2,600 to 3,100 depending on what you count compared to 311 up to 2011). The number of Americans who died in terror incidents in the Obama years is also less–again by an order of magnitude (270 versus 41)–than those who perished under George W. Bush. And the number of Americans who were murdered over this same period? 180,000!

Between 2000 and 2010 there were 293 Americans who died as a result of being struck by a falling piece of furniture, television, or appliance. That figure compares well with total American losses to terrorism. In 2012 there were 410 citizens killed by police action. Just to make another startling comparison– the number of Americans who die every year from allergic reactions to being stung by bees, wasps, and hornets averages about 40. During Obama’s first term the number of American terrorism victims was 41.

Even if you take this straight up–at the international level–the problem of terrorism is not the huge crisis that Obama portrayed at West Point, or others have done in many places. For 2012, the most recent year for which I have the data, the top ten afflicted countries account for 83 percent of the worldwide total incidents, 91.5 percent of deaths, and 89.3 percent of those wounded. Six of the ten countries are those in which the United States has been at war. Thus our measures of the terrorism “problem” are now mixing together the outputs from warfare with those of terrorism as we conventionally understand it.

Walk away from the wars and “terrorism” diminishes enormously. For example, 11,098 persons worldwide died from terrorism in 2012. Subtract war casualties and the number falls to less than 3,500. Take out the civil war in Syria and deaths remaining are fewer than on September 11. Take out Nigeria and you’re under 1,500. That’s worldwide. All forms of terrorism. All countries. All conflicts, both nationalist and religious. –And only ten of the dead were Americans.

The data clearly show that the “terrorist threat” is localized, aims at local issues, and is being conflated with war. We are manufacturing the “war on terror.” As a real conflict that ended long ago. Let’s stop playing this game.

Be Careful What You Wish For

May 29, 2014– Back when the Vietnam War was just over, and America had beat a desperate and ignominious retreat from Saigon, the CIA wanted to dissuade its disillusioned officers from commenting publicly about the disaster. Higher-ups learned that the agency’s chief analyst at the Saigon station–a fellow by the name of Frank Snepp–was intent on telling the story. The CIA’s chief at the time, Bill Colby, met with Snepp, trying to head him off at the pass. Colby told Snepp not to do it (tell the story), that the ship of state leaks only from the top (read the story of what lengths the agency went to against Snepp in my book The Family Jewels). Snepp went ahead, the U.S. government sued him and won, and sat back fat and happy that it had completed a fortress of secrecy that would prevent future whistleblowers.

The security services went back to their bad old ways, which of course brought us the Edward Snowden leaks. The present-day leadership of the U.S. intelligence community, in the person of Fearful Leader James Clapper, reacted by telling Congress that our own intelligence officers are a national security threat and by issuing a fresh directive prohibiting employees from all but preapproved contacts with the media.

At the time I commented in this space (“America’s Spooks Terrified,” April 25, 2014) that General Clapper stood on dangerous ground with this order since the most common source of leaks is from officials acting in their official capacities.

It took just a few weeks–and here we are. I’m barely back from Berlin, where I was out of touch with the news, when I learn that the name of the CIA station chief in Afghanistan has been leaked. Who’s the culprit? President Barack Obama! Obama visited the Afghan capital and held a meeting with the constellation of senior U.S. officials there. White House press hacks dutifully put out a release listing those in attendance, including the CIA person. The information circulated as an email to six thousand addresses on the White House media list. A reporter acting for the press pool then asked if the White House had meant to include the spook on their list. (Apparently no one among the White House, CIA, or ODNI crew noticed any of this until the press brought it to their attention.) Embarrassed officials rushed out a revised release sans name, and Obama has ordered an investigation of how this happened.

That part’s easy: when everything is secret, nothing is secret. I’ve written this before–as has just about everyone who has seriously examined the world of classified information, but the secrecy freaks out there seem incapable of taking the message aboard. To keep secure those things that really need to be secret you need to restrict the classified information to a small enough list of items that the boffins–just to use a British term–can keep the pile of secrets in mind. When everything is in the pile the boffins can’t keep track and the secrets dribble out.

Bottom line: President Barack Obama was an authorized official (in Fearful Leader Clapper’s meaning of the term) in authorized contact with the media and conveying an authorized administration message, but still a secret escaped. Clapper’s order failed in precisely the way anticipated. No doubt someone’s head will roll for this, but not the true culprits, for they are the secrecy mavens.

Drone Memos and Obama Transparency

May 21, 2014– There are several directions to take the news that the Obama administration is deciding to release the Justice Department legal memos that were used to legitimize the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen, in this case Anwar al-Awlaki. I don’t have time to follow all the tracks so, at least for now, I’ll confine myself to the issue of what this tells us about openness in this administration.

Barack Obama entered office with a promise to run the most open and transparent presidency in American history. There were some good moves at first–President Obama rode over opposition to the release of an earlier generation of Office of Legal Counsel papers–the ones that justified Bush era torture–and he ordered government agencies to improve public access, FOIA response and the like. The declassification initiatives, at least, are honored in their breach.

The Justice Department drone war memos–for that is what they are–are only returning to the news here. The administration had denied them previously–to the Congress, which has oversight authority and thus a full right to look at them. In each situation where it faced a dilemma over sensitive information like the drone memos, Obama chose to have some official make an informal statement making claims as to information or policy, rather than to expose actual documents to the light of day.

Only when John O. Brennan was up for confirmation as CIA director in 2013, and these specific OLC memos were made a condition for congressional approval, did the wind change. Then the administration took the road of crafting a different document, one summarizing the OLC memos–and making that one public by means of a deliberate leak to a news organization (there are the same people who are now saying that contacts with news media must have official approval). When Congress stuck to its guns, President Obama reluctantly allowed that legislators could view the real documents, but behind closed doors.

The New York Times and others filed Freedom of Information lawsuits seeking the same documents. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a matching lawsuit. That case recently came to decision, and the court ruled that the Obama administration is required to release the material. In fact the judge issued specific instructions on which parts of the documents need to be released in full. The question became whether Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department will pursue an appeal of the judgment.

The complicating factor, as it happens, is another nomination. This time the actual author of the OLC drone war memos, David J. Barron, is up for a seat on the First Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, and senators have threatened to block the nomination unless the administration releases the documents. Guess what? News is that Holder will not appeal. Instead, administration officials are asking for more time to skew the memos by deleting information, and they want to file a more limited appeal for certain sections they would like to keep secret. Thus even when a court rules them out of bounds and a political factor is driving the response, the administration still wants to get its way by playing on the margins and with the timing.

Open administration? Like the Senate torture report, like the FISA court opinions, like the drone memos previously, Mr. Obama’s administration seems never to have met a piece of information it does not deem worthy of keeping secret. If you look at the annual reports of the interagency board that monitors classified information, you’ll also see that the number of things designated secret is rising sharply. The whole system is broken. That’s what needs to be fixed. The CIA is not playing straight on secrecy, the Justice Department is complicit, the White House fails to enforce its own directives. Let’s stop talking about Obama transparency.

Catching Up with Robert Litt

May 21, 2014– Remember spook superlawyer Robert S. Litt? He’s featured here several times. Litt was the one who told Fearful Leader Clapper that it was an adequate explanation of his lie about NSA dragnet eavesdropping to say he was “thinking about” something else. There’s plenty more. I haven’t got time at the moment, and I also hoped to post something about the imminent Justice Department release–under court order–of the drone war legal memos–but I couldn’t let the Robert Litt news pass without comment.

Representing General James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, Litt attended the House Rules Committee markup session on new legislation that supposedly will restrict the National Security Agency eavesdropping. Litt was instrumental in leading the legislators to weaken their bill, substituting a vague definition for what requires court approval. The House had already left it up to the administration to define the broad category limits–probably the equivalent of giving your teenager the car keys without thinking about it–but that wasn’t enough for the spy mavens. They preferred a definition which enables them to nominate categories and thus obtain broad swathes of data anyway. The result is so obviously flawed that a number of backers of this bill have withdrawn their support.

Here’s the question: Did the director of national intelligence cynically manipulate the bill in order to ensure its defeat, did he–represented by Mr. Litt–engineer a happy solution that leaves the NSA virtually unfettered, or were General Clapper’s objectives both of these things?

CIA vs the Senate Torture Report–Round 1 1/2

May 15, 2014–You read it here first (again). In earlier coverage of how the CIA would handle the investigative report on its torture and rendition programs that was done by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), we predicted the agency would drag its heels on its declassification review. Actually it’s wasn’t at all hard to predict. Secrecy is a passion for the CIA. But at least give them points for how cleverly they play the system. Listen to this one–

Watching this whole travesty unfold, the American Civil Liberties Union quite logically filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking for release of the Senate intelligence committee report and Langley’s original response to it. They filed with the Justice Department, probably to try and avoid some of the CIA’s delaying tactics. That was in November of last year. Recognizing that the department would simply sit on a simple FOIA request, the ACLU went straight to court and made it a lawsuit. The suit aims at CIA. Not long afterwards it became known that CIA and the intelligence committee were fighting each other over who had betrayed whom–that’s the CIA spying on the SSCI versus senators’ purloined document argument. The ACLU promptly decided to incorporate that document, the “Panetta Report,” in its FOIA lawsuit, and did so on January 27 of this year.

In the meantime the court was compelling the Justice to get through the preliminary steps of this action. The CIA claimed jurisdiction, or not, and Justice said it lacked jurisdiction–this was a “congressional document.” A few days before the ACLU action, government lawyers agreed to a schedule for deciding whether these reports are the kinds of “records” the CIA can declassify. (The agency, too, wants this to be a “congressional” document, so it can toss the matter back to the SSCI, which is reluctant to declassify unilaterally, and originally asked CIA to review. If this sounds like a pinball in motion–it is.) Under the schedule, that was supposed to happen at the end of this month, pushed back a week upon inclusion of the Panetta Report.

As it happens, on April 3 the Senate committee, disgusted with the CIA’s delays, itself voted to release its report, but took the low road of sending it to Barack Obama for review–and the president kicked it back to Langley.

Lo and behold, on behalf of the CIA, the Justice Department today filed a motion to delay action on the FOIA request because the current version of the SSCI summary report has been amended based upon the objections the CIA made to the Senate committee and their joint conversations of how to handle the disputed issues in the report. Because the underlying document sought in the FOIA has been revised, the declassification process should be halted.

Got that? Congress asked the spy mavens to review its report. Langley dragged its feet and eventually came up with a refutation. Congress and CIA debated how to handle Langley’s objections. Responsibly, the senators considered what the CIA had to say, made some changes, inserted more text in other places to bolster its case. Now the CIA relies on the SSCI’s response to justify its attempt to avoid declassifying the report. Just for good measure, the CIA and White House have been swift to assert a necessity for third parties–other agencies, to include the Director of National Intelligence (Fearful Clapper, who never saw a program not worth lying about, or a fact not a dangerous national security leak) and, presumably, the State Department–to also certify the document. I can tell you, “equity,” the notion of third-party interest in documents, is among the problems most damaging to U.S. declassification efforts today. Langley is lining up its pins for an attempt at long-term stalling. Clever, huh?


The Secrecy Bug

May 13, 2014–Today is a day for Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald’s book on the Snowden affair is great and should compel our attention. Snowden himself and Laura Poitras had their day a couple of weeks ago when they were given the Ron Ridenhour Award for truthtelling. I don’t want to do anything to take away from them. But the deeper realization hits you when you ask, what kind of system is it when the public has to depend upon outraged/disaffected/guilt-ridden employees of the state to find out the truth behind the innocuous rhetoric.

Equally to the point, you can be certain the spy agencies are bending every effort to put even more secrecy measures in place, so (supposedly) preventing “another” Snowden, or Manning, or Thomas Drake, or what have you. Agency employees will have to jump through more hoops than ever in order to reach the public. That was the point of a couple of recent posts here, ones that dealt with Fearful Leader Clapper’s secrecy directives–lightning bolts from Olympus designed to put every minion on notice against saying anything to anyone. In The Family Jewels I devoted a full chapter (“Plugging the Dike,” ch. 8) to showing how the CIA had built what I called a “fortress of secrecy” to muzzle its own people, snaring them in an endless miasma of “reviews” in order to clear the words they would like to say.

The CIA jumps up to insist that, no, all its interventions are strictly for the purpose of protecting classified information, real secrets of national security importance. (How that squares with forcing an author to delete “urinal” where it appeared in his book–one of the examples in that chapter–mystifies me.) Greenwald and Snowden have produced more examples, of course, but here I want to draw attention to my colleague Malcolm Byrne at the National Security Archive. At the Archive Malcolm has gotten declassified the paperwork surrounding one specific CIA memoir and assembled the documents to show the fortress of secrecy in practice.

Iran is the subject, specifically the CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew the legal government of Iran in 1953 and led to so much heartache for so many decades of the Iranian revolution. CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt was a principal organizer of the 1953 operation, and his book Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran is the focus here.

Malcolm Byrne shows the agency’s Publications Review Board (PRB) worked Roosevelt relentlessly, while attempting to enforce absurd boundaries for secrecy. A CIA deputy director said he’d not permit anything to be published which showed that the CIA worked abroad. Even the Review Board–and the agency’s top lawyers–figured they couldn’t get away with that much. They tried to sidetrack the project by raising questions regarding whether the Shah of Iran approved. “Kim” Roosevelt–who had that area of the world hot-wired–not only had the Shah’s approval but the book had been suggested to him by one of the potentate’s associates. Roosevelt had also talked it over with George Herbert Walker Bush, at that time the director of the CIA, so he thought he had the bases covered. Instead the PRB came down on him hard. Roosevelt made major changes. The CIA’s general counsel felt the deputy director’s ukase unenforceable, whereupon the PRB came back with 156 specific objections, and claimed the number could be higher. Roosevelt made more changes, maybe not so many as CIA wanted but enough for one official to brag to another that they’d succeeded in converting Kim Roosevelt’s coup memoir into a work of fiction.

The end result had the CIA requiring the author to assert that the coup was suggested by British Petroleum (then known as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company) rather than the British Secret Service. Langley no doubt thought that was a security interest worth protecting. When BP found out they threatened to sue. The publisher pulled the entire print run of the book to pulp it and reprinted with references to–wait for it–British intelligence. The CIA, happily prosecuting Phil Agee and Frank Snepp, did nothing.

Bottom line? Secrecy is a disease. Not infectious, it’s spread by a bug. Those smitten succumb to the delusion that any kind of action can be hidden so long as the secrecy is preserved. Is that not exactly what happened to NSA with Prism? Officials who have the disease stop paying attention to what is the “right” thing, and focus on the attainable or the desirable, no matter the cost. Damage to national security results from the decisions they make and the projects they pursue–like the Iranian coup, like the NSA dragnet. The damage is not from the compromise of secrecy. The drone of that bug’s wings is really a swan song for the secrecy mavens.