The Family Jewels Crisis

March 12, 2014–Senator Dianne Feinstein’s laying down of the gauntlet yesterday has already resulted in a flurry of developments. Like two trains racing toward each other down a single  track, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) seem headed for a collision. In this secret world the crisis may have begun weeks ago but now it becomes visible. If the latter is the case it is already too late to avert a Family Jewels crisis, though if the collision is only now beginning there may still be time.

Under John O. Brennan, the CIA has been all about business as usual. As noted previously here (“The CIA Bamboozles Congress–Again,” March 6; “Focus on Congressional Oversight of Intelligence,” January 25, 2014; and elsewhere) the agency has been treating the oversight committees as a stage on which to spin whatever message they want. Historically there has been a cycle of ascendancy in the exercise of the oversight power and since 9/11 the CIA has been in this mode of regarding Congress as a marginal irritant (“The Fire Behind CIA’s Smoke,” March 7). So it remains defiant right now.

Brennan no doubt expected the Senate intelligence committee to go public in some way. He arranged a speech of his own for yesterday, one he gave at the Council on Foreign Relations. The CIA director went out of his way to advert that, when taking his oath of office last year, “I had the privilege of placing my hand on the very first printed copy of the Constitution.” The allusion was obvious. Much later in an otherwise pedestrian speech Director Brennan came to the matter of his current imbroglio. He believes in congressional oversight, he says; the CIA is better for it, Brennan declared; “and as long as I am director of CIA I will do whatever I can to be responsive to the elected representatives of the American people.”

John Brennan went on to say that he did not always agree with the SSCI and its House counterpart, and that they “frequently” have “what I would call ‘spirited’ and even ‘sporty’ discussions.” So what does that mean? In the case of the SSCI torture investigation, the CIA has buried the Senate torture report for fifteen months, most of that time with Brennan at the helm, and filed a misleading rebuttal, which it is also withholding from the American people. Senate staff have had more than sixty hours of discussion with CIA officials without effect. An SSCI member asked the CIA to release a parallel document, the “Panetta review,” which differs from the CIA rebuttal. Silence. Senator Feinstein, the chairwoman, raises that request too. No answer at first, then denial on the grounds the Panetta review is a “pre-decisional” or “deliberative” document.

I did not want to open this particular acorn yesterday, but it is important in this crisis so now I will. The “pre-decisional” exemption is a new category of secrecy invented by George W. Bush. The supposed idea is to protect the advice given to presidents. I cannot say exactly where the motive lay but my suspicion is he wanted to shield the rationales for decisions made by his father, George Herbert Walker Bush, whose papers were just then coming into the system, and, of course, his own for when the time comes (presidential papers are supposed to open after twelve years). The Panetta review, according to the CIA, is untouchable because it is a deliberative document. But the substance of the Panetta review, we are told, is a summary of the CIA records which were going to be made available to Senate investigators. There was nothing “decisional” about it–unless the decision was about what evidence should be suppressed and kept away from legally authorized investigators.

If this were a criminal case, the withholding of the Panetta review would be obstruction of justice–as was the CIA’s destruction of videotapes in this very same matter–and the deliberative secrecy would be conspiracy. By the CIA’s lights, however, that privileged it to suppress the Panetta review. But there is still more: The CIA’s official rebuttal to the SSCI report, personally delivered to Senator Dianne Feinstein by Director Brennan on June 27, 2013, is also classified as a “deliberative” document. Right there this should dispose of the argument that deliberative documents cannot be accessed.

There are three points to be made here. First, the CIA is arrogating to itself a secrecy protection created for presidents. Second, the “deliberative” exemption, if it properly exists, is being stretched to cover materials that have nothing to do with decisions. By this standard anything can be a deliberative document. Third, CIA selectively applied the exemption depending upon its interests of the moment, and for its own purposes. This is not national security protection it is political cover.

Then agency officers conducted an unauthorized search of SSCI computers. Director Brennan at least informed the Senate committee when he discovered this had happened, but the CIA then refused to respond to SSCI inquiries about the intrusion, and a CIA lawyer–a principal character in the torture story–filed a criminal complaint against the Senate investigators. So this is responsiveness to legislative oversight? You decide.

This CIA story on the “RDI” (“Rendition, Detainment, Interrogation”) project–it has acquired a new name here–is on a par with the NSA eavesdropping program. On that front–also yesterday–the new NSA director testified at his nomination hearing that he favors continuing the dragnet coverage. And then there is the CIA drone war, on which information was also kept from the congressional committees. These are Family Jewels.

We are swiftly coming to a Family Jewels crisis. These kinds of eruptions follow a pattern which I have detailed at length elsewhere. A president starts by shielding the intelligence agencies. Barack Obama did that in 2009 when he turned aside public pressures for an inquiry into these excesses. But when presidents become politically threatened by their actions they circle the wagons and let the intelligence agencies flap in the wind. This happened in the “Year of Intelligence,” 1975, the time of the Church and Pike investigations; in the Iran-Contra affair, and again in the 1990s on Guatemala.

There are enough skeins in the current disputes to indicate Obama finds himself in a similar situation today and is beginning to do the same thing. He cooperated in the initial suppression of inquiry. He went along with withholding data on the drone killings and NSA eavesdropping–and then he defended the NSA dragnet. In the early days of the Senate committee investigation, McClatchy News has reported, the White House supported the CIA in withholding some 9,400 documents from SSCI investigators. Dianne Feinstein has now revealed that SSCI met with White House lawyers in 2010 when it first discovered CIA had been removing documents from its investigators’ cache. The CIA “search” of SSCI computers in January of this year represents a transgression against undertakings the White House made to the Senate intelligence committee then. White House press aides have told the public that Obama “favors” release of the SSCI report and expects it will emerge–but the president has not responded to repeated specific requests from SSCI member Mark Udall. He has told reporters that it would not be proper for him to become involved at this time.

The Justice Department recently said in a legal filing that the SSCI torture report is in the jurisdiction of the Senate intelligence committee (walking back the CIA’s claim that declassification power belongs only to it), and the White House has commented that the Senate should act. President Obama himself, in his first public remarks on the subject, said that the issue is “not something that is an appropriate role for me and the White House to wade into at this point.” Meanwhile, the president’s chief of staff and top lawyer visited with Senator Feinstein after her speech. Obama has become vulnerable.  It looks very much are if the wagons are being circled on Pennsylvania Avenue.

[This post has been revised based on news reporting of March 13, and subsequently again in order to include Mr. Obama’s direct quote.]

Senator Feinstein Comes Out of the Closet

March 11, 2014– The chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein, is taking the gloves off. In a speech earlier today in the Senate chamber, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) chief hit back at the Central Intelligence Agency for its innuendo campaign painting black hats on the SSCI investigators by accusing them of absconding with classified documents.

Senator Feinstein (D-CA) says she has been reluctant to bring this out into the open, having attempted to solve the problem privately with CIA director John Brennan. On January 15 of this year, Feinstein reports, Brennan asked her for an emergency meeting and disclosed that agency personnel had carried out a “search”–his word–of the SSCI’s investigative computers. Two days later the SSCI sent Brennan a letter protesting the intrusion and citing constitutional separation of powers as precluding CIA actions of this sort. On January 23 Feinstein sent Brennan a further letter asking a dozen specific questions about the CIA intrusion, including a demand the agency reveal the full scope of its hacking. In Feinstein’s account, “the CIA has not provided answers to any of my questions.”

All of this, as related here previously (see my posts of March 6 and March 7) concerned the already-notorious “Panetta Review.” In her Senate speech Feinstein now provides details on just what went down. The story goes back three CIA directors–to when General Michael Hayden led the agency. Hayden explained away the CIA’s destruction of the torture tapes by saying that they were not destruction of evidence, they were meaningless because everything that had been done to CIA prisoners was recorded in cable traffic, which he offered to show the SSCI. Senate staffers spent many months going through these cables and came back with a chilling report– what had been done to prisoners was “far different and more harsh” than CIA had represented to Congress. It was at that point, in March 2009, when the SSCI initiated its CIA torture investigation. Then-agency director Leon Panetta held out for the alternative of SSCI using agency offices for its research. Feinstein accepted that arrangement.

In May 2010 SSCI investigators discovered that documents previously available on their computers had disappeared. This involved 870 pages or full documents in February 2010 plus another 50 that May. When asked, CIA liaison personnel first denied anything had been removed, then attributed this to agency IT people, then said the White House had ordered the action. The Obama White House denies issuing any such order.

After that the SSCI investigators found the Panetta review. The Senate committee deliberately decided to bring that document back to SSCI’s premises because of the precedent of CIA’s earlier destruction of the tapes, the fact that the review differed so substantially from agency claims that the document’s continued existence was endangered, and the fact that CIA had earlier infiltrated the SSCI computers and removed materials from them.

In late 2013 the Senate committee officially asked CIA to provide the Panetta review. Director Brennan has refused to do so, and on bogus grounds I shall not go into here. Equally ominous, CIA’s general counsel filed a crimes report with the Justice Department against the Senate staff. (This goes beyond the action of the Inspector General in simply referring the case to Justice.) That CIA lawyer was working with the agency’s Counterterrorism Center when the agency destroyed the torture videotapes in December 2005.

It should not be necessary to say this, and even less to do so again–the CIA is out of control. The cover-up is ongoing. It now threatens proper constitutional control over intelligence activities.

The Fire Behind CIA’s Smoke

March 8, 2013– The Central Intelligence Agency’s defense to charges that it has been spying on Congress is that it was simply investigating mishandling of classified information, a legitimate function. In this rendering all the documents the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) was studying for its review of the CIA torture and black prisons programs were supposed to stay within the room the agency had set aside for the SSCI researchers. Instead, the story goes, an SSCI staffer printed up a copy of one particular document and took it with him to the intelligence committee’s offices on Capitol Hill. The case of the purloined document, we are told, has now been sent to the FBI for further inquiry.

I’d have more sympathy for the agency’s point of view if the context were different. What is problematic here is that the charge against SSCI represents a counterattack by an agency embattled, essentially a political move. If this were football, it would be a goal line defense. More disturbing, this CIA action was not taken in isolation, it forms part of a pattern that stretches back to 2005.

First, consider the specifics of the purloined document. It has now been widely reported that this was a copy of the “Panetta Review.” Leon Panetta was President Obama’s first CIA director and ordered up an internal study of the effectiveness of the agency interrogation program. Panetta wanted to get a feel for the contents of the range of documents the CIA was agreeing to let the Senate access. The review consisted of several different papers and reportedly concluded the project had yielded little of value.

Three things are significant here. First, this was not some low level analyst expressing a personal view, it was a major postmortem done in response to the director’s instructions. Second, because it was a major report it was compiled on the basis of all agency records, thus it represented a considered point of view. Third, the reported conclusions of the Panetta review are markedly at odds with the CIA’s representations to the Senate investigators, who were told the interrogation programs had been very successful–a position the CIA continued to maintain in its response to the completed SSCI investigative report. All of this without informing the Senate committee, its legal overseers, that the Panetta report even existed. —And, it should be added, without the CIA taking the Panetta Report’s conclusions into account in its response to the Senate committee investigations.

(To be facetious for just a moment, what you have is the CIA pretending the Panetta Review did not exist, and later demanding criminal indictment for someone who showed it did. Either the report did not exist, so there is no issue about revelation; or the report did exist, and the CIA is at fault for not bringing it to the attention of investigators.)

You can imagine the consternation an SSCI staffer felt when he encountered the Panetta Review among CIA records. It is understandable that a Senate staffer would think this a crucial discovery and decide the members of the intelligence committee needed to see the full text immediately.

According to McClatchy News, the agency now says a Senate researcher acquired this document early in the SSCI inquiry, and did so by breaching a firewall between the material to which the investigators had access and the larger body of agency records.

The CIA’s latest squirm on the hook is that since the Panetta Review was conducted in 2009 it fell outside the purview of the agency’s agreement with the Senate committee, which was to cover material only up to the point when the black prisons were abolished, which had occurred in 2006. This represents the same kind of literalism and myopia with which Langley deals with outsiders–a review compiled in order to get a sense of the documentary terrain the SSCI was being access to is denied because it was created later. An argument can still be made that the Panetta Review was derivative of the covered documents and therefore should have been available to investigators.

That does not excuse an SSCI violation of rules on the handling of classified material, but it remains an unknown here what precise arrangements the SSCI and CIA had agreed to, and in this case those rules needed to be weighed against the national interest. Moreover, within the CIA a violation of document handling regulations is viewed as an administrative matter, where here it has been referred to the FBI for criminal investigation.

How did the CIA know of the purloined document? An answer to that question is necessary. Until senators began asking questions about the discrepancies between the agency’s official response to the SSCI report and CIA’s internal postmortem on the torture, the only way to have known would have been by tracking the keystrokes, file openings, and downloads on the computers used by SSCI researchers. Here we get to the charge that the CIA was spying on the Congress. The best case from CIA’s side would be that it found out only when SSCI members raised the discrepancy issue, and that it then conducted a standard security review, uncovering the breach. But this data is only recoverable if it was being collected in real time, when the SSCI researchers were on CIA premises. So either way the agency was spying on its overseers.

The latest development here is precisely along this line: a CIA claim that it became aware of the leak when Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) brought up the discrepancies in December 2013, and then wrote President Obama in early January of this year asking that the Panetta Review be officially released. The CIA then searched its computer “audit log” and discovered the breach. This plays both ways–it confirms the CIA was collecting data on the Senate investigators in real time.

One troubling point that remains concerns dating–the claim that SSCI discovered the Panetta Review early in its investigation, the handover of the CIA response to the Senate report in June 2013, then the delay until December 17, when Senator Udall first mentioned the discrepancy between the CIA response and the Panetta Review. During that interval agency officials and SSCI representatives had met for more than sixty hours specifically to talk over their differences arising from the CIA response and the SSCI report. If the Senate intelligence committee had really had the Panetta Review from an early date, surely the matter of CIA internal discrepancies would have come up then. This casts doubt on the CIA claim as to timing.

The CIA Inspector General, David Buckley, has referred the computer monitoring to the Justice Department for its decision on whether to open a criminal investigation.

Now let’s change the lens and look at the Big Picture. The CIA’s attack on Congress today mirrors its unprecedented action in 2007, when it conducted a security investigation against its own Inspector General. Then as now the allegation was leaks, i.e., mishandling classified information, but the context was the release under the Freedom of Information Act of an expurgated version of the IG’s internal inquiry into the CIA torture, which gave the public its first authoritative knowledge of the program. Before that, in 2005, when the CIA project first leaked, agency officials conspired to destroy evidence–the now-notorious videotapes that documented CIA torture. I have made some ascerbic remarks regarding the memoirs by CIA lawyer John A. Rizzo (see “Tone-Deaf CIA Lawyer,” March 1, 2014), but one thing his memoir makes crystal clear was that the tapes were destroyed in the face of clear orders to the contrary. The second Bush administration’s Justice Department dealt with CIA torture with a very light hand, choosing to prosecute only two tangential cases where death had resulted. But the pattern of CIA actions raises the question of how responsive the agency actually was, in supplying evidence both for those cases and for the Justice Department’s investigation of the torture tapes’ destruction.

Meanwhile we still have the fact that the CIA has been sitting on–and is still dragging its feet–not only on release of the SSCI report on CIA torture but on its own response. It is now fifteen months since the senate study was sent to the agency. –And senators on the intelligence committee have been saying that the CIA response itself makes claims regarding the SSCI study that are simply false. The former CIA general counsel, Stephen Preston, who had told senators that the agency’s response to the SSCI study had been “appropriate,” later took pains to distance himself from it. “I did not personally participate in the [CIA] team’s formulation of substantive comments,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “nor did I independently review the factual basis for their findings and conclusions.”

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that a CIA cover-up is in progress. There is real fire behind this smoke. As I wrote in The Family Jewels these kinds of abuses follow a pattern–and the Central Intelligence Agency is replicating that pattern right now.

(This article was posted originally on March 7, it has been updated to reflect developments of that day.)

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!