Principals and Principles: Trump’s National Security

January 31, 2017–Second fiddle to the immense current controversy over President Donald J. Trump’s immigration action has been his initiative on national security. Here the firestorm concerned a Trump directive that added political operative Stephen K. Bannon to the Principals Committee of the National Security Council (NSC). At the same time the president demoted the incoming Director of National Intelligence and the general who is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to merely occasional attendance on that same committee. Susan Rice, the national security adviser who served former president Barack Obama, labeled this action “stone cold crazy.”

Attracting the most attention is Stephen Bannon’s apparent promotion. As “chief strategist” he was supposed to be providing Mr. Trump with suitable advice. Now the Trump directive, called a “National Security Presidential Memorandum” (NSPM) not only “invites” Bannon to attend all NSC meetings, it makes him a member of the NSC Principals Committee, and Bannon’s deputy an invitee to sessions of the NSC Deputies Committee. In all this gnashing of teeth no one seems to have noticed that President Trump has also elevated his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, in the same way.

Common wisdom is that Mr. Bannon is becoming the unelected president, exercising all the power, without the title or, indeed, the people’s opportunity to vote on him. I actually think it is too soon to draw that conclusion. What can fairly be said is that President Trump seems to be about increasing the political content of NSC discussions. This is not new–and the media discussions so far have been extremely shallow. Yes, David Axelrod sat in on some NSC discussions, yes Karl Rove was kept out of some similar deliberations during George W. Bush’s time. But it is absurd to think that presidents have historically kept politics out of national security. Under Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski made a point of including political considerations in NSC staff work. Henry Kissinger, his predecessor, can be heard on the Nixon White House tapes talking politics quite often. President Carter also listened to chief of staff Hamilton Jordan on national security matters, making him a major player in Washington’s decisions on whether to admit the Shah to the United States for medical treatment, which became a catalyst for the Iran Hostage Crisis. Ronald Reagan used his top politicos on security missions repeatedly. One of them, James Baker III, actually became secretary of state when Reagan’s vice-president, George H. W. Bush, ascended to the presidency. And Bush’s son, “W,” used political aides as well. Andy Card delivered White House messages to the CIA, played a role in the “Niger uranium” affair that convinced CIA boss George Tenet to retire, and he served as utility infielder for the president. It’s the job.

On the other hand the pundits have captured the deeper importance of NSPM-2, the formal identity of Trump’s reorganization directive. It does bring politics more to the fore at the NSC. The presence of both Bannon and Priebus on the Principals committee is a first-order indicator that Trump’s Council will become one battleground where the White House pecking order will be fought over. But the elephant in the closet is Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who is really the topmost adviser of all. An alternative explanation for the NSC imbroglio is it puts the big shot advisers in a ring to duke it out while Kushner consolidates his own power.

Stone cold crazy? Yes, at the level of mere national security. This will cost the nation in the quality of our foreign policy and the coherence of Pentagon efforts. But the judgment also depends on the president’s real aims. If they are political, this harebrained scheme may not be stupid at all. It puts big aspirants to power in a place where they can be tied to the ridiculous judgments that flow from this NSC–and then they can be pushed out of the Trump administration. That brings us to the question of principle: there is none here. It is an outrage to the American people to use national security and foreign policy as mousetraps to catch power players.

 

 

What Future in Trump’s “Respect” for CIA?

January 22, 2017–Inauguration Day has come and gone. Donald J. Trump is now–for real– the President of the United States. His administration started off with a bang. Mr. Trump used the CIA for a political stump speech, as he sent spin doctor Sean Spicer out to deal False News in support of a Trumpian assertion that inauguration crowds were larger than they were. That, in turn, was a gambit to divert attention from the Women’s March on Washington–and in more than 630 other places all over the world (eight people rallied in Irbil, Iraq; twenty-seven in Hanoi, Vietnam)–in all totaling ten times or more the number of people attending the Trump inaugural. These events, plus Trump’s accession to the presidency, cry out for fresh commentary.

Trump’s rise has been interpreted here as heralding a purge within the intelligence community. At the CIA yesterday, as protesters took over Washington, the president took pains to declare the opposite: “I am so behind you. You’re gonna get so much backing. Maybe you’re gonna say, please, don’t give us so much backing. . . .” Trump blamed his favorite enemies of the moment–the media–for the notion there is anything wrong between the president and the community of American spies.

Everything this man says requires interpretation. Never forget that. Just since the New Year Mr. Trump has accused the CIA of being Nazis, enclosed references to U.S. intelligence and intelligence agencies within quotation marks (as in”intelligence”), and said outgoing agency director John Brennan is a leaker. Last year–as covered in this space more than once–Trump leveled more charges at the spies, including lambasting them for decade-old mistakes and insinuating they are the same old re-treads. These are things Mr. Trump wrote, explicitly, in his tweets, or said in public, in speeches or elsewhere. Yesterday all of that did not exist–in Trump’s eye the media had made it up.

Artiste Andy Warhol once famously observed that everyone seeks fifteen minutes of fame. To Trump’s mind that equates to fifteen minutes of friendship. You’re only a friend while you say the right thing–or until Trump himself changes tack, recasting you as enemy. Just look at what happened to New Jersey Chris Christie–once chairman of Trump’s transition team and expecting to be appointed Attorney General, on Friday Christie was not even on the inaugural platform (at least in the picture published in the New York Times). As for the CIA–wait for it!!!–Donald Trump’s visit lasted exactly fifteen minutes. He did not even take off his overcoat for the festivity. Either Trump wore an armored vest under the greatcoat, visiting the CIA’s den of vipers; or he intended the whistlestop from the outset, which brings us back to the political nature of this event, in my opinion futilely designed to distract from the Women’s March.

Declaiming in front of the agency’s hallowed wall of stars–known and still-clandestine officers who have given their lives in United States service–Trump spoke only briefly  before he veered off on tangents–even more extravagant falsities about his crowds at the inauguration, and self-congratulatory puffery on his “intelligence.” But while he was actually still on point, the president hinted at several of his intentions for CIA. Returning to waterboarding and torture was one, stronger action against the islamists of ISIS was another–this time taking their oil. (Why seizing Syrian oil on behalf of an oil-rich U.S. would be necessary, and how that might be feasible without pipelines and in the face of Syrian national sovereignty, plus how those intentions would complicate the problem for CIA officers trying to recruit Syrian militants, are all questions that speak to the new president’s intelligence.)

Bottom line: President Trump intends actions that will require greater CIA efforts. He needs the CIA. But at the same time he distrusts the agency and its intelligence–witness Trump’s steadfast rejection of the Russian hack. The role of the hack, and of FBI Director James Comey’s eleventh-hour reinvestigation of Hillary Clinton, in Trump’s election requires getting rid of those who can tell the tale. That need, in addition to Mr. Trump’s ephemeral but constant course changes, will ensure the purge goes on. The deputy to the Director of National Intelligence, and the chief of staff to the CIA director have already sent in their resignations. No doubt a stream of other mid-ranking and senior officials will follow. A little bit down the line, the result will be that a corps of junior officers faces the president’s demands for extreme, even extra-legal action. Not only will there be more stars on the CIA wall, there will be more agency officers in the soup. And where will President Trump be then? My guess is not “backing” the CIA any more than he is backing Paul Manafort or Roger Stone in the Russian influence peddling scandal. Those gentlemen are now non-persons in the Trumpian universe.

Fearful Leader and Bombastic Duck

January 14, 2017–The past week has been stuffed with events, each one controversial, each more outrageous than before. You can imagine where this is headed. General James Clapper, the Fearful Leader, pulled his punches all through the summer and into the fall on the Russian hacking caper, and ended up making desperate phone appeals to the president-elect. Donald Trump, who quacks like that other duck, and is much more a bombast, played his standard game of bait-and-switch, saying one thing to your face but twisting meanings, words, and whole ideas, in public or on twitter.

The prediction here a week ago was that Director of National Intelligence Clapper would get 24 hours to bask in the sun for the intelligence community’s briefing to Trump on the Russians, before president-elect Trump backed away from his initial acknowledgement of the assessment and resumed playing the intelligence as politics rather than a national security determination. That prediction erred–Trump made one statement shortly after the briefing appearing to accept its substance, while insisting that lots of countries do cyberspying and that the Russians had had no impact on the U.S. election outcome. He held off somewhat longer on returning to suit, with surrogate Kellyanne Conway taking the role of attack dog dismissing the intelligence.

But the prediction here was on the money in terms of the direction The Donald took. First, dilute the intelligence by widening the circle of suspects beyond Russia, while insisting on a lack of specific evidence implicating Putin. Next, falsify the DNI/CIA reporting by putting words in the mouths of Fearful Leader and the others–claiming that U.S. intelligence had concluded the Russian hack had not influenced the election, where, in fact, the spooks explicitly said they had made no attempt to evaluate the political impact of the hack. Trump personally had belittled the intelligence in advance of his briefing on January 6, with the phony assertion the spies had postponed the brief, plus the jab they must need extra time to put together credible charges.

President-elect Trump had his own event scheduled, a news conference on Wednesday, January 11. On the eve of that the web news site BuzzFeed released a long paper detailing alleged Donald Trump misdeeds and embarrassments the Russians had supposedly documented and held over his head. The paper, written by a former British spy, had begun as an effort by Trump opponents to gather ammunition to use against him, but the spook eventually found the allegations so disturbing he took the document to the FBI. By all accounts vague rumors drawn from this paper had been all over Washington for months, and both the FBI and media outlets had attempted, without success, to authenticate the charges.

Back on January 7, after the intelligence community meeting with Mr. Trump, General Clapper’s office released a 25-page unclassified version of the secret information it had given the president-elect. The public document did not contain a two-page annex that several sources now mention as a summary to Mr. Trump of  what the oppo research paper might reveal. Multiple sources also affirm that FBI Director James Comey took Mr. Trump aside at the conclusion of the briefing to warn him that damaging information was out there and could surface at any time. The Donald was soon tweeting of a “total political witch hunt,” terming the oppo paper “fake news,” and asserting he had heard nothing about it until the document leaked.

The president-elect’s news conference became a shambles. Mr. Trump seemed to accept that there had been a Russian hack, but then repeatedly went back to his formula that anyone could have done it. He harped on the notion the hacking had not altered the election outcome. He accused media outright of purveying “fake news” for reporting the existence of the oppo paper. He asserted he’d known nothing about it. By the following day Kellyanne Conway was speaking of intelligence officials leaking for political purposes. Trump personally took up that theme yesterday–Friday the 13th–tweeting “Totally made up facts . . . probably leaked by ‘Intelligence.'”

Director Clapper phoned Mr. Trump to remind him the FBI had told him of the oppo paper material. The president-elect represented that as the opposite. Ms Conway piled on to add to claims the intelligence community is leaking information they are sworn to keep secret. This extra irony is especially painful because–as you will have read here several times now–my view is that Mr. Trump’s political wriggling has been facilitated by Director Clapper’s excessive concern for secrecy, which left such vagueness and ambiguity in intelligence community declarations about Russian hacking as to leave room for some plausibility in The Duck’s defense of Moscow.

The bottom line is this: Donald Trump and his surrogates seem completely unable to distinguish between what is political–whether or not Russian hacking turned the election of 2016–and what is national security–the threat to American institutions demonstrated by a foreign ability to enter and manipulate the top ranks of U.S. political parties. Mr. Trump’s entire concern is political. This reinforces the point made in this space in a previous posting–the new chief executive will be imposing a political litmus test on the intelligence brought to him.

For being right, Clapper’s spooks are in deeper doo-doo than ever.

Trump and the Hack: Whose Witch Hunt?

January 6, 2017–Yesterday Director of National Intelligence James Clapper sat before the Senate Armed Services Committee and, referring to president-elect Donald Trump’s jibes at U.S. intelligence, said “I think there is a difference between skepticism and disparagement.” As Clapper said that you could see Robert S. Litt, the DNI’s general counsel, sitting behind him. Litt has been referred to here as a consigliere, and also sat at Clapper’s side when the Fearful Leader perjured himself, swearing to a different Senate committee a few years ago that U.S. intelligence had no collection programs aimed at masses of American citizens. This time around you could see Litt let his head fall, hold it in his hand, and shake it “no.” His gestures suggested the consigliere had a bad feeling about what was happening around him.

Today that is confirmed. General Clapper and the mavens of the intelligence community made their pilgrimage to Trump Tower in New York and presented their detailed findings on the Russian hack to the incoming president. I had thought Trump would give them the courtesy of at least pretending to think over their brief for a day or so but, no, hardly were they out the door when Mr. Trump disparaged the spooks’ findings on Russian hacking as a witch hunt.

Trump looks set to win the public relations contest. Not only have his spin doctors–and the president-elect himself–hammered constantly to repackage a question of a covert influence operation from an historical adversary as a mere case of political sour grapes, but U.S. spooks have left themselves vulnerable to that tactic. The DNI has now had three runs at this affair: a joint statement he issued with the Director of Homeland Security on October 7, 2016; a joint report with DHS last week, and yesterday’s Senate hearing. In all three instances Clapper chose to go with anodyne pronouncements that gave hardly any detail regarding the Russian hack that affected an American presidential election, buried those details released among a mass of generic B-S regarding protective measures against hacking, or submerged it among descriptions of hacking by other states and entities. On top of that DNI Clapper failed to restrain FBI director James Comey from the related action of calling in the computers of the ex of a senior Hillary Clinton aide which, apart from anything else, served to muddy the waters about charges of a Russian hack. All of these actions exhibited exaggerated fears for secrecy–and show why here we call the DNI a Fearful Leader. The effect of Fearful Leader’s actions and omissions has been to leave daylight for Mr. Trump to manipulate this matter as an artifact of politics rather than national security.

Donald Trump’s stance of stiffing those he regards as witch hunters now requires him to point out the real enemies. Top of the list has to be U.S. intelligence. You can see the purge coming.

 

Part 2

January 7, 2017–In his Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times, former CIA deputy director Michael Morrell write, “Mr. Trump’s attacks on the agency surprised me, but they shouldn’t have.” Precisely. This space has been commenting on the attacks for many weeks now. The president-elect chose to make intelligence a political football as an alternative to accepting a serious objection to his simplistic attitude toward Vladimir Putin and Russia. The head-in-the-sand obtuseness of U.S. intelligence under Fearful Leader Clapper helped make Trump’s maneuver feasible.

Yesterday we commented on the shortcomings of previous releases and reports from Director Clapper that were so bland and uninformative they permitted Mr. Trump to dance away from their implications. Yesterday DNI Clapper and his agency directors had their detailed briefing with the president-elect. Afterwards the DNI released an unclassified background paper that purported to detail the charges against Russia for hacking the U.S. election. The news commentaries today, Mr. Morrell’s article, and many other speculations, are based on that summary paper.

Unfortunately the DNI presentation again illustrates the same deficiencies already noted here. Barely more than one quarter of the 25-page “intelligence community assessment” is actually substantive. There is almost as much blank paper (cover and back covers, contents, title pages) as that. Five more pages are given over to explanations of what is an intelligence report, a scope note, and tabulations of the probability levels the spooks attach to judgments that range from “remote” to “almost certain.” By far the meatiest element in this report is an only tangentially-related paper–years old we are told, and as lengthy as the entire substantive hacking report–of the way the broadcast outlet RT Television essentially functions in the same fashion as the Voice of America.

The substantive report contains three “key judgments.” These were by nature assessments, not facts. The only real factual statements were that Vladimir Putin ordered the hacking campaign, and that the Russians did not target or compromise systems involved in vote tallying. The analysis underlying these conclusions lies in a five-page paper jointly produced by the CIA, NSA, and FBI, labeled “a declassified version of a highly classified assessment . . . [that] does not include the full supporting information on key elements of the [Russian] influence campaign.” Aside from such public record details as when various Russian outlets, including RT Television, began their coverage of the U.S. election, and characterizations of the content of Russian media coverage and the statements of notables, there is very little in this report. In terms of the massive hacking, the most substantive elements say that Russian intelligence gained access to Democratic National Committee networks in July 2015 and maintained that access at least through June 2016. Russian military intelligence (GRU) joined in by March 2016, compromised personal email accounts of officials and party figures, and within two months “had exfiltrated large volumes of data.” That’s it.

“Scope Notes” are of little value when their purpose is to disguise lack of content. U.S. intelligence understandably wanted to safeguard its sources, and wished to preserve a step-level distinction between the depth of the information it provides top officials versus the public, but General Clapper again failed to make his case to the public, and to Donald Trump the issue is politics, not intelligence. Trump’s response was to declare he will order an investigation of how NBC News found out about some things in Clapper’s report. He referenced hacking by outsiders (including, but beyond) Russia, and said he will seek a report by late April 2017 regarding general countermeasures against hacks. The only Trump statement recognizable from the U.S. intelligence report is his insistence no voting machines were tampered with.

 

Fearful Leader Against Loose Cannon: CIA’s Purge Begins

January 5, 2017–For all his bombast, expressed in 160 character sound bites, Donald J. Trump is a loose cannon. One of his targets has been United States intelligence. Regardless of his latest–“The media lies to make it look like I am against ‘Intelligence” when in fact I am a big fan!”–what is consistent in the Trump messaging, for months now, is that American spies are in his crosshairs. This sense is well enough established that since before the American elections you’ve been reading here of the coming purge of the spooks. The message carries beyond Trump–his minions spout it at much greater length and with blatant exclamations the CIA lacks evidence for a conclusion that Russia sought to influence the U.S. presidential election.

As this is written the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and his top agency directors are appearing on Capitol Hill to acquaint Congress with their conclusions in more detail. The DNI, General James Clapper, has long been an obsequious apparatchik, so much so that it’s amazing he wasn’t able to get in with president-elect Trump. In any case, the DNI has assembled a report on Russian hacking, which goes to President Barack Obama and Congress today, and which is supposed to be briefed to Trump in New York tomorrow.

There is more than a little irony that Donald Trump thinks little of U.S. intelligence and its charges. To start with Clapper, who has been a Fearful Leader, seeing threats behind every bush and creating an atmosphere that helped make possible the emergence of Trump, is now being slapped down by one he built up. This DNI also pictured his own employees, American spies, as the major threat to U.S. national security and then, when he finds a foreign (Russian) threat, can’t get that taken seriously by the incoming president. In fact Mr. Trump is evoking Julian Assange of Wikileaks–a person whom Fearful Leader and associates have wanted put away (or worse) to refute the reported intelligence findings. A further irony lies in the fact that FBI director James Comey, who played a key role in Trump’s election with a panicky eleventh-hour allegation against the president-elect’s opponent, is part of the delegation who will go to New York to brief Mr. Trump on the hacking findings. Trump has already rejected regular receipt of the top secret President’s Daily Brief. The notion he will be receptive to the message on Russian hacking is wishful thinking.

Here’s my prediction on what will happen: Mr. Trump will emerge from that meeting to say he is taking the intelligence on board. That will endure for about 24 hours, long enough for Fearful Leader and his own acolytes to get back to Washington and report how tense was the encounter with The Donald. The U.S. intelligence community, which is already reeling from charges of complicity in torture, obstruction of justice, foundering amid an operations-oriented reorganization, will add deep disarray due to its stock in trade, analysis, being rejected out of hand.

Mr. Trump has already asserted that he knows things the rest of us do not, and pontificated (rightly, actually) on the inherent insecurity of computers, while inviting the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton, and then asserting that some 400-lb guy sitting on his bed could have been the hacker. Trump cannot accept the intelligence on Russian hacking because it challenges the legitimacy of his election.

What is truly disturbing in this is that intelligence is being read with rose-colored lenses.  The field is full of arguments about the disastrous effects of what observers call “politicization,” but that has traditionally referred to spies self-censoring, serving up what they think the president wants to hear. No one has ever dealt with the situation where the “validity” of intelligence depends on whether it can pass the test of the president’s pre-existing beliefs. The politicization here is demanded by the consumer. CIA calls into question Trump’s rosy picture of the character of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. It has got to shape up. That is why there will be a purge, half of it made up of honest professionals fleeing this craziness. The CIA that emerges at the other end of this will be desperate to regain President Trump’s esteem, ready to do anything at all.

Nuclear Dilemmas: Between the Tragic and the Absurd

January 1, 2017–We are moving to a new presidency. Our new president promises a widescale construction program in new nuclear weapons, reversing the trend of reducing dependence on these dangerous instrumentalities that has been underway since Ronald Reagan’s time. In part Donald J. Trump seems to regard this as an answer to Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s similar promises to build new nukes to counter the system of U.S. missile detection radars and defense mechanisms going into place in Eastern Europe. In part a nuclear buildup will form part of a larger, poorly conceived, Trump administration Pentagon budget that will simply increase spending in every category rather than imposing fiscal discipline on programs that have long run without it.

Our outpourings of grief for people lost in the past year have been heavily tilted toward musicians, actors and cultural personalities. Two of the names missing on those lists could have been vastly helpful in the period we are about to enter. They passed away within a week of each other in December 2016–not quite as close as Carrie Fisher and her mom, Debbie Reynolds, but awfully evocative. One was Harvard economist Thomas C. Schelling, the other Sidney D. Drell, the theoretical physicist who trained at the University of Illinois. Schelling made seminal contributions to game theory, including the escalation dominance and hedging mechanisms that lie at the heart of nuclear strategy. With Bernard Brodie and Herman Kahn, Schelling can indeed be viewed as a father of this school–and in fact he was a plankholder in the creation of Harvard’s Kennedy School. Drell became a founder also–of the JASON Group of scientific experts who counseled the Pentagon on all manner of issues. Drell’s contributions to particle physics were considerable and he remained associated until his death with the Stanford Linear Accelerator. But for our purposes today it is Drell’s forthright advocacy–over decades–of nuclear arms reductions that is important. He sought earnestly for a world without nuclear weapons. Both provide insights to us today.

First, what is Trump talking about as a nuclear buildup? Only certain things are possible. The most obvious is expansion of the ballistic missile defenses currently being installed in Alaska and Eastern Europe. These are represented as oriented toward stopping potential North Korean or Iranian missile attacks. But these deployments are precisely the ones that have aggravated Putin–and accounted for a good measure of the decline in Russian-American relations that began during George W. Bush’s presidency and until now has not been reversed. As president, especially one who esteems Putin as he claims to do, Mr. Trump would be unlikely to focus his buildup here.

What other possibilities are there? As a matter of fact there are no new-generation U.S. ballistic missiles, bombers, or other weapons carriers under design or in production. Efforts for over a decade have actually centered on creating more powerful conventional explosives to de-nuclearize ICBMs and SLBMs. New nuclear weapons designs have been projected, and may have been modeled using the more sophisticated simulations that have become our substitute for actual weapons tests. These are the only nuclear force elements with anything like near-term prospects, though building next-generation warheads is often spoken of as a multi-decade initiative. If so, a buildup based on these elements is likely to incur Russian anger today, while not offering any practical result for a long interval past Donald Trump’s presidency. The engineering development of new nuclear weapons would increase demands for real, physical nuclear tests, and that, too, would spark Russian hostility. Sidney Drell would surely label that course absurd.

The last time the U.S. was embarked on nuclear deployments we were on the verge of producing new-generation guidance systems when arms reduction agreements and the end of the Cold War changed the dynamics of international relations. A resurrection of accuracy-enhancing programs (such as the Maneuverable re-entry vehicle, or MARV)would be a likely avenue for the new arms race. The destructive power of nuclear weapons depends on a combination of accuracy and yield–and of the two accuracy is the more probable near-term development. However, Mr. Putin, in threatening to counter U.S. missile defenses, has to be aware that maneuverable re-entry vehicles (though expensive) offer greater benefits than other types of penetration aids. Igniting an arms competition for MARVs is not in U.S. interest. Tom Schelling would mark it down as a stupid, tragic, strategy, in particular because it would trend toward unraveling many of the confidence-building measures of past decades (emptying the pre-stored target parameters of guidance systems; taking missiles off alert status, etc).

A nuclear arms buildup will not improve United States security. To speak of engaging in an arms race “until” other countries “understand” nuclear weapons, as Mr. Trump has done, is the height of folly.

 

 

Obama’s Legacy on Torture

December 16, 2016–With Barack Obama’s presidency rapidly drawing to a close there will be reflections on his accomplishments in many fields. In this one, on CIA torture, the record is distinctly mixed. The president declared his rejection of it, acted to end it, and then opened the door to continuation of these abominations. Obama assertedly did what he did because he wanted to look to the future rather than the past, but his administration has made it possible to turn back the clock.

In his very first days in office President Obama issued an executive order explicitly ruling out torture, limiting all entities of government, CIA included, to interrogation techniques listed in standard military field manuals. In a panic the CIA rushed to get the president to change a companion order that restricted custody and closed black prisons to permit it to still handle prisoners. The public clamored for a “truth commission” that would probe the dark arts practiced by the CIA in the war on terror. The spooks quaked in their boots. Mr. Obama, who had denounced torture in the U.S. Congress and on the campaign trail, looked ready to go the distance.

The president’s decision process remains murky even today. Instead he employed an intermediate strategy, ruling out any truth commission, simply declassifying the amazingly flawed legal memoranda used to “justify” CIA torture on George W. Bush’s watch. Even there he battled CIA officers desperate to prevent the opening of this material. The showdown came at an Oval Office confrontation between Obama and a slice of CIA brass in the spring of 2009. The president left his attorney general to decide whether or not to prosecute any CIA officers for actions in torture or such concomitant transgressions as obstruction of justice.

Attorney General Eric Holder kept the potential targets of these investigations on tenterhooks for a time, but one by one he took prospective prosecutions off the table. By then, of course, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) had begun its inquiry into CIA torture, which led the agency back onto the dark side as it strove to monitor the investigators and minimize their impact. The SSCI inquiry, and its torture report, completed in December 2012, dragged the White House directly into the center of the torture issue–and there Barack Obama failed to rise to the level of his convictions.

While the CIA was still at the level of surveilling the senate investigators, CIA actually stole documents from SSCI computer databases and justified its action as coming on White House orders. Presidential counsel denied that–but Obama’s lawyers never obliged the CIA to restore the purloined records. Once the SSCI report had been completed, the CIA dragged its feet on permitting its release. President Obama, who had publicly expressed support for opening the report, did nothing to hasten this action. When pressed to declassify the report himself, Obama gave the job to the CIA. When the CIA again stood intransigent, Obama had a senior official of his own staff act as mediator, primarily taking the CIA’s side. All these things helped the CIA evade accountability.

Barack Obama no doubt saw himself as protecting government officers who had carried out distasteful orders. But the practical effect of these actions has been to signal that CIA operatives can, with impunity, go so far as to torture. Enter a new presidential candidate–now president-elect–who promises far worse than waterboarding for CIA detainees. That Donald Trump can do that is possible, to a considerable extent, because of what Barack Obama did not do.

With no fanfare, shortly after the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, President Obama reportedly designated the Senate torture report as a “federal record.” This act will supposedly prevent further efforts to shred all copies of the SSCI report and totally erase it. That is too little and too late. Had there been a truth commission, had CIA officers been prosecuted for criminal activity, it would now be abundantly clear that torture is beyond the pale. Instead it is quite likely the American public will have to have this fight all over again. This will come out as a significant failure of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Hillary Not Convincing? Try Trump Security Adviser

December 15, 2016–Previously this blog has argued that, when secrecy becomes so onerous that senior officials can’t do their jobs without breaking the rules, it’s time for the rules to change. The controversy over Hillary Clinton’s emails and the classified information therein ought to have demonstrated that in endless detail. In case you didn’t take in the point here’s an example from the other side–Donald J. Trump’s national security adviser-designate, former general Michael T. Flynn.

The United States Army has just declassified documents summarizing its 2010  investigation of General Flynn–not for inadvertent disclosure of classified information, as in the Clinton case, but for willful, purposeful disclosures he made while heading the intelligence staff serving our military command in Afghanistan. Those familiar with classified information will know that it comes in many flavors, and that there are “compartments” that divide information into categories to which differing secrecy restrictions apply. One basic one is “NOFORN,” which reserves information for American eyes only, with no foreign dissemination.

General Flynn broke those restrictions in at least two instances, both deliberate. At a briefing that included British and Australian allies, he showed briefing slides which they were not supposed to see. In the second case, Flynn told Pakistani security authorities how the United States used its intelligence capabilities to watch one of the islamist networks in northeast Pakistan. Flynn minimized these secrecy transgressions and made our very point–why should he not be able to tell allies of information that affected them?

These and other incidents, including a still-murky stint in charge of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), affected Flynn’s career. His promotion to lieutenant general was delayed. An assignment as assistant director of national intelligence was denied. When Flynn was later fired from the DIA job he assumed the sinister shape he now maintains.

It is a fair bet that as national security adviser in a Trump administration, Michael T. Flynn will carry out a vendetta against the CIA, DIA, and other American intelligence agencies. The shame is that overzealous secrecy rules here play a part in creating a back alley fight that will surely damage United States national security.

Coming Out of the Woodwork: The CIA Purge

December 13, 2016–Already you can see the storm clouds gathering over Langley, Virginia, headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which is being shunned by President-elect Donald J. Trump and seems to be headed for trouble. So much so that the “Formers,” the newfangled lobbying group of past agency directors and deputies, are coming out of the woodwork to defend it. The immediate issue, of course, is the widely-suspected Russian hacking of American political parties ahead of the 2016 presidential election, which the CIA has now concluded formed part of a purposeful intelligence operation intended to influence the outcome, throwing the election to Mr. Trump.

Trump, who has expressed sympathy for Russian leaders and is packing his appointments list with like-minded prospects, resists the analysis, CIA’s briefings, and has done nothing to keep his security adviser-designate, one-time Defense Intelligence Agency chieftain Michael Flynn, from indulging in even more inflammatory remarks. It is fair to expect a purge at Langley is in the offing.

Meanwhile the Formers are speaking with loud voices. Among the loudest is retired general Michael V. Hayden, who hardly ever misses an opportunity to grab a soapbox, and has been ranked here as a fabulist. Hayden continues telling tales in today’s Washington Post, where he has an op-ed article castigating the Trumpists with a damaging disregard for intelligence.

Mr. Hayden makes some good points–and the issue of Russian interference in an American election is a vital one–so perhaps we should not be too hard on him. But the irksome thing is that Hayden’s past fabulism weakens his warnings against dismissing the Russian intervention. Where the general, a past boss at CIA and NSA, plus a deputy chief at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, deplores Mr. Trump’s resistance to “facts and fact-bearers,” he once said of the President’s Daily Brief (PDB)–the locus of many of these facts–that “if it’s a fact it’s not intel”–and doesn’t belong in the PDB.

In today’s sally Hayden raises the question of the statute that requires the CIA to keep Congress “fully and currently informed” on all significant intelligence activities. That’s something he resisted doing as CIA director. When it came to the agency’s torture program, for example, Hayden left Senate officials enough material at a single April 2007 briefing to fill twenty closely-printed pages with examples of misleading representations. As a matter of fact the same oversight statute Mr. Hayden invokes in his op-ed article to cite a CIA obligation to inform Congress goes on in the very next passage to stipulate the agency cannot deny anything necessary for Congress to accomplish its oversight duties–and at his confirmation hearing for CIA director General Hayden professed complete ignorance of that text.

The Formers, to include the present outgoing squad of spy chieftains, are now hoist on their own petard of misinformation, disinformation, and outright lies. Their efforts to keep the American public stoked up with fears of terrorism and other threats contributed mightily to constructing the atmosphere which enabled Mr. Trump to win this election. Now, when there is a real threat of foreign cyber action capable of disrupting American institutions, the response may be crippled by the politics of selfishness and the stupidity of partisanship.

Pearl Harbor, the Emails, and the Purge

December 11, 2016–How often hopes are dashed! I had been working up to do something around the 75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor when the latest email developments emerged. Sad for me, the absolutely crazed email scandal must take precedence, so I’ll turn to that. The Russians, the elections, the CIA and FBI, Trump–it all swirls around in some cosmic stew, morphing repeatedly into new configurations that lead in unanticipated directions. Let’s start by reviewing where this story came from.

For Americans it began with the “Clinton emails.” Readers of this space will recall our refrain that Clinton was being lambasted for creating communications channels that were legal at a time when authorities had yet to order the emails  preserved as government records, and for handling “classified” information when no one knew what was actually secret, and where a lot of the heat was generated by after-the-fact attempts to make secret what had not been. The argument here has been that Hillary’s alleged transgressions were no different than those of many high officials and that–to the extent any of this should be deemed illegal–it’s time to change the law so that the conduct of policy can be straightforward.

For some foreigners the story begins much earlier, with so-called “cyberwar.” The latest reportage maintains that as early as the presidential campaign of 2008, Chinese hackers penetrated the online communications of both Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns. Over the past two years a new wave of this activity, traced to Russian sources, has again penetrated private communications. At first this was represented as only those of the Democratic National Committee, but later the circle of victims expanded to the Clinton campaign committee, and to the personal account of committee chairman John D. Podesta. Latest reports add the Republicans to the victim list. (NOTE: No reports claim that any of the Clinton emails from the original controversy are involved in this one.) Cyberwar turned into political warfare when the (alleged) Russian hackers began leaking inside information from the Democratic emails in a way so as to damage Hillary Clinton’s election campaign.

During the summer of 2016 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) let it be known it suspected Russians as the hackers responsible for these penetrations. In the fall our Fearful Leader– the Director of National Intelligence– and the Department of Homeland Security together repeated that message on October 7. In the days since the election, says new reporting, the Central Intelligence Agency affirmed the conclusion the Russians are behind the hacking, traces it to the Russian military intelligence service GRU, identifies specific officials supervising the project, and finds the activity part of a political warfare plot to influence American politics.

Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump used the Clinton email issue as a political weapon to impugn Hillary’s discipline and even insinuate criminality. When charges of Russian hacking first surfaced, Trump not only denied that, he invited Russia to hack Hillary in search of missing emails. When intelligence agencies began confirming the hacking charges, Trump denied the substance again, and charged the spooks with being off their rockers. His spindoctors refute the most recent allegations by charging intelligence with being the same people who told us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Trump is clearly set to purge the intelligence agencies–something predicted here before the election.

Meanwhile there is the most curious behavior of the FBI director. Having found that Mrs Clinton had not committed criminal acts in her handling of email (June 2016), Director James Comey chose to resurrect that issue just ten days before the election in a way that was most damaging to Clinton: action aimed not against her but the estranged husband of a close aide, with no actual knowledge or even suspicion that classified information was involved, and against advice of both Fearful Leader and the Attorney General not to do it. If it now emerges that Comey knew the Russians had hacked Republican computers and kept that quiet, while drawing attention to leaks aimed at Democrats, that raises serious questions about whether Director Comey had political intentions, especially in the context of his sudden late-campaign action that also damaged Democrats.

Maybe I can get Pearl Harbor in here after all!!!– One of the arguments about Pearl Harbor that has raged down through history is whether the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941 represented the last step on a back door road to war. Historians Charles Beard and Charles Tansill were among the first to assert that President Roosevelt sought to provoke Japan as a means of getting the US into World War II. There have been other versions of this story too–Winston Churchill did it, factions within the U.S. government did it, there have even been allegations that Adolf Hitler did it, prodding Japan to attack the Americans. The 2016 election is sure to echo down the years–and there will be disputes about the outcome. Did the Russians engineer it? Did the FBI? Did Mr. Trump win the election? Did Hillary Clinton lose it? Meanwhile Donald Trump is set to purge the intelligence community.