Secrecy Obsession: An Example from the CIA

November 3, 2016–While we spend lots of our energy incredulous over the FBI and James B. Comey’s apparently stupid (or worse) intervention in the United States presidential election, all that attention draws us away from another secrecy “event” that further illuminates the insanity of the present system. This is the CIA’s recent declassification of the final volume of its internal official history of the Bay of Pigs, the disastrous project that mobilized a force of Cuban exiles to invade their home island to overthrow Fidel Castro. That April 1961 fiasco is one of the most famous in CIA lore. If you want the chapter and verse on what I’m about to say, just visit the National Security Archive where you can download a copy of the newly-released document.

As you can imagine, there were testy and treacherous internal debates at CIA over what went wrong. There was also an obligation to draw lessons from the failure. One thing President John F. Kennedy did, right after the operation, codenamed Project ATE, was to reactivate a watchdog board that had kept an eye on intelligence for his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. One of the first things that unit did was to ask the CIA’s inspector general (IG) if he was investigating the Bay of Pigs, and when they could expect to see his report. Agency director Allen W. Dulles summoned the IG, Lyman D. Kirkpatrick, and ordered him to assemble such a report. Kirkpatrick did this over the following months and finished up late in 1961, just as Allen Dulles was retiring, to be succeeded by John A. McCone.

This timing is important to the story. Rather than pass the IG report on to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, McCone held it back while interested parties at the CIA wrote their own rebuttals to the IG, each more scathing than the next. (Sound like the Senate torture report? Right!) Only when all the refutation was ready did Mr. McCone pass the assessment along to overseers. In effect, McCone had scuttled–or, depending on how you take it, covered up–the IG report on the Bay of Pigs.

Another key to this story is the CIA’s internal debate. All the rebuttals essentially passed the buck, back to President Kennedy. One dominant theme was muddled White House decisions obliging the CIA to cut back its operation. Even more problematical was the contention, by many at the CIA, that Project ATE would have overthrown Fidel Castro if only Kennedy had permitted the agency to execute its full surprise attack planned against Castro’s air force. Both these contentions took the argument outside the CIA. But the Inspector General’s job was to carry out reviews that improved efficiency within the agency. Kennedy’s decisions were not within his purview. Yet here the IG was attacked bitterly by his own colleagues for doing his job–improving efficiency–by criticisms (and there were many) of how the operation had been conducted.

Now let’s skip ahead. Late in the 1970s the CIA commissioned a massive internal history of the Bay of Pigs. Official historian Jack Pfeiffer got the assignment to do the study. He spent five years on that job, splitting the history into microscopic studies of the air campaign, the evolution of the CIA plan, the agency’s dealings with the Cuban exiles, the presidential commission inquiry, and, in this volume, the now-suppressed Kirkpatrick report. The CIA’s chief historian of that time, we are told, judged this volume inadequate. Pfeiffer retired in 1984, before he could complete revisions to this study, which therefore remains a “draft.”

What was objectionable about the Pfeiffer history? Not much, at least in this volume. Scrambling to make lemonade on the occasion of the document’s 2016 declassification, current CIA chief historian David Robarge writes the history was not acceptable “because of serious shortcomings in scholarship, . . . polemical tone, and . . .failure to add significantly to an understanding of the controversy.” But reading the document shows its author correctly footnoting his sources, using relevant official records, and displaying other tools of the historian’s trade. We might say the history is tendentious, in that its author spends a good deal of space on textual interpretation of other CIA histories and documents to make his points–but that precise method is used successfully by many historians. Scholarship is not evidently at issue. The “not adding to the history” part we’ll put aside, since several books of this era made the best seller lists precisely by revealing some of the same information that is in these histories. That criticism is a throwaway line.

The Pfeiffer history is polemical, very much so, in siding with the failed leaders of the project and CIA rank and file who condemned the IG for criticizing agency practice. Pfeiffer still reflects, in the 70s and 80s, the testy attitude that Kirkpatrick was a careerist out to take over CIA’s operations directorate, and he also clearly shares the notion that the Bay of Pigs would have worked if only Jack Kennedy had fully unleashed the CIA exile air force. Both these attitudes were CIA orthodoxy, not controversial at all. As a matter of fact, agency dislike for “Kirk,” as he was called, lasted long after Pfeiffer himself departed Langley. In 1998, when a CIA retiree association newsletter wrote of the Inspector General’s office, it lambasted Kirkpatrick and the Bay of Pigs report in this identical fashion–as the man who wanted to run operations so bad he’d do anything. The criticism seemed so unfair to CIA old timer Tom Polgar that he wrote a letter in protest.

Meanwhile, much of history is polemical, and, in Bill Casey’s CIA, when agency analysis was possibly at its most politicized, it was no sin to be polemical in a history. This sounds like a “those grapes were sour anyway” sort of objection, or perhaps something conjured as an excuse to shoot down a study that made top echelons uncomfortable.

Jack Pfeiffer left the agency convinced that it had covered up the Bay of Pigs failure by restricting access to both the Kirkpatrick report (and rebuttals) and the White House review (called the Taylor Commission report). He notes that “external requests for access to the reports have caused and continue to cause great consternation at the highest levels in the Agency.” Pfeiffer added, “After more than twenty years, it appears that fear of exposing the Agency’s dirty linen, rather than any significant security information, is what prompts continued denial of requests for release of these records.” Not long afterwards Mr. Pfeiffer filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the release of his histories.

Here is where our story really begins. In 1984 the CIA asked Congress for–and obtained–an exemption from FOIA for “operational records.” It described operational records as agent and project case files, substantive materials. The CIA then used the “operational records” exemption to refuse to release its Bay of Pigs histories, calling them operational files. Jack Pfeiffer went to his death still pleading for release of the histories.

History marches on–and that also means records get older and become less sensitive. Redacted versions of the Taylor Commission hearings became available in the 1980s. They were White House, not CIA records, so the agency lacked complete control over them. The Kirkpatrick report and its rebuttals were opened in expurgated form around the millennium. They have since appeared in substantially complete form. National Security Archive analyst Peter Kornbluh even published the IG document and most refutations in a book that appeared in 1998.

Still secret were the Pfeiffer Bay of Pigs histories, the CIA’s official record. The third volume, the one concerning the anti-Castro Cubans and the exile brigade, was released by the CIA’s Historical Review Program in 1998. The JFK Assassination Records Board compelled the disclosure. That’s important–here the agency gave up the claim these were “operational records”–except that it did not. Here’s where the “deliberative process” exemption took a front seat. That presumably meant a document that is advisory in nature and pertinent to arriving at a decision. Under pressure of additional and repeated declassification requests, spearheaded by the Archive’s Kornbluh, in July 2011 the CIA yielded and let out three more volumes of Pfeiffer’s history. But Volume 5 it continued to withhold under “deliberative process.”

The National Security Archive sued CIA over this and won a judgment, but Archive lost the CIA’s appeal, which let stand the absurd exemption. The court found that creators of the exemption had put no time limit upon its exercise. Think about it–the Pfeiffer history explicitly covers the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, in which CIA covered up its mistakes and suppressed the IG report that tabulated them. That IG report itself was already in the public domain. There is nothing of deliberative process about this. And the document is a history not an advisory paper. In due course Dr. David Barrett of Villanova University again FOIAed the Pfeiffer history and, when the agency denied it again, prepared to take them to court. Meanwhile, Congress passed a new law embodying changes in the Freedom of Information Act. Among them is a legal requirement to consider the public interest in the release of documents, and one that limits the deliberative process exemption to 25 years. Both those things, especially the second, would have condemned the CIA to disaster in a court proceeding, and would have ended up costing you, the American taxpayer, when CIA is found liable for the court costs of this mess. The “context note” from the agency chief historian reveals nothing of this history. Instead CIA takes credit for moving to affirmatively release a document to which the new legal strictures apply.

That is how they play the game. You can be sure that the Pfeiffer history would not have been released except that it was the subject of a lawsuit, and that no extensive release of CIA predecisional documents older than 25 years impends.

Finally, let’s look at the actual and “articulable” damage to United States national security that regulations specify must be present for a document to be made secret. There was an IG report on the Bay of Pigs. No secret there. The report was actually declassified years ahead of this analysis of it. The CIA covered up the Kirkpatrick report. Not widely known, but no secret–and no evident source of national security damage. CIA officers thought Lyman Kirkpatrick a careerist. So what?

What’s left is this : CIA officers into the late 70s and 80s still persisted in the delusion–reflected in Pfeiffer’s writing–that the Bay of Pigs would have worked if there had only been a bigger air strike. Embarrassing, but no national security impact. In fact, the regulations explicitly prohibit imposing secrecy for the purpose of avoiding embarrassment. Second, that a CIA historian might write that the agency is afraid to air its dirty laundry. National security damage? No. Also, that the Bay of Pigs coverup continued by means of the secrecy in which the Pfeiffer history was held. There’s the big enchilada. That does not damage the national security either but think of the tortured logic–the document has to be secret because it was secret (and embarrassing), and the secrecy mavens are entitled to invent or utilize any exemption they can think of to maintain that state. What Jack Pfeiffer wrote in 1984 is still true more than 30 years later.

So, watch the FBI secrecy investigation. The classifications, the descriptions of what are true reasons why things on Hillary’s, or anyone else’s computers, are secret have been imposed by the same bureaucracy that held on to the CIA Bay of Pigs history. You’ve already read in this space about those folks retroactively deciding that things are secret (another violation of regulations). The system is rotten at its core. The FBI wants to be seen as diligent enforcers of this system. So be it–but first make the secrecy system worth defending.

COMMENT BY DR. DAVID M. BARRETT: “Your blog’s treatment of the CIA and the Pfeiffer history of the Bay of Pigs, volume 5, was brought to my attention yesterday, and I want to express my admiration for your analysis. I was delighted to have that volume declassified by the CIA, but I was quite annoyed to see the Agency claim that they were doing so because of the change in the law. My attorney and I have (in writing) the Agency’s explanation to a federal judge (in the case Barrett v. CIA) that they were declassifying it due to my (and surely others’) FOIA request(s) and because of the lawsuit. But, as you note, the Agency’s chief historian claims otherwise.”–November 21, 2016.

 

 

Obama and Comey

November 2, 2016–Today’s 90-second comment: Barack Obama has finally taken notice of the mess at FBI. The president says America doesn’t work this way; we don’t operate on incomplete information. Here he breaks ranks with the spooks he has steadfastly protected all through his administration. It is not difficult to discern why–Director James B. Comey’s actions over at the Bureau, threatening to derail the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, also aim at his legacy. A Trump presidency would seek to dismantle everything Obama has accomplished. That is one reason Obama has been on the campaign trail for Hillary, and it also marks the beginning of an assault on the FBI that is sure to intensify.

The latest developments over at the Bureau are reports the gumshoes  sure enough did treat the Huma Abedin/Tony Weiner laptop investigation differently than their other cases. FBI apparently stopped work on a pair of other inquiries that had political overtones–one into Trump aide Paul Manafort, the other into links between donors to the Clinton Foundation and Ms Clinton while in office as secretary of state. If true, this indicates the FBI acted to avoid interference in the U.S. elections, until the latest stupidity.

If you reject the idea Comey is acting as a Republican stooge, there is only one logical explanation left : FBI acted in hysteria over allegations that secret documents populate the Abedin/Weiner laptop. That brings us back to where we began the other day–the secrecy system is being administered in a way that makes it impossible for top officials to do their jobs.

As for the FBI, cancel their expressions of interest in the deal where they are enticing investors to pay for their new headquarters in a Washington suburb. Let them stew in their dump downtown.

And for secrecy, we have reached the point that the secrecy system has damaged the American electoral process. That is true damage to U.S. national security, much more than the content of any email the FBI may possibly find.

Spooks Gone Wild !!

October 29, 2016–By now you would have to be an ostrich out in the Australian outback with her head in the sand not to have heard the latest blast from the Federal Bureau of Investigation–the FBI is re-opening the Hillary Clinton email case on the strength of unspecified, mysterious, material allegedly found on laptop computers shared by Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her separated husband, Anthony Weiner. This requires comment, both in particular and from a broad perspective. Sadly, my house requires upkeep and painting, and I’ve not been able to spare the time the latest horror deserves, but let me put in a few words now. My guess is this story continues to spiral out of control and will be there for further comment in coming days, even weeks.

First of all, the Bureau was investigating Anthony Weiner, not Hillary at all. Of course, it was inevitable, in these last days of a presidential election, where the underdog has been desperately trying to use the Clinton email secrecy issue as a claw to recover lost ground, that a blow struck at Weiner/Abedin would reverberate as a shakedown of Clinton. The Trump campaign is taking it precisely that way. If FBI director James B. Comey thought it would be taken any other way he is foolish–and no one thinks that of him.

So, why this? Why now? Director Comey has been under strong fire from Republicans for, supposedly, shielding Clinton in the original investigation, which found the issue did not merit additional investigation. To revive the investigation might get the FBI a little credit, and at this time in a critical political campaign, a lot of ground with Republicans. The timing is doubtless partly due to this, partly due to the discovery on computer drives seized from Weiner of the Abedin/Clinton material. Comey probably calculated that if he delayed action, that fact was sure to leak, adding to FBI’s political problems. Unfortunately by the action he took, Comey buys into an even bigger problem.

I’ll return to the specifics of the secrecy investigation in a moment, but first a crucial point absolutely needs making: the “October Surprise” revival of the Clinton email investigation absolutely insures that, whoever wins the election, it will be followed by a purge of the intelligence community. Ms Clinton will be furious at the way FBI handled this matter. Comey’s tenure at the Bureau expires in the middle of the next president’s presumptive second term and you can be certain he’ll be unable to protect anyone the White House decides to go after. Comey himself will be frozen out of the halls of glory. If Donald Trump becomes the next president, he will purge because he’ll know that whoever fixed the cards against Hillary can tell that story on him, representing an incredible political danger. Plus, the unnamed culprits could do the same to the Donald, so they must be stamped out.

Yet I say purge of the whole intelligence “community.” That is the entity of sixteen agencies (or however many there are today) under their Fearful Leader, General James Clapper. In Spanish there is a slang word, flojo, literal meaning “flimsy” but used for pathetic weakness. Clapper’s “leadership” falls in that category. Running around with his hair on fire about North Korean missile tests and ISIS militants under every rug, Fearful Leader first casts our own intelligence officers as the greatest danger to American national security, and then he stands aside while James Comey takes an action that undoubtedly does affect national security. Obama was wrong not to get rid of Clapper when Fearful Leader escalated the NSA blanket surveillance scandal by perjuring himself before Congress. Now Clapper has been ineffectual in the face of an FBI action that may derail the prospects of Obama’s favored successor. Add to that that Clapper is unable to energize the CIA to do anything useful in the real ISIS war, in Syria, and you have an intelligence mess across the board.

There’s more painting to do and I have to go. But before I leave, a few words about the actual stimulus here. Director Comey does not know there’s any problem here. He supposes that because the computer was, in part, used by Huma Abedin, it may contain some of the same emails that have figured in the controversy over the Clinton emails and their classification status. Even if so, where’s the beef? For there to be a secrecy issue at all, Hillary Clinton needs to have sent emails with secret information from the Abedin/Weiner computer to another link that was not secure. Message traffic that is retrospectively graded secret does not count. Messages that copied Abedin at this address along with sending to her at other places (ever done that?) do not count. Messages that Abedin sent Hillary do not count. Messages that were mistakenly addressed do not count.

Readers of this space will know I have said repeatedly that the email controversy shows that the security regulations need to change once the system becomes so awkward a senior official cannot function without breaking the regs. This business of the alleged security violation over a secondary computer shows exactly what I mean. It becomes impossible to conduct the business of government this way. The system needs to change.

The Clinton Emails (3)–Games WERE Played

October 19, 2016–Games were played with the Clinton emails, just not the ones you think. Or perhaps, just the ones you thought. From the beginning of the Clinton email saga you read in this space that this was a scam about secrecy, and new evidence for the bankruptcy of the secrecy system. Now we have the proof. The FBI has released texts of interviews it conducted during its investigation of the email scandal. In combination with the Bureau’s own final report, and the parallel inquiries of journalists, we can now assemble a picture of the handling of one of Hillary’s typical emails.

Under instructions to release material handled on Mrs. Clinton’s private email server the State Department reviewed swathes of these for opening to the public. As part of the government’s standard approach in matters of secrecy, the messages were circulated to other agencies for their say. The government calls this “equity,” as if agencies can own information–which they cannot, by law. Nevertheless the “equity” arrangement has been used as a major tool to manipulate declassification and secrecy, as it was here.

The State Department had simply intended to release the emails. The Federal Bureau of Investigation objected. It considered that some of these emails ought to be secret. (The first problem with this set up–you’ll also have seen that here before–is that we have FBI deciding after the fact that something should have been secret before, and then claiming the breach of regulations designed to protect secrecy at the inception of a document.)

A senior State Department official, Patrick Kennedy, in charge of the email release project, phoned the FBI, where he spoke to Brian McCauley. This was May 2015 and McCauley was the Bureau official responsible for its foreign operations. The FBI had just lost two slots on the staff of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad–and here is where the story gets muddled. McCauley adverts that he initially asked State to reinstate the Baghdad field agents and offered at his end to help get FBI to back down on its secrecy demand enabling State to move forward. Once he learned the message concerned Benghazi, McCauley relates, all bets were off. On the State Department’s side, Patrick Kennedy has loyally said he thought the message was not secret, though certain redactions might be required for other reasons, and that he knew nothing of any FBI offer of a trade.

The way this story was first reported alleged that it was the State Department that had begged for a trade–with the implication it sought in that way to shield Hillary Clinton.

So is the game played. Secrecy is not wielded simply for the protection of national security, it is used as bludgeon to obtain all manner of interagency “cooperation.” The losers are the American people, who are not only robbed of the true record of their government’s actions, but are subjected to the arbitrary measures of a system in which policy is forged partly by barter.

You have already read here (for example, “Hillary’s Emails: Bursting the Secrecy Bubble,” August 22, 2015) that the email controversy really shows the need to reform the laws governing secret information, which have made it impossible to function as a senior official without breaking them. Here’s a good illustration of why–an act taken in the open at time x is suddenly recast as secret at time y–and then the charge of breach of secrecy is used to extract some other action. Add to this the fact that investigation of the breach is in the purview of the FBI and you have the makings of a completely vicious circle.

It is tragic that this whole “Hillary Emails” thing has been made into an election issue in a campaign for the presidency of the United States. The emails controversy has been manipulated from beginning to end, is based on a very ephemeral set of acts pumped up by persons with other agendas, and has even been exploited by foreign governments to meddle in American politics. Do not make an issue of the emails without carefully considering the full issue.

 

The Spooks & Trump–No Match Today

August 20, 2016–By now you will have heard that this past week presidential candidate Donald Trump received his first intelligence briefing from America’s top spy organs, led by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). You’ve probably also heard what Trump had to say going in about how he trusts our spooks: “Not so much from the people that have been doing this for our country. I mean, look what’s happened over the last ten years. Look what’s happened over the years. It’s been catastrophic. And, in fact, I won’t use some of the people that are sort of your standards . . . because they’ve made such bad decisions.”

On the other side you have former senior CIA officials like Michael Morrell saying the country cannot afford to have Donald Trump for its president, or agency director Michael Hayden insisting that if Trump is in charge and wants to carry out his promise to torture people, he’ll have to bring his own bucket.

This is really quite an odd circumstance. Think about it. Mr. Trump has based his entire campaign on selling fear, the fear of an existential threat from which only he can rescue the nation. Meanwhile our intelligence community has been selling fear also. The continuing terrorist threat and so on, so much so that in this space we have taken to calling the present DNI, General James Clapper, our Fearful Leader (and Michael Hayden–who devoted his tenure at CIA to an attempt to preserve the torture program– a fabulist). That sides with such comparable worldviews eye each other so darkly says something about the reality of the United States today.

First to Trump. Take his ten year standard. Actually you can do better and go back to September 11, 2001. No American has died on U.S. soil from an islamist terrorist attack since then. There have been a host of remote conversions and gun massacres, from Orlando to San Bernardino, to Aurora; but it remains debatable whether those represent disturbed individuals grabbing the cloak of jihadist justification or true terrorists. There have also been an even larger number of cases where weak individuals have been converted in entrapment schemes by our own security services and then condemned as terrorists. If Trump’s point is that the FBI and others made dubious decisions in those cases, he’d be right, but somehow I don’t think so. He would also be right if he meant the intel pukes miscalled the growth of ISIS, or Iran’s alleged rush to the bomb, but that’s not Trump either–he is about threat to the homeland. Anyway, bottom line is that on his decade-long measure of merit, intelligence performance has not been “catastrophic.”

As for the spooks themselves, it is a matter of both relief and concern that they speak up about the Trump candidacy and his specter of fear. The intelligence chieftains’ protests give us relief because they show the spies themselves recognize the danger inherent in the stoking of paranoid fears, and they agree that Trump, as the personification of that irrationality, would be dangerous in the White House. But the spooks themselves seem not to understand that their own fear-mongering created the atmosphere of hysteria in which a Donald Trump could flourish.

Suddenly the spies find themselves in a situation where Mr. Trump could actually become President of the United States. And the Donald has promised to sweep their halls clean of the old spooks if he wins. Fearful Leader and the others ought to have thought long ago about the consequences of their fear-mongering.

Peruvian Days

August 5, 2016–In a virtually unnoticed exchange in February 2010, Michigan Congressman Peter Hoekstra called the CIA to task for its incredibly ham-fisted handling of the April 20, 2001 incident in which American missionaries were killed by the Peruvian air force, in collaboration with a CIA air crew, working as part of a joint program to interdict drug trafficking. In an angry tone the Republican congressman denounced the CIA’s response, released the actual film of the incident, and triggered an official statement from the agency—conveniently left off the CIA website to attract as little attention as possible. This episode is important not only to the continuing effort to bring accountability to CIA operations, but also particularly because in the war on terror, the CIA’s Predator attack program is now resorting to similarly low standards of identification and evidence in selecting its targets. It’s a fair bet that accountability issues will arise in the Predator operation, and the Peruvian incident offers stark illustration of how the agency treats these kinds of things.

In brief background, toward the end of 1994 President William J. Clinton approved a project—buttressed by interagency recommendations and duly diligent Department of Justice memoranda—to halt or hinder airborne shipments of drugs from Peru by means of a common effort between the CIA and Peruvian authorities. Agency flights would identify traffickers and call in the Peruvian air force, which would either force the planes to land or shoot them down. Called the Air Bridge Denial Program, this project continued until April 20, 2001, when a CIA flight summoned the Peruvian air force to tail a plane which actually contained an American Baptist family, the Bowers, who were returning from vacation to their mission in the Andes. The CIA contract operators who had identified the plane as a possible target began to doubt their original suspicions, but their calls to Peruvian authorities went unheeded. After making little effort to communicate with the missionaries—a radio message beamed on a frequency the plane was not monitoring—the Peruvians shot at the plane, killing wife Veronica and infant daughter Charity, and wounding pilot Kevin Donaldson. Missionary husband Jim Bowers and his seven-year old son Cory barely survived the crash landing of the aircraft. George J. Tenet, CIA director at the time, gives this moment the “sad distinction” of being “my worst day as DCI before 9/11.” [At the Center of the Storm, p. 49]

The key facts became known within ten days of the tragedy. In its hustle to defend itself the CIA revealed some, and the U.S. government released other data in protecting the larger initiative. That Peruvians had done the shooting, that the CIA aircrew had not followed their own standard procedures for identifying the aircraft tail number, but that they recanted their initial suspicions and had tried to call off the attack—and that all of this was on tape—were revealed. Within a month it became known that at the outset of the program State Department lawyers had recommended against participating in a program that would involve shooting down civilian aircraft. By July 2001 results of a State Department internal investigation had leaked and showed that joint training between the CIA and Peruvians had been spotty, embassy oversight lacking, that cautionary procedures had gone by the boards while the CIA contract employees knew little Spanish. All this and more was confirmed by an October 2001 report from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which additionally revealed that a similar rush to shoot had already occurred, in 1997, but got no attention because that time real drug traffickers were involved.

What did the CIA do? Bury all of this as deeply as possible. The government paid $8 million to settle 2002 claims filed by the Bowers family and pilot Donaldson. The Justice Department did conduct a criminal inquiry but in 2005 decided against bringing any charges. My book Safe for Democracy contains numerous examples of similar sorts of shenanigans.

Not until August 2008 did CIA inspector general John Helgerson complete his report on the Peruvian aerial incident. That it required seven years to complete this investigation already draws suspicion. According to Representative Hoekstra, the CIA engaged in “repeated failure to follow procedures that resulted in loss of life; false or misleading statements to Congress by CIA officials up to and including former Director George Tenet; and potential obstruction of justice by CIA employees with respect to a Department of Justice criminal investigation.” [Letter, Rep. Hoekstra-Director Michael V. Hayden, October 6, 2008]

Hoekstra drew these conclusions from Helgerson’s report, which additionally found that no one involved in modifying the presidentially-mandated intercept procedures had had any authority to do so, that within hours of the attack CIA officers had begun falsely saying that the shootdown was a one-time error in a well-run program, and that the agency had not met legal obligations to keep the NSC and Congress fully informed, including suppressing adverse results of internal inquiries and ignoring a direct question from national security adviser Condolezza Rice.

It was only after Representative Hoekstra made an issue of the Helgerson report did CIA director Michael V. Hayden review it and decide to convene an accountability board. That board decided upon minor sanctions for sixteen individuals—ABC reporters Matthew Cole and Brian Ross learned that one, for example, received a reprimand letter for his file that would be removed after a year. The individuals involved included the CIA counter-narcotics chief, its chief of station in Lima, and the base chief of the facility dispatching the spotter planes.

Even more disturbing, Director Hayden initiated a CIA internal investigation of the Inspector General. Thus, some minor slaps on the wrist for field officers are combined with a major pushback at an agency watchdog.

Lax accountability for CIA operations is not surprising but remains highly problematic. Today’s CIA Predator attack program, like the Peruvian project, involves remote target identification, instant attack, and high secrecy. The criteria for selecting prospective victims are supposed to be very tightly drawn—but that was supposed to be true in Peru also—and American citizens may be targeted. The CIA as judge, jury, and executioner? Apart from the unintended consequences of this program on American-Pakistani relations, it can only be a matter of time until an accountability moment falls from the CIA’s Predator drones.

The brouhaha over the Senate torture report demonstrates an agency virtually breaking loose from supervision. This situation is not acceptable for a security agency responsible to citizens in a democracy.

What’s Secret, Hillary? Who’s Careless, Trump?

July 28, 2016–There’s a significant slice of folks out there who think Hillary Clinton ought to be in jail. This latest business of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump inviting Russian spies to hack U.S. computers to track down allegedly missing Clinton emails is typical of the genre. But what we’re really talking about is imagined transgression versus truly stunning betrayal. Don’t fall for it!

Readers of this space will know that when the Clinton email scandal broke, now more than a year ago, the very first pieces you saw here explained how phony were the breach of secrecy charges. I’ll refrain from going back over those details and just make a few central points. First, not until 2009 did the Department of State have any regulation regarding officials’ use of private channels, not until 2012 did the National Archives and Office of Management and Budget issue rules requiring agencies to actually manage electronic messages sent thereon, and not until 2014 did the State Department actually ask former senior officials, including but not limited to Clinton, to hand over copies of their electronic messages. Clinton may indeed have lied in responding to those inquiries, but she was not in violation of regulations. In columns posted here I showed that a range of other senior officials had done the same. Both Condi Rice and Colin Powell were later shown to have been dissembling when they initially denied ever using private channels.

My second point concerned the arbitrary operation of the secrecy system. Much of the fancied Clinton secrecy violation was the product of after the fact judgment by unnamed officials of the CIA and other agencies. Director James B. Comey of the FBI acknowledged as much on July 5 of this year, when the Bureau formally ended its investigation of the Clinton emails. Over three thousand emails–a little more than ten percent of those Ms. Clinton handed over–were found to have sensitive contents. Of those, 2,000 were found to have been retroactively graded classified, and another 1,000 contained a category of information, deemed “sensitive but unclassified,” which really doesn’t belong in the secret vault at all. Eight emails were judged to contain Top Secret information, an equal number confidential, and 36 messages plain secret info. Moreover, those messages appear in chains, where Secretary Clinton reacted to messages in ongoing conversations, and where the actual insertion of the information could have been by anyone.

My conclusion at the time bears repeating: when the regulations become so onerous that top officials cannot do business without violating them, it’s time to change the regs, not persecute the officials.

As a historian I deal with government secrecy every day. I make requests to open secret records, make arguments for why documents should be opened to the public, or desist, agreeing or begrudging claims that continued secrecy is justified. But secrecy can be phony just as it can be real. One of the supposed Clinton violations concerned a newspaper story about the drone war, the text of which was forwarded to Clinton, then traveling, so she would be able to respond to reporters’ queries. It happens the CIA considers everything about drones Top Secret–so it charges the secretary of state with dealing in Top Secret information she could have read in the newspaper. That is phony secrecy.

Contrast it with an example from my current book, which deals with the battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, the largest naval battle in history. Arguably the two biggest Top Secrets of World War II were the development of the atom bomb and the fact that the allies were reading their adversaries’ coded radio messages, a form of intelligence called “ULTRA.” Extraordinary measures were adopted to protect the secrecy of ULTRA, including never identifying the source. In the battle of Leyte Gulf a powerful Japanese fleet transits through the Philippines to the Pacific side of the archipelago to engage the Americans. In the book I show how America’s Pacific commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, threw security to the winds in order to warn of the emergency, and identified ULTRA in a dispatch to subordinates that gave a position for the Japanese fleet on the Pacific side of the islands. That was a real security breach. No one even criticized Nimitz for his deliberate action.

Today Donald Trump invites Russia to hack in search of Hillary Clinton emails. That would be a true cyberattack–a security breach–an intelligence penetration, and an intervention in United States politics. The act is not fundamentally different from the political terraforming the CIA accomplished with its covert operations in various lands. At its heart Trump’s is an act of disloyalty.  Sounds like The Manchurian Candidate.

During 1944’s presidential campaign, Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, who knew the secret of the codebreaking, thought to employ it to charge Franklin Roosevelt with dereliction for Pearl Harbor. Instead Dewey kept his silence after the visit of an emissary from Army chief of staff George C. Marshall. That was being careful.

The politics has fallen very far when citizens want to jail the former secretary of state for doing her job, while political adversaries invite foreign spying merely to obtain votes.

Weapons and Tactics: ISIS and the Japanese Navy

July 19, 2016–The latest horror, this truck mow-down in Nice, France, last week is worth more attention– it goes to the theme that terrorism is less than the sum of its parts. I have written about this here before, but the appearance of my new book Storm Over Leyte  permits me to illustrate this point in a way that I could not before. The point is to show the difference between a movement and a war.

First, for background, suicide tactics are artifacts of desperation. A victorious belligerent wants to be around to enjoy the spoils. One resorting to suicide attacks is using the determination to die as a way to increase fighters’ combat effectiveness.

But suicide tactics represent just another element in determining outcomes. All the other aspects that produce outcomes still apply. Think of each as an independent variable. The adequacy of weapons and munitions, the status of equipment, the readiness state of both attacker and target, the alertness or expectations of the target, environmental conditions, we could continue, but that’s not necessary.

In the Nice slaughter the assailant drove a truck to run people down, finally was reduced to using a weapon outside the vehicle, and was brought down. The weather had been perfect, with crowds gathered to watch Bastille Day fireworks, so the targets were unsuspecting and mostly unarmed. The toll currently stands at 84 killed and more than 230 injured, over 40 of them critical or in intensive care.

We are told the assailant had recently fallen under the spell of ISIS, and during the preceding interval had been trolling extremist websites. The perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels did that too. Let me add to what I said about those incidents–in addition to targeting the least protected, we can add that the events take place as one-off incidents.

That is, ISIS and its brethren troll just like our Nice assailant. They attract the attention and approbation of individuals–from sermons, on the web, in readings, in speeches. For the most part the eventual suicide attackers have had only sporadic–or less–contact with the real ISIS network. Their links have been minimal–and, for post-incident investigators, the assailants’ affinity for ISIS has been mostly imagined. The attacks can only be one-offs–like the 9/11 attacks themselves–because the assailants end up dead, while the target population contrives a greater degree of protection.

Contrast this with the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II. With Japan increasingly on the ropes and unable to lay a glove on the Allied forces, in late 1944 the Japanese Navy made a plan to deliberately sacrifice most of its strength in order to put a strong fleet up against an Allied force invading the Philippines. The Japanese coordinated their warships and used their planes to help reduce the scale of Allied resistance. The fascinating tale of how the Imperial Navy accomplished the feat of threatening a U.S. task force in the face of every imaginable disadvantage of strength, supply, intelligence, and combat power is told in stunning detail in Storm Over Leyte, but the point is that the Japanese succeeded in coordinating, that a command presence led their forces. More than that, the Imperial Navy created a corps of suicide aviators and made efforts to regularize the use of these tactics. This was a systematic effort.

So long as ISIS and its brethren can do no more than mobilize random recruits for one-off attacks the period we are in should not even be called a “war.” We need deeper thinking and less hysteria.

 

 

CIA’s Brennan Senses the Abyss

April 13, 2016–If the nation’s top spook can’t see the storm clouds gathering you’d have to wonder if the spy agency is even doing its job. This week the CIA’s director, John Brennan, showed his first sign of life in some time. Brennan gave an interview to NBC News which indicates the agency is at odds with both of the candidates leading on the Republican side in the race for this year’s presidential election. On one level that is a great relief, on another it is disturbing.

Richard Engel of NBC asked Mr. Brennan if the CIA will resume waterboarding in the eventuality that Donald Trump–who has demanded aggressive torture–is elected president. (The other leading Republican, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, has declared that waterboarding is not torture.) Either one, in office, could be expected to order resumption of waterboarding. Director Brennan replied that he would not re-authorize the euphemistically known “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

That should be a great relief to anyone who worries that America’s behavior in this subterranean conflict is providing fodder to our enemies as they seek new recruits for terrorism.

On the other hand, look at Brennan’s formulation: “I will not agree to carry out some of these tactics and techniques I’ve heard bandied about because this institution needs to endure.” Those are his words. There are a number of troubling thoughts that come from them.

First, Brennan’s statement implies that he understands–as the director told the Senate intelligence committee–that waterboarding is torture. If so, why did he fight so hard to prevent the committee’s report on the CIA torture program from coming to light? Brennan had also told the committee that he had read the portion of its report the CIA would finally declassify and would hasten to bring it to the public. Instead he continued to drag his feet for more than a year and a half.

Second, inside the agency Mr. Brennan went along with a CIA counterspy op that actually targeted Congress, and then he permitted a tainted agency lawyer to file a criminal referral to the Department of Justice in one last effort to suppress the torture report. And then Director Brennan went along with a sham process of enforcing “accountability” on CIA personnel who had engaged in this shabby activity. Every one of those actions was about escaping the consequences of CIA torture and indicates Brennan either spoke with a forked tongue at confirmation or switched sides once he arrived at Langley. Neither posture should evoke public confidence in the man.

Most troubling, there is a operative phrase in what Brennan told NBC: “this institution needs to endure.” Translated: Director Brennan understands the CIA occupies shaky ground already, and its re-engagement with controversial and illegal activities can lead to overwhelming pressures to dismantle it. The agency needs to avoid torture for its own self-preservation. That’s an accurate perception but it begs the question of why CIA did not understand this all along, and why did senior officials like Mr. Brennan permit the agency to dig its hole deeper through its stupid hacking of Congress. There will be more on this story. Stay tuned.