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.

 

 

The Fabulist as Operator: Michael Hayden’s Openness

March 15, 2016–Former top spook Michael V. Hayden loves operations. Pushing pieces around the board, making the game go his way–those are the things for which he wakes up in the morning. That’s the meaning hidden in the title of his recent memoir Playing to the Edge. In this space a few days ago (“Michael Hayden: Voice of the Fabulist, March 12, 2016) I covered Hayden’s recent appearance at the “Lawfare” forum of Stanford University. One of the questions he fielded there was which organization–Hayden had headed both the National Security Agency (NSA)  and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)–he had better liked being the director of. Having already said, in a different context, that NSA probably accounts for 60 percent or more of the President’s Daily Brief–and the CIA for much less than the rest–the general came back and said he preferred leading the CIA. He ticked his head. “Covert operations,” he said.

I’ve heard elsewhere–in more than one place–that Mr. Hayden takes more delight in the intricacies of minute spy activities than whichever other senior officer my commentator was familiar with. CIA lawyer John Rizzo writes, “Mike Hayden loved being a spymaster, by which I mean he reveled in conceiving and running covert operations involving real people and back-alley intrigue.” In fact General Hayden’s Big Idea when he took the helm at CIA was revamping the agency’s organization so as to increase the “operational tempo.” Even CIA’s historians were supposed to get involved. Operational tempo did increase–but how much of that was due to the latest moving of deck chairs and ho much to Langley’s increasing reliance on drone attacks remains an open question.

In his memoir the general recounts asking a civilian advisory board whether the United States will be able to continue espionage into a future where every day the demands increase for transparency and public accountability. He reports the board had its doubts. “Really important answer,” Hayden notes (p. 422).

What do you do to avoid that eventuality? You manipulate the public’s knowledge. Here’s a story, and it’s about spies, and it really happened:

When General Hayden came to Langley the hottest issue on CIA secrecy was the continuing effort to shield the “President’s Daily Brief” (PDB), reports that constantly update the chief executive. The PDBs had been recently controversial in the case of 9/11, where it developed that CIA had warned of an imminent threat. Elsewhere CIA had observed that terrorists might use airplanes as weapons. The Bush White House tried but failed to keep that information from reaching the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks and the public. The CIA asserted these PDBs were decision documents and eligible for special secrecy protection.

Dr. Larry Berman, a University of California history professor, asked for some of these PDBs to be released for his research, documents so old their secrecy was not credible. The CIA turned Berman down. In conjunction with the National Security Archive he sued for the papers’ release. The PDBs were not protected either by precedent or by nature–Berman and Archive could show that numerous PDBs and predecessor reports (the documents had another name in the Kennedy years) had long since been declassified, and that no claim had ever been made that releasing them revealed intelligence sources and methods or that they were exempt by virtue of presidential privilege.

While Berman lost at the U.S. district court level, his appeal was on its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit when Michael Hayden took over the CIA. As per Hayden’s question to his advisory board, it appeared there were reasons to expect the same societal forces pushing the effort to open the PDBs might sharpen across the board.

The general’s problem was to be open and shut at the same time.

Now, the CIA also had another ongoing secrecy appeal on its plate. That was the matter of the “Family Jewels,” a notorious compilation document ordered up by CIA director James R. Schlesinger in the early 1970s to discover what domestic abuses the agency had previously engaged in. Revelation of some of the ops that figured in that report had led to the “Year of Intelligence” in 1975, when the CIA had had to endure multiple major outside investigations. Even though its contents were picked through by all those inquiries, the CIA had forever kept secret the document itself. Numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for it had all been rejected. When Hayden arrived at Langley the National Security Archive had been pursuing an FOIA on the Family Jewels since 1992. Archive director Thomas Blanton had been in contact with CIA declassification officials encouraging them to release the material. It would be a good place to start, Blanton argued, if the agency wanted to turn the public dialogue away from torture.

Suddenly Blanton began to hear good things. Senior agency officials told him he’d be happy with an upcoming speech–General Hayden was scheduled to address the Society for the Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), the major professional association of diplomatic historians. Hayden duly appeared on June 21, 2007. He called himself “a lifelong student of history.” He went on to declare that “CIA recognizes the real benefits that flow from greater public understanding of our work and mission,” extolled a “very successful” FOIA program, and went on to assert that “we have completed our declassification review and are preparing to release most of the so-called Family Jewels.”

At the Archive we were overwhelmed, in the short term, with the impact of all this. The general seemed to be turning over a new leaf, perhaps a true age of openness was dawning. Media excitement built through the weekend. The CIA actually released the Family Jewels on the Monday, June 25, when a CIA car pulled up in front of the Gelman Library building of George Washington University, where the Archive offices are located. Television trucks were pulled up all along the street and Langley’s minions no doubt feared the consequences of their pictures appearing in the press. They called upstairs for Mr. Blanton and an assistant to come and retrieve the papers. Much has been done with that declassified document since.

But the Family Jewels were only the MacGuffin in all this. I did not realize it at the time but General Hayden now confirms it in his memoir. “I decided to centralize declassification review at the corporate level,” he writes (p. 121). That meant the agency’s Publications Review Board, a zealous and paranoid collection of the most antediluvian sort, whose antics I have documented in my book The Family Jewels. Releasing the document of that name marked not the beginning of openness but its end–or at least Michael Hayden’s play to the edge.

I was at the SHAFR luncheon where Hayden spoke. I ought to have realized at the time. There were two giveaways–during the questions and answers, several diplomatic historians raised the question of the PDBs. Far from talking openness, he spoke of desire for openness but  General Hayden wanted “space” for decisionmakers and also alluded to the spurious sources and methods argument, which those of us who had ever seen the already-declassified PDBs knew to be so much hot air.

The other giveaway was that CIA took the occasion of the SHAFR luncheon to roll out a new umbrella unit, “Information Management Services,” that combined the Review Board, which has the power of (and indeed is preoccupied with) suppression of anything written by a CIA employee, the Historical Review Program (which had done some declassification work in the past), and the agency’s FOIA and privacy office. An official of this new unit actually drew me aside at the luncheon, reminded me of a particular declassification request I had filed, which apparently he had worked on, and asked why “we” (the public) kept making requests like that. Managing information meant keeping it away from the public.

Hayden told us, “I firmly believe this approach will improve CIA’s standing with key partners inside and outside government, including people like you.” The CIA’s declassification process slowed down considerably in the wake of that episode. General Hayden personally participated in this op.

A few months later the Circuit Court ruled that CIA could, indeed, keep their PDBs secret for the moment, but it threw out the “sources and methods” bugaboo, telling the agency it would have to consider the true secrecy value of the various reports. That is what led to the event last September at the Johnson Library, where the CIA made a show of releasing thousands of PDB documents. Note the additional 8-year delay in opening this material. It’s also worth noting that in both the Family Jewels and PDB cases the agency speaks as if it had itself thought up the idea of releasing these documents, rather than being impelled by the public.