Where Obama Erred

June 25, 2017–The alternatives were to give a televised speech from behind his desk in the Oval Office, announcing a series of measures to counter Russian political intervention, warning American citizens a foreign nation–was Putin a friend?–had meddled in the 2016 election–or to take quiet action (much earlier, covertly) to make it plain to Moscow that its actions were counterproductive. Doing nothing was not an option. That or anything else was a variant of what has appeared here several times in the past, in connection with the U.S. intelligence chiefs–that putting out the weak-kneed, diffident “statements” or “reports” that they did, was worse.

Fingering the Russians but including only generic palaver about computer hacking or remotely related data about RT News only made it harder to achieve the clarity that might have stood Putin down. Today’s Washington Post (“Obama’s Secret Struggle to Retaliate Against Putin’s Election Assault,by Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous, June 25, 2017) shows precisely why. When briefed by CIA director John Brennan, Republican figures on Capitol Hill chose to play partisan politics. Some made themselves unavailable to be briefed. Others asked why they should believe CIA when the U.S. intelligence community as a whole was nowhere to be seen on this. Brennan, who had cut his agency loose from oversight in the torture controversy (read about this in detail in my forthcoming book The Ghosts of Langley), had only himself to blame. It would be cuttingly mordant that only the Democrats, whom Brennan had spurned, stood up to defend our country. On September 22, 2016 Senator Dianne Feinstein–Brennan’s direct target–and Representative Adam B. Schiff jointly told the public that Russia was conducting a campaign to undermine the U.S. election. Republicans scoffed.

On October 7 followed a statement from Homeland security director Jeh Johnson and director of national intelligence James Clapper asserting Russian intervention, but in terms even more vague. Johnson, with FBI director James Comey and White House counterterrorism director Lisa Monaco, had already failed to convince Hill denizens at an August briefing. Johnson had failed again when reaching out to state election directors in September. The conventional wisdom about the October 7 joint statement has already settled in: that it was wiped out by the revelation just hours later of Donald J. Trump’s misanthropy as proven by videotapes taken by a television show on which he had appeared. But the joint statement on the Russian Caper fell due to its own lack of weight. Johnson was batting with two strikes against him already. Clapper had a reputation as a liar, established by his perjury when asked if the National Security Agency were conducting blanket surveillance of Americans. In my opinion, Clapper was also the “Fearful Leader,” a Chicken Little continuously warning the sky was falling. Republicans could fairly dispute whether the full intelligence community agreed with these charges against Russia. The FBI, indeed, had pulled out of the joint statement at the last moment, inviting the question of where were the others.

Republican candidate Donald J. Trump had publicly invited the Russians to hack America in hopes of finding emails from Hillary Clinton he claimed still existed. Some moves of Trump campaign figures were known at the time, including the Moscow trips of associates Michael Flynn and Carter Page; the fact of pro-Moscow alternations to the party platform at the July 2016 convention; and the Trump speech at the Mayflower Hotel in April, which added to a mounting pile of public statements in which the candidate praised Vladimir Putin or else Russia more generally. Republicans took this as their cue, overturning decades of Republican Party hostility to Russia–and the Soviet Union before it. They put on blinders and earbuds when confronted with evidence of Russian election tampering.

President Barack Obama’s key moment came then. With Republicans actively denying the Russian Caper, the question became what to do about the election. Mr. Obama had taken Putin aside at a diplomatic conference in China in September to warn him against interfering. He repeated the warning in a message given to Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak at the White House just as Johnson and Clapper put out their joint statement. Obama may have thought of this as moving on multiple fronts, but the truth is that Republican deniers robbed the diplomatic protest of any power it might have had. On October 28, when FBI director Comey announced he was reopening the Bureau’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, inflicting grave political damage on the Democratic Party candidate, it became even more incumbent on President Obama to act. Obama is widely reported to have feared any open presidential intervention in the electoral politics. In 1968, faced with the analogous situation of evidence obtained of a Republican “October Surprise,” a Nixon campaign deal with South Vietnam to throw that election, President Lyndon B. Johnson also chose to do nothing in public. Perhaps Obama emulated LBJ. Instead he went out on the hustings, Michele Obama too, in a whirlwind of campaign appearances over the last days. Obama could have taken to the air waves with an Oval Office address warning Americans their election had been influenced by outside forces. He chose not to do that.

Barack Obama’s biggest problem as president, for all his achievements, was to lack the courage of his convictions. From letting the generals talk him out of the Afghan withdrawal he had set as a condition of their “surge,” to imposing a “red line” in Syria and then failing to enforce it, to dictating a new secrecy policy and then letting the agencies run roughed over it, again and again this president compromised short of his own goals. Obama’s holding back in the 2017 election may prove to be his greatest error.

Senate Intelligence Committee’s Mojo Coming Back?

March 31, 2017–Capitol Hill is a place of contrasts. The most recent is the startling difference between inquiries into the Russian Caper being mounted, respectively, by the United States House of Representatives and Senate. The House committee’s “inquiry” has been a pure smokescreen, engineered by a chairman acting as an operative of the Trump White House, in ways calculated to protect President Donald J. Trump from the consequences of his methods. (The jury is still out on what actually happened in the Russian Caper–and the appropriateness, even legality, of that–but it is quite clear that tactics used subsequently to distract attention and/or evade scrutiny are wholly unacceptable.) Democratic Party members of the House Committee are powerless in the face of California Republican Devin Nunes, the chairman. Nunes may be destroying any bipartisanship that existed among his colleagues, recasting himself as a laughing stock, but the practical effect of his actions has been to destroy the House investigation.

That leaves the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI). Readers of this space will recall that during the time of the fight between the Senate committee and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) over the SSCI’s inquiry into the CIA torture program, my analysis was that the agency maneuvered to obstruct and emasculate its Hill overseers. Langley had good success doing so, enough that at the end of the day the SSCI seemed impotent. Now the Russian Caper plus the failure of the House inquiry casts the SSCI in the lead role for what probes that remain possible within the current framework.

The good news is that the SSCI, so far, seems to be stepping up to the plate. Over the past several weeks Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, the ranking opposition member and vice-chairman, has garnered most of the public attention, but has consistently held to a bipartisan approach, and said good things about how the Senate committee will proceed. Then on March 29 Senator Warner appeared with his chairman, North Carolina Republican Senator Richard Burr, at a joint press conference. For forty minutes they laid out how the SSCI will proceed, defended each other, and generally put on a good face.

Senator Burr had gotten off to a rocky start after taking the committee over from California’s Dianne Feinstein. Burr had demanded government agencies return all copies of the SSCI torture report to the committee, evidently intending to deep six the data, handing the final victory to CIA. Investigation of the Russian Caper–which calls Republican party loyalties into question–is an even more difficult proposition for the GOP senator than overseeing the agency.

But Burr and Warner are clearly together in this enterprise. Senator Warner spoke of thousands of documents handed over to the SSCI investigators, and the first public hearing the committee held, on March 30, pulled no punches, with a former FBI special agent discussing Russian active measures tactics. It seemed a good start. Perhaps the Senate intelligence committee is getting its mojo back. We’ll see.

Michael Hayden: Voice of the Fabulist

March 12, 2016–Among the chorus of voices lifted in defense of the excesses of our intelligence agencies, when these came under the scrutiny of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was that of former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Michael V. Hayden. The Senate committee report pictured Hayden as a defender of torture. Readers of this space may remember warnings against listening to Mr. Hayden that were included in posts in the wake of the Senate committee (SSCI) report. Hayden is an experienced speaker and trained briefer, smooth and unctuous. He is superficially credible, which is what makes him dangerous. Mr. Hayden is out there now, a retired Air Force general with a memoir to peddle. It’s high time to revisit the question of his believability.

A former director of both the CIA and the NSA–at the very moment it entered into the present scheme of dragnet eavesdropping–not to mention deputy to the Director of National Intelligence, Mr. Hayden had a finger in every pie. He slides by means of an m.o. where he typically asserts that he understands (this extreme view) as well as that (extreme view) covering the spectrum, and then proceeds to obfuscate.

The technique was on view last night in a lecture series sponsored by the blog “Lawfare” with the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. In that talk Michael Hayden deplored complaints against CIA for its torture of prisoners in black sites as a violation–a violation by citizens of CIA’s compact with the American people. What is that? Hayden explained that you have to check off boxes before sending an officer into the breach. Does the president approve the operation? Check. Does the attorney general? Check. How ’bout the CIA director? Yep. Does the operation have the agency’s sacraments? Uh huh. OK. It’s within the compact.

Sound good? It’s malarkey. First off, where was the vote–even the national conversation–where the “American people” agreed to that schema? It didn’t happen. Long ago George Tenet, Hayden’s predecessor several times removed, saw the need for a new national consensus on U.S. intelligence work after the Cold War, but Tenet dropped that project half way through and the quest was never resumed. There is no compact.

Second, on Hayden’s checklist there is exactly one elected official, the president. By definition the others, especially the CIA director and his minions, cannot be approval authorities for the compact. As for the president, George W. Bush–and the CIA–did their best to hide both black sites and torture, as well as the “legal” memoranda that were supposed to have justified this mess.

Insofar as torture is concerned the reality is that it is not certain the president did agree. Hayden himself admits there was much more difference between the first Bush term and Bush 2 than between Bush and Obama. Well, George W. in Bush 2 prohibited the torture (and indeed Obama followed suit). During Bush 1 George Tenet, the CIA director at the time, stopped the torture program–at least twice–because he was not sure the president approved it. Dick Cheney told the CIA President Bush approved, but Cheney also blocked every CIA effort to approach the president directly. As Hayden knows perfectly well, W.’s own assertion that he was briefed and did approve, has been disputed elsewhere. The difference between Bush 1 and Bush 2 is the leak of the black sites and CIA misdeeds, plus the increased distance from 9/11. To put it differently, permission, if there was that, went off the table the moment the public learned of the excesses. That sounds like a very different understanding of the “compact.”

Third, the attorney general (and here Hayden refers to John Ashcroft and then Alberto Gonzales–he hates Eric Holder, who is, apparently, a “true believer” against torture) is a weak reed on which to hang approval authority for a “compact.” By Mr. Hayden’s standard Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s knowledge of CIA plans to assassinate Fidel Castro brought them within a compact with the American people. Not likely.

(In the narrower sense, though he did not actually say so, no doubt Hayden was referring to the so-called “legal memoranda” compiled by the Office of Legal Counsel of the Department of Justice as approving of CIA torture. Not only have those memoranda collapsed, on their face, as legal underpinnings, they were given excessive importance in the first place. Legal memoranda are not laws or court decisions, and they do not substitute for law. Again, no “compact.”)

Both in speech and in his book Mr. Hayden refers to poll numbers that appear to accept the act of torture. Polls do not create a “compact.” Public opinion is notoriously fickle–and I’m sure if you could ask those CIA officers who carefully avoided the taint of these projects their reasons why, you would hear back that they knew opinion would change later and they’d be hung out to dry.

Which is exactly what’s happening to Mr. Hayden, Jose Rodriguez, and other CIA stalwarts of the interrogation programs. It’s their desperation showing. Unlike poll numbers and phony “compacts,” torture is a criminal offense under U.S. and international law, treaty law and the law of war, and associated activities are constitutional violations. There’s a reason why the psychologists the CIA hired to install its interrogation techniques insisted on coverage of legal fees for 20 years afterwards.

In various places Hayden has also made a point of trying to turn around the language. In particular in speaking of the SSCI, the former CIA director talks of the committee attempting to configure a “they say/we say” dynamic. Hayden connects the use  of the word “torture”–and others associated with the reality of what happened–with the supposedly false approach. Think about that for a minute–the CIA, an agency that specializes in deception (among its other skills), crafts a series of euphemisms (“enhanced interrogation techniques,” “high value detainees,” and so on), and then complains the public is out of line for using conventional vocabulary to discuss the issue rather than CIA’s deliberately contrived substitutes.

Tell me who is trying to impose the dynamic on this debate?

You see why you need to deal with Hayden’s logic, and his language, carefully.

In a few days I’ll have more to say about Hayden’s manipulation of secrecy and freedom-of-information while he was CIA director.

CIA Torturers Talk Back

September 9, 2015–Remember last December, when the Senate intelligence committee released its investigative report on CIA torture programs? Many CIA officers, principals in the story, mounted an across-the-board effort to discredit the SSCI investigation, spin doctoring every aspect of the Senate report. The former officials put up their own website, flush with copies of op-eds, transcripts of interviews, and an array of documents declassified to support their position. The former agency officers have seemed quiet of late–not even adding to their website–but it turns out this was simply because they were repackaging the same information in book form. That book is being released today.

I kid you not when I say the website involved many principals in the sorry story of CIA torture, otherwise euphemized as the “RDI Program,” for rendition, detention, and interrogation. Editor of the new book is Bill Harlow. Mr. Harlow previously served as the CIA’s top public relations man, and he is the coauthor of the memoirs of both agency chief George J. Tenet and gung ho spook Jose Rodriguez. Both of them are contributors to the new book too. So is Michael V. Hayden, a man who loved operations, held the reins as the last prisoner was tortured, moved heaven and earth to keep CIA’s authority to torture intact even after President George W. Bush shut down the program, and is cited in the Senate report as systematically misleading Congress on what had been done. A third agency director who contributed to this new bit of PR, Porter J. Goss, is the man who stood aside while clandestine service director Rodriguez engineered the destruction of videotapes that documented CIA officers engaged in criminal acts–an obstruction of justice.

Both website and book are contrived to rebut–indeed that is the book’s title–the Senate intelligence committee report. In fact Rebuttal is built around the June 27, 2013 CIA response to the Senate report, for which the agency held up declassifying the investigation in the first place. The idea that this agency rebuttal hasn’t received sufficient attention is just wrong. First off, Senate investigators and CIA officials met multiple times to discuss the substance of the agency’s objections to the Senate report. If you look at the Senate report you’ll find many instances where the investigators take up specific claims in the CIA rebuttal and introduce additional evidence to counter them. I am told there are also places where the investigators accepted agency contentions and changed their text to accommodate them. In other words the CIA response has already been taken into account. The agency’s rebuttal document is nevertheless worded as a wholesale rejection of the Senate report.

Second, the CIA response is not so coherent anyway. Langley’s general counsel, Stephen Preston, would be appointed the Pentagon’s top lawyer in the course of the haggling over the Senate report. As part of Preston’s nomination hearings he was obliged to answer questions regarding the CIA’s preparation of its response, in which the general counsel had a supervisory role. Preston described a process where CIA director John O. Brennan simply farmed out sections of the Senate report to different officers for each to refute, where no one read the entire text of the Senate investigation, where the emphasis was on scoring points rather than reflecting on the evidence, where the Senate’s text was manipulated so as to optimize it for refutation.

For example, there are twenty major conclusions of the Senate investigation. The CIA rebuttal also contains twenty sections that are labeled replies to Senate conclusions. Not a single one of the CIA rebuttals corresponds to that numbered and labeled conclusion in the SSCI document. This makes a jumbled up hodge-podge of the Senate report. Its last two conclusions are not even taken up in the CIA response, several others were addressed only indirectly, and Langley’s mavens put words in the Senate committee’s mouth, making up an alleged SSCI conclusion, apparently so that it could use the phrase “saved lives.”

“Saved lives” appears in the name of the CIA’s officers’ website as well as in countless agency statements, speeches, and claims. If asserting a thing makes it so, in the classic propaganda technique, then this debate would have been over a long time ago. But like Richard Nixon steadfastly asserting his innocence in Watergate, the issue won’t go away because it is real. There is a fire behind the smoke and mirrors.

Lawyer Preston insisted that he had no writ to ensure the CIA responses were accurate or responsibility for the overall document, and made only spot contributions to its contents.

Asked about the forthcoming work that embodies the CIA response document, Senator Dianne Feinstein says, “”The new book doesn’t lay a glove on the factual accuracy of the Committee’s report.”

The truth about the secret war against terrorism is that the CIA and its cohorts replicated every one of the abuses that got the agency in trouble in the 1970s, this time on a global scale.

From the standpoint of citizens attempting to obtain accountability from their government institutions, the coddling given this crew of CIA officers is also deplorable. The fight over getting the Senate report released went on for nearly two years. During the last six months of that time the cabal were actively planning to counter the investigation before it was declassified. It took time to create and design their website and to obtain content for it. In particular, declassification of documents is an issue here: the CIA crew obtained preferential treatment in the declassification of documents. In fact, it appears that CIA work product may have been created especially to be released to this cabal (an Office of the Historian paper on CIA-congressional relations to uphold the claim the agency was square in its briefings to Congress). The bulk of these documents were released in September and November 2014, in good time for them to be placed on the crew’s website before release of the Senate report that December 8. In addition, the secrecy mavens were quite permissive in what they released to this crew, providing, for example, virtually complete versions of CIA records that the American Civil Liberties Union had already applied for, been denied, sued, won the case, only to be given completely gutted redactions.

The fact is that this whole crew–there are plenty more in here whom I haven’t named–have been treated with kid gloves so far. They are lucky to have escaped prosecution. Not satisfied with that, the crew apparently wants Americans to sign on to the monstrous acts committed in the nation’s name, perhaps even congratulate them for heroism (??!!?). Too much more of this and the thinning veneer of protection may be stripped away. Less swagger needed. Like the classic image of the spy these fellows should be gathering their cloaks around them and disappearing into the night.

More on Secrecy as a Disease

January 13, 2015–I’d wanted to post about the fantasy horrors being invoked around the “Charlie Hebdo” terrorist incident–the dangers foreseen here have indeed come to pass–but new developments on the secrecy front oblige me to turn that way first. We’ll get back to the “terrorist cell” in another post.

If you’ve spent much time reading this space you’ll know that I have frequently decried egregious government secrecy. You may be aware of some of the specific discussions that have appeared here. I have two of them in mind today. General James Clapper, our Director of National Intelligence (DNI) is on the hook for both of them.

The first is my posting just before last Christmas, presenting evidence showing that the CIA had deliberately used secrecy restrictions to influence a political debate, moving declassification requests from its people implicated in the torture report ahead of the line of supplicants while holding up the release of the actual Senate intelligence committee investigative report. That, of course, was so the agency officers in trouble could craft a defense with their own website containing formerly secret documents. I posted a selection from these documents (available as a product called “Bush Torture Documents”in the Downloadable section of this website) to illustrate how far the CIA declassifiers were ready to go for their own.

Now, it turns out that while all this was happening, the DNI’s Inspector General was assessing DNI and agency performance on excessive secrecy, as he is required to do under a 2010 law. The latest of these assessments was issued in December 2014, as the very events above were occurring. The Inspector General found “no instances” in which “classification was used to conceal violation of law, inefficiency, or administrative error; prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency; restrain competition; or prevent or delay release of information not requiring protection in the interest of national security.” Really? So what was the torture report caper anyway?

What planet do these people live on? Do they seriously expect the public to believe what they say when they openly flout all regulatory mechanisms?

Next up is the disturbing–and seriously misguided, idea of making our own spy agency officials the enemy. This is the so-called “insider threat.” No doubt inspired by Edward Snowden’s revelations, the insider threat has been conjured up to make the whistleblower the enemy, rather than people like the CIA torturers, who actually engaged in illegal activities. Fearful Clapper and his minions, the other spy chieftains, used their appearance on Capitol Hill for the annual national security threat survey last year to decry this insider threat.

Back in May and June (“America’s Terrified Spooks,” May 9, 2014; “U.S. Intelligence Tied Up in Knots,” June 8, 2014) I wrote about these matters, and discussed how they sap morale at the agencies as well as criminalizing–if properly implemented–the activity agency officials themselves engage in when they leak information to reporters.

Over the weekend we had a delicious illustration of exactly how ridiculous all this is. It was revealed that the Department of Justice has, for several months, been sitting on recommendations from the FBI that it should seek a criminal indictment against former CIA director David Petraeus. As it turns out–and as rumored at the time of his resignation from the agency following revelation of his affair with Army officer and biographer Paula Broadwell–Petraeus had given her secret documents which ended up on her computer. Diane Feinstein, the outgoing chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee promptly spoke up to say the offense should be ignored–Petraeus had suffered enough already. The message appears to have gotten through. Washington sources appear to be saying it is extremely unlikely Petraeus will be charged for leaking classified information.

(I happen to agree with the idea, in general, that regulations had gone too far in casting General Petraeus as a bad guy. I said so back in November 2012 in a piece in the “Outlook” section of the Washington Post.)

But what we have here is another specific demonstration of the double standard. Just as CIA declassifiers favored their friends with a shower of secret memos while throwing the regulation book at Senate investigators; here, Justice Department authorities want to excuse David Petraeus for letting out secret information while they seek maximum penalties for Edward Snowden.

You can’t have it both ways. Either jail Petraeus or forget about indicting Snowden. Otherwise the mishmash of regulations on secrecy, the lack of consistency in enforcement, and the haphazard application of the provisions that do exist make a mockery of the whole idea that there is a “system.”

The NSA Watch

January 3, 2015–In the first of a series of long-form collections, Prados here reprises his commentaries on the National Security Agency domestic spying and eavesdropping scandal. This selection includes commentaries posted from the end of 2013 through the winter of 2014, a period of time during which the NSA spying was found wanting by courts, presidential reviews, and a public privacy board. President Barack Obama promised reforms. These essays analyze the evolving scandal, providing background on individuals and issues involved in the controversy.

The collection is available as a product for a nominal fee from the “Downloadable” section of this website. It appears under several national security and intelligence categories.

CIA ! Sshh !!! OMG–PR !!

December 12, 2014–You know the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is in trouble when they hold a press conference. Amid the fires on Playa Giron at the Bay of Pigs, the swirling assassination charges of the Phoenix Program, the cynical denials to Congress that the agency had had anything to do with those fellows dropping supplies to the Nicaraguan contra rebels, charges the agency was running guns to Bosnian freedom fighters–never a press conference.

It’s odd, really. There are obscure federal agencies but nothing so opaque as this. Aside from our vaunted “intelligence” community, what others are there who employ tens of thousands of people, whose budgets amount to tens of billions of dollars, whose programmatic activities kill people, who are subjected to this level of scrutiny? I can’t think of one. Can you?

What level of scrutiny? Their budgets are secret. It was a struggle of more than six decades to require U.S. intelligence to divulge even an overall figure for the amount spent on this function each year. Their authorities are classified. Officials appear at nomination hearings and feed senators a load of horse**** and then disappear into the secret world. Agency spokespersons make numerous statements for publication on stories in the public domain that have no traceable texts or physical existence. Freedom of information and sunshine laws are interpreted any way they damn well please. Agency officials appear in Congress at open hearings almost only for the purpose of threatmongering, stoking public hysteria while warding off inquiry. Everything is all about image.

The kind of regulatory hearing that preoccupies most federal agencies hardly matters to the spooks. Until 1967 the CIA had never appeared before a congressional committee for purposes of accountability and then the hearing was secret. Until 1975 neither CIA nor NSA had been in open hearing either. Indeed the public is kept ignorant of the most basic information necessary for regulatory purposes. The congressional intelligence committees are supposed to stand in for the public, but we see repeatedly how they are deceived. Each time the spooks explain those manipulations as inadvertent mistakes or clumsy errors, or accidental misplacements of records, but the pattern is plain to see. In my book The Family Jewels I showed at great length how the CIA massages image by influencing journalists and using declassification rules. In the present instance of a senate investigation of the CIA, agency officers hacked into the computer systems of regulatory investigators. In spy tradecraft the word for that is “countersurveillance.”

Some journalists have written breathlessly of yesterday’s press conference with CIA director John O. Brennan as “unprecedented.” Where that adjective applies is the care the agency took with its image. Take the venue. Brennan had the press in the atrium of the CIA headquarters building, where stars are carved into the marble wall representing CIA officers fallen in the line of duty. He made sure to refer to the wall, and the stars, in the course of his 45-minute exchange. Obviously nothing could be more disruptive to agency business than to have a public event in the main entry area. This is especially true in that when the Langley complex was built, designers carefully included an auditorium area–affectionately known as “The Bubble” (it even looks like a buckeyball)–outside the main building so that events could be held without impacting the secret work of the spies.

There have been CIA press conferences in the past. Bill Colby held a couple in the heat of the scandals of 1975 with the Church and Pike Committee investigations pressuring the agency to respond. My favorite was at the height of the flap over news the CIA, in support of its Nicaraguan secret war, had flooded Los Angeles with drugs. The CIA director actually flew out to LA for that session and it got national TV coverage. Then there was the time the CIA  was caught misleading the congressional oversight committees (again!) on its ties to Guatemalan army officers responsible in the murders of American citizens. Both of those were in the Clinton administration. That’s pretty much it. I might have missed a couple, but for an agency whose history spans sixty-seven years that’s not a hell of a lot. Notice the pattern? As I said up top, the press conference is a sure index of CIA nervousness.

Now to substance. Director Brennan set the context as carefully as he chose the venue. He spent nearly half the time on his opening statement, which was long on 9/11 and the atmospherics of those days. Some might dispute this, since references to the program were scattered through Brennan’s remarks, but my reading was that the CIA bossman passed over the substance of the torture program in a single paragraph (which noted it had approved by the president and the Department of Justice).

Brennan went on to the senate investigation, disputing it, asserting the CIA had acknowledged mistakes, and lambasting the Senate intelligence committee for a one-sided report for which investigators interviewed no one. He used the word “unprecedented” to describe the amount of help CIA gave the investigators. Nary a word about countersurveillance, about the CIA’s doing an internal survey covering the materials the Senate might get its hands on, CIA’s criminal complaint against the investigators to the Department of Justice, or its long foot-dragging on providing evidence, which had actually forced the president’s White House counsel to broker a deal between the CIA and the Senate committee. I don’t think Brennan actually used the word “partisan.” Instead he compared the new report unfavorably to the Senate intelligence committee’s “bipartisan” investigation of the Iraq WMD intelligence. Too clever by half. The whole problem with the Senate WMD investigation was that it was not bipartisan, but rather, driven by a Republican majority–precisely the way the CIA is wont to characterize the present effort. Apart from that, the CIA behaviors noted above might be likely to engender a certain investigatorial ire, no?

Director Brennan picked up another point from the chorus of former spooks who are shrilly screaming from the sidelines. Interviews. In the Iraq WMD inquiry, Brennan noted, some CIA officers were interviewed as many as four times. With torture, none. But Mr. Brennan left out the Justice Department obstruction of justice inquiry that proceeded in tandem with the Senate investigation. The CIA played the Ollie North card here. The prosecution of North for his role in the Iran-Contra affair failed because he had spoken to Congress on the substance of issues for which he was indicted, which left the evidence tainted. Here Justice’s obstruction inquiry took precedence over the Senate intelligence committee’s investigation. The senators had another source, though. They used the interviews conducted by CIA’s Inspector General in an internal investigation into the torture. That proved sufficient for the Senate investigation but not for Brennan and the cheerleaders. Note the play: the Senate is prevailed upon to give a free hand to the Justice inquiry; the CIA pressures the White House to drop Justice charges against its officers; then the favor Senate investigators did for Justice is used to discredit the Senate’s own inquiry.

In his defense of torture Director Brennan made much of another canard that is becoming popular among the cheerleaders: “knowability.” Now that torture has been applied, the argument goes, it is not possible to know what information the detainees would have provided if they had not been tortured. This is a straw man claim that relies on a false application of an analytical concept. In fact, “knowable” is a specific philosophical term in the intelligence business. It refers to what is beyond the realm of knowledge. In Cold War days when CIA analysts were projecting the size of Russian missile forces five to ten years in the future, they were making predictions about production decisions Soviet leaders were only going to make three to five years into the future. Those decisions were unknowable.

With the detainees CIA tortured, “knowable” does not even apply. The fact is that we have evidence, in CIA cables, that the subjects gave out information before they were tortured. The likelihood is that good interrogation practices would ensure that flow of data continued. The kinds of details cited by Mr. Brennan and in the CIA’s response document to the Senate report are ones likely to have emerged anyway, over time. With or without torture I don’t see that CIA tracked down Osama bin Laden especially quickly. They could have taken a little bit longer and conducted a legitimate interrogation. As detectives “detect,” so intelligence officers are supposed to analyze. “Knowable” has nothing to do with it.

Brennan and company are essentially saying torture is a convenience. To engage in morally reprehensible actions for convenience is unacceptable on so many levels we shouldn’t even be talking about it. It is high time to enforce accountability on CIA. Instead of accountability we get posturing and invocations of fallen heroes to justify a shabby present. The system is broken. Public relations is not oversight, nor is accountability vague pleas that the agency has heard the complaints and made appropriate changes. Accountability is explicit, specific, and it involves personnel decisions, not to mention open covenants openly arrived at.

The Real Deal on CIA Torture

December 11, 2014–“It’s all a bunch of hooey,” says former Vice-President Dick Cheney of the Senate intelligence committee’s investigation of CIA torture. He should know. After all, he sat at George W. Bush’s side when the torture programs were ordered and approved. It is hooey–at least the way CIA officers, retirees, and one segment of the media are portraying it–and not for the reasons they say.

I agree the agency was no rogue elephant. That the CIA went its own way is hooey. Langley remained at all times under complete control of the Bush White House. CIA has only one boss. President Bush ordered the torture. (Investigating that was not within the scope of the Senate investigation–and you can bet that beyond top secret classification levels will shield every White House and NSC document on CIA torture for decades into the future.)

There’ve been whispers in the media over the past few days that some minions advised Mr. Bush to use the Senate torture investigation to distance himself from the agency. Neither he nor Mr. Cheney has done that. Rather, they have asserted they were in control, though they’ve permitted circulation of claims they remained ignorant of details. Bush is pictured almost heroically, refusing to be briefed so he could not inadvertently leak crucial data. That is hooey. The reason to not be aware of details is Alberto Gonzales’s reason, to preserve a fig leaf of cover and shield Mr. Bush from criminal liability.

It is hooey–as Wolf Blitzer put it to Senator Dianne Feinstein–that if Americans die or are injured in protests resulting from the emergence of the CIA torture information, that will be on the Senate intelligence committee. Shoot the messenger again, why don’t you? It is the CIA torture, not the investigation of it, that bears consequences. Those consequences would still exist if there had been no investigation. The situation would have been like an IED waiting to explode.

It is also hooey what our former spooks have been saying. White House authorities and cursory review from a Justice Department wannabee secret warrior do not eliminate a stack of international conventions, common law, and the U.S. code. The law is absolute. It applies to everyone, including wannabee secret warriors and presidents. The responsibility of George Tenet, John McLaughlin and their successors was to tell the president the U.S. could not go as far as Dick Cheney wanted.

There is more hooey in disputing the facts of the Senate investigation. Why is it that Michael V. Hayden, Jose Rodriguez and Republicans in the Senate have not been able to make stick the charge that this is a mere partisan attack by a political party? Robert Grenier, Rodriguez’s successor at the head of the Counterterrorism Center, accused the investigators of “cartoonish findings.” Yet the wave of criticisms, mounting toward tsunami proportions, continues past one day’s news cycle, not abating. It is because the intelligence committee report consists almost entirely of quotations from CIA documents strung together with connective text. This report is so damning because it consists essentially of CIA paper.

It is hooey to argue the CIA was informative and fully responsive to congressional overseers. Indeed CIA dishonesty is inherent in what it does assert–that it was responsive within the secrecy parameters set by the White House. Here, again, we have a question of law and custom. By custom, executive order, and statute, CIA is required to inform Congress. But the record of the past decade and a half–on issue after issue, not just the CIA torture–has been one of manipulating who got to hear what, when and how. The stupid dispute about what Nancy Pelosi knew and when is just a case in point. It was symptomatic of this manipulation that the full intelligence committees received their first comprehensive briefing on the CIA torture just hours before President Bush declared an end to CIA black prisons and sent the detainees to Guantanamo. It is equally revealing that the Senate report’s two dozen examples of CIA dissimulation and deception are all drawn from that same 2006 briefing, which the CIA now says was one for which they could have prepared their director better.

Rather sounds like Fearful Clapper, the director of national intelligence, telling Congress that his lie, about the NSA not spying on millions of Americans, wasn’t really a deception because, allegedly, he was thinking of something else at the time. Doesn’t it?

Or, how about the CIA hit team project for assassinations? That was kept from Congress for at least three years after it was an operation, even though the congressional committees are supposed to be kept “fully and currently” informed.

Former CIA people and Bush White House officials have lost their moral compass. This is not about the formalities of White House approvals, the cursory legal review, or the kabuki playing of the congressional oversight system, it is about human rights, and the legal rights of individuals. And public opinion, including international public opinion, matters.

I have used this example before but it is worth revisiting: French Army officers made the same mistake in the Algerian war. Faced with an overarching threat they tortured to find and defeat an insurgent enemy. Public charges arose, just like with the CIA torture, which were denied in terms that might almost make today’s CIA people plagiarists. The French thought they had gotten away with it. A legislative amnesty was voted, later a presidential pardon issued. But time after time after time the torture charges came back to haunt the officers. Indeed, another court trial flowing from the Algerian torture took place even while the CIA black prisons were active–nearly five decades after the Algerian war. Just to seal the point, today’s newspaper contains word that in Brazil, where the military tortured dissidents in the 1960s, and where a legislative pardon was also issued, the recommendation of a truth commission is to prosecute the perpetrators after all. Again that is five decades after the fact.

The international criminal liability of CIA officers and Bush administration officials is a live issue. It will not go away. That is why President Obama erred so badly in not dealing with the CIA torture right after taking office in 2009. The fight over releasing the torture report shows just how entrenched the forces of repression still are. They will become increasingly desperate. And they still hope that fig leaves will protect them.




The Torture Report: She Said, He Said

December 9, 2014–So it’s out. Finally! Despite every imaginable kind of pressure to keep the lid on this atrocity, the emergence of the Senate intelligence committee’s investigative report could not be prevented. Now the chips will fall where they may. There are a host of items on this platter, enough substance to keep a battalion of analysts busy for weeks–plus more added by the CIA “response paper” of June 2013, which the agency released to counter the Senate report. There’s no possibility of conveying more than first impressions, but overall I will say the combination of the two documents is odd. The CIA’s response paper largely accepts  the criticisms of the Senate investigation, then disputes the intelligence committee’s chapter and verse, leaving Senator Dianne Feinstein–it’s her paper after all–on one side of a “she said, he said” dispute. Here are some examples to illustrate:

Michael V. Hayden: If you visited this space yesterday you’ll have read that General Hayden, a former CIA director among other things, is not my favorite exemplar of truthfulness. One thing the Senate report makes much of is CIA’s misleading of Congress. In an appendix the torture report provides more than two dozen examples of CIA deceptions, and traces from the agency’s own documents and records just why Langley’s claims were phony. Every one of the CIA’s deceptive comments involves General Hayden, most of them from the omnibus briefing the CIA finally furnished to Congress when the program was being shelved. My favorite–Hayden had told Congress there were 97 CIA detainees (the intelligence committee has established there were 116, though a few were yet to be captured). In January 2009 a CIA officer established there were at least thirteen “new finds,” making the latest number 112. Hayden ordered the officer to keep the number reported at 98, picking “whatever date I needed to make that happen.” The CIA response paper disagrees with the conclusion that the agency impeded congressional oversight–but it admits that “a few aspects” of Hayden’s testimony were in error and that it could have done a better job of preparing the director for his appearance before Congress. Whatever else happens, you’ve been warned. Do not believe Michael Hayden!

Jose Rodriguez: This former manager of the torture program has been running around hollering from every rooftop that the torture was legal. Let’s put aside the whole debate over the Justice Department memoranda, though, and take this one from strictly inside the CIA. Teams at the first black prison begin torturing their subject, and they report to headquarters that they can’t keep it up, they have moral qualms, there are legal issues. Rodriguez shoots back a cable on August 12, 2002, instructing the base chief and field officers to “refrain” from using “speculative language as to the legality of given activities.” Mr. Hayden–backed by CIA lawyer John Rizzo, by the way– represented to Congress that any CIA officer observing a torture session had not only the ability to object to a “given activity,” but a positive duty to stop it at any point. Needless to say, the Senate report gives examples like this one, where field officers objected and were told in so many words to shut up.

Responsiveness to Oversight: The CIA Inspector General made his own inquiry into the torture program, which I have referenced in this space before. The reaction of CIA’s top operations officer–Jose Rodriguez’s predecessor in that post–when the IG raised questions of legality, organization, and effectiveness of the torture–was to object that the IG report should have concluded that torture is effective.

Bin Laden’s Messenger: In a classic instance of “she said, he said,” the Senate investigators and the CIA disagree on the role of torture in bringing down Osama bin Laden. You’re sure to hear more about this since it goes to the debate ignited by the movie Zero Dark Thirty. You’ll recall that, at that time, there were a flurry of statements pro and con about whether torture had been necessary in uncovering the true role of the individual who served as Bin Laden’s go between, tracking whom led to the terrorist hideout. Members of the Senate intelligence committee issued statements that, unlike what was implied by the movie, torture had not been necessary. The CIA itself put out a statement in that vein, though there were opposing comments too. Here the Senate investigators lay out in enormous detail that CIA had data identifying the messenger from prisoners who were never tortured, or spoke before they were tortured, and focusing on the NSA intercepts and foreign liaison data nailing down the ID. In this case the CIA response paper insists that some information came from a prisoner after torture that was critical to the ID. As I say, I bet there will be more about this–and it is a place where the actual Senate report, not this thinned-out executive summary, could be crucial to a proper understanding of the matter. Stay tuned.


John Kerry, Shame on You!

December 19, 2014 (Update)–Nearly two weeks since Secretary Kerry’s  clumsy intervention, and ten days after the Senate report was finally released. There have been zero Americans killed in international protests, and, in fact, no protests of any consequence. You might want to scratch your head and wonder, “what was he thinking?”

December 7, 2014–The Secretary of State of the United States has now taken a hand in the wrongheaded effort to head off release of the investigative report in the Senate intelligence committee’s inquiry into CIA torture programs. Secretary John Kerry this week telephoned committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein to make his case. As reported in the press Kerry referred to alleged national security implications of a release of the torture report and to supposed dangers from jihadists who learn of CIA torture. This whole line of argument is so wrong in so many ways–and John Kerry should be ashamed to be lending himself to this phony exercise.

National security implications? Frankly, the most important national security implications of CIA torture have been for U.S. allies, who have largely adhered to international conventions prohibiting torture, and are embarrassed to see the leader of their pack engaged in such awful behavior. In the United Kingdom CIA torture has led to a court judgment against the Crown. In Poland CIA collaborators are under criminal indictment. In the European Union legal actions are ongoing and will undoubtedly create further embarrassment. Meanwhile, in the United States there has been a concerted effort to evade accountability–or even an open accounting. That perception of evasion is surely more damaging than owning up to what has been done in the name of American democracy.

As for the jihadists I guarantee you that they have believed all along that captured Islamists are tortured. An investigative report which confirms that will add nothing to the pot. It could perhaps even help by documenting that the torture was not practiced even more widely.

Some sources are saying the Kerry phone intervention had White House support. This is an awkward matter since President Obama is on record in favor of releasing the report, but it is consistent with analysis in this space that Obama chief of staff Dennis McDonough’s role has also been designed to forestall release and/or diminish the report if it appears.

John Kerry is the last person who should be involved here. Kerry started off in politics as a Vietnam veteran opposing the Vietnam war. at the exact same time Mr. Kerryvoiced his opposition. Today he defends torture? Shame on you, John Kerry!

CIA Torture Update: In another last-ditch defense, anticipating the Senate committee will go ahead and release its report, the CIA’s torture impresario, Jose A. Rodriguez is in the “Outlook” section of today’s Washington Post to say that torture was legal and that it “proved effective by any reasonable standard.” Along the way he alleges that Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, as Speaker of the House back in 2002, had been briefed on the torture and denied that fact. In my book The Family Jewels I explored the evidence on this claim in detail. It was controversial in 2009, right after Mr. Obama released the Justice Department memoranda on the supposed legality of the torture. Pelosi is correct. The same CIA document on which Rodriguez relies in this article, to allege Congress was briefed on torture forty times, lists a different congresswoman, not Pelosi, as attending the briefing to which Rodriguez refers. Equally to the point, one purpose of the Senate inquiry was to establish whether the torture had been effective–by “any reasonable standard” or any other–and the investigation is widely reported as establishing that it was not. So far the airwaves have been dominated precisely by cheerleaders for torture like Rodriguez. It is high time to have some official pronouncements that are less self-interested. Suppressing this report means deep-sixing that evidence.

As for Mr. Rodriguez’s allegation the torture was legal– those Justice Department papers have been widely rejected as statements of applicable law, refuted in reviews of professional responsibility, and were even re-argued in other memoranda at the time to reduce the scope of the original errors. Mr. Rodriguez, it should be noted, is the CIA official responsible for the destruction of videotapes of the CIA torture. Those tapes documented criminal offenses and their destruction can presumptively be construed as an obstruction of justice. Suppressing the Senate report on CIA torture serves the same end. Let’s have no more of this cant!