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.

Hillary’s Emails: Overclassification “Run Amok”

January 30, 2016–The spokesman’s statement was redundant. “Overclassification” means crazy, excessive secrecy. To say that it “ran amok” is repetitious. Brian Fallon, Hillary Clinton’s spokesperson, nevertheless had a point–and you read it here, first. Last August, as a matter of fact (in “Hillary’s Emails: Bursting the Secrecy Bubble,” August 22, 2015). The State Department announced on Friday that twenty-two of the Hillary Clinton emails examined by authorities contained information graded “TOP SECRET” or above. Those emails will now be separated from the court-ordered release of Clinton electronic messages and made secret. Guess what? That’s a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.

We are close to six months after the piece in this space, cited above, predicted that secrecy authorities would comb over the Clinton email, find things they prefer not be out, and try and squelch public distress by means of imposing secrecy. Well, Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) inspector general I. Charles McCullough, III, has done just that. The 22 emails are his hit list, possibly (but perhaps not) approved by Fearful Leader James Clapper, the man who issued an official ODNI directive designating officers of the United States intelligence community as the greatest threat to national security the U.S. faces.

In an interview last week on National Public Radio, Hillary Clinton commented on one of the TOP SECRET messages, one that informed her about an article on the drone war that was appearing in the New York Times. “How a New York Times public article that goes around the world could be in any way viewed as classified, or the fact that it would be sent to other people off the New York Times website, I think, is one of the difficulties people have in understanding what this is about.”

Just so. But ODNI’s hit on Clinton is a real one. It happens this way: there are plenty of things ODNI–or the CIA, or the NSA–don’t want out in public. In their secrecy game, if ODNI (or one of the others) do not themselves declassify information, then it’s still secret, even if everybody in the world knows it. So if the Times gets a leak and prints it, the newspaper is dealing in secret information. Meanwhile, government officials need to know what’s in the papers so they can respond when the media or the public asks about it.

It’s perfectly understandable that someone sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton an email containing the text of what the Times had reported, including whatever ODNI or anyone else deemed to be TOP SECRET. Right now you can go to the State Department’s Electronic Reading Room and see precisely equivalent messages that have since been released: to the U.S. Ambassador in Thailand warning the Times had the CIA black prison story; to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice containing the text of the Times story reporting that CIA officer Jose Rodriguez had ordered the secret destruction of videotapes that were evidence in a criminal case. You can easily imagine other examples that should be there–like the cables that must have flown around when the press reported that an American sought by Pakistani authorities for killing Pakistani citizens in a street incident was linked to the CIA.

So, let’s call a spade a spade–what just happened was that the spooks coerced the State Department into invoking secrecy, casting a cloak of classification, over material that was not designated secret by an “original classification authority”–as per government regulation–that had been in the public domain for many months, and that is subject to a court order compelling its release. As Barry Goldwater once said about CIA lies over Nicaragua, “This is no way to run a railroad!”

Last August I gave other recent examples of officials hoist on the petard of secrecy rules–and made the point that the officials against whom the rules are actually enforced–those who pay the price–are the people far down the food chain. The truth is that we are, all of us, being hurt by secrecy run amok. When the country reaches the point when officials cannot do their jobs without criminal violation of secrecy regulations, then it’s time for the regulations to change, not time to throw Hillary in jail. While we’re at it, it is time to understand that the security services have ceased being arbiters of necessary secrecy–if they ever were–and have become information manipulators seeking political, and other, advantages.

The Attacks– Are They Connected?

November 14, 2015–Just the other day I was wishing a French friend “Happy Armistice Day.” Now I have to say, “Aujourd’hui nous sommes tous parisiens!” The drumbeat of senseless attacks is distressing. Our hearts go out to all French people, including Muslims, all African varieties, and Caribbbean and Indian-Pacific ones as well.

But I just want to raise the connectivity issue. The targets of all the recent attacks share one characteristic–they have acted against ISIS/ISIL.

The Russian airliner belonged to a country which, while primarily attacking other Syrian rebels, is supporting the Assad government, and that also means opposing ISIS. Indeed, just to look even-handed the Russians have run some of their strikes against ISIS targets.

Hezbollah in Lebanon, of course, intervened in Syria in favor of Assad and that puts them on the outs with ISIL. The bombings in Beirut a few days ago were aimed at suburbs where Hezbollah are dominant.

France is only the latest. The French took their first military actions just very recently. Considering the scouting, planning, and preparatory work which had to have gone into a simultaneous attack on multiple targets in Paris, ISIS must have been expecting the French to adopt the course they have, and must have begun preparations before the French did much in Syria. To come full circle, ISIS has now guaranteed that whatever misgivings the Hollande government might previously have had against intervening in Syria, these will be stilled.

Readers of this space will know that in the wake of the bombings in Istanbul which preceded the recent Turkish elections, I speculated the deep state might be responsible. The Erdogan government blamed ISIS. I will say it is true the targets of that bombing, the Kurds, are indeed involved against the islamists in Syria and Iraq both. Though I’m not yet fully convinced, in the context of the latest bombings it seems more plausible the Istanbul parade strike might have been ISIS-related.

Watch out for near-term terrorist actions against the United Kingdom, which has joined the Syrian alliance as well; the United States; and Iran, which backs the Hezbollah group. If ISIS were plotting a strategy to strike at each of its enemies, those are the missing ones.


Winnability versus Balancing

September 5, 2015–As noted here the other day (“When is a War ‘Winnable,'” September 1) the operational method of remote/proxy war, as applied to Syria, is not likely to succeed. This is for a host of reasons. The ISIL adversary’s system is simply too distributed to be seriously impacted by isolated air strikes or drone attacks that hit at one or a few control nodes. The remote campaign lacks the weight required to inflict serious losses by itself on ISIL ground strength. The air campaign does not directly impact ISIL relations with the populations it controls, except to the degree that collateral damage drives Syrian citizens into the arms of the enemy.

More damage has been done to ISIL by the worldwide drop in oil prices than by the United States air campaign.

As for the ground effort, covertly arming anti-ISIL Syrians to fight the new enemy, President Barack Obama walked into that with his eyes open. He asked for–and the CIA produced–a study of past covert paramilitary operations. The secret study reportedly shows that the overwhelming majority of these projects fail, while those that succeed do so in unanticipated ways. These are not striking conclusions. I could have written them myself. In fact, I did. Twice. In the books Safe for Democracy a decade ago, and Presidents’ Secret Wars, reissued a decade before that, those were leading conclusions in both cases. No one should have needed spooks with crystal balls to have appreciated the obstacles to success.

Still, despite the cautions in the open literature and whatever wisdom his secret soothsayers imparted, President Obama went ahead with his campaign. On the ground he started up a paramilitary training activity, and had the CIA arm what we considered reliable Syrian resistance groups. This led to immediate difficulties. In Syria the Nusra Front, among the most successful of the partisans, is affiliated with Al Qaeda, America’s sworn enemy. To have any chance a Syrian resistance group must have some relationship with Nusra. There is also the issue of what weapons to give “our” partisans, starving as they are for food, medicine, and everything it takes to wage war. Some of our weapons will end up on the black market. Too potent and they will hand our own enemies a stinger. Too feeble and our partisans get nowhere. Which is, in fact, where they are. So Obama pulled in the Pentagon and had them fire up a parallel resistance training and arming activity. It has had equally poor results.

The most recent signs are of escalation. They involve the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). This past spring an Army Delta Force band (for more on Special Forces see  my recent book on this subject) inserted into Syria for a raid against a purported senior ISIL commander. He escaped, but his wife was apparently captured, along with computers and other records. The records and interrogations led to other attacks, and in recent weeks several top ISIL commanders have been blasted in drone strikes. This week, as I traveled to Chicago to give a talk, it emerged that JSOC has now been melded with the CIA–the agency’s Counter Terrorism Center is now supplying intelligence Targeting for JSOC drones. The administration describes this as an integration of the expertise of both services.

However successful, the drone attacks represent but a tiny fraction of the campaign. In Iraq there have been more than 4,000 air strikes in the year since this operation began. Cost is said to be $9.9 million a day, which would make it $3.6 billion so far. There have been 2,450 air strikes in Syria. Even at that cost, and counting all strikes in both countries, that amounts to an average of 17 aircraft flights per day, hardly enough to cover the territory much less exert significant weight of force. Increasing efficiency by employing JSOC and the CIA is working at the margins. The Pentagon and CIA covert ops are said to amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s a fraction of the air campaign.

Mr. Obama cannot much increase the intensity of operations without engaging the war powers issue. Plus, we infer, the president is aware that as a covert operation the Syrian venture has little chance of success. So what’s up here?

Analysts of geopolitics used to talk about different approaches to power. One was “hegemonic,” a quest for total power or control–“winnability” or victory. Another was “balance of power,” the employment of quantities of force sufficient to prevent any of the warring factions from winning, in hopes the fighters will simply exhaust themselves. Mr. Obama may be engaged in precisely this sort of balancing act.

But balancing has consequences of its own. In the Syrian case, the conflict is rapidly turning into a humanitarian disaster, with cities destroyed, services wrecked, and populations fleeing. Citizens are becoming refugees at an exponential rate. The current European quandary in the face of a refugee tsunami is a direct consequence of the fighting in Syria. A balance of power strategy, deliberately extending the war, directly contributes to the refugee problem. Obama’s policy in the Syrian war, to be complete, therefore requires a United States that helps to cope with the Syrian citizens fleeing their war torn land. Think of that over this Labor Day weekend.

When Is a War “Winnable”?

September 1, 2015–This is a question everyone ought to be asking. In place after place today, most recently in Syria and against the fundamentalist group known as ISIS (the Islamic State or “caliphate”). American tactics centering on the use of air power and unarmed aircraft, or “drones,” have proven insufficient. Some observers are calling for boots on the ground. Already U.S. troops have returned to Iraq, which we left only a few years ago, to resume training an Iraqi army that failed miserably against ISIS. The CIA and Pentagon have both spun up operations to train and arm Syrian resistance fighters against ISIS, bands that have not gained much ground against the fundamentalists. Special operations forces have entered Syria too, on pinpoint raids against enemy leaders or hostage rescue missions (for a light primer on Special Forces see my new book here). The U.S. bombing campaign in Syria has just passed its first-year anniversary. So far the only apparent results are lengthening casualty lists and more destruction. The same kinds of activity characterize U.S. operations in the Yemen. The lack of results there runs in exact parallel.

Any pattern of military and paramilitary operations that assumes a routine shape can be said to have become a tactic or operational method. The pattern used in Syria and Yemen, developed to its present state of sophistication by the Obama administration, can be called “remote/proxy warfare.” Operational methods can be usefully reviewed and analyzed. The most direct avenues do so by asking, what does the tactic accomplish against the adversary, how practical is it in the context of friendly forces and capabilities, and what are foreseeable consequences of the interaction. It is also important to ask whether relevant information has been left out of the review.

Sometimes the most experienced and creative practitioners, taking full advantage of capabilities and their imaginations, fail to achieve the results anticipated. When that happens it is fair to ask if the conflict is winnable.

Here’s an example from the bad old days of the Vietnam war: Major General William E. DePuy led the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, renowned as the “Big Red One,” in the region north of Saigon over the period from March 1966 to February 1967. DePuy is a great example not just because he was an innovative military officer but because he actually did innovate the operational methods utilized by an allied coalition to win the First Gulf War of 1990-91.

General DePuy was also perfectly placed to produce results. Like others of his generation, the man was a product of World War II, and a small circle of officers from his unit, the 90th Infantry Division, became very notable moving between conventional and special warfare assignments. They were, perhaps, more open to unconventional thinking in their tactics. DePuy moved back and forth from the Army to the CIA (where he worked on covert operations against China), and from field units to operations staffs. It was one of his colleagues from the 90th Division cabal, Richard G. Stilwell, who not only brought DePuy into the CIA behind him, but also to Vietnam as the operations officer for General William G. Westmoreland’s top Vietnam command, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). There DePuy gained Westy’s full confidence, and he had two years to develop his understanding of the nature of the conflict.

Thus when General DePuy assumed command of the Big Red One he had everything going for him–a powerful and capable force, the full confidence of his commander-in-chief over the intervening level of command) and MACV headquarters, an imaginative and innovative nature, and a developed idea of the nature of the war. So what happened? DePuy performed exactly as his superiors must have hoped. He introduced new tactics–right down to giving his troops an improved way to dig their foxholes–kept up a high tempo of operations, emphasized helicopter assault techniques, and so on. The Army’s official historian ranks the Big Red One’s performance in a series of operations called “El Paso” up with the 1st Cavalry Division’s actions in the Central Highlands in late 1965 (the ones popularized in the book We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young). DePuy even changed field on the National Liberation Front (NLF) armed forces by staging a reverse ambush, where the 1st Division baited a trap by sending a road column into NLF-controlled territory after carefully preparing intervention forces to support it, artillery to match, and making sure to leak (only) the part about the road column to a known NLF spy. By several accounts General DePuy’s performance at the 1st Division shone.

Back in Washington the general was assigned to head a special office at the Pentagon that controlled military special operations and liaised between the armed services and the CIA. Then came the Tet Offensive of early 1968. Now, DePuy had been a very successful division commander. His successors had continued to attrite the enemy, which was General Westmoreland’s strategy. Yet at Tet the NLF and North Vietnamese were able to attack all across South Vietnam. President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) ordered his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to inspect the front and propose countermeasures. When they came back with Westmoreland’s request for a huge new troop contingent, Johnson asked a group of advisers he called the “wise men” to look at the claims. General DePuy would be tagged to present the military briefing to this group, which included generals and statesmen, past and present. DePuy briefed Tet as a U.S. military victory and relied upon his experience to describe the Vietnam war optimistically. Next the wise men turned around and told LBJ that Vietnam had become a disaster.

The president, stunned, demanded the briefers who had addressed the wise men repeat their presentations for him. DePuy later conceded that the briefers were perhaps a tad overwhelmed by the Washington point of view (pessimistic) on Vietnam, but the general stuck to his guns. The encounter proved chaotic–President Johnson was making phone calls even while the briefers droned on, and entertaining his grandson, a toddler at the time, giving him drinks from a bottle of Coca-Cola. But LBJ concluded there had been nothing wrong with what DePuy and the briefers had told the wise men.

What had happened was that William E. DePuy, the maker of victory, had been present at the moment when senior government officials decided the Vietnam war had become unwinnable.

The Big Red One, despite the ingenuity of DePuy and others like him, left Vietnam in 1970 having suffered 20,770 casualties, more than its toll in World War II, and nearly 85% of its losses in World War I, the division’s most costly conflict. Of its losses, 3,181 names are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, combat deaths in the field.

Now, back to remote/proxy warfare. That operational method did not work in Libya, its first major application, which seems at this writing to have disintegrated into a warlord state. In Pakistan, the province of the CIA, the proxies pocket the money and follow their own agenda, while the drones serve as a recruiting tool for the enemy. In the fight against ISIS the air campaign has had a modicum of value as a mechanism for tactical air support of proxy troops fighting ISIS, but very little value against the adversary as a movement. That is because the ISIS “state” is a very distributed network, while the air campaign has nowhere near the military weight that would be required to seriously impede ISIS logistics, exports, etc. –Plus, that weight of effort cannot, as a practical matter, be generated. If it were, as in Pakistan, it would be a recruiting tool for the enemy. A ground intervention is not sustainable in terms of public support or budgetary commitments. U.S. efforts to rally other nations to prevent individual persons from going to Syria to join ISIS will, in my view, involve such a level of social intervention as to also be unsustainable. The remaining question is when will we decide the war is unwinnable–and will there be a William DePuy character there to see it.

New Wilderness of Mirrors

April 25, 2015–Among other things this is the 40th anniversary year of the  investigations of U.S. intelligence that took place in 1975. The Church Committee, Pike Committee, and Rockefeller Commission, with journalists hard on their heels, explored many facets of U.S. intelligence activity. Among them was counterintelligence, where the public would be startled to discover that the vaunted CIA and other agencies had been twisted up in knots by suspicions that enemy spies lurked behind every corner. It got so bad in the late 1960s that CIA operations against the Soviets virtually ground to a halt amid accusations–largely unanswerable since they were about “proving” the negative–against a wide array of the top agency talent on the Soviet account. Journalist David Martin got hold of this story and investigated it for his book A Wilderness of Mirrors. Martin’s point about the counterspies was that paranoia in excess becomes self-damaging.

Today we have reached the same place with our war on terror, in particular the drone war. The spectacle of the President of the United States having to stand up and take responsibility for the United States government illegally killing American citizens–in this case a citizen held hostage by terrorist adversaries–is something not seen in three decades of covert operations–not since Ronald Reagan stood up to admit he was illegally trading anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles with terrorists to recover U.S. citizens held hostage.

The current situation is worse than deplorable. It has been the position of the United States government at least since the Reagan era that there should be no bargaining for hostages. Thus the Obama administration has consistently obstructed efforts by American families to recover loved ones held hostage overseas, even while countries allied with us work to free their nationals. In the present case, as the public discovered upon revelation of the killing of Warren Weinstein, the family had actually paid a ransom, obtained no assistance from the U.S. in freeing Mr. Weinstein, and now the United States itself kills Mr. Weinstein.

Not knowingly. That is the feeble official defense. The CIA carried out five drone strikes in Pakistan this past January. One of them killed Mr. Weinstein–along with an Italian hostage, two more Americans (who were affiliated with Al Qaeda), and two other persons. The first the CIA knew anything was wrong came when Pakistanis retrieved too many bodies from the rubble. No excuse for that. The January attack was one of those so-called “signature strikes” that have been conducted without specific authorization. There were plenty of complaints at the time these were revealed that the procedure was inherently dangerous and the worst would happen, and now it has.

The presence of the other two Americans killed with Weinstein was also, it is reported, unknown. Both of these men had been sought–one was on the FBI’s “most wanted” list for nearly a decade–but neither figured as a target for this attack. No “Hit List” was approved, Mr. Obama did not deliberate on the mission as he has said he does. Instead, two bad guys are killed by coincidence in an attack deliberately targeting a facility where a good guy dies. “Not knowingly” does not begin to cover the excesses here.

A longstanding complaint about the drone war has been that it amounts to extrajudicial killing–especially egregious where Americans are victims since they possess rights under the U.S. Constitution. The defense has lain precisely in the assertion that due diligence is exerted in making determinations for targets, who are sought only when they cannot otherwise be apprehended. What you see here is the day-to-day reality. In the Gulf War of 1991 they called it “tank plinking.” It’s a blind effort to neutralize targets the CIA or U.S. military assumes have something to do with the enemy. This is an interdiction campaign, not a planned strategy.

Paranoia regarding the terrorist threat has led us to self-defeating tactics. To illegality under the rules of war, extraconstitutionality with respect to American citizens, disutility in serving as a recruiting mechanism for the adversary, and plain bull-headed stupidity, we can now add that any positive effects of the drone war are likely as not accidental. The public can’t know because, of course, that is all secret. There is no accountability whatsoever. It’s no way to run a railroad!

Drone Memos and Obama Transparency

May 21, 2014– There are several directions to take the news that the Obama administration is deciding to release the Justice Department legal memos that were used to legitimize the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen, in this case Anwar al-Awlaki. I don’t have time to follow all the tracks so, at least for now, I’ll confine myself to the issue of what this tells us about openness in this administration.

Barack Obama entered office with a promise to run the most open and transparent presidency in American history. There were some good moves at first–President Obama rode over opposition to the release of an earlier generation of Office of Legal Counsel papers–the ones that justified Bush era torture–and he ordered government agencies to improve public access, FOIA response and the like. The declassification initiatives, at least, are honored in their breach.

The Justice Department drone war memos–for that is what they are–are only returning to the news here. The administration had denied them previously–to the Congress, which has oversight authority and thus a full right to look at them. In each situation where it faced a dilemma over sensitive information like the drone memos, Obama chose to have some official make an informal statement making claims as to information or policy, rather than to expose actual documents to the light of day.

Only when John O. Brennan was up for confirmation as CIA director in 2013, and these specific OLC memos were made a condition for congressional approval, did the wind change. Then the administration took the road of crafting a different document, one summarizing the OLC memos–and making that one public by means of a deliberate leak to a news organization (there are the same people who are now saying that contacts with news media must have official approval). When Congress stuck to its guns, President Obama reluctantly allowed that legislators could view the real documents, but behind closed doors.

The New York Times and others filed Freedom of Information lawsuits seeking the same documents. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a matching lawsuit. That case recently came to decision, and the court ruled that the Obama administration is required to release the material. In fact the judge issued specific instructions on which parts of the documents need to be released in full. The question became whether Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department will pursue an appeal of the judgment.

The complicating factor, as it happens, is another nomination. This time the actual author of the OLC drone war memos, David J. Barron, is up for a seat on the First Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, and senators have threatened to block the nomination unless the administration releases the documents. Guess what? News is that Holder will not appeal. Instead, administration officials are asking for more time to skew the memos by deleting information, and they want to file a more limited appeal for certain sections they would like to keep secret. Thus even when a court rules them out of bounds and a political factor is driving the response, the administration still wants to get its way by playing on the margins and with the timing.

Open administration? Like the Senate torture report, like the FISA court opinions, like the drone memos previously, Mr. Obama’s administration seems never to have met a piece of information it does not deem worthy of keeping secret. If you look at the annual reports of the interagency board that monitors classified information, you’ll also see that the number of things designated secret is rising sharply. The whole system is broken. That’s what needs to be fixed. The CIA is not playing straight on secrecy, the Justice Department is complicit, the White House fails to enforce its own directives. Let’s stop talking about Obama transparency.

Tone-Deaf CIA Lawyer

March 1, 2014– Midway through his gossipy, score-settling memoir, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) acting general counsel John A. Rizzo drops the line that his boss of the mid-90s, director of central intelligence John Deutch, used to make remarkably tone-deaf public comments. It’s a charge you might very well want to apply to Rizzo himself. I wrote about the CIA lawyer at some length in my book The Family Jewels.

Back in the Deutch era, when the CIA was caught misleading Congress by failing to reporting that agents in its employ had had a hand in torture and murder–including of American citizens in Guatemala–the CIA boss ordered a review of agency assets for others with blood on their hands. Among others, the Counterterrorist Center’s best spy had been involved in an attack in which Americans had been wounded (the intent had been to kill). CIA hired him later, when remorse led the man to change sides and supply them intel. The agency had never reported the man’s past to the Justice Department–as it is obliged to do–or to the congressional oversight committees. When it got around to doing so after the Guatemala affair this information promptly leaked to the New York Times. Agency officers warned the spy he might be outed and the man disappeared, never to be heard from again. Rizzo seems to want to say, and half-implies, that the spy’s former comrades did away with him. The CIA lawyer then condemns Times reporter Tim Weiner for going ahead with most of this story, and after that trounces him for not mentioning the affair in the book Weiner wrote later about the CIA. (Just parenthetically, Weiner’s CIA history basically stops much earlier than this 1990s episode.)

Fast forward to the drone war of today. John Rizzo was the CIA lawyer at the center of the agency’s “kill list” of people to be taken out by drones. Rizzo essentially bragged about his role to Newsweek reporters for a feature article that magazine published in February 2011. But when nominated for CIA general counsel, at Rizzo’s confirmation hearing he was much less forthcoming to the congressional overseers. And in his memoir Rizzo does not mention his role, or deal with the drone war at all–except to express the antiseptic opinion that he thinks drones are here to stay. Looks just like the offense of which he accuses the journalist.

This is a guy who wore a flaming pink polo shirt on a field visit to a CIA black prison, who finds nothing objectionable about the Justice Department “torture memos”–which he, in fact, solicited–and who shellacks the Bush White House for getting cold feet mid-course. The polo shirt incident led his CIA security man to ask sarcastically why he didn’t just paint a bull’s eye on his back. So who is tone-deaf here?

There is at least one CIA excess which Rizzo does find outrageous. That is agency operations chief Jose Rodriguez’s gambit in November 2005 to destroy videotapes documenting CIA torture at the black prisons. Rizzo recounts that he had never felt as upset and betrayed as he did the morning he found out about it. But Rodriguez’s maneuver was of a piece with countless things that John Rizzo spent a thirty-four year career justifying, and at times contriving.