John Brennan: The Flying Dutchman

May 24, 2017–John Brennan offered open testimony yesterday before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) on the Russian Caper. The former CIA director lent greater weight to and offered more emphasis on concerns the Russians had interfered with America’s 2016 election. Mr. Brennan’s worries, expressed as early as summer a year ago, were a factor in the FBI’s decision to open an investigation of the Russian Caper and in the legal and political hot water that President Donald J. Trump finds himself in today.

The former CIA director did not find too warm a reception at HPSCI. That was not only because its Republican members are doing their best to insulate the president. It is also due to Mr. Brennan himself. As spy chief in his own right John Brennan fought to  separate the CIA from the authorities tasked to oversee the agency. Like predecessors, Brennan talked a good line on responsiveness to oversight, then labored to deep six the Senate intelligence committee report on CIA torture, the most important bit of congressional oversight of intelligence in several decades. Brennan danced close to authorities, telling his nomination hearing that he favored release of the report, then sailed away, like the fabled “Flying Dutchman.” Brennan quashed the Senate report, refused to discipline anyone involved in the CIA program–or in efforts at countersurveillance against Congress–even drove the agency’s inspector general to resign.

One part of Brennan’s campaign to beat the authorities was to hype the threat (this also had something to do with the CIA’s drone war, of which Brennan had charge at the White House even before he came back to CIA). The combination of big threat from terrorism plus dangers of actually submitting to accountability put the CIA on a road to defiance. Then came the summer of 2016, when the agency saw signs of a Russian Caper. Brennan found it hard to get anyone willing to listen to him. Meanwhile the hyping of the threat further inflamed Americans, many of them willing to listen to Trumpian blandishments. John Brennan contributed to the election of Donald Trump–and he even helped complicate exposure of the Russian Caper, concurring with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s idea for a Russian Caper report so watered down it enabled those implicated to laugh off such a simple-minded effort.

The Flying Dutchman set his jib to the wind. Now he is being blown along by it.

Fearful Leader and Bombastic Duck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump and the Hack: Whose Witch Hunt?

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

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

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

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

 

Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fearful Leader Against Loose Cannon: CIA’s Purge Begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pearl Harbor, the Emails, and the Purge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spooks Gone Wild !!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spooks & Trump–No Match Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

FBI/NSA/KGB: Obama Crosses the Line

February 20, 2016–President Barack Obama dropped his veil this week, lending White House support to the misguided and dangerous push from James Comey, the FBI and Justice Department, and law enforcement generally, to obtain entry into individuals’ private information. This time we’re not talking phone numbers, “metadata,” and private records–although that is the excuse. We’re talking about nothing less than the creation of a tool that will permit 24/7 surveillance of anyone, anytime, in real time as well as in retrospect. This is scary, ghastly, sinister, put on it any adjective you want.

Readers of this space will know we’ve been following the electronic surveillance issue. We’ve commented in the past about how our fearful leaders– no longer just James Clapper the DNI, but Comey the DirFBI, John Brennan the DCIA, and Mike Rogers the DirNSA–have spoken with forked tongues. Barack Obama made plenty of concessions to them, and this week the White House went all in. Obama has drunk the koolaid. We’re headed toward abuses of the sort documented so sordidly in The Family Jewels.

Let’s dispense with the foolish excuses first. Ostensibly the FBI needs cellphone access to the devices used by San Bernardino murderers Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik as part of its investigation into their December killing spree now understood as an ISIS terrorist attack. Farook and Malik were killed in a shootout with authorities within hours of their attack. They are not going to be shooting anyone now. Nor does the FBI need evidence for a trial. In terms of linking the two to Farook associates, the FBI seized direct evidence with a search warrant just the other day. The phones will be no help there.

The New York City Police Department entered the ring on Thursday with a claim that it has been denied access to some 175 communications devices. Sounds like a lot until you put it into the context of how many cases the NYPD has open at the moment.

The real questions are proportionality and privacy. Authorities want to use these cases as a lever to force the technology companies to furnish them tools with which they can access all manner of devices. In the San Bernardino case the Apple Corporation is resisting, including resisting the court order the FBI obtained.

The Department of Justice snidely asserts that Apple is using its resistance to the FBI as a marketing tool. Maybe that’s true–but the term “marketing tool” applies only because of previous actions of both the FBI and NSA, which violated the privacy of millions of individuals everywhere. Apple and other corporations woke up to realize that, absent the installation of encryption, their products were on the way to the junkpile.

Apple’s stance may be bogus, but the security agencies are being positively mendacious. There is little investigative value to be gained from the phone devices at issue in this court order. But there is enormous value (not investigative, but intelligence value) in gaining access to the backdoor software that will enable entry into millions of devices. That is, until the world abandons American-owned technology corporations in pursuit of ones which offer more secure products. Here’s where proportionality comes in: at issue is the record of every person’s contacts, the record of communications, the texts of messages sent from iphones or texting, the apps, the record of usage, increasingly bank records and other financial information–the Big Enchilada.

That’s way out of proportion to what the FBI can discover from Farook’s iphone.

You want to make America great again? Stop the hysteria, drop the pretense, tell the truth, restore privacy. The security agencies’ present course is an invitation for some very large businesses to leave the United States, impoverishing us all the more.

Fearful Leader At It Again!

February 10, 2016–We have again marked the annual exercise–it’s not yet risen (or is that “descended”) to the level of a “tradition”–where the intelligence agency chiefs appear to present their assessments of the array of threats currently facing the nation. You can believe me that many zillions of hours of staff time go into figuring out what to say, how to say it, and making sure the heads of the different agencies present a unified picture.

Lead man is General James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), under the current scheme headman of the spy community, whom we’ve taken to calling “Fearful Leader” for his combination of inability to present a level-headed view, excessive deference to bureaucratic politics, and myopic dedication to secrecy, leading him to lie outright to his congressional overseers (and the American people).

At least this year Fearful Leader managed to avoid the trap of telling us the biggest threat to American security is our own spies (that is, whistleblowers). But Clapper’s whopper is nearly that myopic. Now the national security super threat is “home grown terrorists.” This gem of idiocy has gotten popular among the security services lately, and I’ve not got much time today, but I can’t let this pass again without saying something.

The “home grown terrorist” is the person, like the couple in San Bernardino, California; or the crew who perpetrated that tragedy in Paris. These people either long want to strike a blow for jihad, or they recruit themselves, reading and watching material that finally leads them to the same place. Every time there is one of these incidents it is distressing and horrible but that is not the same thing as a national security threat. These people strike in their immediate surroundings. The victims are friends, associates, casual passer-bys at stores, concerts, whatever. Random attacks are not a strategy unless the level of the attacks, the sheer volume of the attacks becomes so high it inhibits routine functions of society. We are many orders of magnitude away from the point that becomes a true national security threat. These random attacks are serendipitous, not aimed, do not strike critical targets, and are not directed–except in the sense that ISIS (or anyone else) bids recruits to go out and act like mosquitos.

To see a nuisance as the major national security threat facing the United States–and, for that matter, civilized society–is a measure of the lack of realism of our intelligence officials lined up behind Fearful Leader.

The sooner we wake up and learn to make this distinction the more quickly we can begin to rise out of the quicksand of hysteria into which Fearful Leader–and others–are trying to lead us.

Hillary email Update

February 6, 2016–News continues to boil about secret information allegedly contained in emails sent to Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state in the first Obama administration. The emerging record continues to confirm what I’ve said in this space: that senior officials of the intelligence agencies, with nearly a year now to pore over Hillary’s email cache, plus their own fish to fry–and demons to fear–find it irresistible to range backwards in time to cast veils of secrecy over information that was in the public domain.

Latest reports add to our point, originally taken from press reporting about the CIA drone war. Other emails apparently pertain to the North Korean missile program, and to events in the Libyan revolution. Some of the 22 emails over which classification is asserted apparently contain the special access slug “HCS-O,” which pertains to human intelligence sources, although officials hasten to add that no specific names of sources or CIA officers actually appear in the emails.

Two more fresh items add to our update. Just yesterday, it was reported, other, similar emails, containing information discussed in classified materials exists in the personal communications files of former secretary of state Colin L. Powell and national security adviser– then secretary of state– Condoleezza Rice. Powell has been quoted responding that it was understood his emails were his–and were not classified. There’s been no response so far from Ms. Rice.

The facts are not what our spooks seem to think. Global events are visible, attract attention, and trigger discussion and analysis. The drone war, to cite our starting point, is watched and remarked upon by a wide range of media outlets, human rights organizations, international entities, think tanks, and national governments (and their own security services). The fact that secret ODNI and CIA documents discuss the same matters does not make those subjects classified. The spooks’ attitude is that even specific CIA information, if it becomes available from any source (such as a leak) other than declassification by the CIA remains secret!

Plus, there is declassification and there is declassification. The CIA quietly releases secret information to an author or journalist, for example, in the expectation that books or articles will show the spooks in a positive light. Yet at the same time others who might request the same or similar information be declassified are denied, told the agency will neither confirm or deny the very existence of the information, or told outright it does not exist.

The other new development is the revelation of “eyewash”–someone’s adaptation of a term of art used by CIA disguise artists. According to these reports eyewash describes a category of documents that move over regular CIA channels that contradict memos or messages which circulate in hidden channels. This is described as a mechanism to reduce the circle of officials knowledgeable about some subject, but it’s much bigger than that. For decades we have known about backchannel and front channel–where the important message goes over the (secret) backchannel and the idle chatter on the (less sensitive) front channel. Nixon’s covert operation against Allende in Chile was facilitated by “Track II,” exactly such a device. The CIA’s destruction of its torture videotapes in 2005 was implemented by a backchannel message to a station chief that ordered that person to put in a request on the front channel, using certain specific arguments and rationales, for authority to destroy the material.

The difference between “eyewash” and backchannel is that in the former the front channel traffic is positively designed to be false.

This is described as a security technique. In its simplest form the safety of an agent is protected by giving broad distribution to the message that says the operative is dead, while tightly restricting the message that gives the spy a different codename and reports his information. For a moment that sounds OK–until you realize the same technique can be applied to deluding the Senate intelligence committee that the Panetta report had no meaning, that the CIA’s hit team operation (Project Cannonball) had long been stopped, or, indeed, that CIA remains responsive to congressional authority at all.

Such methods are worse than unacceptable. Here is an intelligence agency, whose whole purpose is to tell truth to power, where the biblical proverb “the truth shall set you free” is actually carved into the marble wall, indulging in the practice of actively lying– not to the enemy, not is a deception operation, but in official records that will be seen by anyone dealing with the agency on its business–in other words, CIA officers, their bosses, the Congress,  the president.

Meanwhile the same intelligence community is presuming to comb over the private emails of its executive branch masters, such as Hillary Clinton or Colin Powell, and denounce them for having information in messages that spooks decide in retrospect should have been classified!

This is a scam.

As I argued in some length in The Family Jewels the intelligence community has long since passed the point of safeguarding legitimate secrecy in favor of practices designed to protect its own interests–political and financial as much or more than operational. “National security” is expanded–bloated–to hide that. And what I said here last summer (“Hillary’s Emails: Bursting the Secrecy Bubble,” August 22, 2015), I repeat here today: the secrecy rules have become so bloated that senior officials can no longer do their jobs without violating them. It’s time to change the rules, not prosecute the secretaries of state. While we are at it, the CIA and ODNI need to be taken out of the business of declassification.