Freeing the President’s Daily Brief

September 16, 2015–Today the big pooh-bahs of the security services–Fearful Leader Clapper, the Machiavellian Brennan, former SEAL chieftain Admiral McRaven, and a number of their predecessors, have gathered in Austin, Texas, at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library. Their purpose is to preside over an event at which the government agencies and the National Archives formally open for research the key intelligence reports for the ages. Today these are called the President’s Daily Briefs (PDBs). Jack Kennedy knew them as the PICKL (predictably, “pickle”), or President’s Intelligence Checklist; Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff had even more awkward names like “Synopsis of Intelligence Items Reported to the President.” (They never could find an acronym for that one.)

If you’re familiar with the PDB at all it is probably due to the now-notorious issue of August 6, 2001, in which CIA analysts reported their sense that Al Qaeda terrorists were likely to employ large aircraft as weapons. The Bush White House, which paid no attention, moved heaven and earth to keep that PDB out of the hands of 9/11 investigators. Michael Morrell, Mr. Bush’s CIA briefer, went on to great things at the agency after his time with the PDB, so you can see it’s serious business.

The PDB is literally the president’s daily secret newspaper. The Johnson Library alone has 38 boxes (an archival box typically contains roughly 2,500 pages). Kennedy another 17, and Eisenhower records together possibly contain that many more. Who knows how many boxes of PDBs accumulated during the Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush (I and II), Clinton, and Obama administrations.

These documents have a long and storied past. The very first PDB was crafted on February 15, 1946. In Ike’s day they were written right inside the White House by the president’s trusted staff secretary, Colonel Andrew Goodpaster, and started simply as his notes. He, and John S. D. Eisenhower, the president’s son–and Goodpaster’s assistant–had the advantage of knowing precisely what the president worried himself about.

But like most things that go to presidents, the PDBs became the focus of fierce jockeying. (Still today: In an attempt to assert that it was always the oracle of the PDB, the CIA maintains that its publications Current Intelligence Bulletin and Central Intelligence Bulletin, precursors to the National Intelligence Daily, all lower-level organs, were “PDBs.”) Responsible for the actual information utilized in the PDB the CIA sought to gain control over the drafting. They succeeded when John F. Kennedy occupied the White House. The PICKLs, as they were then known, were delivered by the president’s military aide, General Chester V. Clifton. Then a focus of infighting became who would be present when the president received his daily dollop of intel. McGeorge Bundy often attended, Walt Rostow wanted to be a recipient of the document himself, Henry Kissinger did not want the PDB delivered if he wasn’t there to hear it; Zbigniew Brzezinski, I am told, sought to prevent CIA director Stansfield Turner from delivering the document, to take over the delivery duty himself, or at least be there for the event. In Ronald Reagan’s time security advisers did not trust the president to understand the issues and were almost always in attendance.

Bill Clinton started off by reading PDBs as part of his morning national security briefing. Then he read them only when he was in Washington, often cancelling the remainder of the briefings. People at the agency got the sense the president was not interested. When that got reported in the media, Clinton made a show of the PDBs, receiving them together with Vice-President Al Gore, both their national security advisers, and deputies, and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta. George W. Bush read the documents and plied his CIA briefer with questions. Bush’s father, having once headed the CIA, paid careful attention to the PDBs. Barack Obama has the big multi-official palavers on Friday mornings and small briefings every day. (See more on the PDBs and see some samples on the National Security Archive website, http://www.NSArchive.org.)

The CIA might have gotten control of the process, but it had no handle on the president’s interests. The customer has always been the problem for the intel pookies. President Kennedy would question Mac Bundy or General Clifton and they would pass the queries along to the agency. LBJ went through Rostow and Nixon through Kissinger. Carter often relied upon Vice-President Walter Mondale, who had been a member of the Church Committee, as his conduit to the intelligence agencies. CIA director Bill Casey heard President Reagan express a desire for more information on Poland and had the PDB redesigned to include a special Polish section. Casey arranged for Richard Lehman, head of his PDB unit and the designated briefer, to discuss the president’s mood and concerns after his return each day. These “backbriefs” have remained the standard procedure ever since. (After Bill Clinton appeared to shun PDB reports the CIA tried spicing them up with foreign inside gossip and direct reporting from clandestine sources.) The final printed edition of the PDB went to the White House on February 15, 2014. Mr. Obama now receives his daily intel on a secure tablet.

With whatever exceptions exist, all this vein of rich historical material will remain classified even after today. I say “opened for research” because those who control declassification at the agency have demonstrated a proclivity for gutting the record in the name of information security.  The big brass aren’t coming to Austin to give out the PDBs, only to acknowledge they have become fair game in the secrecy jousts.

Return, with me, to the days of Clinton, when the Cold War had ended and the winds were so fair that a serious political philosopher could ventilate about the “end of history.” Secrecy was already a problem then, and Clinton recognized it with a project to institute “automatic declassification” of records older than 25 years, with “exceptions” to be carved out by agencies requesting “exemptions.” The overall project failed (the Air Force and CIA claimed exemptions for 100% of their work), but the specific angle for the Presidential Daily Briefs was CIA boss George Tenet’s assertion that the PDBs needed secrecy to protect  intelligence sources and methods. That marked the beginning of an Alice in Wonderland story that ended only today.

“Sources and methods” are spookspeak for intelligence tradecraft or for specific agent identifications or information compartments (such as overhead imagery, communications intelligence, or the like). But the PDBs are information reports, not efforts to create new intel channels or technologies. Names of agents and whatnot can easily be removed from ancient documents or are, in a number of instances, already known from the CIA’s declassification of specific cases. (For example, Tenet asserted sources and methods protection for PICKLs of the Cuban Missile Crisis in spite of the fact the agency had already released portions of those very documents, plus the actual transcripts of interviews with its Soviet spy Oleg Penkovskiy, whose information lay at the heart of that reporting.) A number of PDBs, bearing on Vietnam, Chinese nuclear weapons, the Six-Day war in the Middle East, and other subjects had already been declassified, with the secrecy apparatus considering them as simple information reports. Currying favor with the press and enhancing his stature as maven of top-level information, Henry Kissinger permitted the PDB to be photographed, a picture published in Newsweek on November 22, 1971. There’s no way a true “sources and methods” issue would have been treated in such a cavalier fashion. But suddenly the sources and methods bugaboo descended to chill the entire declassification process.

In 2004 the National Security Archive joined scholar Larry Berman to challenge this idiocy. Berman had requested and had been denied release of a pair of innocuous PDBs. The Archive joined him in a lawsuit for release of the material as is provided under the Freedom of Information Act. Though we lost the suit for the two specific PDBs in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2007, the justices ruled that CIA could no longer claim a blanket exemption for the class of documents, and that PDBs from the Kennedy and Johnson eras had to be considered for release.

What is happening at the LBJ Library today is a direct result of that court battle. Notice that the agency took its sweet time–8 years– to cough up any of this material. Without seeing the rest of the documents I nevertheless expect the collection will be laced with redacted passages, pages, and whole documents. The organizers of this event promise that PDBs will be posted on the CIA website, presumably today after the event. I have argued elsewhere that the agency’s declassification process has been corrupted. It functions to protect proper secrets only at the margin and is far more concerned with preventing embarrassment–a stance explicitly prohibited in the regulations supposed to govern secrecy and declassification. I’ll have more to report on the PDBs once I get the chance to see what the agency has done.

What Have We Learned from the Vietnam War?

April 29, 2015–On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon in 1975 I participated in a roundtable discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations. Some of the things I heard there are actually disturbing for citizens of a nation that is continually faced with new appeals for it to commit blood and treasure in foreign ventures, some important, some not so much.

One panelist went on about transformation. That is, since the Vietnam war the lands of East Asia have enjoyed an economic boom, greater prosperity, more cohesion in terms of regional politics, and the like, attributed to the “stand” the United States made in Vietnam. When you have lemons, make lemonade. First, the United States did not make a “stand” in Vietnam, that was an intervention. More to the point, while it is perfectly understandable that national and international investments had been slowed by the security fears occasioned by the war, and therefore surged once it ended, attributing economic prosperity to the war is mistaking consequence for purpose. America lost the Vietnam war–and not prettily–and to make it out as a victory of any sort is inadmissible. This version is actually something popularized by Walt W. Rostow in the 1990s, when Robert McNamara’s memoir deploring the mistakes of White House insiders put Rostow on the hook of responsibility for some of the trauma of Vietnam.

Another panelist learned that presidents need to keep their sights on three things– the need to keep on the right side of the Congress, the American people, and the media. There were no lessons about valid purposes, none about proper commitments, nothing learned about the need for exit strategies. Apart from the question of whether it is any longer even possible to stay on the right side of the Congress, this whole thing is about freedom of action. Presidents can do anything they like so long as they follow these three easy rules.

If this is the caliber of our takeaway from the Vietnam war then perhaps it is a good thing that Americans spent several decades trying to forget all about Vietnam.

Farewell to Jonathan Schell

April 17, 2014–Back in the bad old days of Vietnam, when General William C. Westmoreland was running the war, he was intensely focused on what people were saying and writing about the conflict. If you looked at Westy’s personal papers–this was a general who every day was flitting all over South Vietnam and rarely got up and went to bed in the same place–you’d see so many press clippings that the only logical conclusion would be that the general had a platoon of privates clipping the newspapers and magazines for him at headquarters.

Some war correspondents irked Westmoreland tremendously. Jonathan Schell became one such burr under Westy’s saddle. Schell’s work, first in The New Yorker and then in books, proved quite influential. The reporter travelled Vietnam as did Westy, but he spent more time in the places he visited and stopped to smell the napalm. Quite literally. One of Schell’s pieces, expanded into the 1968 book The Military Half, discussed how the armed services, bloated with bureaucracy, wedded to formulas, and with narrow concepts of their methods, were mindlessly blowing up the land. A passage that sticks in mind is where Schell described riding in the back seat of a spotter plane while the pilot glibly called in air strikes on targets that, going at a few hundreds of miles an hour, he could hardly see. If memory serves right, General Westmoreland demanded to know who had let the journalist onto a forward observer plane, and set a posse of spin doctors to work countering Schell’s observations.

Schell’s first book–also an article originally–gave the lie to “population resettlement” as a pacification technique that aimed to win the hearts and minds of South Vietnamese. On an operation north of Saigon Schell described in graphic detail how a U.S. infantry battalion–one commanded by then-Lieutenant Colonel Alexander M. Haig, Jr.–had gone into the village, plowed everything up, destroyed the place, and carried off the villagers so quickly they hardly had time to pack belongings and gather their livestock. The Village of Ben Suc (1967) was powerful, strong enough that there were attempts to counter it too. The main objection was that Ben Suc lay in a National Liberation Front stronghold area, with the implication the villagers were all enemy anyway. The Colonel Tinyminds of Westy’s PR machine apparently did not stop to think through the issue. If pacification meant anything, it was that the counterinsurgency mavens ought to be making extra efforts to win the loyalties of peasants in the enemy zone, and the way to do that was hardly by destroying their homes. Schell had fingered a key weakness, since military methods hardly differed between this village in enemy territory and others in contested zones.

By the 1980s Jonathan Schell had moved on to grapple with the horror of impending nuclear war, and his book The Fate of the Earth (1982), nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, became a mainstay of the nuclear freeze movement. It served as a searing indictment of the insanity of the nuclear arms race. Schell’s contribution was probably responsible singlehandedly–with its treatment of the dangers of automaticity in nuclear attack plans and its invocation of the dangers of nuclear winter–for thousands of people changing their minds on this critical issue.

When George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, Jonathan Schell stood among those who opposed a war that turned out to be every bit as stupid as they feared. The blood and treasure squandered in Iraq are monumental, and opponents of that intervention deserve honor.

We lose good people every day. Jonathan Schell was a great one. We’re sorry to see him go.

Boss Spook from The Nam

April 8, 2014–Tom Polgar is not a household name. He’s probably not as well known as his daughter Susan, an international Chess grandmaster whose involvement a few years back in maneuverings among the pooh bahs of the United States Chess Federation became somewhat controversial. But the father’s role was far more consequential. Polgar, a senior official of the CIA, passed away two weeks ago. To the extent people remember him at all, it will be because of Frank Snepp, a subordinate when Polgar served as the agency’s last station chief in Saigon, whose searing account of the collapse of South Vietnam and the U.S. withdrawal, Decent Interval, was not very kind to Mr. Polgar.

Born in southern Hungary, Tom Polgar’s family moved to the U.S. when he was sixteen. As Hungarian Jews they fled the anti-Semitism taking root there as well as in Germany. There were claims later that he had helped others fell as well. Polgar always retained his Hungarian accent. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942, his languages (German, Spanish, Greek and some French) made him exceptional and Polgar was recruited into the OSS. Dropped behind German lines near the end of World War II, Polgar made his way to Berlin and ended up working in Germany for the OSS and its successors right through CIA, spending nearly a decade on this frontline of the Cold War. After that it was Vienna, another Cold War cockpit. Polgar’s detractors–Frank Snepp was never the only one–dubbed him “Rasputin.”

In the mid-60s he went into CIA’s Latin America Division, first at headquarters and then as station chief in Argentina. It was from there, in 1972, that Polgar was sent to Vietnam. He had no experience in Southeast Asia–but he was fluent in Hungarian and Hungary was among the member nations of the international commission that was supposed to supervise implementation of the Paris accords under which a ceasefire was instituted and the U.S. withdrew from South Vietnam. Polgar kept up his liaison with the Hungarians, and there are conflicting accounts of its impact once Saigon stood on the point of collapse in early 1975. Some maintain that myopic Hungarian optimism induced Polgar to delay the withdrawal of CIA agents and destruction of its files at Saigon station. Others argue Polgar was too close to Henry Kissinger at the White House. In any case the collapse of South Vietnam was a disaster for the agency.

Tom Polgar next went to Mexico City as station chief there, and eventually returned to CIA headquarters where he led the human resources office. He retired in 1981. When the Iran-Contra Affair began with the shootdown of a plane transporting supplies to Nicaraguan contra rebels on behalf of “private benefactors” working for the Reagan National Security Council (NSC), Tom Polgar came out of the shadows to comment in the Miami Herald, saying “I think the CIA is telling the truth that it was not involved in the flight.” Of course William J. Casey, the CIA director of that time, was involved–up to his ears–in what became the next great agency embarrassment, with some elements working directly to the Casey-NSC network, and others kept in the dark. Senator Warren Rudman of the joint committee of Congress that investigated Iran-Contra, believing they needed an insider to understand the agency, hired Tom Polgar as an investigator. Polgar was deeply troubled by the agency’s work in that affair, Rudman believed, and his work led directly to the discovery of irregularities and of a critical missing CIA cable.

The jury remains out on Tom Polgar’s exploits, but perhaps now we will hear more about them.

Poles of a Magnet: Jim Schlesinger and Lawrence Walsh

March 27, 2014–Sometimes events pile atop one another, almost too quickly to respond. That’s the case this week, where almost simultaneously we see news of two important passages, the deaths of Lawrence E. Walsh and James R. Schlesinger. Once I got a moment I’d intended to write something about Lawrence Walsh because of his role in the Iran-Contra Affair, but before I could put finger to keyboard, this afternoon’s news brings word that Mr. Schlesinger, too, has passed away. The two men, both staunch Republicans, are linked in an unusual way, not due to their political affiliations but each figured in one of the central upheavals of America’s late 20th Century.

Lawrence E. Walsh was a lawyer, active from the mid-30s on. He served as an assistant district attorney and in other legal posts in New York City, as a counselor to New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, at the time the latter ran for president against Harry Truman in 1948 (losing in a breathtaking upset), as a federal district judge, and as deputy attorney general during the last part of the Eisenhower administration. For a long time Walsh worked as a lawyer in private practice, emerging briefly during the Nixon administration as deputy chief negotiator in the Vietnam peace talks in Paris. But his most important service by far was as special prosecutor in the investigation of the Iran-Contra Affair from 1986 to 1992.

Walsh had great respect for the law as well as for the political dimensions of legal matters. Whether he learned that as a DA, with Thomas Dewey, or in the Eisenhower Justice Department, which was obliged to enforce civil rights rules after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, I don’t know. But when it came to Iran-Contra, where his political inclination was to help protect President Ronald Reagan, Lawrence Walsh worked steadfastly to get to the bottom of the morass of one of the most extensive cover-ups of the age. The special prosecutor would be stymied at every turn–his evidence tainted by Congress’s insistence on immunizing witnesses at its Iran-Contra hearings, by lack of cooperation from Edwin Meese’s Justice Department, by the mass amnesia of National Security Council staff aides and CIA officers who professed not to remember activities with which they had been intimately associated over a period of years.

Despite every obstacle Walsh and his investigators succeeded in building cases against fourteen U.S. government officials and obtained convictions in eleven of those cases, including those of national security adviser John M. Poindexter and conspirator Oliver L. North. Most of the convictions were set aside by higher courts on the strength of the congressional immunities previously extended to the defendants. The remaining culprits were pardoned by the first President Bush when he was headed out the door at the end of his presidency and Walsh was on the point of prosecuting the former secretary of defense, Caspar W. Weinberger.

Walsh’s investigation concluded that both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush–at that time the vice-president–bore significant responsibility, that CIA director William J. Casey had been a major player, abetted by Secretary Weinberger and others, and that the highest levels of the government had conspired to evade U.S. law in selling weapons to Iran, with subordinates smuggling some of the resulting money to Nicaraguan contra rebels run by the CIA. Walsh found Reagan and Bush not in criminal jeopardy, but certainly guilty of poor management and potentially vulnerable if their foreknowledge of the affair was other than had been represented.

I have written before in this space of certain secrecy rules enacted by the second President Bush–George H. W.’s son–when he came to office, which gave former presidents a say in the declassification of records pertaining to them. In my view these rules were almost certainly instituted to protect the first Bush from the consequences of his role in Iran-Contra. These rules have made a mockery of declassification regulations as they pertain to the Reagan-Bush era.

Like the pole of a magnet Lawrence Walsh attracted the opprobrium and criticism of many from his own political party.

I never met Lawrence Walsh, but I did meet James R. Schlesinger, first in his early guise as a nuclear weapons expert and analyst at the RAND Corporation. Schlesinger was a Harvard-trained economist who came to defense analysis, which I studied at the time, as a proponent of what was called “operations research.” Richard Nixon brought Schlesinger into his administration to lead the Office of Management and Budget. In that capacity, in 1971 Schlesinger conducted an efficiency study of the U.S. intelligence community on Nixon’s behalf, at a time when the president sought an excuse to pare the CIA’s budget. Mr. Nixon later appointed Schlesinger the CIA director. It was Mr. Schlesinger who commissioned the notorious CIA report called The Family Jewels. It was that document that lay directly behind the CIA and NSA abuse scandals of 1975, the “Year of Intelligence,” about which much has appeared on this website of late. Needless to say, CIA and NSA officers were outraged that U.S. government authorities presumed to investigate their activities. Schlesinger soon left to head the Pentagon, where his fights with Henry Kissinger became the talk of Washington.

I saw Mr. Schlesinger on a number of occasions in later years, often at CIA-hosted events, where he was always honored. His role as Mr. Nixon’s gunslinger had apparently been forgotten. I’d not be surprised to see Kissinger show up as a speaker at Schlesinger’s memorial service. Perhaps Mr. Schlesinger’s was an opposite magnetic pole–opposites attract while like poles repel. How else to account for the very different treatment accorded these two Republicans? We’ll see.

CIA Bamboozles Congress–Again

March 5, 2014– You read it here first! I’ve commented repeatedly in this space on the enormous gaps in, and frailty of, congressional “oversight” of U.S. intelligence. The point has been made repeatedly in my coverage of the National Security Agency scandal but it also appears in pieces I’ve posted about the CIA. Now we’re back in the soup again. The McClatchy News Service first reported, and today’s New York Times confirms, that the CIA, far from acquiescing in the legal right of Congress to oversee the agency, has been spying on Congress.

A month ago a fairly extensive analysis appeared here (“Should We Depend on Intelligence Oversight,” February 1, 2014) on the byplay between the agency and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence regarding the committee’s investigation of the CIA torture program and its black sites. That column discussed how the agency was sitting on the Senate report, refusing to send it back for public release, because CIA careers and rice bowls are on the line. The new Times report indicates the spooks went further than that–CIA officials hacked the computers which it, itself, insisted that Senate committee staffers use in examining the documents it provided to investigators. This attempt to find out how the Senate discovered internal CIA documents which contradict the agency’s official position (that the conclusions of the Senate inquiry are wrong) is a violation of criminal law.

Sources have confirmed that the agency’s Inspector General has conducted an investigation into this spying. The latest information is that the IG has referred suspects in the case to the Justice Department.

All of which is the very antithesis of the principle of oversight. Here we have the watchers spying on those whose charge is to monitor them. This new excess joins an already lengthy list of irregularities that I documented in my book The Family Jewels . “Chilling” barely covers the implications here.

On March 4 Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) wrote a letter to President Obama regarding the torture report’s release, alluding to the impropriety, and requesting that CIA be stripped of the authority to rule on declassification of the document. This is a follow-up to a letter back in January to which Obama never replied.

So guess what? We’ve been here before. The whole notion that an executive branch agency has the authority to regulate what information can be released by Congress is a product of the “Year of Intelligence,” the time of The Family Jewels. More specifically that custom arose from the dealings between the CIA, President Gerald Ford, and the House Select Committee on Intelligence chaired by New York Representative Otis G. Pike, who recently passed away (see “We Miss His Integrity Already,” January 22, 2014). It is a fiction.

So all can understand just what happened here let me relate that story. Pike’s committee had a broader writ than the Senate torture investigation. It was empowered to look into every aspect of U.S. intelligence. The CIA loathed the whole thing. On the other side of Capitol Hill a similar committee under Idaho Senator Frank Church was doing the same thing. Just as with the recent torture investigation the CIA laid down ground rules for what the inquisitors could see. It even drafted the texts of secrecy agreements congressional staff were supposed to sign before being granted access. Their actions were closely monitored by the White House. President Ford designated his counselor, John O. Marsh, to ride herd over the whole thing, backed by none other than Dick Cheney, then the deputy assistant to the president (his boss at the time was Donald Rumsfeld).

At Langley, CIA headquarters, there was early confidence that the agency could keep the lid on the investigations. But these gradually developed their own leads (the Church inquiry into assassinations, for example) and went in directions the agency feared. At a hearing on September 10, 1975, the Pike committee let out four words of a National Security Agency cable that was top secret. The Ford administration seized the opportunity to demand that the committee return all classified documents in its possession and refused to provide any further information. It did not matter that Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state, had given the same information to reporters already.

This maneuver led to a major crisis between the Congress and President Ford. Then, as now, the administration had its spies on Capitol Hill, in this case the Republican members of Pike’s committee. But the White House was aghast to discover that even their congressional allies agreed that the committee had the right to any information it required to fulfill its duty. At the White House Jack Marsh crafted an “action plan for the defense of the agency.” As a CIA lawyer observed on September 22, “The Action Plan is much broader than simply the confrontation . . . . It deals with the future in terms of Executive and congressional oversight.” The Pike committee insisted upon its prerogative to release any information it considered necessary. It began considering Contempt of Congress citations for officials. It subpoenaed documents.

Ford sought legal advice, in house, from the Department of Justice, and CIA did its own analysis. White House lawyers did not give him much comfort. In a September 23 memorandum the president was told that Congress might not have the power to declassify information, “but it has the power to publish the document in its possession.” The Attorney General advised that the president could withhold information–and Henry Kissinger demanded it–but as a political matter that represented the highest risk option.

The same day Pike Committee lawyers told their principals, “the CIA is a creature of Congress, created by statute of Congress . . . . In other words, notwithstanding that the agency is a member of the Executive Branch it is created by Congress. If the subpoena is defied it raises the spectre of Frankenstein. That is, an agency created by Congress, funded by Congress is set loose in the world without any ability of its creator to control its acts, let alone examine them.” Pike stood his ground.

A sort of negotiation ensued. Some of the subpoenas were flawed, being addressed improperly (to the National Security Council for State Department information, for example), but the Pike committee was properly constituted, had the power to do this, and could legitimately regard any less than full response as failure to comply. Finally the sides cobbled together an arrangement under which the CIA would “lend” its documents, and before releasing anything to the public, the Pike committee would “consult” with the president on whether there was any national security objection to their release. President Ford adopted the device of asserting executive privilege each time one of these issues came up.

There is much more. The crisis went on into January 1976. Pike sought a contempt citation against Kissinger. Ford suppressed the Pike Report itself. Significantly, the legal advice then was that the president might succeed with a national security claim but that this dispute between Executive and Congress might very well be held a “political question” by the courts, so Ford’s chances were no better than 50-50. The president instead took the course of lobbying the House to vote against releasing Pike’s report, and in that he succeeded.

It is significant that in the draft recommendations which Otis Pike sent to his committee members on December 19, 1975, he included the provision that “Each such committee [dealing in national security] should be authorized to recommend that specific classified facts and documents be made public . . . after . . . giving careful consideration to the judgment of the executive branch,” with the final determination to be made by senior House leaders. This did not survive into the final set of recommendations, which instead provided that “classification of information be the subject of the enactment of specific legislation.” Forty years later, Americans still lack that protection against malfeasance and abuse.

(Note: I shall tomorrow post the Pike draft recommendations as a Hot Document on this site.)

Bottom line? President Ford relied upon the power of executive privilege to keep the documents secret, not on national security per se. The Pike Report was spiked as a political act, not a matter of security classification. The Church Committee did, in fact, release its Assassinations Report over Ford’s objections. And Section 4 of Senate Resolution 400, passed in 1976 to create the Senate Intelligence Committee, explicitly provides for the committee to declassify information, under a procedure similar to what appears in Pike’s draft recommendation.

The latitude Congress has given the Executive Branch in the release of national security information is a courtesy, not a matter of law. There is apparently some inkling of this within the Obama administration right now. The journalist Jason Leopold filed suit against the Department of Justice last September to compel the declassification of the 300-page executive summary of the Senate torture report. This past January the Department moved for a summary dismissal of the suit on the grounds that the Senate report is a “congressional record” and not an agency document.

The Central Intelligence Agency no longer deserves to be accorded courtesy in the matter of the Senate intelligence committee’s torture report. The Senate should simply release its investigative study. Forthwith.

 

 

We Miss His Integrity Already

January 22, 2014– It was sad to wake up yesterday to the news of the passing of former New York democratic congressman Otis G. Pike. During the fierce debates of 1975, known as the “Year of Intelligence” because the controversies of the day led to the first significant investigations of the actions of U.S. intelligence agencies, Representative Pike held to a steady course in the face of a concerted effort by the Ford administration–and the CIA, NSA, and FBI of that day–to head off any public inquiry. Like the current controversy ignited by leaks from NSA contract employee Edward Snowden, the Year of Intelligence began with revelations of U.S. intelligence spying on American citizens (see my book The Family Jewels). In contrast to the deferential chiefs of the congressional intelligence committees today–Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Mike Rogers–Congressman Pike was in nobody’s pocket and he persevered to the end.

The House of Representatives intelligence investigation of 1975 began under another congressman, Lucien N. Nedzi, who left under fire when it came out that he had collaborated with the CIA–much as current committee chairpersons have with the NSA–in concealing the record of agency abuses embodied in a document that CIA wags of the day had dubbed the “Family Jewels.” The House selected Representative Pike to lead a fresh inquiry. Pike had to start over from square one.

The Pike committee investigation is far less known than the one the Senate conducted under Frank Church. In part that is because his report was suppressed–President Ford lobbied Congress hard to avoid its disclosure, including sending a letter to House members and personally telephoning key figures to nail down votes against releasing the document. But Pike also faced major obstacles. Where the CIA, however reluctantly, permitted Church committee investigators to view some of its materials–ones the Ford White House vetted–its approach with the Pike committee was different. Representative Pike refused to accept the procedures the White House and CIA had designed to limit access for the investigators. The agency countered by refusing to supply Pike with any materials at all, on the excuse his committee could not protect classified information. There was more. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger refused to appear when called to testify, and resisted a subpoena once the House voted that. Some accommodations were made, but executive-legislative cooperation in the case of the Pike investigation would be minimal. And then President Ford intervened to suppress the Pike report. Portions of it promptly leaked. Although the public has never seen the complete report, it is clear from the leaked material that Congressman Pike, despite having half the time the Church committee enjoyed (insufficient in their case too, by the way), and in the face of executive branch obstruction of its inquiry, succeeded in getting to the bottom of several key intelligence questions. Otis Pike’s leadership–and his integrity in resisting White House and CIA maneuvers to affect information–were keys to this achievement.

Congress today would benefit from integrity like Otis Pike’s. The present  intelligence committees seem intent on avoiding issues, not engaging them. Not only is this apparent in their diffident approach to the NSA scandal, it is visible in the Senate committee’s failure to call out the CIA on its effort to stonewall the deep inquiry which the committee majority spent several years assembling on the CIA rendition and torture programs. Otis Pike (1921-2014) would not have let the spooks get away with such shenanigans.