April 4, 2016–A few days ago I did a radio interview with a San Francisco station. The United States government is in the process of conducting a years-long observance of the 50th Anniversary of the American War in Vietnam. The Department of Veterans Affairs had apparently selected March 29 as the date to celebrate Veterans. It did not seem right to me– that day in 1965 marked no great commitment of men and women to war, no significant Washington decision, no big battle, no Saigon coup, just a bombing of the North and a moment for small unit actions. Maybe that was the message.


In          Our          Name

These     things     were     done.

Among     our     names     was     mine.

And yours.


Someday, one day, there will be an observance like that for Afghanistan, Iraq and the War on Terror. Think about it.

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.

Leyte Gulf and ISIS

October 26,2014–Seventy years ago today the United States fleet was off the Philippines, hurling bolts of lightning at the remnants of a Japanese fleet in frantic retreat from what was the greatest naval battle of World War II. The fight was the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Americans were in the Philippines to make good on General Douglas MacArthur’s promise that “I shall return!” The Japanese responded because loss of the Philippines would cut the Home Islands off from their major source of raw materials and fuel. The Imperial Navy was being destroyed without a fight. It might as well make a last stand.

In history, the Leyte Gulf battle climaxed yesterday in October 1944, with U.S. warships pursuing the fleeing Japanese down Surigao Strait, where the Allies had soundly defeated the Imperial Navy; while other Americans mopped up the last active Japanese aircraft carriers off of Taiwan, and yet other American ships desperately sought to defend themselves against a huge Japanese battle fleet that had suddenly materialized out of the dawn.

It is that last piece of the story that’s of interest here. In October 1944 all the decks were stacked in favor of the Allies. The fleet supporting MacArthur outmatched the Japanese in numbers in every category from torpedo boats to battleships, way more in tonnage (therefore size of the fleet) and in numbers of aircraft; with huge advantages in combat logistics and organization–plus highly capable intelligence. It had been a full year since the Japanese fleet had laid a glove, other than pinpricks, on the Allies. The Imperial Navy had no chance. The admiral who led that battle fleet which came out of the dawn told his captains, “You must all remember there are such things as miracles.”

As it turned out, Leyte Gulf more or less followed the pattern. The detached Japanese force in Surigao Strait was largely destroyed, the core of the carrier force was sunk, and the battle fleet suffered tremendous damage. But what is most significant is that three years into a war Japan was losing by a wide margin, its sailors, by dint of determination and fighting spirit, were able to turn the tables on the Allies despite all their advantages, and put that battle fleet up against a greatly inferior detachment of the Americans. The miracle seemed like it was happening after all.

The Japanese squandered their opportunity. Thus seventy years ago today it was Americans mopping up fleeing Japanese and not the other way around. But that is a story for another day. What is more interesting for right now is the parallel we can draw with the jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the foe whom Americans and other allies are today fighting across both those countries. Today again the allies have many advantages. The ISIS fighters have only a small amount of heavy equipment, limited to what they have been able to capture from the Syrian government. The allies have air power–and complete control of the air–and can strike anywhere in the region with complete flexibility against an adversary who must move on the ground under the constant threat of air attack. ISIS fighters are also far outnumbered by the troops of the Iraqi government, the Kurds, and the other Syrian partisan factions, not to mention the forces of the Syrian government.

But like the putative Allied dominance at Leyte Gulf, the situation in the Middle East today is not so clear cut as would seem. Like the Japanese seventy years ago, what ISIS has going for it is determination and the willingness to die. That has carried it a long way under the rain of aerial munitions already. The Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga have proven much less determined. The Syrian islamist fighters other than ISIS have been divided against multiple enemies. The Turkish government, having promised to help, is effectively dragging its feet.

Those Americans at Leyte Gulf who took a complacent view of the Japanese were destined to be shocked. Do not be surprised if the same happens with ISIS today.


Into the Valley of Death

September 30, 2014– Too long away from the keyboard and pandemonium breaks out. There’s items to spotlight in the surveillance scandal, the ongoing saga of the CIA, and plenty more. But I can’t do it all at once. So, for today, let’s focus on Syria and ISIS–or ISIL, or whatever you want to call it. For a long time this was a challenge lurking in the shadows, imprecise in the false light of dawn. Suddenly a lot more is becoming known, not just about the jihadi group but regarding classic issues of waging war.

President Obama’s central dilemma at the moment is pursuing a conflict against ISIL, which is carving a caliphate out of Syria and Iraq, without favoring the leader of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, of whom Obama has already expressed himself as needing replacement. You read it here first (“Obama’s Trainwreck,” August 8, 2014)–Obama could not carry out sustained actions in Iraq without jumping into Syria, and he couldn’t do that without helping Assad. Now we’re deep in the Deep Muddy. Mr. Obama’s solution is to recruit a coalition of allies for the ISIL action. We’ll see how that fares.

As expected, the new round of U.S. military action has revived old arguments about war powers. The White House, as presidents seem invariably to do, has invoked the president’s powers as leader of the armed forces, along with the hoary old Iraq war congressional resolution, as giving him the legal authority to proceed. This is a tenuous position and will weaken quickly the more the U.S. undertakes direct actions in Syria (not covered in any of the old authorizations). Congress may already have given away the store by passing a resolution asking the administration to train Syrian resistance fighters, which can be taken as a tacit recognition of the state of belligerence. In any case, a key waypoint will come up in mid-November. At that time, under the War Powers Act, the president will be required to report to Congress on his use of force and the issues will be squarely posed.

Not so expected, military action is either drawing in ambitious U.S. commanders or beginning to impinge on forces available. The most recent news is that the administration has ordered a 500-man contingent of the 1st Infantry Division into Iraq. This is significant for two reasons. One, previously all the troop detachments have been from Special Operations Forces or the U.S. Marines. The new move will be the first call upon the regular troop rotation. This could signify that the armed services are lining up to get slices of the pie, as they have in previous long wars. Second, soldiers of that unit have previously been earmarked for service in Africa with the U.S. Africa Command, again primarily reliant on Special Forces and Marines. This could mean that the 1st Division is now regarded as especially suited to working alongside the shadow warriors, but it might also indicate that U.S. capabilities at the margin have been exhausted–with special forces doing everything they can regular troops are now required.

Meanwhile, the first dollar figures are now in. The think tank Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington calculates the cost of U.S. operations already carried out is nearing the billion-dollar mark, that at current rates the ISIL war may soak $2.4 to 3.8 billion out of U.S. budgets, and if the effort is increased, somewhere between $4.2 and 6.8 billion, exclusive of the cost in casualties or the effects of operating tempos on equipment. Since, to date, acknowledged U.S. military actions include only 273 “airstrikes” (this word is being used ambiguously, and I infer it refers to the release of a single rocket or bomb) and 47 Navy cruise missile strikes, the reader can get an idea of just how expensive it is to mount a single attack.

All this for a jihadi group that largely ignored the U.S. until recently. Indeed, the lesson for ISIL in all this is “kill an American on TV and you’re toast.” Enemies who seek ways to get the United States to malcommit forces to secondary fronts will take notice. Hysteria bred in the U.S. by the constant propaganda on the supposed terrorist threat makes that possible. American leaders should themselves wake up to the way their options are being narrowed by the drumbeat of frightening the public. Meanwhile the gathering war is much too important to be left to some vague legal justification. There needs to be a real war powers debate.

Obama’s Train Wreck

August 8, 2014–We’re in the soup now! Barack Obama has been notoriously shy with White House television cameras. If you pay attention to these things you’ll have noticed that Obama shuns newsmaking appearances at the White House, preferring to show himself only on social occasions. So when the president suddenly interrupted prime time television for a personal appearance last night, you have to agree it’s important. And it was: the United States is going back into Iraq. After exiting from that costly and stupid war–a withdrawal on which Obama campaigned for the presidency–he is heading back in because the Islamic Caliphate (also called ISIS) threatens the residual Iraqi government.

What a mess. Fighting the Caliphate, which controls portions of both Iraq and Syria; and which, in Syria, is part of the effort to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, may be a humanitarian response but it puts the United States in an impossible position. In Syria, after all, the U.S. is with the rebels pushing to oust Assad too. So the U.S. is allied with ISIS in Syria and fighting it in Iraq? This is worse that “the enemy of your enemy is your friend.” This puts the U.S. on both sides of the Syrian civil war while pretending to have nothing to do with it. And in Iraq we are on the verge of full scale intervention in a senseless conflict.

Sad to say this kind of muddle is becoming characteristic of Obama policies. The healthcare rollout disaster is a domestic example. Time and again Mr. Obama makes a good analysis of the problem but is then incapable of sticking to his guns. President Obama is also tragically inconsistent. Consider the other major development yesterday–Obama’s signature of a law trying to make corrections in another mess we have, that of care at Veterans Administration hospitals. Compare that to . . . wait for it! . . . his treatment of intelligence matters. Here are some quotes from what Mr. Obama said on August 7 at Fort Belvoir, Virginia:

“Over the last few months, we’ve discovered some inexcusable misconduct. . . . It was outrageous.” He said that about VA hospitals. But what about the CIA? Its infiltration of computer systems belonging to Congress was excusable? No it wasn’t. What about intelligence boss Fearful Clapper deliberately lying to Congress when asked a direct question on dragnet surveillance of Americans? Excusable? No. What about the NSA surveillance itself? Mr. Obama seems to think that’s OK. Many would disagree.

At Fort Belvoir about the VA: “We’re instituting a critical culture of accountability.” Where is the equivalent action taken in regard to the spies?

On the VA scandal: “If you engage in an unethical practice, if you cover up a serious problem, you should be fired. Period. It shouldn’t be that difficult.” The CIA not only engaged in an “unethical practice,” it tried to evade accountability by accusing Congress of criminality. Repeated lying by the ODNI and the directors of NSA and CIA have not only not been met by accountability, the president has invited these people to White House dinners.

“And if you blow the whistle on an unethical practice, or bring a problem to the attention of higher-ups, you should be thanked. You should be protected for doing the right thing. You shouldn’t be ignored, and you certainly shouldn’t be punished.” Edward Snowden has not only not been thanked, President Obama failed to speak up when characters like Representative Mike Rogers or former NSA/CIA director Michael Hayden talked about wanting him dead. And there has been plentiful mention of punishing the whistleblower at all levels in the Obama administration. Indeed, the criminal indictment the CIA couldn’t get away with, in its attempt to chill Congress, has already been opened for Snowden.

President Obama has good instincts but he can’t seem to apply them consistently. Accountability is good for the Veterans Administration but it does not apply to the intelligence community. Non-intervention is good in Syria but does not apply in Iraq, even if it leaves the United States mired on both sides of the conflict. Whistleblowers should be protected, except where they should get life in prison.

A recent poll that sought opinions on the performance of recent American presidents found Mr. Obama in last place. Even behind Richard Nixon if you can imagine that. If you want an explanation, here’s mine: President Obama’s expressed intentions have fallen so far short of his actions that citizens no longer feel they can believe in him.

Dick Cheney: Circusmaster or Clown?

June 19, 2014–Dick Cheney has struck again. Together with daughter Liz–a fellow-traveler in the classic mold–Cheney has published a piece in the Wall Street Journal in which he charged, “Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.” In the June 18 op-ed article, the former vice-president goes on to accuse Barack Obama of “abandoning” Iraq and “snatching” defeat from the jaws of victory. What?

Several things are going on here that cannot be permitted to pass without comment. I’ll leave the obvious to the side for a moment to say this– for two decades in the 20th Century American politics were roiled by the issue of “who lost China?” It was a false charge, devised for the purpose of forcing politicians to take public stands on foreign intervention, posed from a conservative point of view. The stalking horse in Mr. Cheney’s latest foray is his barely disguised effort to revive the same kind of political  charge. Cheney cannot be allowed to get away with this.

The former vice-president obviously thinks by resurrecting this device he can put Democrats in a bind while redefining his own role in the Iraq debacle in a more positive light. Cheney has long believed himself a circusmaster, able to pull bunny rabbits out of the most threadbare of tophats. That’s what he did when he played George W. Bush’s piano keys and got the United States into Iraq in the first place, when he served the first president Bush as secretary of defense, when he sat in Congress and obstructed investigations of the Iran-Contra Affair, and when he held a White House portfolio for Gerald R. Ford and sought to evade and minimize investigations of U.S. intelligence agencies, ignited by charges of domestic spying and assassination plotting, all the way back in 1975. You can read all these stories in The Family Jewels. In honor of Cheney the circusmaster I will shortly be posting a new product for the “Downloadable” section of this website, one that will show Mr. Cheney, in his own handwriting, crafting the White House strategy against the Family Jewels investigations.

But there is more to it than that. Richard Cheney’s interventions have had a mad wizard quality to them, preoccupied with short-term tactical goals, which have resulted in long-term negatives for his country. Derailment of inquiries into the intelligence agencies in 1975, and White House staffs in the late 80s arguably made possible the manipulations by which Dick Cheney himself maneuvered his president, after the September 11 attacks, into one of the most disastrous episodes in U.S. history. There were small things to go with the big ones. In the Iraq and Afghan wars one of the most useful American weapons had been the CV-22 transport aircraft. As defense secretary for the first president Bush, Dick Cheney cancelled the V-22 program, losing eight years and untold millions of dollars in extra development costs.

But let’s return to the present, and take Dick Cheney up on his own words. In point of fact it is Cheney, not Barack Obama, who has been wrong about nearly everything he has claimed over the past decade. Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, the alleged presence of which Cheney used to justify an unprovoked invasion. The war did not end in a few weeks as Mr. Cheney said it would. The invasion did not implant the new democracies in the Middle East that Cheney expected would eventuate. Iraqis stopped regarding Americans as liberators very quickly contrary to Mr. Cheney’s expectations. The Maliki government of Iraq was not the broad-based popular unity government that Cheney and his cohorts professed. The war in Afghanistan burbled along and then escalated because Cheney and his cohorts ignored it in favor of their myopic focus on Iraq. Intelligence work on “the dark side,” as Mr. Cheney insisted would defeat Al Qaeda, did not. CIA torture, which Cheney defended vociferously, has had marginal if any impact on U.S. Intelligence. NSA eavesdropping, which Cheney has said he would do again, in an instant, has had little intelligence impact, threatened the constitutional rights of everyone, and caused great damage to American foreign relations, hence U.S. national security. This is not even the complete list but it is sufficient. Never has one man been so wrong, about so much, at the expense of so many. Richard Cheney is a clown.

So to Iraq. The war in Iraq was not a United States victory. Anyone who imagines it was is deluded. The line about snatching defeat from the hands of victory, increasingly to be heard from the neocons, is an attempt to redefine the conflict’s result in the guise of discussing current policy. It is not for the U.S. to snatch anything from the present situation in Iraq. Conversely, it is very much the case that Maliki policies have undermined his own legitimacy and created the situation in which he is vulnerable.

Let’s consider two more things: One, defeat in Iraq was the product of decisions taken or not taken by the administration of which Dick Cheney was a major player. The U.S. barely avoided a rout, and salvaged an orderly withdrawal, which Barack Obama completed. Further, for the sake of this analysis suppose Obama does what Cheney wants and goes back into Iraq, only to stand at Maliki’s side as he is defeated or yields to an Iranian proconsul–the most likely outcome. That result would be snatching defeat from whatever Iraq is now. That’s number two. Playing that game might open the door to a “Who Lost Iraq” competition. Dick Cheney must think he really is a circusmaster. But he must know that Barack is never going to play. This is not about U.S. interests, foreign policy or national security. It’s all about scoring points. That’s exactly why Dick Cheney is such a clown.

[NOTE: June 21: Documents on Mr. Cheney’s attempt to restrict the Church committee inquiry are now posted in “Products” under the “Downloadable” section of the website. There is a related set of documents, posted on March 15, 2014, under the title “Church Committee Access to CIA Documents.”]


No Rant on Iraq

June 13, 2014–Don’t succumb to the siren songs of temptresses on the latest Iraq debacle. This is a right wing screed propelled by a feel-good drive to think that something we did there was worthwhile. My time today is very limited but I want to say– remember how we got here.

First off, the United States did not “win” the Iraq war. There is nothing there which we achieved and we have no winnings to protect. Democracy in Iraq? The Maliki government is no more a democracy than that of Saddam Hussein. Maliki has spent his time in power seizing control of more levers of power and excluding ethnic and religious groups other than his own Shiites. Vice-presidents and senior officials of his own government have fled to evade trumped up criminal charges. Is it any wonder Sunnis and Kurds won’t fight for the Baghdad government?

Second, Maliki swore off U.S. aid. His refusal to enter into the status of forces agreement that Washington sought as we withdrew our main forces from Iraq was understandable from a nationalist point of view. But both the U.S. and Iraq understood that refusal meant the end of U.S. training for the Iraqi military. Maliki then undermined the Iraqi military by employing the same tactics he did with the political system as a whole. Maliki buttered his own bread. Intervention now does not prevent Iraqi WMD, any more than it did in 2003, and it does not preserve Iraqi democracy.

Next, Washington’s basic decision was made when President Obama rejected calls to intervene in Syria. The fighters threatening Iraq today have spilled across the border from Syria and represent an attempt to forge a confessional state that will take over that area. For that to happen the so-called ISIS group has to topple not just Mr. Maliki but the Hafez Asad regime as well. Intervention against ISIS in Iraq is actually the equivalent of helping Asad. Americans shouldn’t want to do that.

Military action in Iraq is the wrong intervention at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons.

Working at the National Security Archive

The National Security Archive, where I’m a senior fellow, is an advocate for openness and government accountability. I’ve been with the Archive in an active role for more than fifteen years and before that I was an ally. The Archive began in the mid-1980s with donations of documents from a number of scholars and journalists, including me. One day I’ll post the story of its creation. Visit the National Security Archive website and see the breadth of our coverage.

We work on secrecy issues in two ways. The first is to support measures to simplify and streamline the government regulations that apply to the declassification of official records. The other is to apply for the release of specific records which we make available to anyone who wants to use them.

The Archive makes records available in several ways, including “Electronic Briefing Books” (EBBs) which contain small selections of declassified documents that are introduced and contextualized by analysts like me. Those are posted directly on the Archive’s website and can be accessed at any time. Another is a set of larger document collections, often thousands of documents at a time. The third is what we call the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) which contain most of our holdings in an electronic format that is machine-searchable. These two are subscription services which are available at many university libraries and other institutions. Researchers can also come to the Archive’s offices and consult our collections directly, including materials not available on DNSA, among them several hundred donations of materials from individuals. Beyond that the Archive has also provided U.S. documents and expert advice to groups seeking to institute freedom of information procedures in their countries, and to justice officials in foreign countries seeking U.S. information for their enforcement of human rights statutes.

At the Archive I currently focus on the Central Intelligence Agency and on Vietnam, both areas where I direct documentation projects. In the past I also functioned as deputy director of our Iraq project and I did work on Afghanistan. I compiled the Archive’s two sets on Vietnam, and now am engaged in creating an even larger collection on intelligence covert operations, the first set of which was released in the spring of 2013, and the second in the spring of 2015. I’ve also done a number of our Electronic Briefing Books. Those can be found and downloaded from the Archive’s website. I won’t mention all the EBBs I’ve created, but the ones I talk about below are some of my “greatest hits.” Some of the Archive’s “great issues” are mentioned as well. I also discuss my book Hoodwinked: The Documents that Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War.


*Congress has Its Own Capability to Declassify Documents: During 1975, the “Year of Intelligence,” Gerald Ford’s White House faced off against the congressional investigators on the provision of documents and on the release of the resulting investigative reports. The climax came when Ford refused material to the House Select Committee on Intelligence (HSC) chaired by New York Representative Otis G. Pike, who responded by issuing subpoenas. Both White House and CIA lawyers advised President Ford that the HSC would win in court–its subpoenas were valid and executable. Henry Kissinger demanded Ford reject them and trigger a constitutional crisis. Mr. Ford made a compromise. The rules of the eventual House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) reflect this episode by providing a mechanism for the House committee to release information to the public. The Senate intelligence committee has a similar mechanism for declassification (EBB 596, “The White House, the CIA, and the Pike Committee, June 2, 2017).

*Petition to Unseal 1942 Grand Jury Proceedings: National Security Archive joined with the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press to support an initiative to open the secret records of the grand jury the U.S. convened in 1942 in an attempt to obtain an indictment of the Chicago Tribune newspaper for an article it had published about the Battle of Midway in the Pacific theater of World War II. The backstory is that the Tribune’s article mentioned the names of Japanese aircraft carriers sunk at the battle, which the U.S. knew due to breaking enemy naval codes. The U.S. government did not understand at first that the same information had been incorporated into an information sheet posted on many U.S. Navy ships, from which a Tribune reporter copied it. The Justice Department dropped the case once authorities realized that a prosecution of the newspaper would alert the Japanese to the fact their codes were being read. These grand jury proceedings have been secret ever since. In Carlson et. al. v U.S. the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sued to open the proceeding material. The National Security Archive joined the petition to argue the substance of the issue that the Grand Jury proceedings no longer required the protection of secrecy and that, conversely, the contents would be of value to history.

*Cheney Suppresses CIA Assassination Report: Back in 1975, known as the “Year of Intelligence” for all the investigations of the security services that occurred, one had been chaired by the Vice-President of the United States, Nelson A. Rockefeller. While the Rockefeller Commission inquiry was underway, President Gerald R. Ford revealed the CIA had been involved in plotting assassinations. The Rockefeller investigation had to be widened to include the assassination issue, but once its report had been completed, Richard Cheney, then the deputy assistant to the president, edited it. Cheney’s edit inserted recommendations the commission had not approved, dropped ones they had, and changed the Rockefeller Commission presentation. One of Cheney’s biggest edits was to drop the commission’s entire assassinations report. The reason that only the Church Committee’s study of CIA assassination plotting is known is that the one assembled by the Rockefeller commission was suppressed in this way. Electronic Briefing Book 543, on February 29, 2016, includes the White House-edited text of the Rockefeller report, the suppressed assassinations report, commentary from commission staff warning against this action, and more.

*President’s Daily Briefs: The Archive marched in the forefront of efforts to obtain the declassification of the President’s Daily Briefs, the series of intelligence reports produced especially for presidents to see. They serve to index the concerns of America’s top leaders. In 2004 the Archive teamed with scholar Larry Berman to file suit for declassification after the CIA denied Berman a couple of these reports with the (silly) argument that the reports–which embody intelligence analyses–were about “sources and methods.” Remarkably, the agency succeeded in protecting the two documents, except that in 2007 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit threw out the agency’s blanket “sources and methods” justification, forcing the government into a systematic review for declassification of this entire class of documents. As a result the Obama administration adopted a rule that PDBs will be reviewed for secrecy at the 40-year mark. In September 2015 the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence held an event at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, at which the agency opened a collection of roughly 2,500 PDBs. The Archive marked this event by posting our EBB No. 530 on the PDBs (September 16, 2015).

*White House Attempts to Blunt Church Committee Investigation: From the materials gathered for Part II of the Archive’s CIA document collection I selected a cross-section of exemplars that illustrate just how the Ford White House, spearheaded by Dick Cheney and Philip Buchen, attempted to evade congressional investigation of the CIA, NSA, and other elements of U.S. intelligence EBB-522, July 20, 2015). It is a story exactly parallel to the very recent one in which Obama administration officials worked to undermine a Senate Intelligence Committee inquiry into CIA torture programs and then to eviscerate the committee’s report. If past is prologue, then this 1975 case, which also involves a presidential blue ribbon commission chaired by Vice-President Nelson A. Rockefeller has lots to teach us.

*CIA Operations Document Collection, Part II: In May 2015 Proquest released Part II of the Archives’s CIA document collection. This presents a thousand key documents, all from the year 1975, when U.S. intelligence agencies were successively investigated by the Rockefeller Commission, the Church Committee of the United States Senate, and the Pike Committee of the United States House of Representatives. The set shows in explicit detail how the intelligence agencies and White House collaborated to fend off inquiries into all manner of intelligence activities, including abusive domestic operations.

*CIA Operations Document Collection, Part I: In the fall of 2013 the Proquest Publishers released the initial part of Archive’s CIA document collection. This selection of more than 2,200 documents illustrates CIA operations across the globe from the time of President Jimmy Carter through the administration of Barack Obama.

* History of Vietnam’s Southern Resistance: In 2008 the Vietnam Documentation Project of the Archive began an initiative together with the Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) that sought to encourage the Vietnamese government and veterans of the National Liberation Front to open their records to researchers. The context was that a council of Vietnamese scholars and war veterans had begun assembling a semi-official history of the Resistance in South Vietnam to cover the entire period from 1945 through 1975. We were disappointed at being unable finally to get archives opened, but the Vietnamese published their history and it became available to us in late 2012. Archive and CWIHP recruited an expert panel to evaluate the multi-volume history. In September 2013 we held a symposium at the Wilson Center to discuss the panel’s findings. It took more than a year to obtain written versions of all the presentations, review and edit the results, and for me to craft the introduction to the symposium package, which was posted at the CWIHP website on October 23, 2014.

*Inside Story of the Pueblo Incident: On the 46th anniversary of the day in 1968 that North Korean warships opened fire upon and captured the U.S. Navy spy ship Pueblo the Archive posts a fresh analysis of the incident, in which the American crew were imprisoned and interrogated for nearly a year, and the U.S. lost a mass of top secret encryption gear. For this project I teamed up with author Jack Cheevers to present a selection of key documents that reveal the inside story of the Johnson administration’s efforts to cope with this crisis. It’s a revealing story that includes President Johnson’s deliberations, U.S. military contingency plans, NSA damage assessments, even a CIA psychological profile of the ship’s skipper (EBB 453, January 23, 2014).

* Secret History of CIA Director William E. Colby: CIA historians write classified biographies of the agency’s directors. Bill Colby figures as a key figure because on his watch the present system of congressional oversight of intelligence emerged, while Colby’s own innovations within the agency included creation of the system for drafting intelligence estimates which is still used today. When this CIA document became available I added an analysis and introduction and presented it to the public. (EBB 362, October 28, 2011.)

* Complete Pentagon Papers at Last: The famous leak of the “Pentagon Papers,” a study of U.S. decisionmaking in the Vietnam War, influenced the politics and analysis of that conflict. For many years, even though incomplete versions of the Papers were published and widely available, the original documents remained in the government’s secret vaults. I’ve worked the Pentagon Papers case for a long time. In the early oughts I succeeded in getting the government to declassify the full text of the “negotiating volumes,” works that documented U.S. peace feelers to Hanoi during the Johnson administration. I’d already applied for the full Papers, twice, but the government resisted releasing them. In 2001 I organized a conference on the Pentagon Papers. When these were finally declassified in 2011, I gathered specialists at the National Security Archive to present a comprehensive EBB that displays side-by-side the pages of the several main editions of the Pentagon Papers. Working from a basic structural analysis I supplied, Archivistas Charlotte Karrlson-Willis and Wendy Valdez compiled a cross-index to the editions, while Carlos Osorio created a web-based framework that displayed the pages. I added the introductory notes. (EBB 359, September 22, 2010.) Unknown to the American public, by and large even today, is that the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) in 1969 prepared a similarly comprehensive retrospective on its intelligence work regarding the Vietnam war. The Archive also presented this document to the public, and I contributed an article assessing INR’s involvement with Vietnam. (EBB 121, May 2, 2004.)

* Deciding to Invade Iraq: In 2010 I teamed up with my National Security Archive colleague Joyce Battle and with British journalist Christopher Ames to do an in-depth study presenting the real documents on the George W. Bush administration’s ill-considered decision to invade Iraq. Detailed introductions plus documents appeared in three of the Archive’s electronic briefing books. (EBB 326, September 22, 2010; EBB 328, October 1, 2010; EBB 330, October 4, 2010.)

* John F. Kennedy and the Diem Coup: Audiotapes of his national security meetings secretly recorded by President Kennedy reveal that the U.S. decision to back a coup d’etat by generals in South Vietnam—a coup which actually occurred in November 1963—was really made that August. Standard historical accounts of these events were flawed because paper records of the same meetings failed to present the full picture. I contributed an analysis of the historical record, summaries of the tapes and the related documents, and presented all of them for the interested reader. (EBB 444, November 1, 2013; EBB 302, December 11, 2009.) An earlier electronic briefing book I had also prepared provided an even wider selection of the secret records on the Diem coup. (EBB 101, November 5, 2003.)

* The CIA’s Secret Histories of Vietnam: As a result of my Freedom of Information Act request, after seventeen years the agency declassified large portions of a series of internal histories it had compiled regarding its work in the Vietnam war. I supplied an introduction and summaries and made these materials available to the public. (EBB 283, August 26, 2009.)

* Breakthrough on Vietnam war records: At my request the Archive had requested the declassification of a series of records on fighting the war in Southeast Asia, including an Air Force official history of the air war in northern Laos. Because that campaign had had the Air Force is a role supporting a CIA secret army, a large segment of the history involved CIA activities. As originally released, the Air Force history had much of this material deleted. The Archive sued, arguing the deletions had been inappropriate, and we won. We combined this and other Air Force histories on Vietnam and made them available to the public. (EBB 248, April 9, 2008.) In large part due to this legal precedent, the CIA’s grounds for withholding its own Vietnam histories (above) were eroded.

* Mysteries Solved on the Tonkin Gulf Affair: After repeated declassification requests the National Security Agency released the full texts of cables it had sent, which existed in White House files and represented its reporting on the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, an important milestone in the Vietnam War. We were able to show in a concrete fashion that claims of a “second attack” on August 4, 1964 had been wrong. (EBB-132, August 4, 2004.)

* The real story on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction: Within months of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s United Nations speech asserting that Saddam Hussein was hiding powerfully destructive weapons, I began work on Hoodwinked, a book that took the Bush administration’s key pronouncements and claims, deconstructed them in detail, and showed how they had been used to create a sense of hysteria about Iraq among the American people. (2004.)