Crocodile Tears: the Spooks doth Protest too Much

May 12, 2015–In case you’re not aware of it, a couple of weeks ago (on April 26 to be exact) the New York Times ran a feature story on how the CIA, currying favor in Washington, had managed to elude criticism for its drone strikes up until this past January, when one of the mechanical murderers managed to blow up an American citizen being held hostage by the bad guys, plus an Italian hostage and other Americans who were playing for the bad guys but, still, were entitled to constitutional protections. Hinting at its distress at this state of affairs, the Times put a shot across the bow of the CIA by naming the head of the Counterterrorism Center who was dismissed after that fiasco, his replacement, and the new head of the Operations Directorate (or National Clandestine Service, depending on which musical chair you are using at the moment).

Today the Times carries a letter to the editor signed by twenty ex-CIA officers complaining of the newspaper’s action. They insist that “nothing is to be gained by ‘outing’ career operations officers” and asserting that “Congress overwhelmingly passed the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 precisely to protect” these dedicated men and women.

With me so far?

Who are these paragons of intelligence who have the virtue to cast stones? They include David Petraeus, former CIA chief convicted of leaking classified data to his girlfriend; former CIA deputy director Frank Carlucci, called in to save Ronald Reagan’s chestnuts from impeachment for violations of the Arms Control Export Act; former CIA director John M. Deutch, found to have improperly removed classified information from CIA headquarters; former CIA director Michael V. Hayden, found by the Senate’s investigation to have lied to Congress about CIA torture programs; former CIA director Porter Goss, who approved subordinates’ destruction of evidence material to a criminal investigation of CIA torture programs; former CIA director George J. Tenet, who started the CIA torture program; and former CIA director R. James Woolsey, who once said he’d have to crash a plane onto White House grounds to get the attention of the president. There are others but this is plenty to make the point.

For years now the Central Intelligence Agency has played fast and loose with its responsibilities in terms of simple public information. The names of intelligence officers is a good example. The agency routinely redacts names from documents it declassifies, and, starting with Jose Rodriguez, has now extended the practice to serving officers in senior positions. This is not admissible.

The sole basis on which the identity of an officer can be kept secret is the aforesaid Intelligence Identities Protection Act (Public Law 97-200). The law only protects serving “covert agents.” Covert agents are defined as officers of the clandestine service serving outside the United States or having served outside the United States within the past five years.

The recently-relieved officer who headed the Counterterrorism Center had been its chief since 2006–any eligibility he had to remain a covert agent expired four years ago. The named Deputy Director for Operations comes to that post from service as chief of the Special Activities Division, which does paramilitary operations. His last known overseas posting was as chief of station in Kabul. The Times did nothing wrong. Its only offense, if it be called that, was to remind the spooks of their favor in playing the CIA’s game this far.

More to the point, no CIA officer at the level of center or division chief or above, and certainly no one who is a deputy director, should ever be entitled to clandestinity. These people routinely have to deal with outside authorities including congressional overseers. Putting masks on those people makes a mockery of accountability.

Our former CIA chiefs shed crocodile tears. –And half of them have no business on this podium anyway. Accountability is the business of the fourth estate–and should be a gold coin in government. The Times names names that should have been public in the first place.

The NSA Watch

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

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

The Real Deal on CIA Torture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Family Jewels Crisis (2)

December 8, 2014–To judge from the hysteria among intelligence officers who are supposed to pride themselves on calmness in the storm, we are standing at the edge of a precipice–never mind that it is of their own making. Having commented just yesterday on the haste with which former CIA operative Jose Rodriguez put up a pre-emptive defense of agency torturers in the face of the investigative report of the Senate intelligence committee on these CIA programs, we see this morning that Rodriguez, the CIA Counterterrorism Center official who ran the torture program has been joined by others, monopolizing the airwaves of the Sunday talk shows.

Many months ago I named a number of these people and called them “soothsayers.” Here’s Michael V. Hayden back again and you can see why. Yesterday on Face the Nation, Mr. Hayden, a former Air Force general who led the NSA, then the CIA, and finally became a senior assistant to the Director of National Intelligence, thundered that it “beggars the imagination” that CIA lied about a program that wasn’t doing any good. “We’re not here to defend torture,” Hayden added via email. “We’re here to defend history.”

Sounds good doesn’t it? Here’s the thing: In the spring of 2004 the CIA Inspector General (IG) issued an investigative report of his own, one that covered the first two years of the torture program and which included internal CIA review documents that questioned the value of whatever had been obtained using these methods. Hayden took over the CIA in 2006. When the IG continued to nose around uncomfortable agency business Hayden began a counterintelligence investigation–of the Inspector General. In 2008 the Senate Armed Services Committee, after long investigation, also did a report on U.S. government torture. That report questioned the effectiveness of the torture and showed that CIA had been an important mover in importing these methods to the Pentagon. Later an internal, expert review by the Defense Science Board rejected the efficacy of torture methods. And the FBI expert interrogators working alongside the CIA in the black prisons, and also with the military at Guantanamo, withdrew from those tainted programs.

And speaking of defending history, Jose Rodriguez is the official most responsible for the destruction of the CIA videotapes documenting the torture, a presumptive obstruction of justice but certainly a blow against history.

That is the history. Worse, when the Congress passed legislation outlawing torture again (it was already criminal under several statutes), General Hayden pushed to exempt the CIA from the law. As torture was ruled out of bounds by the Bush (2) administration, CIA bid to keep open a contingency authority to use these methods, whose effectiveness seems to have been evident only at Langley.

The facts are that (1) Michael Hayden was a johnny-come-lately, not around to see the effectiveness of the early torture; (2) official reviews found the effectiveness of the technique questionable and its legal basis defective; (3) Mr. Hayden attempted to obstruct further inquiries by the IG on his watch; and (4) he sought to preserve a CIA capability for torture in the face of renewed action to render it illegal.

George J. Tenet and his deputy and one-time acting director, John McLaughlin, have also been mentioned as participants in this pre-emptive effort to cut down the Senate investigation. No doubt they come at this from the perspective of protecting loyal employees but both of them should know better. The torture was controversial at CIA even while it was going on, had the dangerous and so-much-discussed criminal liabilities, and had impacts that at best are debatable. For them to take sides means cutting themselves off from another slice of CIA veterans in what may end up as a mud-slinging contest. Better to stay out of this.

The same goes for former president George W. Bush, who is being dragged into this debate. Bush associates are being quoted as convinced of the loyalty of CIA officers and the president himself as having felt lucky to have them on his side. This is a place where the full Senate report, not merely the executive summary we expect to be released, represents a time bomb. If the investigative report contains chapter and verse on CIA deception of its own superiors that will be explosive. As I noted in my book The Family Jewels presidents tend to shield intelligence agencies until controversy brushes them too closely. If Mr. Bush stood inert in the face of CIA deception he knew about because he believed in “enhanced interrogation,” that would be a black mark and could be a matter of international criminal misconduct. These are murky waters, uncharted at best, with shoals visible on the horizon.

NSA vs Silicon Valley: Can’t Win? Change the Subject!

May 3, 2014–So, what the whistleblower said was all true. In fact, the whistleblower hardly said anything. He let the documents do the talking. The National Security Agency is intercepting anyone they want and collecting the metadata on everyone. The additional documents, legal rulings, that had to be released to “prove” that this dragnet eavesdropping had any juridical basis at all only showed that the denizens of Fort Meade had indeed sought to create a framework for doing precisely what the Snowden documents said.

The diplomatic costs have come home to roost. German-American talks on a spy treaty have collapsed. Our side blames the Germans and makes it out to be somehow off-color that another nation should demand that what American spies do on German soil cannot be illegal under German law. The Word is we don’t make deals like that even with our closest allies. The more insinuating text is that what spies do is basically illegal anyway. Why care?

Ukraine is one reason. German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Washington this week, her talks with President Barack Obama shadowed at every turn by the NSA eavesdropping scandal. Barack needs Merkel now–he needs her to stand with him on Russian encroachments on the Ukraine, an issue on which Germany can be a major player. But Merkel is still licking political wounds inflicted upon her by the NSA scandal. Obama was conspicuously smiling at their joint appearances but underneath the president must be acutely aware of how Fort Meade’s antics have hurt his larger projects.

The NSA started off by insisting it was not collecting data on anyone nor was it eavesdropping. Then it claimed it was “only” dealing in metadata. Then it was only aiming at legitimate intelligence targets, and not Americans. After revelation that our friend Merkel’s phones were bugged, the line went that everybody spies on their allies. As the evidence of massive NSA interception mounted the spooks squirmed on the hook of public disaster. All that interception (phone calls, emails, cloud memory holdings, game moves, web search data) might just send them into oblivion.

President Obama didn’t want that any more than Fort Meade. Back in January he moved on some reforms–not enough, but a start. The problem remains that the spooks still need a way to reframe the issue so they are not at the center of the cross-hairs. It appears that both Mr. Obama and the NSA  are on the verge of creating that narrative.

It was around the New Year when you began to hear–first in Op-Eds by spy-world figures like the former CIA officer John McLaughlin–that the NSA is only doing the same sort of data-mining and cookie reading the corporations engage in. Their point that the privacy issue is bigger than NSA spying is actually well taken. I’ll buy that too. So did Obama. He ordered up a study of web privacy issues and got the first results right around when Chancellor Merkel came to town.

But the White House and Fort Meade should be careful what they wish for. Yes, there should be much more stringent privacy controls on what Silicon Valley can read out on ordinary people. As a matter of fact, Angela Merkel’s country is one where some of those more stringent controls already exist, and those privacy standards are one reason the NSA spying has been so damaging over there. Your phone should not be an NSA target for the same reasons as Merkel’s.

What the spooks would like to come out of this is for citizens to say–for reasons of convenience–that Silicon Valley data-mining is OK and that, if it is, the NSA spying is fine too. But there are both qualitative and quantitative differences in these observations. Silicon Valley cannot target a drone on you or throw you in jail. It collects your data in hopes of winning your (and your friends’) dollars. The NSA eavesdropping is purposeful. It traces your connections in hopes of linking you and your friends, and if at some “hop” there happens to be a bad guy in the chain, woe to you all. What the NSA really doesn’t want is for privacy advocates to say that Silicon Valley and NSA spying are both wrong. Of course, that’s what is actually true. Everyone needs “Merkel rules.”