Update: Senate Torture Report

June 9, 2017–Some days are better than others. Yesterday North Carolina Senator Richard Burr seemed fairly reasonable in his questioning of James B. Comey before the Senate intelligence committee. Not long before that, Burr raised concern when he renewed earlier demands he had made that the federal executive return to the intelligence committee all copies of the SSCI report of its investigation into CIA torture and detention programs. That day was a pretty poor one.

The Obama administration took little formal action on Burr’s demand. Its Justice Department wavered on whether to declare the report a “federal record,” which would have ensured its perseveration and opened it to freedom of information requests. It ordered other agencies not to “open” their copies. The John Brennan CIA working to bury the report, interpreted that as an instruction to destroy copies in its possession. Now, under the Trump administration, Senator Burr is about to get his wish.

The publisher Melville House, which put out one of the printed editions of the executive summary of the committee study, is responding to this effort to put the report back in the secret vault by making its edition available to the public for free. Get in touch if you are interested.

The Other Coverup: CIA’s Torture Report

June 3, 2017–Now for an update on the other coverup underway in Washington. The other day I framed the CIA’s former director, John O. Brennan, as “The Flying Dutchman” (see “John Brennan: The Flying Dutchman,” May 24, 2017). Mr. Brennan received that sobriquet for his brash promises of compliance with accountability norms followed by maneuvers to avoid accountability at any cost. This was apparent when Brennan worked in the White House as Obama’s NSC director for intelligence, where he had a leading role masterminding the drone war. It became glaring when Brennan took up the reins at CIA, then in the throes of a knock down-drag out fight to prevent the Senate intelligence committee from releasing its investigative report on CIA torture. At his nomination hearings Brennan spoke positively of the investigation, the report, and forthrightly defined “torture.” Once ensconced at Langley the CIA director joined heartily in the fight against release. Like the Flying Dutchman the Brennan accountability ship disappeared into the mists.

The point a few days ago was that Brennan’s performance on torture left him up the creek when it came to trying to convince congressional overseers that the evidence he saw for a Russian Caper was real. Now the fight over the torture report has developed even more ramifications–it appears the Trump administration will use it as part of its effort to evade investigation of the Russian Caper itself. It happened this way:

When the Senate torture report emerged at the end of 2014 it became a political football in the partisan wars of Washington. Republicans hastened to picture the investigation as somehow inappropriate, even unpatriotic. The Senate changed hands in the election of that year, and Richard M. Burr (R-NC), the new chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), demanded the return to his oversight unit of all copies of the torture report. The Justice Department eventually met this demand by instructing agencies not to open their copies of the report. Nothing happened–except in Brennan’s shop where the CIA director contrived to eliminate those copies at his agency. But there were lawsuits seeking release of the SSCI report, others to convert it to a “federal” record (putting it beyond SSCI reach), requests to President Obama to release it, and court orders reserving copies for use in several cases involving terrorist detainees.

Mr. Brennan’s successor at the CIA, Mike Pompeo, previously sat as a congressman on the House intelligence committee. Like the Flying Dutchman, at his nomination hearing Pompeo promised the senators he would safeguard the torture report–and even read all 6,700 pages of it. Instead Pompeo supported Senator Burr when the SSCI chairman renewed his call for the return of the report copies.

Meanwhile at this very moment Senator Burr and his committee are mounting one of the key investigations of the Russian Caper, making President Donald J. Trump highly vulnerable. By returning copies of the SSCI torture report to the committee, Trump is doing a favor for the chairman of the unit investigating him, handing Burr a political win. President Trump also does a favor for the CIA, currying support from a rank and file who have felt threatened by the report and its revelations of CIA high handedness. For the moment it looks like Mr. Trump has scored a two-fer.

John Brennan: The Flying Dutchman

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

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

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

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

What Future in Trump’s “Respect” for CIA?

January 22, 2017–Inauguration Day has come and gone. Donald J. Trump is now–for real– the President of the United States. His administration started off with a bang. Mr. Trump used the CIA for a political stump speech, as he sent spin doctor Sean Spicer out to deal False News in support of a Trumpian assertion that inauguration crowds were larger than they were. That, in turn, was a gambit to divert attention from the Women’s March on Washington–and in more than 630 other places all over the world (eight people rallied in Irbil, Iraq; twenty-seven in Hanoi, Vietnam)–in all totaling ten times or more the number of people attending the Trump inaugural. These events, plus Trump’s accession to the presidency, cry out for fresh commentary.

Trump’s rise has been interpreted here as heralding a purge within the intelligence community. At the CIA yesterday, as protesters took over Washington, the president took pains to declare the opposite: “I am so behind you. You’re gonna get so much backing. Maybe you’re gonna say, please, don’t give us so much backing. . . .” Trump blamed his favorite enemies of the moment–the media–for the notion there is anything wrong between the president and the community of American spies.

Everything this man says requires interpretation. Never forget that. Just since the New Year Mr. Trump has accused the CIA of being Nazis, enclosed references to U.S. intelligence and intelligence agencies within quotation marks (as in”intelligence”), and said outgoing agency director John Brennan is a leaker. Last year–as covered in this space more than once–Trump leveled more charges at the spies, including lambasting them for decade-old mistakes and insinuating they are the same old re-treads. These are things Mr. Trump wrote, explicitly, in his tweets, or said in public, in speeches or elsewhere. Yesterday all of that did not exist–in Trump’s eye the media had made it up.

Artiste Andy Warhol once famously observed that everyone seeks fifteen minutes of fame. To Trump’s mind that equates to fifteen minutes of friendship. You’re only a friend while you say the right thing–or until Trump himself changes tack, recasting you as enemy. Just look at what happened to New Jersey Chris Christie–once chairman of Trump’s transition team and expecting to be appointed Attorney General, on Friday Christie was not even on the inaugural platform (at least in the picture published in the New York Times). As for the CIA–wait for it!!!–Donald Trump’s visit lasted exactly fifteen minutes. He did not even take off his overcoat for the festivity. Either Trump wore an armored vest under the greatcoat, visiting the CIA’s den of vipers; or he intended the whistlestop from the outset, which brings us back to the political nature of this event, in my opinion futilely designed to distract from the Women’s March.

Declaiming in front of the agency’s hallowed wall of stars–known and still-clandestine officers who have given their lives in United States service–Trump spoke only briefly  before he veered off on tangents–even more extravagant falsities about his crowds at the inauguration, and self-congratulatory puffery on his “intelligence.” But while he was actually still on point, the president hinted at several of his intentions for CIA. Returning to waterboarding and torture was one, stronger action against the islamists of ISIS was another–this time taking their oil. (Why seizing Syrian oil on behalf of an oil-rich U.S. would be necessary, and how that might be feasible without pipelines and in the face of Syrian national sovereignty, plus how those intentions would complicate the problem for CIA officers trying to recruit Syrian militants, are all questions that speak to the new president’s intelligence.)

Bottom line: President Trump intends actions that will require greater CIA efforts. He needs the CIA. But at the same time he distrusts the agency and its intelligence–witness Trump’s steadfast rejection of the Russian hack. The role of the hack, and of FBI Director James Comey’s eleventh-hour reinvestigation of Hillary Clinton, in Trump’s election requires getting rid of those who can tell the tale. That need, in addition to Mr. Trump’s ephemeral but constant course changes, will ensure the purge goes on. The deputy to the Director of National Intelligence, and the chief of staff to the CIA director have already sent in their resignations. No doubt a stream of other mid-ranking and senior officials will follow. A little bit down the line, the result will be that a corps of junior officers faces the president’s demands for extreme, even extra-legal action. Not only will there be more stars on the CIA wall, there will be more agency officers in the soup. And where will President Trump be then? My guess is not “backing” the CIA any more than he is backing Paul Manafort or Roger Stone in the Russian influence peddling scandal. Those gentlemen are now non-persons in the Trumpian universe.

CIA’s Brennan Senses the Abyss

April 13, 2016–If the nation’s top spook can’t see the storm clouds gathering you’d have to wonder if the spy agency is even doing its job. This week the CIA’s director, John Brennan, showed his first sign of life in some time. Brennan gave an interview to NBC News which indicates the agency is at odds with both of the candidates leading on the Republican side in the race for this year’s presidential election. On one level that is a great relief, on another it is disturbing.

Richard Engel of NBC asked Mr. Brennan if the CIA will resume waterboarding in the eventuality that Donald Trump–who has demanded aggressive torture–is elected president. (The other leading Republican, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, has declared that waterboarding is not torture.) Either one, in office, could be expected to order resumption of waterboarding. Director Brennan replied that he would not re-authorize the euphemistically known “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

That should be a great relief to anyone who worries that America’s behavior in this subterranean conflict is providing fodder to our enemies as they seek new recruits for terrorism.

On the other hand, look at Brennan’s formulation: “I will not agree to carry out some of these tactics and techniques I’ve heard bandied about because this institution needs to endure.” Those are his words. There are a number of troubling thoughts that come from them.

First, Brennan’s statement implies that he understands–as the director told the Senate intelligence committee–that waterboarding is torture. If so, why did he fight so hard to prevent the committee’s report on the CIA torture program from coming to light? Brennan had also told the committee that he had read the portion of its report the CIA would finally declassify and would hasten to bring it to the public. Instead he continued to drag his feet for more than a year and a half.

Second, inside the agency Mr. Brennan went along with a CIA counterspy op that actually targeted Congress, and then he permitted a tainted agency lawyer to file a criminal referral to the Department of Justice in one last effort to suppress the torture report. And then Director Brennan went along with a sham process of enforcing “accountability” on CIA personnel who had engaged in this shabby activity. Every one of those actions was about escaping the consequences of CIA torture and indicates Brennan either spoke with a forked tongue at confirmation or switched sides once he arrived at Langley. Neither posture should evoke public confidence in the man.

Most troubling, there is a operative phrase in what Brennan told NBC: “this institution needs to endure.” Translated: Director Brennan understands the CIA occupies shaky ground already, and its re-engagement with controversial and illegal activities can lead to overwhelming pressures to dismantle it. The agency needs to avoid torture for its own self-preservation. That’s an accurate perception but it begs the question of why CIA did not understand this all along, and why did senior officials like Mr. Brennan permit the agency to dig its hole deeper through its stupid hacking of Congress. There will be more on this story. Stay tuned.

FBI/NSA/KGB: Obama Crosses the Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do They Work for Us? (2)

November 20, 2015–Just a short thing today. John Brennan of CIA is getting much too much mileage out of his tirades on alleged “limits” curbing intelligence effectiveness. The fact is that, if there is blame to be assessed for the Paris (and other) attacks, it is to the CIA, U.S. and Western intelligence at large for failing to appreciate ISIS. The fact is that the Pentagon inspector general right now is engaged in an investigation of the degree to which senior officers at Central Command suppressed the views of intelligence analysts who warned of the morphing ISIS challenge. The New York Times has already carried several lengthy exposes of U.S. intelligence failures over ISIS. Only the reality that Mr. Brennan no longer heads all U.S. intelligence (he commands only the CIA) prevents his being directly responsible. But guess who is? That would be Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Fearful Leader. No doubt his consiglieri Robert Litt is getting ready to tell us that General Clapper was thinking of something else at the time.

Meanwhile, also since the Paris attacks, FBI chief James Comey has come out of the woodwork yet again to blame it all on encryption of telephone devices. Today’s Washington Post contains the latest round of charges but ends quite usefully by quoting a senior Silicone Valley executive who says the cellphone encryption programs were in development well before Edward Snowden’s leaks and had no impact on their introduction. Considering the time it takes to design, operationalize, and perfect a product, I have no difficulty believing that. The Snowden affair literally had nothing to do with the predicament the intelligence agencies find themselves in today. That’s worth keeping in mind.

And one more thing– where is the evidence–not just jeremiads but evidence–that the Paris attacks were planned using high level encryption programs? The shootout in which the terrorist Abbaaoud perished shows every sign of an incident in which security services had complete knowledge of their target, not likely if police had been stumbling around blindly.

CIA: Do They Work for Us?

November 17, 2015–Readers here will have seen me from time to time lamenting the antics of people like Fearful Leader–Director of National Intelligence James Clapper–or agencies such as the CIA and NSA. It’s time to do it again today. It seems the security services have forgotten that they work for the American people, and not the other way around. Let’s be certain no mistake is made here.

Yesterday at a Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, CIA director John O. Brennan used the occasion of the Paris attacks to make strident demands for new powers of investigation, intrusive and insistent. It is stunning–and shabby– that the CIA director should use the tragedy of the Paris attacks to advance these demands. They involve a question already asked and answered. There was a presidential decision. It went against the CIA. Who does Brennan work for?

I let pass an opportunity to comment some weeks ago, when the current FBI director, James Comey, went around demanding that the NSA and FBI be given the power to dictate encryption standards for communication devices, or at a minimum that the security services have a “back door” built into encryption programs so they can surreptitiously read messages people think are secure. I thought the issues had been thoroughly aired in the debate after the Snowden affair. Congress has passed a law. In the last week the Courts have again ruled the NSA eavesdropping unconstitutional. And even President Obama, friend of the intelligence agencies, ruled against Comey’s demands.

Then come the Paris attacks. Yesterday I commented on Fearful Clapper latest mongering. Afraid even to reveal his name, Mr. Clapper set the stage for Brennan’s CSIS appearance, and his remarks spy chieftain Brennan presses for the same things Comey did. As if the decision had not already been made. As if CIA can force Obama to reopen the question. As if the security services can reargue any issue until it comes out the way they want. It’s the same arrogance CIA displays over declassifying its dirty laundry on torture.

At Reuters I posted a piece on manhunts in the wake of Paris. There is good reason to suppose the attacks will end up damaging the jihadi perpetrators far more than the French republic.  This is with only the presently-existing techniques. (And, indeed, I am not aware the security services, U.S. in particular, are short of any technology or authority they need to find the bad guys.) Do not listen to the fear mongers!

The Real Deal on PDBs

September 17,2015–I wanted to be wrong this time. I really did. I was hoping that the intelligence folks had broken with their past and were really doing what they said, releasing a mountain of information to permit historians and citizens to forge a new understanding of our past. What we have is a mountain of paper, with nuggets of new detail but vast expanses of gaps. You read it here first. Before the Spooks’ Show began in Austin yesterday I said that this material would be “opened for research,” and predicted the documents would be laced with deletions of words, sentences, passages and whole pages (“Freeing the President’s Daily Brief,” September 16, 2015). That’s exactly how it is.

Someone at the event held at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library used the figure 80 percent to quantify the amount of the material released. That claim is completely phony. It can only have been derived by including every blank back cover and front title page (and many of the 2,500 PDBs have four of them) as a page of declassified content. I’ll come back to secrecy in the PDBs further along but first there are points to be made about the practice of these CIA events and the specifics of this one.

Joe Lambert is the CIA official who runs the agency office called Information Management Services. This unit houses the CIA’s declassification unit, its Historical Review Panel, the Publications Review Board, and more. At Austin Lambert bragged the PDB event is the twenty-third such conference held by the agency since 2003, when one was organized around release of the agency’s official biography of Richard Helms. This would be admirable–or more admirable–except for the CIA’s penchant for taking double or triple credit for every thing it does. I noted in the last post how CIA had been forced into a review of the class of documents called PDBs as a result of court order. At Austin agency officials spoke as if the Historical Review Panel had noodled the idea of declassifying PDBs all by themselves. So they have to do the thing–so they have a “conference” to “release” the material.

This is not the first time. Not long ago another one of these conferences dealt with the CIA’s role in bringing Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago to the public. There, a reporter had FOIAed the documents on the CIA op, the agency looked good, it declassified, cooperated, and capitalized on the public’s surprise by holding the conference. At one conference on the Missile Gap most of the documents had been declassified previously, except for passages from the agency’s U-2 history it was being forced to relinquish. Veterans of the CIA proprietary Air America, originally called Civil Air Transport, were agitating to go public with their own history, and when they did that at one conference, CIA followed up with another. Caught holding lemons, each time the agency chooses to make lemonade. And those thousands of pages of cover sheets in the PDB? You can bet that when the time comes to report to overseers the amount of material the CIA has declassified this year, every one of those covers will count as content.

A few words on the actual event in Austin. The practice of hosting these kinds of events began under George Tenet, and at that time the conferences were authentic, with the CIA voluntarily choosing to release material, multiple panels to cover different facets of the material, bringing together numerous agency veterans and a significant number of outside historians. The conferences today are pro-forma,  more often than not (though not always) focused on material coming to light by necessity. There may be just one panel. The panel itself may be indifferent to the material. In Austin CIA director John Brennan delivered the keynote address, marking this as one of the more serious CIA events. Brennan devoted roughly half his time to the present and future of CIA. He managed to layer in a bit of nice background on the real documents, but relied upon chief CIA historian David Robarge to make sure the bases were covered. Both Brennan and Bobby Inman, former deputy director of central intelligence, emphasized secrecy–Inman used part of his time to denounce Edward Snowden. John Helgerson, a former deputy director of the unit that produced the PDBs, talked about CIA briefings of presidential candidates. The most substantive of the panelists were former CIA director Porter Goss, who recounted spending more of his time on the PDBs than any other single task; and Peter Clement, an officer who has participated in all aspects of producing and briefing the PDB. William McRaven, the former SEAL chieftain who took down Osama bin Laden, spoke for fifteen minutes and said “PDB” exactly twice. The supposed outside historian, William Inboden, extolled the range of material. General James Clapper ended the day by gushing over Admiral McRaven, John Brennan, and Bobby Ray Inman.

As an introduction to the President’s Daily Briefs this event rated a C – at best. It gets an A as a demonstration of the CIA’s m.o.

Now to the material itself. You’ve heard me rail at the keepers of the keys in the secrecy system. In his remarks John Brennan talked of President Obama’s dedication to bringing the American people “a clear picture of the work done on their behalf–consistent with common sense and the legitimate requirements of national security.” I submit the PDBs demonstrate my concerns, not Mr. Brennan’s clear picture. Let me give a few examples.

Some historians consider October 27, 1962 the most dangerous day of the Cold War. Amid the Cuban Missile Crisis, with nuclear-tipped Soviet rockets attaining an operational status, anti-aircraft missiles shoot down a U.S. U-2 aircraft and the generals want to retaliate. The report to the president for that day has about half the Cuba item deleted. Among the crucial issues of this history which historians debate is whether or not the U.S. knew that the Soviets’ tactical missiles we called “FROGs” had nuclear warheads. The report specifies that photographic intelligence had found “FROGs” and then deletes the details and any analysis. It also deletes everything regarding Soviet ships bound for Cuba–where maps that illustrate precisely where every Russian vessel was located have long since been declassified. Roughly half of everything in the report on reactions to the crisis in the Soviet bloc is out. Director Brennan shook his head, during his speech, in wonderment that PDBs might contain comments on the reception of the New York City Ballet performing in Russia. It turns out that that item appears in this very report–and isn’t it perfectly understandable intelligence officers might want the president to hear that at this moment of extreme tension Russians were turning out for the ballet as if things were normal.

Much was made at the Austin event of the very first of these reports, handed to President Kennedy as he sat by his swimming pool. Deleted from that report is everything about Brazil, Japan, and Egypt. Actually, during the early 1960s Egypt fought a counterinsurgency war in Yemen. Survey the PDBs and you will find Egypt and Yemen material gutted at every turn. The presidential report for August 28, 1963 came at a time when Kennedy was considering CIA support for a coup against South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem. Excluding the back cover this report totals six pages. Though the Vietnam item remains largely intact, nearly four and a half pages of the rest are deleted save for a comment about European squabbles over Common Market poultry pricing. The coup actually took place on November 1 of that year. There the report is sparse on the coup, as the next day it is uncertain over the murder of Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu.

In the August 31, 1965 PDB a full page is denied along with much of the substance of an item about fighting in Kashmir that started the Indo-Pakistani war of that year. Take out the cover, back page, and 1 1/2 pages deleted and the majority of this report is on the cutting room floor. Fast forward a year and we are in the run up to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The 11-page PDB for August 17, 1968–one of those with four pages of covers–loses another 4 1/2 pages to deletions including the item about the Czechs and East Germany.

Many of those extra covers result from President Johnson’s desire, continued for at least a year and starting in 1967, for a special section on North Vietnam. I surveyed 20 of these PDBs, including the ones just prior to the Tet Offensive and the Soviet invasion, but most at random. In nearly every case the North Vietnam material is gutted. Think about that for a minute.  The secrecy rules provide that agencies must obtain specific presidential authorization to keep secret material over 50 years old. We are observing the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam escalation, and in three years we’ll be passing 50 on the whole Johnson presidency. The Vietnam war is over. South Vietnam doesn’t exist anymore. North Vietnam doesn’t exist anymore. Today we have the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). Granted that is the successor state to the old North, but that’s hardly enough. The secrecy regulations require identifiable damage to U.S. national security, and place this material in a category where the predisposition should be to release. American relations with the SRV are excellent. The revelation that the U.S. spied on North Vietnam during the war is not going to affect them. Not only is there no identifiable damage to the national security, all of this is in service of secrecy authorities that will soon sunset.

Quite a lot of the bases for secrecy I see in these redactions of the PDBs are equally flimsy, even where it relates to specific weapons. Where is the national security damage in showing what the report says about FROGs in Cuba? In contrast, the PDBs are laced with references to sources (as in “sources and methods”)–U.S. embassies and consulates, foreign politicians, BLACK ORCHID (SR-71/A-12 flights), and so on. Whatever the secrecy mavens think they’re up to, it isn’t protecting sources and methods–and it’s not what Bobby Inman thundered about yesterday.

Because of what was done here, every single PDB that was supposedly “declassified” yesterday will have to continue to live in an expensive SCIF–a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility–under 24 hour guard because it contains any secret information at all. Requests to release every little snippet in these documents will have to be separately decided, by platoons of officials. Same with the appeals after those officials deny. All that costs. The dollars add up. This is neither common sense nor is it a legitimate requirement of national security. Shame on John Brennan. Instead of Barak Obama sending the CIA flowery letters congratulating them for making this  artificial concession to openness, he should be telling them to get on with the job.

 

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.