Where Obama Erred

June 25, 2017–The alternatives were to give a televised speech from behind his desk in the Oval Office, announcing a series of measures to counter Russian political intervention, warning American citizens a foreign nation–was Putin a friend?–had meddled in the 2016 election–or to take quiet action (much earlier, covertly) to make it plain to Moscow that its actions were counterproductive. Doing nothing was not an option. That or anything else was a variant of what has appeared here several times in the past, in connection with the U.S. intelligence chiefs–that putting out the weak-kneed, diffident “statements” or “reports” that they did, was worse.

Fingering the Russians but including only generic palaver about computer hacking or remotely related data about RT News only made it harder to achieve the clarity that might have stood Putin down. Today’s Washington Post (“Obama’s Secret Struggle to Retaliate Against Putin’s Election Assault,by Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous, June 25, 2017) shows precisely why. When briefed by CIA director John Brennan, Republican figures on Capitol Hill chose to play partisan politics. Some made themselves unavailable to be briefed. Others asked why they should believe CIA when the U.S. intelligence community as a whole was nowhere to be seen on this. Brennan, who had cut his agency loose from oversight in the torture controversy (read about this in detail in my forthcoming book The Ghosts of Langley), had only himself to blame. It would be cuttingly mordant that only the Democrats, whom Brennan had spurned, stood up to defend our country. On September 22, 2016 Senator Dianne Feinstein–Brennan’s direct target–and Representative Adam B. Schiff jointly told the public that Russia was conducting a campaign to undermine the U.S. election. Republicans scoffed.

On October 7 followed a statement from Homeland security director Jeh Johnson and director of national intelligence James Clapper asserting Russian intervention, but in terms even more vague. Johnson, with FBI director James Comey and White House counterterrorism director Lisa Monaco, had already failed to convince Hill denizens at an August briefing. Johnson had failed again when reaching out to state election directors in September. The conventional wisdom about the October 7 joint statement has already settled in: that it was wiped out by the revelation just hours later of Donald J. Trump’s misanthropy as proven by videotapes taken by a television show on which he had appeared. But the joint statement on the Russian Caper fell due to its own lack of weight. Johnson was batting with two strikes against him already. Clapper had a reputation as a liar, established by his perjury when asked if the National Security Agency were conducting blanket surveillance of Americans. In my opinion, Clapper was also the “Fearful Leader,” a Chicken Little continuously warning the sky was falling. Republicans could fairly dispute whether the full intelligence community agreed with these charges against Russia. The FBI, indeed, had pulled out of the joint statement at the last moment, inviting the question of where were the others.

Republican candidate Donald J. Trump had publicly invited the Russians to hack America in hopes of finding emails from Hillary Clinton he claimed still existed. Some moves of Trump campaign figures were known at the time, including the Moscow trips of associates Michael Flynn and Carter Page; the fact of pro-Moscow alternations to the party platform at the July 2016 convention; and the Trump speech at the Mayflower Hotel in April, which added to a mounting pile of public statements in which the candidate praised Vladimir Putin or else Russia more generally. Republicans took this as their cue, overturning decades of Republican Party hostility to Russia–and the Soviet Union before it. They put on blinders and earbuds when confronted with evidence of Russian election tampering.

President Barack Obama’s key moment came then. With Republicans actively denying the Russian Caper, the question became what to do about the election. Mr. Obama had taken Putin aside at a diplomatic conference in China in September to warn him against interfering. He repeated the warning in a message given to Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak at the White House just as Johnson and Clapper put out their joint statement. Obama may have thought of this as moving on multiple fronts, but the truth is that Republican deniers robbed the diplomatic protest of any power it might have had. On October 28, when FBI director Comey announced he was reopening the Bureau’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, inflicting grave political damage on the Democratic Party candidate, it became even more incumbent on President Obama to act. Obama is widely reported to have feared any open presidential intervention in the electoral politics. In 1968, faced with the analogous situation of evidence obtained of a Republican “October Surprise,” a Nixon campaign deal with South Vietnam to throw that election, President Lyndon B. Johnson also chose to do nothing in public. Perhaps Obama emulated LBJ. Instead he went out on the hustings, Michele Obama too, in a whirlwind of campaign appearances over the last days. Obama could have taken to the air waves with an Oval Office address warning Americans their election had been influenced by outside forces. He chose not to do that.

Barack Obama’s biggest problem as president, for all his achievements, was to lack the courage of his convictions. From letting the generals talk him out of the Afghan withdrawal he had set as a condition of their “surge,” to imposing a “red line” in Syria and then failing to enforce it, to dictating a new secrecy policy and then letting the agencies run roughed over it, again and again this president compromised short of his own goals. Obama’s holding back in the 2017 election may prove to be his greatest error.

Afghanistan: The Great Game Is Over

June 22, 2017–The bells are ringing, the lights flashing. The silver ball is disappearing between the flippers, now unable to knock it back into play. If you didn’t score high enough to become top dog you’re done. It’s one more major operational initiative down the drain. I’m referring to Afghanistan, and the pinball wizards of the White House and Department of Defense, who myopically never seem to see beyond their own rhetoric, or make strategic decisions based on real world conditions.

History, it is said, plays out the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. In Afghanistan we’re at the second stage. The first game went to the Afghan tribes–175 years ago in the Hindu Kush–when the Brits who were playing it failed to recognize the warning signs of widespread uprising. As a result their triumph in the first Anglo-Afghan war turned into military disaster when a British-Indian army tried to withdraw from Kabul in January 1842. Only a handful of troopers, maybe just one Englishman, survived the ambushes in the mountain passes as the army tried to edge past the insurgents and reach the relative safety of Jalalabad. The British failure had everything to do with failure to emplace an Afghani government acceptable to the tribes and their members.

American pundits today are fond of picturing Afghanistan as the nation’s longest war. We could actually have ended it over half a decade ago. Instead we have the generals mulling over whether to send three to five thousand extra troops to supplement the eight-thousand four-hundred we already have in the battle zone. Let’s review the bidding.

In 2009 new president Barack Obama ordered up a policy review for the war in Afghanistan. The scuttlebutt was he didn’t want to be visiting wounded GIs in hospital–he wanted to staunch the flow of casualties. Plus there were estimates the war might cost a trillion dollars over another ten years. At the time the Pentagon was offering another incremental troop increase. Prodded by Obama, they took up the field commander’s proposal for a “surge,” like the one that had been carried out in Iraq. General Stanley A. McChrystal, the field man, resisted doing anything by half. President Obama settled on McChrystal’s 40,000-man recommendation, but coupled it with a decision that eighteen months after the troops deployed, America would start to exit the war.

So the troops went in. Starting in 2011 the drawdowns began. Masses of equipment were brought out. Our NATO allies and other troop contributing countries among the ISAF command began to take the lead in the war, but also to conduct a parallel force reduction. Masses of equipment were brought out. More was designated surplus and handed over to the Afghanistan government forces we had been supporting.

That would have been the “clean” withdrawal. The surge buying a decent interval so Afghanistan could get its affairs in order and beat the insurgents. But the allies–who included the British, back for a fresh pinball game–had never solved the political equation. And the generals–primarily Americans–could not put down the game, plumping for a residual force to continue supporting the Afghan military and conduct a core program of commando strikes. As the country’s situation deteriorated, the generals convinced President Obama to slow the rate of withdrawal. His administration ended with 8,400 instead of 5,500 troops still on the Hindu Kush. In addition to everything else, we are well on the way to reaching the trillion dollar mark that Mr. Obama feared spending there by 2019.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, caught within a complex mosaic of tribal loyalties, could not build a unified polity. His government, perched atop a warlord system, always functioned to favor one or another faction. Karzai, on the CIA’s payroll for $1 million a month, used the money to play favorites. Recognizing elements in U.S. tactics that were most objectionable to Afghans, Karzai increasingly denounced, then forbade, U.S. night raids and air strikes.

Allied strategy, which resisted anything that could be termed “nation building,” contributed little to building Afghan institutions. Karzai has left the Afghan government corrupted, and his successors could not even form a government until months of conversations brought forth an uneasy compromise. President Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun, has never honored commitments made to Vice-President Abdullah Abdullah, a Tadjik. Recent Ghani moves against one governor (read warlord), Rashid Dostum, demonstrate his desperation. Ghani’s decision to permit the return of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another figure from the warlord era, show his increasing political isolation. Afghan politics is swiftly returning to the modalities of the early 1990s, when warlords fighting among themselves permitted the Taliban to take over in the first place.

The allies resisted efforts to settle the conflict by negotiation during the “surge” period of ascendency, then encouraged them when the Taliban enemy grew increasingly powerful–and less willing to talk. As U.S. and ISAF troop strength progressively diminished a new phenomenon arose–insider attacks by soldiers of our Afghan army or police. No doubt there are a certain number of Taliban infiltrators in the Afghan national army, but the spectacle of the foreign power that came in, mobilized Afghans to its will, and now leaves them before an implacable Taliban is a sufficient motive. Over the past few months insider attacks have been the main cause of U.S. casualties. Afghan government forces are increasingly reluctant to fight. The dependence on Afghan special operations forces now becomes questionable when the latest insider attacks come from within their ranks.

The Taliban have had some problems of their own, most recently the challenge from an even more lethal offshoot of the ISIS/ISIL “caliphate” front. But either faction will fight, and the Afghan government has been losing ground steadily. Towns have been captured and held. The war is no longer an affair of posts and police stations. The insurgents are now believed to have a foothold in more than half of Afghan villages. Dangers became plain early in June when powerful car bombs exploded in the most heavily-guarded sector of Kabul, the diplomatic quarter. Almost two hundred were killed and five hundred wounded. Afghans marched in protest of their own government’s failure to protect them–whereupon government troops opened fire on the crowd, killing, among others, the son of a senior parliamentarian. Taliban bombers struck again at the funeral marches for some of these victims, inflicting yet more casualties in the heart of Kabul. In short, national authority appears to be collapsing before our eyes.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress last week that the U.S. has not been winning in Afghanistan. That is  true. So true that the Trump White House is giving the Pentagon the liberty to decide for itself what to do in the war. President Trump wants nothing to do with the next decision on Afghanistan. Little wonder. At a certain point the U.S. residual force there will become a target in its own right. A Mattis incremental reinforcement, even 5,000, won’t make a difference. If the U.S. could not grind a weakened Taliban into the ground with 140,000 American and ISAF troops, ten or fifteen thousand will accomplish little more than to make a more lucrative target for a surging enemy. It could be like the British in the Hindu Kush in 1842. Folly follows tragedy.

Stupid Foreign Policy = Damaged National Security

June 9, 2017–When President Donald J. Trump sashayed over to Europe on his first foreign trip, in this space we commented about the stupidity of the foreign policy. The context there primarily concerned NATO and how snubbing our great friends in the alliance was certainly not a good thing. Our coverage mentioned the fabulism involved in thinking that Israel and its Arab neighbors were moving along converging pathways. Now I want to return to the Middle East to show just how stupid all of this has been.

Let’s start with Syria. The cruise missile attack on the Russian-Syrian airbase has come and passed. As Jack Kennedy once said, it’s like taking a drink–after a while the effect wears off and you need another. Trump is there now. The U.S. is upping the ante, sending in more Special Forces for more active roles, and moving ahead with heavy arms for Syrian rebel troops. But since the target is ISIS, America is effectively ranging itself alongside the Syrian government (and against the rebels we are arming) and the Russians. This was a problem for Obama policy too–made in this space years ago now–but Trump has not solved it.

Next to Qatar. This one is all Trump. The president insists he encouraged the Saudis to act aggressively against supporters of terrorism. Saudi Arabia and a number of other locals–some of them on Trump’s travel ban list, by the way–joined together to ostracize Qatar. Now it happens that Doha, Qatar’s capital, is a main transit point for American soldiers headed for Afghanistan and a site for diplomatic contacts, with the Taliban, among others. Qatar also hosts Al Uedid, the major U.S. airbase from which the Syrian war is being conducted, as well as a sophisticated command center that wages it. Trump not only supports the Saudi initiative he went on twitter to claim credit for encouraging it. Saudi Arabia is angry at Qatar for supporting the other side in its Yemeni war. U.S. policy in that affair is completely at odds with our interests in Syria and Afghanistan.

Now Iran. The Trump-era CIA has just refashioned one of its mission centers to target Iran–with which we are supposed to be improving relations because they are keeping their side of the nuclear bargain (something the U.S. concedes). Worse, ISIS is now attacking Iran too. So, in Iran Mr. Trump now has the United States allied with ISIS?

President Trump’s grasp of American national interests is so tenuous that policy careens from pillar to post. Stupid foreign policy damages U.S. security.

[EDITOR: This piece was actually written to appear before the “update” on this website but it appears the posting instructions were entered incorrectly. Sorry!]

 

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.

Is the Cover-up Worse than the Crime?

March 29, 2017–Just back from a research trip. There were many days I longed to post here–so much has happened in the past several weeks. There was President’s Trump’s sudden accusation, leveled at predecessor Barack Obama, for personally wiretapping him last year. Then Trump’s dark hint evidence would emerge within a short time corroborating his charge. Then Representative Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) trotting up to the White House, mysteriously to be permitted to see the “evidence,” so he could step outside and run interference for the president yet again. That’s not the half of it. The fabulous Michael Flynn, it turns out, failed to register as a foreign agent while pocketing money from abroad, even while working with the Trump campaign. He also failed to obtain the required permissions from his former military colleagues. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, held meetings with the Russian ambassador, as well as bankers linked with the Kremlin, during the presidential transition. Impressario Roger Stone now concedes he was in touch with Russians as well as the web presence (individual? organization?) the Russians used as cut-out to toss hacked American political emails to Wikileaks last year. The FBI has affirmed in pubic that it  is conducting an investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. And Paul Manafort, erstwhile Trump campaign manager, has now been tied to cash transfers from Russia through Cyprus.

Meantime the selfsame Congressman Nunes has, deliberately or not, robbed HPSCI of all its credibility in investigating the Russian caper, since–despite his responsibility to be even-handed as committee chairman–Nunes has now repeatedly rushed to defend Trump and his political campaign even while supposedly investigating that very entity. Nunes has also cancelled open hearings that were intended to gather evidence. This sounds like nothing other than a pre-emptive defense.

Over the past few days there has been a veritable rush to volunteer testimony to congressional investigating bodies. Among those suddenly clamoring to be witnesses–where before they insisted there was no there there–are Messrs Kushner, Manafort, Stone, Carter Page and others. Beware the Iran-Contra poly–during the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra scandal the fact of having testified before Congress became a protection against criminal prosecution, because multiple courts dismissed prosecutors’ declarations they had obtained the same evidence independently of what had transpired before Congress.

Events also evoke the old Watergate adage: the cover-up is worse than the crime. Playing with the Russians, so long as it did not involve espionage or embezzlement, violated only limited numbers of statutes. Apart from a possible cut-out on the American side (Roger Stone?), for whom hacking and computer information laws may be implicated, legal liabilities remain fairly limited. But lying to the FBI is a felony crime, as is obstructing justice (say, by interfering with an investigation), or manufacturing “evidence” on a different allegation with an intent to distract or mislead an inquiry. The president’s spokesperson, Sean Spicer, skates on thin ice here. God knows what it cost Ron Ziegler, Mr. Nixon’s spokesman, to follow his boss during Watergate.

For those who favor investigation by a 9/11-style panel or a special prosecutor, so far the allegations lack in drama what they actually do possess in importance. Absent such a dramatic development–along the lines of the 18-minute gap in Mr. Nixon’s audiotapes, or the Oliver North destruction of evidence–the administration should be able to confine inquiries to conventional paths. My bets for the locus of such developments are (1) evidence of positive acts taken to backstop Mr. Trump’s tweets; or (2) concrete confirmation of deals between Trump campaign figures and the Russians.

For the moment everything rides on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), which, unfortunately, found itself emasculated during Barack Obama’s dark hours trumping the CIA torture investigation. Under its current chairman, Republican Richard Burr, there is not a lot of confidence the SSCI can investigate a paper bag.

Hold on to your hats!

Principals and Principles: Trump’s National Security

January 31, 2017–Second fiddle to the immense current controversy over President Donald J. Trump’s immigration action has been his initiative on national security. Here the firestorm concerned a Trump directive that added political operative Stephen K. Bannon to the Principals Committee of the National Security Council (NSC). At the same time the president demoted the incoming Director of National Intelligence and the general who is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to merely occasional attendance on that same committee. Susan Rice, the national security adviser who served former president Barack Obama, labeled this action “stone cold crazy.”

Attracting the most attention is Stephen Bannon’s apparent promotion. As “chief strategist” he was supposed to be providing Mr. Trump with suitable advice. Now the Trump directive, called a “National Security Presidential Memorandum” (NSPM) not only “invites” Bannon to attend all NSC meetings, it makes him a member of the NSC Principals Committee, and Bannon’s deputy an invitee to sessions of the NSC Deputies Committee. In all this gnashing of teeth no one seems to have noticed that President Trump has also elevated his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, in the same way.

Common wisdom is that Mr. Bannon is becoming the unelected president, exercising all the power, without the title or, indeed, the people’s opportunity to vote on him. I actually think it is too soon to draw that conclusion. What can fairly be said is that President Trump seems to be about increasing the political content of NSC discussions. This is not new–and the media discussions so far have been extremely shallow. Yes, David Axelrod sat in on some NSC discussions, yes Karl Rove was kept out of some similar deliberations during George W. Bush’s time. But it is absurd to think that presidents have historically kept politics out of national security. Under Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski made a point of including political considerations in NSC staff work. Henry Kissinger, his predecessor, can be heard on the Nixon White House tapes talking politics quite often. President Carter also listened to chief of staff Hamilton Jordan on national security matters, making him a major player in Washington’s decisions on whether to admit the Shah to the United States for medical treatment, which became a catalyst for the Iran Hostage Crisis. Ronald Reagan used his top politicos on security missions repeatedly. One of them, James Baker III, actually became secretary of state when Reagan’s vice-president, George H. W. Bush, ascended to the presidency. And Bush’s son, “W,” used political aides as well. Andy Card delivered White House messages to the CIA, played a role in the “Niger uranium” affair that convinced CIA boss George Tenet to retire, and he served as utility infielder for the president. It’s the job.

On the other hand the pundits have captured the deeper importance of NSPM-2, the formal identity of Trump’s reorganization directive. It does bring politics more to the fore at the NSC. The presence of both Bannon and Priebus on the Principals committee is a first-order indicator that Trump’s Council will become one battleground where the White House pecking order will be fought over. But the elephant in the closet is Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who is really the topmost adviser of all. An alternative explanation for the NSC imbroglio is it puts the big shot advisers in a ring to duke it out while Kushner consolidates his own power.

Stone cold crazy? Yes, at the level of mere national security. This will cost the nation in the quality of our foreign policy and the coherence of Pentagon efforts. But the judgment also depends on the president’s real aims. If they are political, this harebrained scheme may not be stupid at all. It puts big aspirants to power in a place where they can be tied to the ridiculous judgments that flow from this NSC–and then they can be pushed out of the Trump administration. That brings us to the question of principle: there is none here. It is an outrage to the American people to use national security and foreign policy as mousetraps to catch power players.

 

 

Fearful Leader Against Loose Cannon: CIA’s Purge Begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama’s Legacy on Torture

December 16, 2016–With Barack Obama’s presidency rapidly drawing to a close there will be reflections on his accomplishments in many fields. In this one, on CIA torture, the record is distinctly mixed. The president declared his rejection of it, acted to end it, and then opened the door to continuation of these abominations. Obama assertedly did what he did because he wanted to look to the future rather than the past, but his administration has made it possible to turn back the clock.

In his very first days in office President Obama issued an executive order explicitly ruling out torture, limiting all entities of government, CIA included, to interrogation techniques listed in standard military field manuals. In a panic the CIA rushed to get the president to change a companion order that restricted custody and closed black prisons to permit it to still handle prisoners. The public clamored for a “truth commission” that would probe the dark arts practiced by the CIA in the war on terror. The spooks quaked in their boots. Mr. Obama, who had denounced torture in the U.S. Congress and on the campaign trail, looked ready to go the distance.

The president’s decision process remains murky even today. Instead he employed an intermediate strategy, ruling out any truth commission, simply declassifying the amazingly flawed legal memoranda used to “justify” CIA torture on George W. Bush’s watch. Even there he battled CIA officers desperate to prevent the opening of this material. The showdown came at an Oval Office confrontation between Obama and a slice of CIA brass in the spring of 2009. The president left his attorney general to decide whether or not to prosecute any CIA officers for actions in torture or such concomitant transgressions as obstruction of justice.

Attorney General Eric Holder kept the potential targets of these investigations on tenterhooks for a time, but one by one he took prospective prosecutions off the table. By then, of course, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) had begun its inquiry into CIA torture, which led the agency back onto the dark side as it strove to monitor the investigators and minimize their impact. The SSCI inquiry, and its torture report, completed in December 2012, dragged the White House directly into the center of the torture issue–and there Barack Obama failed to rise to the level of his convictions.

While the CIA was still at the level of surveilling the senate investigators, CIA actually stole documents from SSCI computer databases and justified its action as coming on White House orders. Presidential counsel denied that–but Obama’s lawyers never obliged the CIA to restore the purloined records. Once the SSCI report had been completed, the CIA dragged its feet on permitting its release. President Obama, who had publicly expressed support for opening the report, did nothing to hasten this action. When pressed to declassify the report himself, Obama gave the job to the CIA. When the CIA again stood intransigent, Obama had a senior official of his own staff act as mediator, primarily taking the CIA’s side. All these things helped the CIA evade accountability.

Barack Obama no doubt saw himself as protecting government officers who had carried out distasteful orders. But the practical effect of these actions has been to signal that CIA operatives can, with impunity, go so far as to torture. Enter a new presidential candidate–now president-elect–who promises far worse than waterboarding for CIA detainees. That Donald Trump can do that is possible, to a considerable extent, because of what Barack Obama did not do.

With no fanfare, shortly after the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, President Obama reportedly designated the Senate torture report as a “federal record.” This act will supposedly prevent further efforts to shred all copies of the SSCI report and totally erase it. That is too little and too late. Had there been a truth commission, had CIA officers been prosecuted for criminal activity, it would now be abundantly clear that torture is beyond the pale. Instead it is quite likely the American public will have to have this fight all over again. This will come out as a significant failure of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Obama and Comey

November 2, 2016–Today’s 90-second comment: Barack Obama has finally taken notice of the mess at FBI. The president says America doesn’t work this way; we don’t operate on incomplete information. Here he breaks ranks with the spooks he has steadfastly protected all through his administration. It is not difficult to discern why–Director James B. Comey’s actions over at the Bureau, threatening to derail the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, also aim at his legacy. A Trump presidency would seek to dismantle everything Obama has accomplished. That is one reason Obama has been on the campaign trail for Hillary, and it also marks the beginning of an assault on the FBI that is sure to intensify.

The latest developments over at the Bureau are reports the gumshoes  sure enough did treat the Huma Abedin/Tony Weiner laptop investigation differently than their other cases. FBI apparently stopped work on a pair of other inquiries that had political overtones–one into Trump aide Paul Manafort, the other into links between donors to the Clinton Foundation and Ms Clinton while in office as secretary of state. If true, this indicates the FBI acted to avoid interference in the U.S. elections, until the latest stupidity.

If you reject the idea Comey is acting as a Republican stooge, there is only one logical explanation left : FBI acted in hysteria over allegations that secret documents populate the Abedin/Weiner laptop. That brings us back to where we began the other day–the secrecy system is being administered in a way that makes it impossible for top officials to do their jobs.

As for the FBI, cancel their expressions of interest in the deal where they are enticing investors to pay for their new headquarters in a Washington suburb. Let them stew in their dump downtown.

And for secrecy, we have reached the point that the secrecy system has damaged the American electoral process. That is true damage to U.S. national security, much more than the content of any email the FBI may possibly find.

Spooks Gone Wild !!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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