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.

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.

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!

We’re All Kurds Now!

October 10, 2015–Many readers will have heard of the horrors in Ankara today, where bomb blasts ambushed protesters gathering to march for peace. The marchers represented Turkish progressive political factions and the majority-Kurdish political group People’s Democratic Party, HDP by its Turkish initials, which is a united front grown from the Kurdish national movement. The toll from the bomb blasts–already nearing a hundred with twice that number of wounded–is the largest in recent Turkish history. As needed to be said after the appalling attack on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdromedaire this past January, “We are all Kurds now!”

This is especially true for Americans. Evolving events in the Middle East are placing Americans–all Americans–in a false position and light.

Americans deplore the violence and political insanity in Syria, making so many of its citizens refugees to flee the country. United States policy on Syria has been to encourage the departure of its leader Hafez al-Assad, helping to arm rebels who fight him. But our main activities in Syria right now, including the most vigorous military activities conducted by the U.S. today, are aimed at the rebel group ISIS/ISIL that, like us, opposes Mr. Assad. We also oppose other anti-Assad groups because we view them as linked to Al Qaeda. The net effect is to prolong the Syrian war, increase the toll of dead, lengthen the casualty lists, and generate more refugees.

Washington deplores the rise of Russian action in Syria. Vladimir Putin’s government has put boots on the ground and actually sent troops, tanks, and planes to Syria. Like us, the Russians say they are against ISIS. But their attacks have aimed primarily at the rebels we support, including those of the Kurdish minority, others trained by the CIA, and the broad range of anti-Assad rebels. If pressed the Russians will say they are merely carrying out long-standing commitments to the government of Syria. In that, at least, there is some consistency.

Back to the Kurds. Not so many months ago the ISIS rebels were pressing against Kurdish settlements that lie up against Syria’s border with Turkey. American airpower was important in holding back the ISIS attackers, and U.S. diplomatic pressure on Turkey helped in that nation’s decision to permit Kurdish volunteers from Iraq to march to the aid of their compatriots in Syria. The United States wanted Turkey in the fight against ISIS.

Now, the Turks. For longer than anyone cares to remember the Turkish government has considered its Kurdish minority as an enemy. The on-again, off-again conflict between Turkey and the Kurds a few years ago had seemed to have become muted. The HDP party, in fact, formed to create an avenue to incorporate Kurdish interests in the Turkish political discourse, and potentially offered a vehicle to integrate the two communities in important new ways. In June elections the HDP scored an upset, for the first time recording enough votes for Kurdish candidates to enter the Turkish national assembly.

Enter the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Several things about the Turkish government need to be noted. Number one, it has been losing the hearts and minds of its citizens. Its record of malfeasance and corruption has soured many Turks on Erdogan’s leadership and even his personal honesty. Ankara has been experiencing what Americans might call a “Watergate period,” in which a succession of revelations have ripped away the cloaks hiding the dark underbelly of the government. But so far Erdogan’s power has been enough to keep a grip, purging the police and military, and putting down the public demonstrations. Nevertheless, the June elections signaled his fragility, and another national vote is scheduled for next month.

Now to the security service. The National Intelligence Organization (MIT by its Turkish initials) appears to be under Erdogan’s solid control. Where Turkish intelligence had once been considered a military entity that is no longer true. Nearly 40 percent of MIT personnel were military assignees as of 1990. Today that figure is less than 5 percent. However, in Turkey the military had played a praetorian role and attempted to mediate between political factions. No longer. Mr. Erdogan’s political party was exceptional in Turkish politics for dispensing with a secular approach and openly siding with Muslim religious tendencies.

In terms of United States policies, Erdogan’s proclivities had no operational meaning until the outbreak of the Syrian crisis. Ankara no doubt appreciated that Washington’s desire to bring Turkey into its coalition for action on Syria gave it a certain freedom of action. The Erdogan government declared against ISIS. But most of the air strikes it carried out were against Kurds. Cooperation in helping the Kurds besieged along the border was desultory. And MIT? The Turkish spooks have variously been reported as running guns to ISIS, arresting border police who blew the whistle on that action, and even helping ISIS fundamentalists to get their prospective recruits from Turkey into Syria.

Early this year MIT warned of ISIS attacks against foreign embassies in Turkey. Toward summer there were several terrorist incidents in border towns, again attributed to ISIS. Ankara is already laying a basis for claiming fundamentalists carried out these bombings. But ISIS benefits from making attacks inside Turkey only to the degree its actions help the Erdogan government. If Turkish intelligence has been covertly assisting the fundamentalists they would be foolish to carry out actions that enrage Turks. More likely is an MIT-designed move to rekindle animosities between Turk and Kurdish ethnicities and blame it on the Syrian fundamentalists.

The United States, having encouraged Erdogan’s government to enter the Syrian conflict, now has its hands tied as the Turkish leader manipulates the ethnics and, in fact, objectively behaves in much the same way as Putin’s Russians whom President Obama loudly denounces. Stay tuned to what Washington has to say now. And American citizens need to say, “I am Kurd too!”

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.