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.



The Secrecy Bug

May 13, 2014–Today is a day for Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald’s book on the Snowden affair is great and should compel our attention. Snowden himself and Laura Poitras had their day a couple of weeks ago when they were given the Ron Ridenhour Award for truthtelling. I don’t want to do anything to take away from them. But the deeper realization hits you when you ask, what kind of system is it when the public has to depend upon outraged/disaffected/guilt-ridden employees of the state to find out the truth behind the innocuous rhetoric.

Equally to the point, you can be certain the spy agencies are bending every effort to put even more secrecy measures in place, so (supposedly) preventing “another” Snowden, or Manning, or Thomas Drake, or what have you. Agency employees will have to jump through more hoops than ever in order to reach the public. That was the point of a couple of recent posts here, ones that dealt with Fearful Leader Clapper’s secrecy directives–lightning bolts from Olympus designed to put every minion on notice against saying anything to anyone. In The Family Jewels I devoted a full chapter (“Plugging the Dike,” ch. 8) to showing how the CIA had built what I called a “fortress of secrecy” to muzzle its own people, snaring them in an endless miasma of “reviews” in order to clear the words they would like to say.

The CIA jumps up to insist that, no, all its interventions are strictly for the purpose of protecting classified information, real secrets of national security importance. (How that squares with forcing an author to delete “urinal” where it appeared in his book–one of the examples in that chapter–mystifies me.) Greenwald and Snowden have produced more examples, of course, but here I want to draw attention to my colleague Malcolm Byrne at the National Security Archive. At the Archive Malcolm has gotten declassified the paperwork surrounding one specific CIA memoir and assembled the documents to show the fortress of secrecy in practice.

Iran is the subject, specifically the CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew the legal government of Iran in 1953 and led to so much heartache for so many decades of the Iranian revolution. CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt was a principal organizer of the 1953 operation, and his book Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran is the focus here.

Malcolm Byrne shows the agency’s Publications Review Board (PRB) worked Roosevelt relentlessly, while attempting to enforce absurd boundaries for secrecy. A CIA deputy director said he’d not permit anything to be published which showed that the CIA worked abroad. Even the Review Board–and the agency’s top lawyers–figured they couldn’t get away with that much. They tried to sidetrack the project by raising questions regarding whether the Shah of Iran approved. “Kim” Roosevelt–who had that area of the world hot-wired–not only had the Shah’s approval but the book had been suggested to him by one of the potentate’s associates. Roosevelt had also talked it over with George Herbert Walker Bush, at that time the director of the CIA, so he thought he had the bases covered. Instead the PRB came down on him hard. Roosevelt made major changes. The CIA’s general counsel felt the deputy director’s ukase unenforceable, whereupon the PRB came back with 156 specific objections, and claimed the number could be higher. Roosevelt made more changes, maybe not so many as CIA wanted but enough for one official to brag to another that they’d succeeded in converting Kim Roosevelt’s coup memoir into a work of fiction.

The end result had the CIA requiring the author to assert that the coup was suggested by British Petroleum (then known as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company) rather than the British Secret Service. Langley no doubt thought that was a security interest worth protecting. When BP found out they threatened to sue. The publisher pulled the entire print run of the book to pulp it and reprinted with references to–wait for it–British intelligence. The CIA, happily prosecuting Phil Agee and Frank Snepp, did nothing.

Bottom line? Secrecy is a disease. Not infectious, it’s spread by a bug. Those smitten succumb to the delusion that any kind of action can be hidden so long as the secrecy is preserved. Is that not exactly what happened to NSA with Prism? Officials who have the disease stop paying attention to what is the “right” thing, and focus on the attainable or the desirable, no matter the cost. Damage to national security results from the decisions they make and the projects they pursue–like the Iranian coup, like the NSA dragnet. The damage is not from the compromise of secrecy. The drone of that bug’s wings is really a swan song for the secrecy mavens.

Poles of a Magnet: Jim Schlesinger and Lawrence Walsh

March 27, 2014–Sometimes events pile atop one another, almost too quickly to respond. That’s the case this week, where almost simultaneously we see news of two important passages, the deaths of Lawrence E. Walsh and James R. Schlesinger. Once I got a moment I’d intended to write something about Lawrence Walsh because of his role in the Iran-Contra Affair, but before I could put finger to keyboard, this afternoon’s news brings word that Mr. Schlesinger, too, has passed away. The two men, both staunch Republicans, are linked in an unusual way, not due to their political affiliations but each figured in one of the central upheavals of America’s late 20th Century.

Lawrence E. Walsh was a lawyer, active from the mid-30s on. He served as an assistant district attorney and in other legal posts in New York City, as a counselor to New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, at the time the latter ran for president against Harry Truman in 1948 (losing in a breathtaking upset), as a federal district judge, and as deputy attorney general during the last part of the Eisenhower administration. For a long time Walsh worked as a lawyer in private practice, emerging briefly during the Nixon administration as deputy chief negotiator in the Vietnam peace talks in Paris. But his most important service by far was as special prosecutor in the investigation of the Iran-Contra Affair from 1986 to 1992.

Walsh had great respect for the law as well as for the political dimensions of legal matters. Whether he learned that as a DA, with Thomas Dewey, or in the Eisenhower Justice Department, which was obliged to enforce civil rights rules after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, I don’t know. But when it came to Iran-Contra, where his political inclination was to help protect President Ronald Reagan, Lawrence Walsh worked steadfastly to get to the bottom of the morass of one of the most extensive cover-ups of the age. The special prosecutor would be stymied at every turn–his evidence tainted by Congress’s insistence on immunizing witnesses at its Iran-Contra hearings, by lack of cooperation from Edwin Meese’s Justice Department, by the mass amnesia of National Security Council staff aides and CIA officers who professed not to remember activities with which they had been intimately associated over a period of years.

Despite every obstacle Walsh and his investigators succeeded in building cases against fourteen U.S. government officials and obtained convictions in eleven of those cases, including those of national security adviser John M. Poindexter and conspirator Oliver L. North. Most of the convictions were set aside by higher courts on the strength of the congressional immunities previously extended to the defendants. The remaining culprits were pardoned by the first President Bush when he was headed out the door at the end of his presidency and Walsh was on the point of prosecuting the former secretary of defense, Caspar W. Weinberger.

Walsh’s investigation concluded that both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush–at that time the vice-president–bore significant responsibility, that CIA director William J. Casey had been a major player, abetted by Secretary Weinberger and others, and that the highest levels of the government had conspired to evade U.S. law in selling weapons to Iran, with subordinates smuggling some of the resulting money to Nicaraguan contra rebels run by the CIA. Walsh found Reagan and Bush not in criminal jeopardy, but certainly guilty of poor management and potentially vulnerable if their foreknowledge of the affair was other than had been represented.

I have written before in this space of certain secrecy rules enacted by the second President Bush–George H. W.’s son–when he came to office, which gave former presidents a say in the declassification of records pertaining to them. In my view these rules were almost certainly instituted to protect the first Bush from the consequences of his role in Iran-Contra. These rules have made a mockery of declassification regulations as they pertain to the Reagan-Bush era.

Like the pole of a magnet Lawrence Walsh attracted the opprobrium and criticism of many from his own political party.

I never met Lawrence Walsh, but I did meet James R. Schlesinger, first in his early guise as a nuclear weapons expert and analyst at the RAND Corporation. Schlesinger was a Harvard-trained economist who came to defense analysis, which I studied at the time, as a proponent of what was called “operations research.” Richard Nixon brought Schlesinger into his administration to lead the Office of Management and Budget. In that capacity, in 1971 Schlesinger conducted an efficiency study of the U.S. intelligence community on Nixon’s behalf, at a time when the president sought an excuse to pare the CIA’s budget. Mr. Nixon later appointed Schlesinger the CIA director. It was Mr. Schlesinger who commissioned the notorious CIA report called The Family Jewels. It was that document that lay directly behind the CIA and NSA abuse scandals of 1975, the “Year of Intelligence,” about which much has appeared on this website of late. Needless to say, CIA and NSA officers were outraged that U.S. government authorities presumed to investigate their activities. Schlesinger soon left to head the Pentagon, where his fights with Henry Kissinger became the talk of Washington.

I saw Mr. Schlesinger on a number of occasions in later years, often at CIA-hosted events, where he was always honored. His role as Mr. Nixon’s gunslinger had apparently been forgotten. I’d not be surprised to see Kissinger show up as a speaker at Schlesinger’s memorial service. Perhaps Mr. Schlesinger’s was an opposite magnetic pole–opposites attract while like poles repel. How else to account for the very different treatment accorded these two Republicans? We’ll see.