Maybe Trump’s Right–So was Hillary

May 16, 2017–The latest escapade of this dysfunctional White House is the admission that, during the recent visit of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, President Donald Trump told the visitors secrets shared with us by our spy allies. Evidently in haste to defend the president, national security adviser H. R. McMaster insisted that no operation had been revealed that was not already known, and that no sources or methods were mentioned. Earlier today Mr. Trump himself, relying upon the power of the president to “declassify” information, insisted he had the “right” to divulge the secrets he did. This mess brings us full circle to where we were a year ago when Donald J. Trump’s minions persecuted Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server, chanting “lock her up!”

There’s quite a bit to unpack here. First, the Hillary investigation, conducted by James B. Comey’s FBI, helped fuel the Trump political campaign as it gathered momentum. As discussed here and elsewhere, Comey’s re-opening of the investigation just before Election Day affected the outcome. So did Mrs. Clinton’s wooden handling of the issue. In this space I argued repeatedly that the movement of classified emails–and the excesses alleged by certain government agencies–were less than simple press bulletins made it appear. Not only was that correct, but recently it turns out that FBI Director Comey exaggerated his claims of the dimensions of the potential leak.

In terms of transgressions, Hillary Clinton’s offense was moving message traffic across a medium (a private server) that had not been approved at a time when the State Department had yet to set its policy for handling this kind of information. There is no evidence the server was ever penetrated or read, hence no indication of a national security breach. By contrast, Mr. Trump personally and physically disclosed secrets to representatives of a nation long our adversary. They were secrets given by an ally. Although U.S. classification policy permits a president to release secrets, foreign government information is typically protected in our system. At a minimum Mr. Trump breached that confidence. National security damage was done.

When the Clinton email scandal first arose, the instant reaction here was not just to show how the issue had been blown out of proportion but to argue that current policy on secrecy makes it virtually impossible for senior officials to do their jobs without violating classification regulations. The Donald Trump faux pas just demonstrates that anew. It’s time to change the policy!

Secrecy Obsession: An Example from the CIA

November 3, 2016–While we spend lots of our energy incredulous over the FBI and James B. Comey’s apparently stupid (or worse) intervention in the United States presidential election, all that attention draws us away from another secrecy “event” that further illuminates the insanity of the present system. This is the CIA’s recent declassification of the final volume of its internal official history of the Bay of Pigs, the disastrous project that mobilized a force of Cuban exiles to invade their home island to overthrow Fidel Castro. That April 1961 fiasco is one of the most famous in CIA lore. If you want the chapter and verse on what I’m about to say, just visit the National Security Archive where you can download a copy of the newly-released document.

As you can imagine, there were testy and treacherous internal debates at CIA over what went wrong. There was also an obligation to draw lessons from the failure. One thing President John F. Kennedy did, right after the operation, codenamed Project ATE, was to reactivate a watchdog board that had kept an eye on intelligence for his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. One of the first things that unit did was to ask the CIA’s inspector general (IG) if he was investigating the Bay of Pigs, and when they could expect to see his report. Agency director Allen W. Dulles summoned the IG, Lyman D. Kirkpatrick, and ordered him to assemble such a report. Kirkpatrick did this over the following months and finished up late in 1961, just as Allen Dulles was retiring, to be succeeded by John A. McCone.

This timing is important to the story. Rather than pass the IG report on to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, McCone held it back while interested parties at the CIA wrote their own rebuttals to the IG, each more scathing than the next. (Sound like the Senate torture report? Right!) Only when all the refutation was ready did Mr. McCone pass the assessment along to overseers. In effect, McCone had scuttled–or, depending on how you take it, covered up–the IG report on the Bay of Pigs.

Another key to this story is the CIA’s internal debate. All the rebuttals essentially passed the buck, back to President Kennedy. One dominant theme was muddled White House decisions obliging the CIA to cut back its operation. Even more problematical was the contention, by many at the CIA, that Project ATE would have overthrown Fidel Castro if only Kennedy had permitted the agency to execute its full surprise attack planned against Castro’s air force. Both these contentions took the argument outside the CIA. But the Inspector General’s job was to carry out reviews that improved efficiency within the agency. Kennedy’s decisions were not within his purview. Yet here the IG was attacked bitterly by his own colleagues for doing his job–improving efficiency–by criticisms (and there were many) of how the operation had been conducted.

Now let’s skip ahead. Late in the 1970s the CIA commissioned a massive internal history of the Bay of Pigs. Official historian Jack Pfeiffer got the assignment to do the study. He spent five years on that job, splitting the history into microscopic studies of the air campaign, the evolution of the CIA plan, the agency’s dealings with the Cuban exiles, the presidential commission inquiry, and, in this volume, the now-suppressed Kirkpatrick report. The CIA’s chief historian of that time, we are told, judged this volume inadequate. Pfeiffer retired in 1984, before he could complete revisions to this study, which therefore remains a “draft.”

What was objectionable about the Pfeiffer history? Not much, at least in this volume. Scrambling to make lemonade on the occasion of the document’s 2016 declassification, current CIA chief historian David Robarge writes the history was not acceptable “because of serious shortcomings in scholarship, . . . polemical tone, and . . .failure to add significantly to an understanding of the controversy.” But reading the document shows its author correctly footnoting his sources, using relevant official records, and displaying other tools of the historian’s trade. We might say the history is tendentious, in that its author spends a good deal of space on textual interpretation of other CIA histories and documents to make his points–but that precise method is used successfully by many historians. Scholarship is not evidently at issue. The “not adding to the history” part we’ll put aside, since several books of this era made the best seller lists precisely by revealing some of the same information that is in these histories. That criticism is a throwaway line.

The Pfeiffer history is polemical, very much so, in siding with the failed leaders of the project and CIA rank and file who condemned the IG for criticizing agency practice. Pfeiffer still reflects, in the 70s and 80s, the testy attitude that Kirkpatrick was a careerist out to take over CIA’s operations directorate, and he also clearly shares the notion that the Bay of Pigs would have worked if only Jack Kennedy had fully unleashed the CIA exile air force. Both these attitudes were CIA orthodoxy, not controversial at all. As a matter of fact, agency dislike for “Kirk,” as he was called, lasted long after Pfeiffer himself departed Langley. In 1998, when a CIA retiree association newsletter wrote of the Inspector General’s office, it lambasted Kirkpatrick and the Bay of Pigs report in this identical fashion–as the man who wanted to run operations so bad he’d do anything. The criticism seemed so unfair to CIA old timer Tom Polgar that he wrote a letter in protest.

Meanwhile, much of history is polemical, and, in Bill Casey’s CIA, when agency analysis was possibly at its most politicized, it was no sin to be polemical in a history. This sounds like a “those grapes were sour anyway” sort of objection, or perhaps something conjured as an excuse to shoot down a study that made top echelons uncomfortable.

Jack Pfeiffer left the agency convinced that it had covered up the Bay of Pigs failure by restricting access to both the Kirkpatrick report (and rebuttals) and the White House review (called the Taylor Commission report). He notes that “external requests for access to the reports have caused and continue to cause great consternation at the highest levels in the Agency.” Pfeiffer added, “After more than twenty years, it appears that fear of exposing the Agency’s dirty linen, rather than any significant security information, is what prompts continued denial of requests for release of these records.” Not long afterwards Mr. Pfeiffer filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the release of his histories.

Here is where our story really begins. In 1984 the CIA asked Congress for–and obtained–an exemption from FOIA for “operational records.” It described operational records as agent and project case files, substantive materials. The CIA then used the “operational records” exemption to refuse to release its Bay of Pigs histories, calling them operational files. Jack Pfeiffer went to his death still pleading for release of the histories.

History marches on–and that also means records get older and become less sensitive. Redacted versions of the Taylor Commission hearings became available in the 1980s. They were White House, not CIA records, so the agency lacked complete control over them. The Kirkpatrick report and its rebuttals were opened in expurgated form around the millennium. They have since appeared in substantially complete form. National Security Archive analyst Peter Kornbluh even published the IG document and most refutations in a book that appeared in 1998.

Still secret were the Pfeiffer Bay of Pigs histories, the CIA’s official record. The third volume, the one concerning the anti-Castro Cubans and the exile brigade, was released by the CIA’s Historical Review Program in 1998. The JFK Assassination Records Board compelled the disclosure. That’s important–here the agency gave up the claim these were “operational records”–except that it did not. Here’s where the “deliberative process” exemption took a front seat. That presumably meant a document that is advisory in nature and pertinent to arriving at a decision. Under pressure of additional and repeated declassification requests, spearheaded by the Archive’s Kornbluh, in July 2011 the CIA yielded and let out three more volumes of Pfeiffer’s history. But Volume 5 it continued to withhold under “deliberative process.”

The National Security Archive sued CIA over this and won a judgment, but Archive lost the CIA’s appeal, which let stand the absurd exemption. The court found that creators of the exemption had put no time limit upon its exercise. Think about it–the Pfeiffer history explicitly covers the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, in which CIA covered up its mistakes and suppressed the IG report that tabulated them. That IG report itself was already in the public domain. There is nothing of deliberative process about this. And the document is a history not an advisory paper. In due course Dr. David Barrett of Villanova University again FOIAed the Pfeiffer history and, when the agency denied it again, prepared to take them to court. Meanwhile, Congress passed a new law embodying changes in the Freedom of Information Act. Among them is a legal requirement to consider the public interest in the release of documents, and one that limits the deliberative process exemption to 25 years. Both those things, especially the second, would have condemned the CIA to disaster in a court proceeding, and would have ended up costing you, the American taxpayer, when CIA is found liable for the court costs of this mess. The “context note” from the agency chief historian reveals nothing of this history. Instead CIA takes credit for moving to affirmatively release a document to which the new legal strictures apply.

That is how they play the game. You can be sure that the Pfeiffer history would not have been released except that it was the subject of a lawsuit, and that no extensive release of CIA predecisional documents older than 25 years impends.

Finally, let’s look at the actual and “articulable” damage to United States national security that regulations specify must be present for a document to be made secret. There was an IG report on the Bay of Pigs. No secret there. The report was actually declassified years ahead of this analysis of it. The CIA covered up the Kirkpatrick report. Not widely known, but no secret–and no evident source of national security damage. CIA officers thought Lyman Kirkpatrick a careerist. So what?

What’s left is this : CIA officers into the late 70s and 80s still persisted in the delusion–reflected in Pfeiffer’s writing–that the Bay of Pigs would have worked if there had only been a bigger air strike. Embarrassing, but no national security impact. In fact, the regulations explicitly prohibit imposing secrecy for the purpose of avoiding embarrassment. Second, that a CIA historian might write that the agency is afraid to air its dirty laundry. National security damage? No. Also, that the Bay of Pigs coverup continued by means of the secrecy in which the Pfeiffer history was held. There’s the big enchilada. That does not damage the national security either but think of the tortured logic–the document has to be secret because it was secret (and embarrassing), and the secrecy mavens are entitled to invent or utilize any exemption they can think of to maintain that state. What Jack Pfeiffer wrote in 1984 is still true more than 30 years later.

So, watch the FBI secrecy investigation. The classifications, the descriptions of what are true reasons why things on Hillary’s, or anyone else’s computers, are secret have been imposed by the same bureaucracy that held on to the CIA Bay of Pigs history. You’ve already read in this space about those folks retroactively deciding that things are secret (another violation of regulations). The system is rotten at its core. The FBI wants to be seen as diligent enforcers of this system. So be it–but first make the secrecy system worth defending.

COMMENT BY DR. DAVID M. BARRETT: “Your blog’s treatment of the CIA and the Pfeiffer history of the Bay of Pigs, volume 5, was brought to my attention yesterday, and I want to express my admiration for your analysis. I was delighted to have that volume declassified by the CIA, but I was quite annoyed to see the Agency claim that they were doing so because of the change in the law. My attorney and I have (in writing) the Agency’s explanation to a federal judge (in the case Barrett v. CIA) that they were declassifying it due to my (and surely others’) FOIA request(s) and because of the lawsuit. But, as you note, the Agency’s chief historian claims otherwise.”–November 21, 2016.

 

 

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.

The Clinton Emails (3)–Games WERE Played

October 19, 2016–Games were played with the Clinton emails, just not the ones you think. Or perhaps, just the ones you thought. From the beginning of the Clinton email saga you read in this space that this was a scam about secrecy, and new evidence for the bankruptcy of the secrecy system. Now we have the proof. The FBI has released texts of interviews it conducted during its investigation of the email scandal. In combination with the Bureau’s own final report, and the parallel inquiries of journalists, we can now assemble a picture of the handling of one of Hillary’s typical emails.

Under instructions to release material handled on Mrs. Clinton’s private email server the State Department reviewed swathes of these for opening to the public. As part of the government’s standard approach in matters of secrecy, the messages were circulated to other agencies for their say. The government calls this “equity,” as if agencies can own information–which they cannot, by law. Nevertheless the “equity” arrangement has been used as a major tool to manipulate declassification and secrecy, as it was here.

The State Department had simply intended to release the emails. The Federal Bureau of Investigation objected. It considered that some of these emails ought to be secret. (The first problem with this set up–you’ll also have seen that here before–is that we have FBI deciding after the fact that something should have been secret before, and then claiming the breach of regulations designed to protect secrecy at the inception of a document.)

A senior State Department official, Patrick Kennedy, in charge of the email release project, phoned the FBI, where he spoke to Brian McCauley. This was May 2015 and McCauley was the Bureau official responsible for its foreign operations. The FBI had just lost two slots on the staff of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad–and here is where the story gets muddled. McCauley adverts that he initially asked State to reinstate the Baghdad field agents and offered at his end to help get FBI to back down on its secrecy demand enabling State to move forward. Once he learned the message concerned Benghazi, McCauley relates, all bets were off. On the State Department’s side, Patrick Kennedy has loyally said he thought the message was not secret, though certain redactions might be required for other reasons, and that he knew nothing of any FBI offer of a trade.

The way this story was first reported alleged that it was the State Department that had begged for a trade–with the implication it sought in that way to shield Hillary Clinton.

So is the game played. Secrecy is not wielded simply for the protection of national security, it is used as bludgeon to obtain all manner of interagency “cooperation.” The losers are the American people, who are not only robbed of the true record of their government’s actions, but are subjected to the arbitrary measures of a system in which policy is forged partly by barter.

You have already read here (for example, “Hillary’s Emails: Bursting the Secrecy Bubble,” August 22, 2015) that the email controversy really shows the need to reform the laws governing secret information, which have made it impossible to function as a senior official without breaking them. Here’s a good illustration of why–an act taken in the open at time x is suddenly recast as secret at time y–and then the charge of breach of secrecy is used to extract some other action. Add to this the fact that investigation of the breach is in the purview of the FBI and you have the makings of a completely vicious circle.

It is tragic that this whole “Hillary Emails” thing has been made into an election issue in a campaign for the presidency of the United States. The emails controversy has been manipulated from beginning to end, is based on a very ephemeral set of acts pumped up by persons with other agendas, and has even been exploited by foreign governments to meddle in American politics. Do not make an issue of the emails without carefully considering the full issue.

 

The Fabulist as Operator: Michael Hayden’s Openness

March 15, 2016–Former top spook Michael V. Hayden loves operations. Pushing pieces around the board, making the game go his way–those are the things for which he wakes up in the morning. That’s the meaning hidden in the title of his recent memoir Playing to the Edge. In this space a few days ago (“Michael Hayden: Voice of the Fabulist, March 12, 2016) I covered Hayden’s recent appearance at the “Lawfare” forum of Stanford University. One of the questions he fielded there was which organization–Hayden had headed both the National Security Agency (NSA)  and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)–he had better liked being the director of. Having already said, in a different context, that NSA probably accounts for 60 percent or more of the President’s Daily Brief–and the CIA for much less than the rest–the general came back and said he preferred leading the CIA. He ticked his head. “Covert operations,” he said.

I’ve heard elsewhere–in more than one place–that Mr. Hayden takes more delight in the intricacies of minute spy activities than whichever other senior officer my commentator was familiar with. CIA lawyer John Rizzo writes, “Mike Hayden loved being a spymaster, by which I mean he reveled in conceiving and running covert operations involving real people and back-alley intrigue.” In fact General Hayden’s Big Idea when he took the helm at CIA was revamping the agency’s organization so as to increase the “operational tempo.” Even CIA’s historians were supposed to get involved. Operational tempo did increase–but how much of that was due to the latest moving of deck chairs and ho much to Langley’s increasing reliance on drone attacks remains an open question.

In his memoir the general recounts asking a civilian advisory board whether the United States will be able to continue espionage into a future where every day the demands increase for transparency and public accountability. He reports the board had its doubts. “Really important answer,” Hayden notes (p. 422).

What do you do to avoid that eventuality? You manipulate the public’s knowledge. Here’s a story, and it’s about spies, and it really happened:

When General Hayden came to Langley the hottest issue on CIA secrecy was the continuing effort to shield the “President’s Daily Brief” (PDB), reports that constantly update the chief executive. The PDBs had been recently controversial in the case of 9/11, where it developed that CIA had warned of an imminent threat. Elsewhere CIA had observed that terrorists might use airplanes as weapons. The Bush White House tried but failed to keep that information from reaching the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks and the public. The CIA asserted these PDBs were decision documents and eligible for special secrecy protection.

Dr. Larry Berman, a University of California history professor, asked for some of these PDBs to be released for his research, documents so old their secrecy was not credible. The CIA turned Berman down. In conjunction with the National Security Archive he sued for the papers’ release. The PDBs were not protected either by precedent or by nature–Berman and Archive could show that numerous PDBs and predecessor reports (the documents had another name in the Kennedy years) had long since been declassified, and that no claim had ever been made that releasing them revealed intelligence sources and methods or that they were exempt by virtue of presidential privilege.

While Berman lost at the U.S. district court level, his appeal was on its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit when Michael Hayden took over the CIA. As per Hayden’s question to his advisory board, it appeared there were reasons to expect the same societal forces pushing the effort to open the PDBs might sharpen across the board.

The general’s problem was to be open and shut at the same time.

Now, the CIA also had another ongoing secrecy appeal on its plate. That was the matter of the “Family Jewels,” a notorious compilation document ordered up by CIA director James R. Schlesinger in the early 1970s to discover what domestic abuses the agency had previously engaged in. Revelation of some of the ops that figured in that report had led to the “Year of Intelligence” in 1975, when the CIA had had to endure multiple major outside investigations. Even though its contents were picked through by all those inquiries, the CIA had forever kept secret the document itself. Numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for it had all been rejected. When Hayden arrived at Langley the National Security Archive had been pursuing an FOIA on the Family Jewels since 1992. Archive director Thomas Blanton had been in contact with CIA declassification officials encouraging them to release the material. It would be a good place to start, Blanton argued, if the agency wanted to turn the public dialogue away from torture.

Suddenly Blanton began to hear good things. Senior agency officials told him he’d be happy with an upcoming speech–General Hayden was scheduled to address the Society for the Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), the major professional association of diplomatic historians. Hayden duly appeared on June 21, 2007. He called himself “a lifelong student of history.” He went on to declare that “CIA recognizes the real benefits that flow from greater public understanding of our work and mission,” extolled a “very successful” FOIA program, and went on to assert that “we have completed our declassification review and are preparing to release most of the so-called Family Jewels.”

At the Archive we were overwhelmed, in the short term, with the impact of all this. The general seemed to be turning over a new leaf, perhaps a true age of openness was dawning. Media excitement built through the weekend. The CIA actually released the Family Jewels on the Monday, June 25, when a CIA car pulled up in front of the Gelman Library building of George Washington University, where the Archive offices are located. Television trucks were pulled up all along the street and Langley’s minions no doubt feared the consequences of their pictures appearing in the press. They called upstairs for Mr. Blanton and an assistant to come and retrieve the papers. Much has been done with that declassified document since.

But the Family Jewels were only the MacGuffin in all this. I did not realize it at the time but General Hayden now confirms it in his memoir. “I decided to centralize declassification review at the corporate level,” he writes (p. 121). That meant the agency’s Publications Review Board, a zealous and paranoid collection of the most antediluvian sort, whose antics I have documented in my book The Family Jewels. Releasing the document of that name marked not the beginning of openness but its end–or at least Michael Hayden’s play to the edge.

I was at the SHAFR luncheon where Hayden spoke. I ought to have realized at the time. There were two giveaways–during the questions and answers, several diplomatic historians raised the question of the PDBs. Far from talking openness, he spoke of desire for openness but  General Hayden wanted “space” for decisionmakers and also alluded to the spurious sources and methods argument, which those of us who had ever seen the already-declassified PDBs knew to be so much hot air.

The other giveaway was that CIA took the occasion of the SHAFR luncheon to roll out a new umbrella unit, “Information Management Services,” that combined the Review Board, which has the power of (and indeed is preoccupied with) suppression of anything written by a CIA employee, the Historical Review Program (which had done some declassification work in the past), and the agency’s FOIA and privacy office. An official of this new unit actually drew me aside at the luncheon, reminded me of a particular declassification request I had filed, which apparently he had worked on, and asked why “we” (the public) kept making requests like that. Managing information meant keeping it away from the public.

Hayden told us, “I firmly believe this approach will improve CIA’s standing with key partners inside and outside government, including people like you.” The CIA’s declassification process slowed down considerably in the wake of that episode. General Hayden personally participated in this op.

A few months later the Circuit Court ruled that CIA could, indeed, keep their PDBs secret for the moment, but it threw out the “sources and methods” bugaboo, telling the agency it would have to consider the true secrecy value of the various reports. That is what led to the event last September at the Johnson Library, where the CIA made a show of releasing thousands of PDB documents. Note the additional 8-year delay in opening this material. It’s also worth noting that in both the Family Jewels and PDB cases the agency speaks as if it had itself thought up the idea of releasing these documents, rather than being impelled by the public.

 

Hillary email Update

February 6, 2016–News continues to boil about secret information allegedly contained in emails sent to Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state in the first Obama administration. The emerging record continues to confirm what I’ve said in this space: that senior officials of the intelligence agencies, with nearly a year now to pore over Hillary’s email cache, plus their own fish to fry–and demons to fear–find it irresistible to range backwards in time to cast veils of secrecy over information that was in the public domain.

Latest reports add to our point, originally taken from press reporting about the CIA drone war. Other emails apparently pertain to the North Korean missile program, and to events in the Libyan revolution. Some of the 22 emails over which classification is asserted apparently contain the special access slug “HCS-O,” which pertains to human intelligence sources, although officials hasten to add that no specific names of sources or CIA officers actually appear in the emails.

Two more fresh items add to our update. Just yesterday, it was reported, other, similar emails, containing information discussed in classified materials exists in the personal communications files of former secretary of state Colin L. Powell and national security adviser– then secretary of state– Condoleezza Rice. Powell has been quoted responding that it was understood his emails were his–and were not classified. There’s been no response so far from Ms. Rice.

The facts are not what our spooks seem to think. Global events are visible, attract attention, and trigger discussion and analysis. The drone war, to cite our starting point, is watched and remarked upon by a wide range of media outlets, human rights organizations, international entities, think tanks, and national governments (and their own security services). The fact that secret ODNI and CIA documents discuss the same matters does not make those subjects classified. The spooks’ attitude is that even specific CIA information, if it becomes available from any source (such as a leak) other than declassification by the CIA remains secret!

Plus, there is declassification and there is declassification. The CIA quietly releases secret information to an author or journalist, for example, in the expectation that books or articles will show the spooks in a positive light. Yet at the same time others who might request the same or similar information be declassified are denied, told the agency will neither confirm or deny the very existence of the information, or told outright it does not exist.

The other new development is the revelation of “eyewash”–someone’s adaptation of a term of art used by CIA disguise artists. According to these reports eyewash describes a category of documents that move over regular CIA channels that contradict memos or messages which circulate in hidden channels. This is described as a mechanism to reduce the circle of officials knowledgeable about some subject, but it’s much bigger than that. For decades we have known about backchannel and front channel–where the important message goes over the (secret) backchannel and the idle chatter on the (less sensitive) front channel. Nixon’s covert operation against Allende in Chile was facilitated by “Track II,” exactly such a device. The CIA’s destruction of its torture videotapes in 2005 was implemented by a backchannel message to a station chief that ordered that person to put in a request on the front channel, using certain specific arguments and rationales, for authority to destroy the material.

The difference between “eyewash” and backchannel is that in the former the front channel traffic is positively designed to be false.

This is described as a security technique. In its simplest form the safety of an agent is protected by giving broad distribution to the message that says the operative is dead, while tightly restricting the message that gives the spy a different codename and reports his information. For a moment that sounds OK–until you realize the same technique can be applied to deluding the Senate intelligence committee that the Panetta report had no meaning, that the CIA’s hit team operation (Project Cannonball) had long been stopped, or, indeed, that CIA remains responsive to congressional authority at all.

Such methods are worse than unacceptable. Here is an intelligence agency, whose whole purpose is to tell truth to power, where the biblical proverb “the truth shall set you free” is actually carved into the marble wall, indulging in the practice of actively lying– not to the enemy, not is a deception operation, but in official records that will be seen by anyone dealing with the agency on its business–in other words, CIA officers, their bosses, the Congress,  the president.

Meanwhile the same intelligence community is presuming to comb over the private emails of its executive branch masters, such as Hillary Clinton or Colin Powell, and denounce them for having information in messages that spooks decide in retrospect should have been classified!

This is a scam.

As I argued in some length in The Family Jewels the intelligence community has long since passed the point of safeguarding legitimate secrecy in favor of practices designed to protect its own interests–political and financial as much or more than operational. “National security” is expanded–bloated–to hide that. And what I said here last summer (“Hillary’s Emails: Bursting the Secrecy Bubble,” August 22, 2015), I repeat here today: the secrecy rules have become so bloated that senior officials can no longer do their jobs without violating them. It’s time to change the rules, not prosecute the secretaries of state. While we are at it, the CIA and ODNI need to be taken out of the business of declassification.

Hillary’s Emails: Bursting the Secrecy Bubble

August 22, 2015–A quick note today and I’ll come back again soon. You’ll have heard me often enough talking about the mind-deadening effects of government secrecy. Consider this: Hillary Clinton, the possible Democratic Party presidential candidate and former secretary of state in the Obama administration, is losing ground in opinion polls for an issue that revolves around the handling of secret documents, or more precisely, whether classified information was sent by her in private emails. The opinion poll losses are a real political cost.

The simple fact is that the public does not even know if Hillary really mishandled secret information.  We simply know there is a possibility, based on a survey by unnamed State Department officials of a small cross-section of the message traffic that moved across her circuits. Mind you, the likelihood is high that some classified information was transmitted this way, but there is a huge difference between a two-year old email that announces Secretary of State Clinton will make a secret visit to Afghanistan tomorrow, versus one that contains key information about, for example, the private U.S. opinion of the latest Israeli approval for building additional settlements on the West Bank. Plus the likelihood is also high that whomever conducted this survey decided some of what passed by email should have been classified at the time but was not.

Problematic classified information represents only a small fraction of what gets made secret. Often the need for secrecy is short-lived, as in Hillary’s itinerary. Sometimes the secret is merely what (open) information someone is looking at. Other times the secret is low-grade, such as the rate of casualties for U.S. forces in battle in the last week, month, or other reporting period.

The probability is high that most of what transitted Hillary’s server and phone was this kind of material. Some of the rest is a phony charge, as in seems important enough to classify today but was not then.

But the system is so crude it does not make a distinction. For example, Chelsea Manning is in prison today for Wikileaks releasing hundreds of thousands of classified messages. Big secrets? Did you look at them? Probably 98 percent of what was in that leak was of the low-grade variety. (There’s a reason for that, too: Manning was on an interagency network for sharing where the participating agencies and armed services were putting only their lowest-grade stuff out. There’s a whole conversation to have about what really happened with the 9/11 Commission’s demand the government “break down walls” between agencies, but this is not the time for it.) The story with Edward Snowden was different, but the point is that Hillary, Manning, and Snowden are all accused of precisely the same thing.

Here’s more: President Barack Obama’s White House put out a release a few months ago that revealed the name of the CIA station chief in Afghanistan. Technically Mr. Obama is guilty of the same offense as Hillary, mishandling classified information. Former CIA officer John Kiriakou was sent to prison for this. General David Petraeus, CIA chief and ex-commander in Afghanistan, was convicted and sentenced for this. Scooter Libby, a senior acolyte of our former vice-president, Dick Cheney, was convicted of obstruction of justice in connection with an episode where their office deliberately leaked classified information naming a CIA officer. Obama’s gaffe had been inadvertent. During earlier presidential campaigns there were charges against John Kerry and Bob Kerrey both, concerning things they did in Vietnam, that revolved around leaks of still-classified information, or based on just-released information. In the 1990s CIA director John Deutch was found to have classified materials at his home.

I submit to you that when the secrecy system reaches the point that senior officials routinely fall afoul the regulations for handling classified information, the system is out of control. We need a system that safeguards real secrets, high-grade information, not one capable of shifting political opinions in presidential elections based upon public misunderstanding of the secrecy system, and obscure officials’ assertions of blanket national security claims. Change the system. The alternative is that one day the secrets will swallow the government.