Commentary Magazine


Topic: CIA

Human Rights Hypocrisy Charge Doesn’t Fly

Hard on the heels of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the use of torture by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has come under attack from foreign nations accusing Americans of being hypocrites on the question of human rights. China, the world’s largest tyranny as well North Korea, arguably the craziest and most repressive nation on the planet, as well as other massive human rights violators such as Iran, have all thrown the report’s revelations in America’s face. While even those Americans most critical of the practice may not take anything said on the subject by these countries seriously, they do argue that U.S. use of torture undermines efforts to rally support for international human rights. But while the torture story is seen as a black eye for the U.S., there’s no comparison between what the CIA is accused of doing and what goes on elsewhere. Americans may not have clean hands but they are not hypocrites.

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Hard on the heels of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the use of torture by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has come under attack from foreign nations accusing Americans of being hypocrites on the question of human rights. China, the world’s largest tyranny as well North Korea, arguably the craziest and most repressive nation on the planet, as well as other massive human rights violators such as Iran, have all thrown the report’s revelations in America’s face. While even those Americans most critical of the practice may not take anything said on the subject by these countries seriously, they do argue that U.S. use of torture undermines efforts to rally support for international human rights. But while the torture story is seen as a black eye for the U.S., there’s no comparison between what the CIA is accused of doing and what goes on elsewhere. Americans may not have clean hands but they are not hypocrites.

China, North Korea and Iran assert that America’s brutal interrogations of al-Qaeda suspects means that everything the U.S. has said about human rights should be ignored, vindicating them as well as lending credence to calls for prosecutions of those involved. American liberals seem to implicitly agree with them even if they disagree that U.S. behavior lets anyone else off the hook for human rights violations. But charges of U.S. hypocrisy are nothing more than tyranny talking points.

Whatever one may think of the rough treatment meted out to al-Qaeda prisoners, they were terrorists waging a brutal and bloody war against the West and the United States. As terrorists they were not covered by the protections of the Geneva Convention, nor do they have the same rights as citizens accused of crimes in a court of law. The torture may or may not have effective in getting them to give up vital intelligence but to compare even the nastiest things done to them to the actions of countries like China, North Korea and Iran is more than absurd.

Those tortured in those countries are not accused terrorists but ordinary citizens or dissidents striving for freedom or merely caught up in the grips of a state terrorism. When China, North Korea or Iran, or the many other countries that routinely violate human rights torture, the purpose of the activity is to preserve the ability of the state to go on oppressing people. When the CIA did it, it was part of an effort to defend the lives and the freedom of the American people and those elsewhere struggling to fend off al-Qaeda’s efforts to transform the world into an Islamist caliphate.

Do the motives of the torturers not count? Some would argue that torture is itself a crime and cannot be used under any circumstances. Even more, they say that tolerating torture gives the lie to America’s claim to be the defender of freedom. There is a certain moral logic to such a stand and, in the context of ordinary police work it can be argued that torture can never be contemplated by a just society. Yet the situation the U.S. found itself in after 9/11 was not ordinary. It was a war in which the stakes were as high as they have been in any conflict fought by Americans.

Both in the context of that perilous moment after 9/11 and the long war against Islamist terror that is still going on, the claim that keeping America’s hands clean is more important than the goal of crushing al-Qaeda and its successor groups and thereby defending the future of freedom, may be consistent but it is morally unserious. The first obligation of any democracy at war with tyranny is to defeat the enemy, not to avoid embarrassing revelations about interrogations. It is comforting to assert that victory does not require democracies to sully themselves with brutal behavior but such statements are pious hopes or retroactive pronouncements, not realistic analyses of options in the heat of battle.

By contrast, the efforts of tyrannies to oppress their peoples via torture and other human rights violations have no such justification or motive. To claim that there is no moral distinction between freedom defending itself with brutality and tyranny defending itself with similar methods is to construct a philosophical model that has not connection to real life or the necessarily ambiguous dilemmas of war. Nor should anything that was revealed this week about the CIA deter the United State or its allies from criticizing the widespread human rights violations going on around the world. No nation is perfect. But America’s willingness to do whatever it takes to defend the homeland against Islamist murderers does not make it a nation of hypocrites. That is a label best placed on those who cry out for security when under attack but then second-guess and smear as criminals those who successfully defended them.

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CIA Must Learn the Lesson of Playing Politics

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s CIA “torture report” is a symbol of partisan venality. The old adage garbage-in, garbage-out holds true. One former CIA general counsel says the intelligence committee never asked him to testify and therefore did not consider his input, which countered Feinstein’s pre-ordained conclusions. Many former CIA directors dispute the report’s conclusions, and argue that “enhanced interrogation” did indeed lead to actionable intelligence which prevented terror attacks. Certainly, there is a tendency among bureaucrats to circle the wagon and protect the organization to which they have dedicated their life and from which they get their salaries, but that doesn’t mean that they also don’t truly believe what they argue or that they also don’t have very good evidence upon which to make their arguments. Outgoing Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein seems less motivated by principle than by personal vendetta. And the collateral damage she causes, well, she appears to be fine with it.

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The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s CIA “torture report” is a symbol of partisan venality. The old adage garbage-in, garbage-out holds true. One former CIA general counsel says the intelligence committee never asked him to testify and therefore did not consider his input, which countered Feinstein’s pre-ordained conclusions. Many former CIA directors dispute the report’s conclusions, and argue that “enhanced interrogation” did indeed lead to actionable intelligence which prevented terror attacks. Certainly, there is a tendency among bureaucrats to circle the wagon and protect the organization to which they have dedicated their life and from which they get their salaries, but that doesn’t mean that they also don’t truly believe what they argue or that they also don’t have very good evidence upon which to make their arguments. Outgoing Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein seems less motivated by principle than by personal vendetta. And the collateral damage she causes, well, she appears to be fine with it.

But while it seems clear that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is sullying its reputation by being so overtly partisan and playing out personal grudges against the intelligence community, the CIA must also learn that when it plays politics, it opens a Pandora’s Box and ultimately will get burned. It is ironic—but also a good thing—that so many former Bush administration officials are standing up for the CIA.

Many might harbor personal grievance because they were targets of malicious and politically-motivated CIA leaks. In November 2005, W. Patrick Lang, former Defense Intelligence Officer for the Middle East, South Asia, and counter-terrorism, told the American Prospect of some CIA analysts’ efforts to hurt the White House prior to the 2004 presidential election. “Of course they were leaking,” he said. “They told me about it at the time. They thought it was funny. They’d say things like, ‘This last thing that came out, surely people will pay attention to that. They won’t re-elect this man [President Bush]’.”

As I chronicle in my recent book, that’s just one example of many: CIA interference in policy and politics dates back to the Johnson administration at least, and was a constant problem during the Cold War under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Intelligence officials leaking to affect policy should have been exposed and fired. Frequent and unplugged leaks may win the CIA analysts short-term policy battles, but such illegalities hemorrhage long-term trust and ultimately come back to bite the agency in a way that undermines both it and the American national security which it seeks to preserve. As the old adage goes, “You can’t be a little bit pregnant.” The CIA can’t dabble in politics a little bit and expect not to be burned. While Feinstein is treating the CIA unfairly—and breeding distrust that will continue for years in the process—it is long past time for the CIA to recognize that it is not always the victim, but often a full participant in unnecessary political games.

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Putting the “Torture Report” In Historical and Moral Context

When I worked in the Bush White House and revelations about enhanced interrogation techniques became public, I spoke with several people, both within and outside the administration, to discuss and grapple with its moral implications. (Because of my faith perspective, some of the conversations were placed in an explicitly theological context.) I was uncomfortable with what was done, as were virtually all of my colleagues, but understanding of it and at the time supportive of it. It was for us a complicated moral issue, weighing ends and means, and not, in my judgment, self-evidently defensible or self-evidently indefensible. Like so many issues confronting people in public life, there were competing arguments, upsides and downsides to each course of action. And for people serving in the White House and our intelligence agencies, it was not simply an abstract, academic debate. A lot depended on what we did, or what we failed to do.

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When I worked in the Bush White House and revelations about enhanced interrogation techniques became public, I spoke with several people, both within and outside the administration, to discuss and grapple with its moral implications. (Because of my faith perspective, some of the conversations were placed in an explicitly theological context.) I was uncomfortable with what was done, as were virtually all of my colleagues, but understanding of it and at the time supportive of it. It was for us a complicated moral issue, weighing ends and means, and not, in my judgment, self-evidently defensible or self-evidently indefensible. Like so many issues confronting people in public life, there were competing arguments, upsides and downsides to each course of action. And for people serving in the White House and our intelligence agencies, it was not simply an abstract, academic debate. A lot depended on what we did, or what we failed to do.

I understand now, as I did then, the argument of those who on principle opposed EITs; and I’m open to the case that in retrospect we should have pursued a different path. (The early implementation of the program was certainly flawed.) I must say, though, that the refusal of many critics of EITs to place this debate in a broader context–to treat it as simplistic Manichean drama, pitting the Children of Light against the Children of Darkness–is discouraging and counterproductive.

For one thing, they ignore the context of the times. By that I mean that many of them fail to take into account not only the widespread fear and pervasive panic that characterized the months after the 9/11 attacks, but they fail to take into account that (as this op-ed points out) the evidence we had that al-Qaeda was planning a second wave of attacks on the U.S.; that we knew Osama bin Laden had met with Pakistani nuclear scientists and wanted nuclear weapons; that there were reports that nuclear weapons were being smuggled into New York City; and that our intelligence agencies had hard evidence that al-Qaeda was trying to manufacture anthrax. In addition, we had very little information on al-Qaeda. We were scrambling to catch up, including not being sure of what we didn’t know. That needs to be taken into account.

So does the context of history. I know it’s fashionable to say that the EITs constitute a “dark chapter” for America. It’s therefore worth pointing out, perhaps, that our history is replete with actions during the “good war”–including the firebombing of Tokyo (which killed between 80,000-130,000 Japanese civilians) and Dresden (estimates vary from 25,000 to 135,000), dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (estimates are that roughly 150,000 people died), and Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans in World War II–that certainly raise more morally problematic issues than an enhanced interrogation program that involved 119 detainees held in secret prisons, of which three were subjected to waterboarding. That doesn’t by itself justify the EIP; but it does put things in a more reasonable setting.

Many critics of the CIA’s interrogation program also ignore the here-and-now. As other commentators have pointed out, President Obama has overseen an expansion of a Predatory Drone program that targets and kills suspected terrorists without a trial–and in the process hundreds of innocent children in Pakistan and elsewhere have died. They are “collateral damage” of a program proudly championed by a liberal president who has sermonized repeatedly about the immorality of waterboarding three known, high-value terrorists. Are targeted, lethal attacks that kill many more innocent people, including many more innocent children, really that much of a moral improvement from what came before it? And a decade from now, will some of those who now defend drone strikes turn into their fiercest critics, which is what happened to Senator Dianne Feinstein on EITs? (Ms. Feinstein, along with other members of Congress, were briefed by the CIA on our interrogation program. According to three former CIA directors and three former deputy CIA directors, “The briefings were detailed and graphic and drew reactions that ranged from approval to no objection. The briefings held nothing back. The reactions from members of Congress ranged from approval to no objection.” And in 2002, Senator Feinstein said (my emphasis), “I have no question in my mind that had it not been for 9/11 — and I’d do anything if it hadn’t happened — that it would have been business as usual. It took that real attack, I think, to kind of shiver our timbers enough to let us know that the threat is profound, that we have to do some things that historically we have not wanted to do to protect ourselves.”)

It might elevate the public debate a bit if critics of enhanced interrogation techniques wrestled in an intellectually honest and fair-minded way with a set of questions they like to avoid, such as: If you knew using waterboarding against a known terrorist may well elicit information that could stop a massive attack on an American city, would you still insist it never be used? Do you oppose the use of waterboarding if it would save a thousand innocent lives? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? What exactly is the point, if any, at which you believe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques might be justified? I simply don’t accept that those who answer “never” are taking a morally superior stand to those who answer “sometimes, in extremely rare circumstances and in very limited cases.”

“The true rule, in determining to embrace, or reject any thing, is not whether it have any evil in it; but whether it have more of evil, than of good,” our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, said. “There are few things wholly evil, or wholly good. Almost everything, especially of governmental policy, is an inseparable compound of the two; so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.”

That was true in the time of Lincoln, a man who struggled with the moral implications of his own actions as commander in chief. It’s true in our time, too. It would be a service to us all if, in the debate about the CIA’s interrogation programs from a decade ago, there was a little less moral preening and little more serious moral reflection.

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Torture and the Moral Ambiguity of War

The aftermath of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation policies after 9/11 has set off a spasm of self-righteous condemnation of these procedures and the agency by most of the mainstream media. At the same time, the partisan nature of the report, which was rejected by the Republicans on the committee, has turned it into something of a political football. But as shocking as the details about the treatment dished out to captured terrorists may be to many citizens, the most damning piece of the report may be the allegation that the agency lied to the president and other political authorities. But that charge rests almost completely on the allegation that “at no time” did intelligence gleaned from such interrogations prevent a terror attack. This is thoroughly refuted by both the minority report and the statements of former CIA directors, and deputy directors who were shockingly never interviewed by the committee, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

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The aftermath of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation policies after 9/11 has set off a spasm of self-righteous condemnation of these procedures and the agency by most of the mainstream media. At the same time, the partisan nature of the report, which was rejected by the Republicans on the committee, has turned it into something of a political football. But as shocking as the details about the treatment dished out to captured terrorists may be to many citizens, the most damning piece of the report may be the allegation that the agency lied to the president and other political authorities. But that charge rests almost completely on the allegation that “at no time” did intelligence gleaned from such interrogations prevent a terror attack. This is thoroughly refuted by both the minority report and the statements of former CIA directors, and deputy directors who were shockingly never interviewed by the committee, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Former CIA Directors George J. Tenet, Porter J. Goss, and Michael V. Hayden and former CIA Deputy Directors John E. McLaughlin, Albert M. Calland, and Stephen R. Kappes explain in their piece how the controversial interrogations provided information that disrupted terrorist plotting that made it difficult if not impossible for attacks to be planned or executed as well as leading to the capture of important terrorists. They also provided invaluable knowledge about how al-Qaeda worked.

How could the Democrats on the committee and their staff claim that the intelligence gleaned from these sessions was of no use?

First, they adopted a narrow definition of their utility by saying that they did not directly prevent a ticking bomb from going off. That may be true but there is more to a war against a brutal enemy that such an instance. The task the CIA was handed on September 12, 2001 was not merely to prevent a last-minute intervention against the next attack on the American homeland but to wage a campaign that would ensure that we never again came close to such a disaster. Their efforts largely ensured that there was never another 9/11.

Most critics of the report have rightly complained about the lack of context in these condemnations of tough treatment of al-Qaeda prisoners. Intelligence officers could not operate with the knowledge we may have now about the ultimate outcome of the battle with the group but only with what they knew at the time. However, as much as all those who are revolted by the details of the torture report should not judge these agents with hindsight, we also should judge them in terms of ultimate results. The conflict with al-Qaeda wasn’t a police investigation of a local, if horrific, crime but a war in which a crafty enemy determined to kill as many Americans as possible.

What we ought never to forget when discussing how the war on al-Qaeda was fought is that the ultimate judgment that the CIA worried about in 2001, 2002, and 2003 was not second-guessing by congressional partisans or moral preening by the New York Times editorial board. Rather, it was the possibility that they would fail, as they had failed prior to 9/11 and that al-Qaeda would not merely pull off another attack but that the group would be able to further entrench itself in the Middle East as a permanent factor destabilizing the region as well as using it as a base for future atrocities against the West. In short, once you realize that the methods were not ineffective, the talk about lies is exposed as partisan bunk.

We can’t know for certain exactly how much the torture of prisoners aided efforts to prevent that from happening but the assertion that it was of no utility is pure ideology, not derived from the facts. The spirit that permeates the Senate report is the notion that because torture is a wrong thing about which no one should feel happy or comfortable, it must perforce also be ineffective. To understand that it can be, at one and the same time, both immoral as well as effective and, in the context of a war for the survival of the West and democracy, essential, is to embrace a moral complexity that those writing the report or penning impassioned anti-CIA editorials are incapable of comprehending.

Just as important, the intelligence and operational failures of U.S. policy in the Middle East in the past few years gives the lie to bold assertions about it being safe enough now for Americans to think they don’t need human intelligence or to play rough with terrorists. The rise of ISIS, which now has achieved more on the ground in Iraq and Syria than its al-Qaeda rivals ever dreamed of, is impossible to imagine outside of the context of an American retreat from the region that is rooted in part by an unwillingness to go on fighting hard against the Islamist enemy.

Seen not only in the perspective of time but also from the understanding that talk of lies is sophistry, the report is particularly regrettable. Committee Chair Senator Dianne Feinstein’s desire for score settling with a CIA that had repeatedly clashed with her is obvious. So, too, is the political left’s passion to demonize the George W. Bush administration and to retroactively delegitimize the successful war it waged on al-Qaeda. But whatever one may think about torture, it is important to remember that there was no real political divide about what to do about al-Qaeda on 9/12/01. It may be that the general moral revulsion against torture is such that even those who understand, as even President Obama does, that the CIA was reacting to the needs of the moment, will insist that it never again be used. But those who think they can erase the moral ambiguity of war with a phrase or a self-righteous editorial are wrong. While we can pray that we never again find ourselves in such a situation, wise observers understand that if we do, the CIA will not be able to pretend that it can defeat the enemy with strictly moral methods.

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The “Torture Report” and American Values

One of the most common and most understandable reactions to the Senate’s “torture report” is that the practices described by Dianne Feinstein’s investigators are contrary to “American values.” On a certain level the assertion is undeniable: torture (and that’s what the “enhanced interrogation techniques” amount to, even if it is not torture as heinous as that routinely practiced by dictatorships) is definitely not an “American value.” But what about incinerating civilians? Is that an “American value”?

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One of the most common and most understandable reactions to the Senate’s “torture report” is that the practices described by Dianne Feinstein’s investigators are contrary to “American values.” On a certain level the assertion is undeniable: torture (and that’s what the “enhanced interrogation techniques” amount to, even if it is not torture as heinous as that routinely practiced by dictatorships) is definitely not an “American value.” But what about incinerating civilians? Is that an “American value”?

The reality is that the U.S. has often done things in the past that, looked at in another light, could be judged as immoral acts or even war crimes. Exhibit A is the strategic bombing of Germany and Japan in World War II which culminated in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The two atom bombs killed an estimated 190,000 civilians. The non-nuclear bombing of Japan killed at least 330,000 more. That’s more than half a million dead civilians in Japan alone. The toll was not as high in Germany but it was high enough. One bombing raid alone, on Dresden, killed between 25,000 to 40,000 people. The total number of Germans killed in Anglo-American bombing raids has been estimated at over 300,000.

It would be interesting to know what those who now decry the torture of terrorist suspects have to say about the deaths of some 800,000 people, mostly civilians, in these World War II bombing raids. Were Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, the presidents who ordered these bombing campaigns, war criminals? And if not how can one argue, a so many on the left seem to, that George W. Bush is?

This is not purely a historical debate either. Although Barack Obama shut down the “enhanced interrogation” program (or, more accurately, continued the shutdown which had already been ordered by Bush in his second term), he has stepped up drone strikes in countries from Pakistan to Yemen. By one estimate: “the United States has now conducted 500 targeted killings (approximately 98 percent of them with drones), which have killed an estimated 3,674 people, including 473 civilians. Fifty of these were authorized by President George W. Bush, 450 and counting by President Obama.”

Note that there was no judicial review before any of these attacks, nor should there have been. They were purely executive decisions made by President Obama and they resulted, by this estimate, in the deaths of some 473 civilians. Is that OK but the use of coercive interrogation techniques is not? That’s a good question for a college class on the ethics of war. At the very least it’s not an easy question to answer, and it’s one that those who are outraged by the CIA’s interrogation program should grapple with.

I tend to agree that we should not torture, but I am honest enough to admit there are circumstances–for example preventing an imminent, mass casualty attack on the American homeland–when a president may well be right to decide that repugnant measures are necessary to save large numbers of innocent lives. I am also troubled, by the way, by the strategic bombing campaign of World War II, but I am not arrogant enough to second-guess the decision makers at the time who thought that such steps were necessary to defeat the evils of Nazism and fascism. If you think the atomic bombing of Japan was wrong, try reading Paul Fussell’s wonderful essay, “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb,” whose sentiments have been echoed by every World War II vet I have ever spoken to.

It would be nice, but unlikely, if all of those preening about how awful torture is would stop for a minute to wrestle seriously with these complicated moral dilemmas. Try to place yourselves in the shoes of a Truman or a Bush and ask what you would do when you felt that the only way to effectively protect the United States was to use methods that one’s critics could denounce as barbaric. And try to place yourselves in the shoes of a future president who may well have to grapple with such dilemmas while trying to avoid a WMD attack on the American homeland that would make Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined look like a Sunday picnic by comparison.

But of course it’s much easier to simply flay Bush, Cheney, and the CIA as latter-day Nazis. All of this reminds me of nothing so much as the pacifists of World War II who were “advocating,” as George Orwell once put it, “non-resistance behind the guns of the American Fleet”–or in this case behind the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center.

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The CIA, Interrogation, and Feinstein’s Parting Shot

Readers of news coverage of the CIA “torture” report, with details about all the unpleasant techniques employed by interrogators to elicit information from suspected terrorists, might be wondering why an agency of the U.S. government did such heinous things. The answer comes from a veteran Washington politician:

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Readers of news coverage of the CIA “torture” report, with details about all the unpleasant techniques employed by interrogators to elicit information from suspected terrorists, might be wondering why an agency of the U.S. government did such heinous things. The answer comes from a veteran Washington politician:

It is worth remembering the pervasive fear in late 2001 and how immediate the threat felt. Just a week after the September 11 attacks, powdered anthrax was sent to various news organizations and to two U.S. Senators. The American public was shocked by news of new terrorist plots and elevations of the color-coded threat

level of the Homeland Security Advisory System. We expected further attacks against the nation….

I can understand the CIA’s impulse to consider the use of every possible tool to gather intelligence and remove terrorists from the battlefield, and CIA was encouraged by political leaders and the public to do whatever it could to prevent another attack.

The Intelligence Committee as well often pushes intelligence agencies to act quickly in response to threats and world events.

The author of those sentences is none other than Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee (though for not much longer) who ordered the report in question compiled and released. Given the undoubted truth of these comments, offered by way of a preamble, it is hard to know why the senator nevertheless felt compelled to release for public consumption this report that will undoubtedly damage American credibility and standing in the world and could well diminish the effectiveness of the very agencies that we count on to protect us from today’s most pressing dangers.

The Senate Intelligence Committee action, taken over the opposition of the panel’s Republican members, recalls nothing so much as the Church Committee and Pike Committee investigations of 1976 which spilled the CIA’s “crown jewels” to the public. This was when the world learned of CIA involvement in assassination plots, even if the committees never produced any evidence that the CIA ever actually assassinated anyone (in part because of the CIA’s own ham-handedness), and of other covert operations such as the testing of LSD on unwitting subjects. Many of these activities were admittedly ill-advised but there was no evidence that the CIA had acted in contravention of executive orders; it was not a “rogue elephant” but rather an agency carrying out the wishes of successive presidents.

It was, therefore, unfair and harmful to demonize the CIA even while leaving alone the reputation of presidents such as John F. Kennedy who had ordered some of its most aggressive covert actions. The result of all this public condemnation, followed by the disastrous tenure of Jimmy Carter’s Director of Central Intelligence, Stansfield Turner, was an agency in disarray. Many of the best CIA officers left and the nation was left with reduced capacity to detect and prevent catastrophes such as the Iran Hostage Crisis.

We do not yet know the result of today’s revelations but it is likely that they will be equally deleterious to our intelligence capacities–and just as unfair. The Intelligence Committee report, after all, condemns the CIA for interrogative techniques, since discontinued, that were fully approved by the president and briefed–and tacitly approved–by congressional leaders such as Dianne Feinstein herself.

Her report claims that the CIA concealed certain information from the president, a charge heatedly denied by current CIA director John Brennan, an Obama appointee, and all of his predecessors–as well as by George W. Bush and other officials of his administration. Perhaps there were in fact details that were not shared with the White House but it is clear that the president knew in broad brushstrokes what was happening, that it was judged to be legal by the White House and Justice Department, and that it was considered necessary to prevent another 9/11.

There is debate about whether the coercive interrogations produced information that led to counter-terrorist successes; Feinstein’s report denies it but numerous CIA executives, current and former, side with Director Brennan, who writes: “Our review indicates that interrogations of detainees on whom EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques] were used did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives. The intelligence gained from the program was critical to our understanding of al-Qa’ida and continues to inform our counterterrorism efforts to this day.”

As an outsider, I am not in a position to judge where the truth lies. I am also ambivalent about whether the enhanced interrogation techniques should have been used in the past and whether they should be totally prohibited in the future: It’s easy to denounce such brutal measures from the safety of an armchair, but it’s hard not to sympathize with a president who fears an imminent attack on the United States that may kill thousands, even millions, and therefore feels compelled to use every technique available, no matter how repugnant, to protect untold numbers of lives.

Whatever the case, of one thing I am positive: that the release of the Senate report will only aid our enemies who will have more fodder for their propaganda mills. It is hard to see how it will serve the interests of the United States, because even if you believe the interrogations in question were war crimes, the reality remains that they were long discontinued. Feinstein’s report merely rakes up history and for no good purpose beyond predictable congressional grandstanding.

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Selective Memory and the CIA

Talk about politicized intelligence. At least that’s what it would be called if the president in office were a Republican.

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Talk about politicized intelligence. At least that’s what it would be called if the president in office were a Republican.

At the request of the White House, in 2012 or 2013, the CIA did a review of the agency’s long history of supporting insurgencies abroad and found “that it rarely works.” Now, as Seth noted, the result has been leaked to the New York Times. Would it be cynical on my part to imagine that CIA analysts are telling the president what he already thinks–that the U.S. shouldn’t do much to back moderate Syrian rebels?

As a historian, I’m all for studying history. But let’s not cherry-pick historical examples to support a predetermined conclusion. Because based on the Times’s reporting of the CIA study (which needless to say I have not seen) the “dour” conclusions need a lot of qualification.

It’s true that in its early days the CIA failed in supporting would-be rebels in places like Poland, Albania, North Korea, and Tibet. But that’s because they were fighting against totalitarian police states that had great intelligence on U.S. plotting thanks to the information provided by traitors such as Kim Philby. The Bay of Pigs operation was similarly hare-brained and ill-fated.

But there have also been notable successes such as the U.S. support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s–one of the CIA’s biggest coups ever even if there was a lack of follow-up which allowed the Taliban to rise out of the succeeding vacuum of authority. The U.S. had just as much success backing the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban after 9/11 and, earlier, helping the KLA to overthrow Serbian authority in Kosovo, in both cases with American air support. Croatia also succeeded in rolling back a Serbian offensive in the early 1990s with informal American help. Let’s remember too that the U.S.-backed rebels in Libya succeeded in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi with NATO airpower. As in post-Soviet Afghanistan, there was nothing inevitable about the resulting chaos, which occurred because President Obama failed to support the governmental forces attempting to impose order.

The CIA’s support for the contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s was also successful, contrary to the CIA report and despite the halting nature of the program (due to congressional opposition), because even though the contras didn’t seize power at gunpoint, they pressured the Sandinistas into holding elections, which they lost. U.S. support for anti-Communist rebels in Angola and Mozambique was less successful but at least tied down Cuban and other Soviet bloc forces in defending those regimes. During the Vietnam War, too, the CIA had considerable success supporting anti-Communist fighters in Laos who prevented for a decade a takeover by the Communist Pathet Lao at low cost to the U.S.

The U.S. has had even more success in supporting governments fighting communist insurgencies in countries such as Greece, the Philippines, El Salvador, and Colombia.

So the historical record of U.S.-backed insurgencies (to say nothing of counter-insurgencies) is certainly not one of unalloyed failure. But while it’s good to learn from history it’s also important to understand differences between historical examples and present-day dilemmas. And the situation in Syria today is nothing like the situation the U.S. confronted in the Communist bloc in the early Cold War days. The Free Syrian Army is not fighting a powerful totalitarian regime. It is fighting a multi-front struggle against a weak dictator (Bashar Assad) who has already lost control of two-thirds of his country and against Islamist insurgent groups, the Nusra Front and ISIS, which have filled some of the succeeding vacuum but are a long way removed from the Stalinist or Maoist states in their ability to control their terrain. In such circumstances U.S. backing for the Syrian rebels was–and is–the best available option for the U.S. even though the Free Syrian Amy’s odds of success decline the longer we refuse to provide them with serious backing such as American airpower to impose a no-fly zone and take away Assad’s murderous air force (Which even the CIA study seems to concede would raise the odds of success).

Ultimately responsible policymakers cannot retreat into inaction by citing studies of historical examples where support for insurgencies has failed, while seemingly ignoring contrary examples. The relevant question to ask in Syria or any other hard case is: What is the least bad option? Sure it’s possible that serious support for the moderate rebels would have failed–but what’s the alternative? Actually we’re seeing the alternative today: letting ISIS and Assad run wild, slaughtering tens of thousands of people and destabilizing neighboring countries. Obama made a horrible decision by taking a hands-off attitude toward Syria and he can’t take refuge in a slanted view of the historical record to justify his inaction.

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Syria: What Might Have Been

The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has used strategic leaks to the press to buttress arguments in which officials are (theoretically) hamstrung by secrecy laws. Usually the Obama administration has done so in order to look tougher than critics give the president credit for being, but in today’s New York Times they’ve taken the opposite tack: a leak designed to support the president’s instinctive caution on Syria. Unfortunately for Obama, the attempt to spin his Syria policy merely reveals just how little the president understands about military strategy and the Middle East.

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The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has used strategic leaks to the press to buttress arguments in which officials are (theoretically) hamstrung by secrecy laws. Usually the Obama administration has done so in order to look tougher than critics give the president credit for being, but in today’s New York Times they’ve taken the opposite tack: a leak designed to support the president’s instinctive caution on Syria. Unfortunately for Obama, the attempt to spin his Syria policy merely reveals just how little the president understands about military strategy and the Middle East.

The story in the Times recaps a classified report from the CIA to the president analyzing the success rate of arming rebels in past conflicts. The report, according to the story, greatly contributed to Obama’s reluctance to help the Syrian rebels. But there are two problems with this approach. The first, and obvious, one is that Obama has already given the green light to arming the rebels the administration considers sufficiently moderate. If the CIA report was the reason not to arm them sooner, what’s the reason to arm them now?

The answer to that appears to be: Obama wants to fight ISIS more seriously than he wanted to defeat Bashar al-Assad–though that still doesn’t account for the fact that the president believes it’s a policy with very low odds of succeeding. Indeed, the story itself eventually points out that Obama nonetheless chose the least effective method of helping the rebels:

The C.I.A. review, according to several former American officials familiar with its conclusions, found that the agency’s aid to insurgencies had generally failed in instances when no Americans worked on the ground with the foreign forces in the conflict zones, as is the administration’s plan for training Syrian rebels.

So this arguably raises as many questions as it answers. But the other aspect of this is about the dishonesty with which the administration seeks to push back on its critics, especially those who recently left the administration–Leon Panetta most prominently, but also Hillary Clinton, Michele Flournoy, and former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. The Times mentions Clinton, Panetta, and David Petraeus:

The debate over whether Mr. Obama acted too slowly to support the Syrian rebellion has been renewed after both former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta wrote in recent books that they had supported a plan presented in the summer of 2012 by David H. Petraeus, then the C.I.A. director, to arm and train small groups of rebels in Jordan.

But the tone and nature of this argument coming from the administration is just a repeat of a classic Obama tactic: setting up a straw man and then knocking him down. The administration wants to paint Syria intervention as simply a gunrunning operation, with some foreign training. But the idea that it was either CIA gunrunning or nothing is what the president, were he on the receiving end of this argument, would call a false choice. And it goes to the heart of why Obama’s foreign policy has been so unnerving: he doesn’t seem to really understand the issues at play.

Arming and training the Syrian rebels was indeed a key part of interventionists’ early argument. But it wasn’t the whole argument. A more comprehensive intervention that still stopped shy of an American ground war included territorial carve-outs to secure parts of the country in the hands of certain rebels; a no-fly zone (or more than one) to enforce the boundaries of the new carve-outs; large on-site training programs; and humanitarian corridors to those territories from neighboring friendly countries, like Jordan and perhaps Kurdish positions in Iraq and Turkey.

This would also allow intelligence from Israel to be better coordinated and utilized, at least for air support and the tracking of enemy forces, and would improve and streamline recruitment efforts. And it would protect segments of the disappearing borders of these countries, to make it more difficult (though far from impossible) for Islamist terrorist groups to take advantage of porous borders, especially between Iraq and Syria. It would also go some way toward protecting at-risk minorities from groups like ISIS, and it would force ISIS to either defend more territory (instead of almost always being on offense) or leave forces behind in territory through which it marches virtually unopposed to hold that territory, spreading its resources thinner and disrupting its communications and supply lines.

Obama seems to think that the fragmented nature of the Syrian rebels and the weakness of the Syrian state and the Iraqi army vindicate his reluctance to help the Syrian rebels. But the opposite is the case. There were better options available to the president than simply gunrunning in Syria. Had he taken those options, it’s likely the situation would be better today than it is. But that would require the president to first admit that those options even exist.

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Edward Snowden’s Ego Trip

I don’t find myself saying this much these days, but: John Kerry is right. As NSA defector Edward Snowden has become increasingly insufferable (a condition magnified and exacerbated by his decision to speak through the rage-clenched teeth of Glenn Greenwald), the secretary of state and his diplomatic corps have visibly lost patience with the delusions and deceptions of Russia’s newest intel asset.

And who can blame them? The latest set of claims by Snowden, released as an excerpt of his NBC News interview beginning tonight, includes a whopper that the word chutzpah doesn’t begin to cover. Snowden was asked by Brian Williams why he ended up in Moscow. Snowden–a man who violated his terms of employment and stole troves of secret national-security intelligence before fleeing the country–actually blamed Kerry’s State Department:

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I don’t find myself saying this much these days, but: John Kerry is right. As NSA defector Edward Snowden has become increasingly insufferable (a condition magnified and exacerbated by his decision to speak through the rage-clenched teeth of Glenn Greenwald), the secretary of state and his diplomatic corps have visibly lost patience with the delusions and deceptions of Russia’s newest intel asset.

And who can blame them? The latest set of claims by Snowden, released as an excerpt of his NBC News interview beginning tonight, includes a whopper that the word chutzpah doesn’t begin to cover. Snowden was asked by Brian Williams why he ended up in Moscow. Snowden–a man who violated his terms of employment and stole troves of secret national-security intelligence before fleeing the country–actually blamed Kerry’s State Department:

“The reality is I never intended to end up in Russia,” he said in a second excerpt broadcast on NBC’s “Today Show.” “I had a flight booked to Cuba onwards to Latin America, and I was stopped because the United States government decided to revoke my passport and trap me in Moscow Airport. So when people ask why are you in Russia, I say, ‘Please ask the State Department.’ ”

That comment drew a sharp reaction from Secretary of State John Kerry, in an interview on the same program. “For a supposedly smart guy, that’s a pretty dumb answer, frankly,” Mr. Kerry said. He added: “He can come home, but he’s a fugitive from justice, which is why he’s not being permitted to fly around the world. It’s that simple.”

Indeed, Secretary Kerry is on the mark. Snowden’s comment is a dumb thing to say, though it’s less likely that Snowden is stupid enough to believe it and more likely that he just assumes the American media and his cheerleaders back in the States are stupid enough to believe it. Kerry isn’t buying it, but his response to Snowden wasn’t done. Later in that story, Kerry adds:

“The bottom line is this is a man who has betrayed his country, who is sitting in Russia, an authoritarian country, where he has taken refuge,” he said. “He should man up and come back to the United States if he has a complaint about what’s the matter with American surveillance, come back here and stand in our system of justice and make his case. But instead he is just sitting there taking potshots at his country, violating his oath that he took when he took on the job he took.”

Shots fired, as they say. Snowden probably thinks this is some sort of victory, since it shows that he got under Kerry’s skin. But it won’t help Snowden or his followers that Washington is pushing back and engaging in the battle to define and frame Snowden and his antics. It may not lure him back home to face the consequences of his actions, but it’s still worth engaging Snowden’s selective smearing of American institutions for the benefit of states like China and Russia.

And the provocations go in both directions. It appears President Obama got under Snowden’s skin as well, leading Snowden to protest that he’s not just some low-level techie but a masterful weapon created by the elite minds at America’s espionage organizations:

“They’re trying to use one position that I’ve had in a career here or there to distract from the totality of my experience,” he said, “which is that I’ve worked for the Central Intelligence Agency undercover overseas, I’ve worked for the National Security Agency undercover overseas and I’ve worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency as a lecturer at the Joint Counterintelligence Training Academy, where I developed sources and methods for keeping our information and people secure in the most hostile and dangerous environments around the world.” …

“I am a technical specialist,” he said. “I am a technical expert. I don’t work with people. I don’t recruit agents. What I do is I put systems to work for the United States. And I’ve done that at all levels from — from the bottom on the ground all the way to the top. Now, the government might deny these things, they might frame it in certain ways and say, ‘Oh well, you know, he’s — he’s a low level analyst.’ ”

How dare the president deny the “totality of [Snowden’s] experience.” Surely he’s aware of the work Snowden does when he powers down his laptop, jumps into the nearest phone booth, and emerges with cape flowing. Doesn’t the president know he is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? That he’s the hero Gotham deserves? That he is the terror that flaps in the night?

I’m not sure if Snowden thinks it helps his case to declare that he is a defector of far greater significance than he’s been given credit for thus far. And to be honest, this cry for attention and validation is almost endearing. He just wants to be appreciated, to give his perpetual adolescence some meaning. Kerry’s quest to get Snowden to “man up” is probably futile, but good for Kerry for pointing it out–and for referring to Snowden’s new home as an “authoritarian country.” It’s a welcome dose of clear-eyed straight talk from Foggy Bottom.

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Is the U.S. Waging a War of Ideas?

I was struck by two recent, seemingly unrelated news articles that have unexpected relevance to the struggle against violent jihadism.

The first of these concerns revelations from a new book about how in the 1950s the CIA helped disseminate Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago to undermine the appeal of communism.  

The second concerns efforts by Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, to retool his outfit, born of the Cold War, to meet new challenges.

In my view the first article implicitly suggests what the CIA and other agencies of the US government should be doing today to wage the current version of the Cold War–a struggle not against communism (whose appeal does not extend beyond a few Western college campuses) but against Islamism. In the Cold War, the CIA saw its mission as waging ideological war, which meant publishing “subversive” books among other things. Is the CIA doing anything similar today?

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I was struck by two recent, seemingly unrelated news articles that have unexpected relevance to the struggle against violent jihadism.

The first of these concerns revelations from a new book about how in the 1950s the CIA helped disseminate Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago to undermine the appeal of communism.  

The second concerns efforts by Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, to retool his outfit, born of the Cold War, to meet new challenges.

In my view the first article implicitly suggests what the CIA and other agencies of the US government should be doing today to wage the current version of the Cold War–a struggle not against communism (whose appeal does not extend beyond a few Western college campuses) but against Islamism. In the Cold War, the CIA saw its mission as waging ideological war, which meant publishing “subversive” books among other things. Is the CIA doing anything similar today?

It’s hard to know for sure, since such programs are necessarily covert, but I doubt there is anything approaching the scale of the Cold War efforts. If it isn’t doing so already, the CIA and other organs of the U.S. government should be paying to translate great works on liberty, from novels to philosophical tracts, from Western languages into Arabic, Pashto, Farsi and other relevant languages while also spreading the work of liberal Muslim writers. I know I know: Books are so 20th century. So, sure, we should also be propagating such ideas in cyberspace but even today books have resonance that is hard to match for spreading ideas.

As for the second article, it suggests that we are currently wasting some of the scarce funds that could be going to wage political warfare for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. While the article’s focus is on how Rajiv Shah is changing USAID’s focus away from simply funding contractors toward using loan guarantees to enable efforts by private industry–a good idea, no doubt–the lead example is a bit discomfiting: “Here in South Africa, in one of the signature new deals for the agency, Dr. Shah brought in corporate America — General Electric — to guarantee a portion of a bank loan to help buy $30 million in much-needed equipment” for a new children’s hospital.

The hospital is no doubt a laudable undertaking, one that will benefit the children of South Africa. But how exactly does this project benefit the foreign policy of the United States? South Africa is already one of the most prosperous and stable states in Africa; it is not home to terrorist groups or other developments that threaten U.S. security. So why is USAID spending any portion of its $20 billion budget in South Africa instead of concentrating on countries such as Mali, Libya and Yemen–to pick three at random–which are threatened by jihadist groups that are also enemies of the United States?

USAID should be focusing on nation-building in those front-line states as part of a coordinated counterinsurgency strategy worked out with the CIA, the U.S. military, the State Department and other agencies of government; it should leave purely charitable work to private institutions such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for which Shah used to work.

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Feinstein vs. the CIA

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, made headlines yesterday with a speech accusing the CIA of a host of improprieties. As the New York Times account noted, Feinstein, normally a defender of the intelligence community, claimed “the C.I.A. had removed documents from computers used by Senate Intelligence Committee staff members working on a report about the agency’s detention program, searched the computers after the committee completed its report and referred a criminal case to the Justice Department in an attempt to thwart their investigation.”

Nothing offends members of Congress more than an infringement of their own authority, so naturally Feinstein’s charges led to a predictable chorus of anger on Capitol Hill. Yet key members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, including Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Richard Burr, are refusing to back up Feinstein, which suggests the case may not be as clear-cut as Feinstein alleges. Certainly CIA Director John Brennan denies her charges.

On closer examination the controversy becomes murkier and turns on legalities such as who owned the database used by Feinstein’s staff which was located at a facility in northern Virginia. She claims it was Senate property and therefore everything on it was privileged; the CIA seems to be claiming it was owned by the intelligence agency which granted shared access to the Senate gumshoes, thereby making it lawful for the CIA to move documents on the database or to check access logs in order to determine how the Senate got its hands on an internal CIA investigation of interrogation practices which the CIA claims is privileged information.

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, made headlines yesterday with a speech accusing the CIA of a host of improprieties. As the New York Times account noted, Feinstein, normally a defender of the intelligence community, claimed “the C.I.A. had removed documents from computers used by Senate Intelligence Committee staff members working on a report about the agency’s detention program, searched the computers after the committee completed its report and referred a criminal case to the Justice Department in an attempt to thwart their investigation.”

Nothing offends members of Congress more than an infringement of their own authority, so naturally Feinstein’s charges led to a predictable chorus of anger on Capitol Hill. Yet key members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, including Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Richard Burr, are refusing to back up Feinstein, which suggests the case may not be as clear-cut as Feinstein alleges. Certainly CIA Director John Brennan denies her charges.

On closer examination the controversy becomes murkier and turns on legalities such as who owned the database used by Feinstein’s staff which was located at a facility in northern Virginia. She claims it was Senate property and therefore everything on it was privileged; the CIA seems to be claiming it was owned by the intelligence agency which granted shared access to the Senate gumshoes, thereby making it lawful for the CIA to move documents on the database or to check access logs in order to determine how the Senate got its hands on an internal CIA investigation of interrogation practices which the CIA claims is privileged information.

Based on the limited information publicly available, it’s impossible for an outsider to judge the merits of the charges and counter charges. The only thing we can say for sure is that it’s a critical blow to the CIA to lose Feinstein’s support. The rupture in her relationship with John Brennan threatens the agency’s effectiveness, at least as long as she stays chairwoman, which may be less than a year if Republicans pick up the Senate in November.

But let’s not be so caught up in the current charges that we lose sight of the underlying dispute, which concerns the CIA’s use of renditions, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” black sites, and the like in the years after 9/11. Feinstein is simmering in essence because the CIA has tried to slowroll and possibly even obstruct her staff investigation into these interrogation practices. Her staff has produced a 6,300-page report, which is still going through the declassification process and is said to be critical of the CIA.

It is important to get to the truth about interrogations, but it is also important not to scapegoat the CIA for controversial practices that, by all accounts, were approved by the most senior officials of the Bush administration and briefed, at least in some form, to Congress. There is no suggestion that the CIA was a rogue operation. It was simply doing what most Americans–and what its political bosses–wanted done in the wake of 9/11 to prevent another spectacular attack on the United States. What it did obviously worked, although there is controversy about how much of an intelligence payoff the coercive interrogations, which (let’s be frank) included the use of torture, produced.

It is not productive now to embarrass and shame the agency, much less to put individual intelligence operatives in the hot seat, for practices that were fully authorized by their superiors. That will only lead to the demoralization of the agency and a lack of the kind of risk-taking we need to keep us safe in the future. Of course the agency is not justified in obstructing justice to protect itself. But it’s far from clear yet that’s what it did. Sensational headlines about the CIA “spying” on Congress don’t help. We need to examine this controversy calmly and wait for more facts to emerge before making any judgment.

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A Mindboggling NSA/CIA Blunder

Officials at the National Security Agency are lobbing a familiar critique at the Obama administration. Once the extent of the NSA’s sweeping surveillance was revealed and the organization became controversial, the president has declined to fully engage the public-relations battle on the NSA’s behalf. The Obama administration has a tendency to employ controversial security agencies and actions without staunchly defending their legitimacy, which is often interpreted as ambivalence.

As Shane Harris notes, officials in the security establishment see it as more than just a pride issue: “If left unchecked, it could start to erode the trusted relationships that have been at the heart of how the U.S. government handles global threats since 9/11.” But if President Obama feels the need to respond to the NSA’s most recent complaints, he should tell them the following: Help me help you.

A couple of recent news stories highlight just how difficult the NSA has made the job of defending it in the public sphere. The most recent, but also the most damaging to the NSA’s credibility, is today’s New York Times report:

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Officials at the National Security Agency are lobbing a familiar critique at the Obama administration. Once the extent of the NSA’s sweeping surveillance was revealed and the organization became controversial, the president has declined to fully engage the public-relations battle on the NSA’s behalf. The Obama administration has a tendency to employ controversial security agencies and actions without staunchly defending their legitimacy, which is often interpreted as ambivalence.

As Shane Harris notes, officials in the security establishment see it as more than just a pride issue: “If left unchecked, it could start to erode the trusted relationships that have been at the heart of how the U.S. government handles global threats since 9/11.” But if President Obama feels the need to respond to the NSA’s most recent complaints, he should tell them the following: Help me help you.

A couple of recent news stories highlight just how difficult the NSA has made the job of defending it in the public sphere. The most recent, but also the most damaging to the NSA’s credibility, is today’s New York Times report:

Just as Edward J. Snowden was preparing to leave Geneva and a job as a C.I.A. technician in 2009, his supervisor wrote a derogatory report in his personnel file, noting a distinct change in the young man’s behavior and work habits, as well as a troubling suspicion.

The C.I.A. suspected that Mr. Snowden was trying to break into classified computer files to which he was not authorized to have access, and decided to send him home, according to two senior American officials.

But the red flags went unheeded. Mr. Snowden left the C.I.A. to become a contractor for the National Security Agency, and four years later he leaked thousands of classified documents. The supervisor’s cautionary note and the C.I.A.’s suspicions apparently were not forwarded to the N.S.A. or its contractors, and surfaced only after federal investigators began scrutinizing Mr. Snowden’s record once the documents began spilling out, intelligence and law enforcement officials said.

“It slipped through the cracks,” one veteran law enforcement official said of the report.

Ahem. It slipped through the cracks? The CIA sent Snowden home because he was trying to hack into classified intelligence files and he was then hired by the National Security Agency and given clearance. The Times then adds this paraphrased admission from its sources, which deserves some kind of award for understatement: “In hindsight, officials said, the report by the C.I.A. supervisor and the agency’s suspicions might have been the first serious warnings of the disclosures to come, and the biggest missed opportunity to review Mr. Snowden’s top-secret clearance or at least put his future work at the N.S.A. under much greater scrutiny.”

Yes, the CIA employee trying to hack into classified intel files should not have been hired by the NSA and given top-secret clearance. That is, surely, one lesson no one should have needed to learn by trial and error.

Now, it looks like this colossal blunder was a team effort. The CIA should have made sure someone saw this at the NSA, if in fact this report was not forwarded to the agency. But it also calls into question the seriousness with which the NSA handles hiring, contracting, background checks, and the like. If the hiring system at the NSA is not designed to prevent people like Edward Snowden from attaining top-secret clearance, then the system needs some reform.

And this goes to the question of credibility, which is so crucial to what the NSA does. When the ObamaCare website went live this week and it turned out to have been an utter failure of design and security, as well as a waste of money, people asked a reasonable question: can this administration be trusted with the power it so consistently demands?

Because of the nature of the NSA’s mission, Americans are absolutely entitled (in fact, they should be encouraged) to ask that question of the NSA: can this super-secret spy organization be trusted with the information to which it has access? Part of that trust is earned by convincing the public that the NSA won’t misuse or abuse its powers. But an equally important part is being able to state with confidence that the wrong people–people who are inclined to abuse that power–won’t have access. That is, it’s not just about the NSA’s institutional policy. It’s also about its basic competence and personnel oversight.

The NSA’s desire for the president to show his support for the hard-working and mostly anonymous intelligence officials is legitimate–not just as a matter of principle (the president benefits politically from the NSA’s successes) but also as a matter of practicality, since the erosion of popular support for the NSA could mean the erosion of congressional support, which could endanger the NSA’s funding. But complaints such as this from the NSA’s former general counsel strike me as unfair:

“The President is uncomfortable defending this. Maybe he spends too much time reading blogs on the left,” Baker said.

Or maybe he reads the newspapers. The Snowden affair was a major headache for the president, and also something of an embarrassment. But it was not a scandal of the president’s own making. Instead, it seems to have been a result of malicious intent on Snowden’s part and staggering incompetence on the part of the CIA and NSA. If the NSA wants the president to use his pulpit to defend the broad powers of the NSA, they’re going to have to give him more that’s worth defending.

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Veteran Intelligence Pros for Syria’s Assad

Earlier this month, a group of former intelligence analysts and operatives who call themselves the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) issued a statement regarding Syria. It began:

We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed …

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Earlier this month, a group of former intelligence analysts and operatives who call themselves the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) issued a statement regarding Syria. It began:

We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed …

Their statement continues to push the bizarre conspiracy theory that Israel had a part in the chemical attacks. Let’s put aside how poorly this theory reflects on the men and women of the U.S. intelligence community, who count these conspiracy-mongers among their distinguished alumni, and instead focus on the “our former co-workers are telling us” portion. There are two possibilities here: One, intelligence analysts are readily violating their oaths to protect and secure the information with which they work by gossiping with colleagues; or, two, the VIPS are simply lying about their access in order to look more relevant to the media.

Either way, VIPS’s actions are worth considering. A quick Lexis search shows that their most recent letter was picked up by the New York Times, the International Business Times-Germany, the Toronto Star, Iran’s Fars News Agency, and a number of blogs. If the intelligence veterans involved in VIPS are bluffing about their access, then that should be the first issue journalists address when reporting on the letter.

Let’s assume that the journalists did determine that men—many of whom have been out of the intelligence community for years—still gossip openly with colleagues on the inside, colleagues who must now be fairly senior in a bureaucracy that rewards seniority more than ability. Their chatter raises more problems. W. Patrick Lang, one of the signatories, once served as a registered foreign agent for a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician; in effect, he was a lobbyist for the Syrian regime. That members of the intelligence community would leak to such a figure should raise concerns. Lang also once confessed that his intelligence colleagues leaked information to influence the outcome of the 2004 U.S. presidential election. “Of course they were leaking,” the American Prospect reported Pat Lang as saying in the November 2005 issue. “They told me about it at the time. They thought it was funny. They’d say things like, ‘This last thing that came out, surely people will pay attention to that. They won’t re-elect this man.’”

VIPS are pushing policy and in a quite dishonest way. Rather than simply report on the VIPS statements, the New York Times would do better to consider the implications of the group’s actions. So, too, should the internal affairs and security wings of the various intelligence communities whose alumni now are members of VIPS. For VIPS condones and represents not only a problem with leaking among the intelligence community, but also a malicious and politically driven kind of leaking that, as the Fars News Agency demonstrates, already provides comfort and propaganda to the enemy.

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The “News” of the Anti-Mossadeq Coup

“CIA Admits It Was Behind Iran’s Coup.” So reads the headline in Foreign Policy. If this sounds like news, it’s not–not really.

U.S. involvement in the coup that overthrew Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953 has long been a matter of public knowledge, described at great length by some of the MI6 and CIA officers who were involved, such as Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt for the CIA and C.M. “Monty” Woodhouse for MI6. President Obama, back in his 2009 Cairo speech, even appeared to apologize for the U.S. role, which he offensively equated with Iran’s “role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians.” As if the CIA had waged a campaign of terrorism against the people of Iran in the 1950s. In reality even Mossadeq survived the coup, dying at home in 1967 after a long period of house arrest.

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“CIA Admits It Was Behind Iran’s Coup.” So reads the headline in Foreign Policy. If this sounds like news, it’s not–not really.

U.S. involvement in the coup that overthrew Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953 has long been a matter of public knowledge, described at great length by some of the MI6 and CIA officers who were involved, such as Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt for the CIA and C.M. “Monty” Woodhouse for MI6. President Obama, back in his 2009 Cairo speech, even appeared to apologize for the U.S. role, which he offensively equated with Iran’s “role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians.” As if the CIA had waged a campaign of terrorism against the people of Iran in the 1950s. In reality even Mossadeq survived the coup, dying at home in 1967 after a long period of house arrest.

All that the CIA has done now is to declassify an internal study from the 1970s that discusses the agency’s role–news only because CIA censors are so far behind the times in opening up documents that have long ago lost any rationale to remain secret. Indeed to say that the CIA is now “admitting” its role is somewhat inapt; the CIA has all but bragged about its role for decades. The real question that concerns events in Iran in 1953 is not whether American and British intelligence operatives tried to orchestrate a coup–clearly they did–but whether their machinations were actually decisive.

There is much evidence that Mossadeq was overthrown because he had lost the confidence of what would now be called the Iranian “street” including the all-important Shiite clergy which feared (as did the CIA and MI6) that Mossadeq was opening an opportunity for the Tudeh Party, as the Communists were known, to seize power. There is, indeed, a strong argument to be made that his overthrow was not even an unlawful coup because it was the shah’s right, as head of state, to dismiss the head of government.

One can make the case that the CIA for decades has actually been trying to claim more credit than it deserved for Mossadeq’s overthrow as well as the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 and even Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam in 1963. (Why do CIA coups seem to occur in years ending in 3? Should Gen. Sisi in Cairo be worried?) In all those cases, leaders were overthrown by indigenous conspiracies that received the blessing of the CIA. It is unknowable whether the coups would have happened anyway even without CIA blessing, but they might well have. Conversely, it is highly unlikely that the CIA-backed coups would have succeeded absent a large degree of public support or at least acquiescence.

To be sure, the CIA has gotten its share of opprobrium for its involvement–a subject of public controversy ever since the Church Committee hearings of the 1970s. The CIA has been especially and unfairly pilloried by those who mistakenly think that the 1979 Iranian Revolution was a reaction to the events of 1953–as if the shah didn’t have a quarter-century in which to improve his style of governance and thereby win more popular support. In any case the ayatollahs who seized power in 1979 never had much regard for the secular Mossadeq to begin with.

So it might seem bizarre that the CIA would be trying to claim more credit than it might deserve for actions which its critics believe to be reprehensible. But the only thing worse from the CIA’s perspective than being thought to be a vile tool of American imperialism is to be considered to be ineffectual. Whatever the morality of its actions (and its coups all had White House authorization), at least the CIA could come back and tell its political masters that it was a “can-do” agency. A more comprehensive account of the historical forces at play in 1953 Iran and in these other coups could call into question how much the CIA was ever able to accomplish.

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If Benghazi’s No Scandal, Why a Cover-Up?

President Obama has been a broken record lately claiming over and over again that Republicans are promoting “phony scandals,” the chief of which is the effort to keep asking questions about the Benghazi terror attack that left four Americans dead last September. The White House has continued to insist that the notion that there was anything sinister about the administration’s conduct during or after attack is simply a political red herring not based in fact. Though many are still troubled by the failure to provide adequate protection for Americans in Benghazi, the decision not to send help as the attack unfolded as well as by the clearly false “talking points” that led current National Security Advisor Susan Rice to put out a false story about the incident being a case of film criticism run amok, for the most part the mainstream media has agreed with the White House’s conclusions and dropped the issue entirely.

But thanks to CNN’s Jake Tapper, there are new questions being raised about Benghazi that can’t be dismissed by presidential scorn or a catch phrase:

Sources now tell CNN dozens of people working for the CIA were on the ground that night, and that the agency is going to great lengths to make sure whatever it was doing, remains a secret.

CNN has learned the CIA is involved in what one source calls an unprecedented attempt to keep the spy agency’s Benghazi secrets from ever leaking out.

The main focus of this effort is to prevent their personnel from speaking not just to the media, but also to members of Congress. While it must be acknowledged that the spy agency is entrusted with our nation’s secrets, the all-out push described in Tapper’s report seems to speak more to a desire to silence whistle-blowers and to cover up any possible wrongdoing than anything else. If Benghazi is a “phony scandal,” Americans are entitled to ask why the government is behaving so suspiciously.

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President Obama has been a broken record lately claiming over and over again that Republicans are promoting “phony scandals,” the chief of which is the effort to keep asking questions about the Benghazi terror attack that left four Americans dead last September. The White House has continued to insist that the notion that there was anything sinister about the administration’s conduct during or after attack is simply a political red herring not based in fact. Though many are still troubled by the failure to provide adequate protection for Americans in Benghazi, the decision not to send help as the attack unfolded as well as by the clearly false “talking points” that led current National Security Advisor Susan Rice to put out a false story about the incident being a case of film criticism run amok, for the most part the mainstream media has agreed with the White House’s conclusions and dropped the issue entirely.

But thanks to CNN’s Jake Tapper, there are new questions being raised about Benghazi that can’t be dismissed by presidential scorn or a catch phrase:

Sources now tell CNN dozens of people working for the CIA were on the ground that night, and that the agency is going to great lengths to make sure whatever it was doing, remains a secret.

CNN has learned the CIA is involved in what one source calls an unprecedented attempt to keep the spy agency’s Benghazi secrets from ever leaking out.

The main focus of this effort is to prevent their personnel from speaking not just to the media, but also to members of Congress. While it must be acknowledged that the spy agency is entrusted with our nation’s secrets, the all-out push described in Tapper’s report seems to speak more to a desire to silence whistle-blowers and to cover up any possible wrongdoing than anything else. If Benghazi is a “phony scandal,” Americans are entitled to ask why the government is behaving so suspiciously.

As Tapper writes:

Since January, some CIA operatives involved in the agency’s missions in Libya, have been subjected to frequent, even monthly polygraph examinations, according to a source with deep inside knowledge of the agency’s workings.

The goal of the questioning, according to sources, is to find out if anyone is talking to the media or Congress.

It is being described as pure intimidation, with the threat that any unauthorized CIA employee who leaks information could face the end of his or her career.

In exclusive communications obtained by CNN, one insider writes, “You don’t jeopardize yourself, you jeopardize your family as well.”

Another says, “You have no idea the amount of pressure being brought to bear on anyone with knowledge of this operation.”

We don’t need to know every aspect of the CIA’s mission in Benghazi. But given the obvious security failures and the inability of the United States to come to the aid of its besieged employees under fire, it’s worth asking what exactly were all those Americans doing that night and why were they doing it? Moreover, if there were so many witnesses available, why haven’t at least some of them been produced to answer these questions before Congress even in closed sessions? And if there were literally dozens more American personnel with knowledge of what happened there, we must again ask how the administration could have produced talking points about the incident that promoted the false narrative that it was not a terrorist attack.

Just as frustrating is the fact that just a few days earlier CNN interviewed one of the people identified by the FBI as a suspect in the Benghazi attack. That suspect has never been interviewed by the FBI or the Libyan government but was somehow tracked down by a journalist. At present, not a single one of the many terrorists who were responsible for killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans has been brought to justice and, to date, the American people haven’t received a serious answer as to why that should be.

At this point with so many unanswered questions about Benghazi, the administration should be facilitating the investigation of the attack rather than actually impeding it. We don’t know whether the code of omerta being imposed on CIA personnel is merely a function of bureaucratic inertia or a far more sinister attempt to prevent Congress and the public from finding out more about the failures of both the agency and the State Department. No one should make assumptions about wrongdoing, but given the unwillingness of the administration to apply its supposed belief in transparency to this question, it is, at the very least, reasonable to conclude that something is amiss here.

That these reports come as we are learning about the decision to shut down 21 U.S. embassies and consulates in the Middle East and to issue travel warnings to U.S. citizens because of a belief that al-Qaeda is plotting new terrorists attacks only adds more credence to the calls for more answers about the disaster in Benghazi. 

If there is no scandal concerning the events that led to Benghazi and its aftermath, there certainly appears to be something that resembles a cover up going on about it. The White House needs to drop the politicized refrain about “phony scandals” and start treating this issue seriously. It should direct the CIA to start answering questions from the Congress. The sooner it does, the better it will be for the president once we find out—as we inevitably will—what it is that they are trying to keep secret.

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9/10 Mentality: CIA Blasted for NYPD Help

The most recent installment in the New York Times’s effort to dial America’s security back to a September 10, 2001 mentality came today in the form of an article detailing the latest faux scandal the paper has tried to attach to the New York City Police Department. What did the NYPD do now? Apparently, in an unusual bout of federal-local cooperation, the Central Intelligence Agency allowed four of its staffers to help New York’s police deal with terror threats in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But rather than applaud this commendable instance of the national security establishment reaching out to reinforce the front lines of defense against terror, the piece was aimed at piling on the NYPD and showing that it had somehow lost its way during the course of a decade in which it managed to ensure that New York would not suffer a single terror death despite numerous plots launched by Islamists that sought to slaughter residents of the Big Apple just as they did on 9/11.

The source of the story was an internal CIA report that raised questions about the legality of having some employees of the spy agency taking part in domestic police work. But while there are obvious legal issues associated with any potential CIA spying on Americans, that doesn’t appear to have been the case here. Instead, the four who worked with the NYPD appear to have merely helped provide much needed background on foreign threats for a department tasked with coping with a myriad of possible threats from foreign and homegrown terrorists. Like the department’s sensible decision to try and get intelligence about key gathering places for Islamists that the Times has wrongly portrayed as a violation of civil rights, the CIA-NYPD relationship appears to be yet another instance in which local and national authorities are being bashed by the Times and other liberals for doing their jobs.

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The most recent installment in the New York Times’s effort to dial America’s security back to a September 10, 2001 mentality came today in the form of an article detailing the latest faux scandal the paper has tried to attach to the New York City Police Department. What did the NYPD do now? Apparently, in an unusual bout of federal-local cooperation, the Central Intelligence Agency allowed four of its staffers to help New York’s police deal with terror threats in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But rather than applaud this commendable instance of the national security establishment reaching out to reinforce the front lines of defense against terror, the piece was aimed at piling on the NYPD and showing that it had somehow lost its way during the course of a decade in which it managed to ensure that New York would not suffer a single terror death despite numerous plots launched by Islamists that sought to slaughter residents of the Big Apple just as they did on 9/11.

The source of the story was an internal CIA report that raised questions about the legality of having some employees of the spy agency taking part in domestic police work. But while there are obvious legal issues associated with any potential CIA spying on Americans, that doesn’t appear to have been the case here. Instead, the four who worked with the NYPD appear to have merely helped provide much needed background on foreign threats for a department tasked with coping with a myriad of possible threats from foreign and homegrown terrorists. Like the department’s sensible decision to try and get intelligence about key gathering places for Islamists that the Times has wrongly portrayed as a violation of civil rights, the CIA-NYPD relationship appears to be yet another instance in which local and national authorities are being bashed by the Times and other liberals for doing their jobs.

The CIA is prohibited from engaging in domestic surveillance. But nothing here remotely smacks of illegal behavior on the part of the agency or its employees. Of the four CIA personnel who were embedded with the NYPD, one was there on unpaid leave—and was paid by the police—and therefore exempt from any limits as to what he could see or do. Another was, according to the Times’s account, given the thankless and probably futile task of trying to better the always-fractious relationship between the FBI and the NYPD. Two others were analysts who may have seen some “unfiltered files” concerning local suspects but do not appear to have actually engaged in surveillance of any kind.

None of this seems particularly controversial, let alone illegal. But apparently some in the CIA, like the Times, were not comfortable with this much cooperation between anyone connected with the spooks in Langley, Virginia and New York cops. The author of the internal report (which was originally classified but was made available to the Times via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit) was particularly unhappy about a CIA officer trying to broker peace between the NYPD and the FBI, since it had “placed the agency in the middle of a contentious relationship.” But the main “concern” of the CIA report critical of the cooperation with New York was that there were “risks” associated with helping the NYPD that were better not run. In other words, some in the spy agency considered themselves better off not doing all they could to prevent attacks on the homeland if it meant possible involvement in controversies.

In a sense, the Times article vindicates that view, since it lumps in the CIA’s help to New York with the paper’s attacks on the NYPD’s surveillance of mosques known to be Islamist hotbeds and other issues that supposedly demonstrate a police department that is out of control and oppressing local Muslims.

The CIA has long held itself aloof from any involvement in police actions and not only because of legal prohibitions. But what happened after 9/11 was a realization that one of the reasons the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon succeeded was the lack of cooperation between the various security agencies that seemed to view their domestic rivals as a greater threat than they did al-Qaeda. What happened on 9/11 was supposed to end that nonsense and it appears in this case, that is exactly what happened. The embedding of CIA analysts at New York’s One Police Plaza was exactly what was needed, and the sterling record the NYPD achieved on terror during the last decade is a tribute to the sort of thinking that would have been considered “outside the box” prior to 9/11.

But that is exactly what the Times and other liberal critics of the NYPD don’t want. As much as the paper pays lip service to the threat from Islamist terror, it seems to wish to demonize every effort made by the NYPD to save the lives of New Yorkers. If the NYPD, the CIA and other agencies are loathe to expose themselves to this sort of abuse in the future, we can look to the Times and other advocates of a 9/10 mentality to find the reason. We only hope New Yorkers and the rest of the nation don’t pay for this folly in blood.

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Targeting Kiriakou Unacceptable

John Kiriakou, the former CIA agent and convicted leaker, has made mistakes. Last October, he pleaded guilty to violating the Intelligence Identities Protection act of 1982 after he confirmed a CIA officer’s identity to a reporter. What John did was wrong and a crime for which he is now doing the time, even if prosecutors allegedly withheld evidence that the reporter to whom John leaked had received more information of a more sensitive nature from a currently-serving CIA officer but that the CIA had declined to prosecute in that case, reinforcing the notion that John’s prosecution was rooted more in politics than justice. I do roll my eyes at John’s rhetoric about “illegal torture,” as John, I suspect, is simply catering to the mythologies of his leftist supporters, as the right has pretty much abandoned him.

Full disclosure: John and I have been casual friends for almost two decades, dating back to a time when he worked and I interned at the U.S. embassy in Bahrain. We may disagree politically, but neither of us bases friendships on politics. We kept in touch both before and after his arrest. Through mutual friends, I have followed his day-to-day travails in prison and so was aware of some of what was in his letter, but this part shocked me and is, if true, absolutely unacceptable:

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John Kiriakou, the former CIA agent and convicted leaker, has made mistakes. Last October, he pleaded guilty to violating the Intelligence Identities Protection act of 1982 after he confirmed a CIA officer’s identity to a reporter. What John did was wrong and a crime for which he is now doing the time, even if prosecutors allegedly withheld evidence that the reporter to whom John leaked had received more information of a more sensitive nature from a currently-serving CIA officer but that the CIA had declined to prosecute in that case, reinforcing the notion that John’s prosecution was rooted more in politics than justice. I do roll my eyes at John’s rhetoric about “illegal torture,” as John, I suspect, is simply catering to the mythologies of his leftist supporters, as the right has pretty much abandoned him.

Full disclosure: John and I have been casual friends for almost two decades, dating back to a time when he worked and I interned at the U.S. embassy in Bahrain. We may disagree politically, but neither of us bases friendships on politics. We kept in touch both before and after his arrest. Through mutual friends, I have followed his day-to-day travails in prison and so was aware of some of what was in his letter, but this part shocked me and is, if true, absolutely unacceptable:

I was ushered into the office of SIS, the Special Investigative Service. This is the prison version of every police department’s detective bureau… The CO [Corrections Officer] showed me a picture of an Arab. “Do you know this guy,” he asked me. I responded that I had met him a day earlier, but our conversation was limited to “nice to meet you.” Well, the CO said, this was the uncle of the Times Square bomber, and after we had met, he called a number in Pakistan, reported the meeting, and was told to kill me…. The CO said they were looking to ship him out, so I should stay away from him. But the more I thought about it, the more this made no sense. Why would the uncle of the Times Square bomber be in a low-security prison? He should be in a maximum. So I asked my Muslim friends to check him out. It turns out that he’s an Iraqi Kurd from Buffalo, NY. He was the imam of a mosque there, which also happened to be the mosque where the “Lackawana 7″ worshipped… The FBI pressured him to testify against his parishioners. He refused and got five years for obstruction of justice….  In the meantime, SIS told him that I had made a call to Washington after we met, and that I had been instructed to kill him! We both laughed at the ham-handedness by which SIS tried to get us to attack each other.

John has made mistakes, but the fact that he has been on the front lines of the war on terror, both before and after 9/11, is without doubt. It is also true that John had previously assisted the FBI on a counter-espionage investigation in which an Asian country was targeting congressional staffers. While John cooperated with the FBI; then-Senator John Kerry’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff director refused to do so. Whatever one thinks of John and his mistakes, it is reprehensible if true and also racist to seek to trick a former CIA officer and a Muslim to target each other. The war on terror isn’t a parlor game, nor is it the job of any corrections officer to have someone target a man who has spent his career fighting terrorists or, indeed, anyone. Left, right, or center, this is unacceptable. Let us hope there will be an investigation and that the corrections officer in question, if found guilty, finds himself on the other side of the bars.

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CIA Plan Shows Mistake of Iraq Withdrawal

What to make of this Wall Street Journal report that, under a program launched by the Obama administration last year, the CIA has stepped up its assistance to the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service which includes Iraqi Special Operations units that were trained and mentored in the past by U.S. Special Operations forces? Iraqi forces are now working with American clandestine operatives to target al-Qaeda in Iraq and its Syrian offshoot, the al-Nusra Front.

On one level this is an implicit acknowledgement from President Obama that his decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011 was a mistake: Contrary to his overoptimistic claims, Iraq was not, and still is not, ready to take over its entire defense. There has been a corresponding degradation of Iraq’s capacity to fight groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which helps to account for their resurgence in the past year and now their spread to Syria.

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What to make of this Wall Street Journal report that, under a program launched by the Obama administration last year, the CIA has stepped up its assistance to the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service which includes Iraqi Special Operations units that were trained and mentored in the past by U.S. Special Operations forces? Iraqi forces are now working with American clandestine operatives to target al-Qaeda in Iraq and its Syrian offshoot, the al-Nusra Front.

On one level this is an implicit acknowledgement from President Obama that his decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011 was a mistake: Contrary to his overoptimistic claims, Iraq was not, and still is not, ready to take over its entire defense. There has been a corresponding degradation of Iraq’s capacity to fight groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which helps to account for their resurgence in the past year and now their spread to Syria.

Obama claimed that the pullout was necessary because Iraqi political leaders, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, would not countenance an American role with immunity from prosecution. Does that mean that these CIA operatives are now subject to Iraqi criminal prosecution? One doubts it. Rather, one suspects that the Iraqis have granted the CIA a secret immunity deal, although if one exists it goes unmentioned in the Journal article.

But it is hard to imagine the CIA risking its operatives in such a quasi-public role without some legal protection. If in fact the Iraqis have granted such immunity to the CIA, it suggests they probably would have been willing to grant it to a limited contingent of military personnel as well–if only Obama had not made the onerous and unnecessary demand, opposed by his own negotiating team, that any immunity deal be approved by Iraq’s parliament.

Given the inability of the U.S. military to operate in Iraq, the CIA mission sounds like a reasonable stopgap, but almost surely there is a loss of capability in relying on the CIA rather than on seasoned American military organizations which built up long-term connections with their Iraqi counterparts and had more resources and expertise to devote to counterterrorism than an organization that is primarily devoted to the collection of intelligence. The CIA can make ample use of former military personnel–and perhaps some active-duty ones as well–but it simply is not as capable in carrying out this kind of mission as the U.S. Special Operations Command or other Defense Department organizations would be. Nor can the CIA presence, which is necessarily hidden and limited, provide the same kind of political clout to influence Maliki that the presence of uniformed military personnel could provide.

This is, in essence, a second-best solution–better than nothing but not as good as keeping an American military contingent after 2011 as America’s military commanders on the ground had argued for. Does President Obama now regret, one wonders, not trying harder to secure a Status of Forces Agreement?

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Brennan Vulnerable on More Than Drones

The consensus in the last month among political observers is that while Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be secretary of defense faced serious challenges that would ultimately fall short of stopping him, there was never a chance that the president’s choice to run the CIA would be turned down by the Senate. With so much fire concentrated on Hagel, it was assumed that White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan would skate to an easy victory even if tough questions were posed at his confirmation hearing. The day of that hearing has finally arrived, and though it is doubtful that he will be rejected, it looks as though he will face an even rougher time than expected when on the Senate hot seat.

Much of that has to do with the recent revelations about the administration’s guidelines about conducting drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets. Liberal Democrats like Ron Wyden and a libertarian Republican like Rand Paul will rake him over the coals about this controversial, though justified policy. Other Republicans will take him to task for the disaster at Benghazi and try again to probe into the questions of who in the White House knew what and when did they know it about the incident, as well as who changed the talking points which led to administration figures like Susan Rice putting out false information about the murders having resulted from a film protest rather than a terror attack.

Those will be the headlines of today’s hearings, and though they are topics that deserve scrutiny there are other questions that need to be asked about Brennan’s views that may be of even greater importance in determining his fitness to lead the country’s intelligence operations. Brennan’s positions on engagement with Iran, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood need to be given as much attention as that given to the drones and Benghazi.

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The consensus in the last month among political observers is that while Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be secretary of defense faced serious challenges that would ultimately fall short of stopping him, there was never a chance that the president’s choice to run the CIA would be turned down by the Senate. With so much fire concentrated on Hagel, it was assumed that White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan would skate to an easy victory even if tough questions were posed at his confirmation hearing. The day of that hearing has finally arrived, and though it is doubtful that he will be rejected, it looks as though he will face an even rougher time than expected when on the Senate hot seat.

Much of that has to do with the recent revelations about the administration’s guidelines about conducting drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets. Liberal Democrats like Ron Wyden and a libertarian Republican like Rand Paul will rake him over the coals about this controversial, though justified policy. Other Republicans will take him to task for the disaster at Benghazi and try again to probe into the questions of who in the White House knew what and when did they know it about the incident, as well as who changed the talking points which led to administration figures like Susan Rice putting out false information about the murders having resulted from a film protest rather than a terror attack.

Those will be the headlines of today’s hearings, and though they are topics that deserve scrutiny there are other questions that need to be asked about Brennan’s views that may be of even greater importance in determining his fitness to lead the country’s intelligence operations. Brennan’s positions on engagement with Iran, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood need to be given as much attention as that given to the drones and Benghazi.

As terrorism investigator Steve Emerson notes, Brennan wrote an academic paper in 2008 that championed engagement with Iran. The paper was the blueprint in some ways for much of the Obama administration’s foolish attempt to sweet talk the Iranians and was based on the fallacy that moderates within the Islamist regime could overcome the hardliners with enough encouragement. That was a misreading of the situation in Tehran that had already been debunked by events by the time it was written but which was more fully exposed during the years of the Obama presidency, as time after time Iran used the diplomatic process to manipulate the West into giving them more time to achieve their nuclear goal. Going forward the key question is how willing is the administration to go back down that dead end road and let the Iranians prevaricate long enough to get their bomb?

The same question must be posed about Brennan’s position about Hezbollah. Brennan has used the same sort of language about moderates within that terrorist organization that he used to justify the feckless engagement policy with Iran. Indeed, Brennan has even called for Americans to “cease public Iran bashing” and to “tolerate, and even … encourage, greater assimilation of Hezbollah into Lebanon’s political system.” Brennan has spoken as if the group was evolving away from terrorism even though the evidence for this is slight and the group is still operated by people who have killed many Americans and runs under orders from Iran. The recent murderous terror attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria carried out by Hezbollah demonstrates how wrong Brennan has been on this subject.

Brennan also appears to be part of the consensus within the administration that backed the U.S. embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt this year. Brennan has been at the head of an effort to do outreach with American supporters of the Brotherhood. He has also repeatedly sought to confuse the issue about support for jihadist goals by Muslims. His semantic arguments have been aimed at convincing Americans to view Islamist terrorism as somehow being motivated more by economics than religion. That is such a fundamental misunderstanding of America’s enemies as well as the history of the conflict and of the Arab and Muslim worlds that it is hard to see how a person who holds such views can be trusted to run the country’s intelligence operations.

John Brennan’s mindset about his supposed field of expertise—terrorism—appears to be stuck in a political vise that refuses to look clearly at the motivations of Islamists or at their goals. It is this kind of thinking that has led the administration to continually seek to appease Iran and Hezbollah and to empower the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The repercussions of these blunders are currently unfolding in the Middle East as Islamists tighten their grip on Egypt, revive a bloody terror campaign in North Africa and get closer to a nuclear weapon in Iran.

What is needed at the CIA is someone who will question the complacency about Islamism that predominated at the White House while Brennan ran its counter-terrorism shop. We can only guess at what new intelligence fiascos will occur on his watch at Langley. At the very least, the Senate should not let this nomination go forward without a thorough public examination of just how wrongheaded many of Brennan’s views have been. 

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Enhanced Interrogation Record No Longer a Problem for Brennan

Back in 2008, John Brennan was passed over for the CIA director role largely because of his record on enhanced interrogation. After his nomination to the post yesterday, the anti-war movement is trying to make it an issue again. The ACLU has released a statement calling on the Senate to delay his confirmation and investigate his involvement with the Bush administration’s enhanced interrogation techniques:

President Obama this afternoon nominated his counterterrorism advisor John Brennan to become the next director of the CIA. Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, had the following concerns with the president’s choice to fill this critical national security post.  

Despite media reports that Brennan continually raised civil liberties concerns within the White House, noted Murphy, the Senate should not move forward with his nomination until it assesses the legality of his actions in past leadership positions in the CIA during the early years of the George W. Bush administration and in his current role in the ongoing targeted killing program.

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Back in 2008, John Brennan was passed over for the CIA director role largely because of his record on enhanced interrogation. After his nomination to the post yesterday, the anti-war movement is trying to make it an issue again. The ACLU has released a statement calling on the Senate to delay his confirmation and investigate his involvement with the Bush administration’s enhanced interrogation techniques:

President Obama this afternoon nominated his counterterrorism advisor John Brennan to become the next director of the CIA. Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, had the following concerns with the president’s choice to fill this critical national security post.  

Despite media reports that Brennan continually raised civil liberties concerns within the White House, noted Murphy, the Senate should not move forward with his nomination until it assesses the legality of his actions in past leadership positions in the CIA during the early years of the George W. Bush administration and in his current role in the ongoing targeted killing program.

But the Senate doesn’t really seem interested. While John McCain is raising some questions, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein–a vocal opponent of Bush’s EIT policies–indicated she’s not going to put up much of a fight

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he has “many questions and concerns” about Brennan’s role in overseeing the interrogation programs, “as well as his public defense of those programs.” 

“I plan to examine this aspect of Mr. Brennan’s record very closely as I consider his nomination,” said McCain in a statement Monday.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee that will weigh the nomination, said Brennan has the “qualifications and expertise” to be CIA director. 

But Feinstein also said she would bring up the committee’s recent review of the Bush-era interrogation techniques and ask Brennan “how he would respond to the [review’s] findings and conclusions.” 

To be fair, the opposition to Brennan on these grounds seems overblown. While he hasn’t explicitly defended enhanced interrogation techniques, he has acknowledged they worked and saved lives. Some anti-war leftists might claim that makes him a supporter. But it’s also possible to believe there is a moral or legal case against the Bush administration’s methods, and still admit they were effective. The same case could be made about Obama’s rendition policies the anti-war left opposes, and the drone program he accelerated. 

Four years ago, Brennan’s alleged support for enhanced interrogation was enough to torpedo his potential CIA director nomination. Now even Glenn Greenwald concedes he “can’t quite muster the energy or commitment” to actively oppose his nomination. That dramatic shift is why Brennan’s record on EITs won’t be an obstacle for him in the Senate. The Democratic Party’s civil libertarian streak on national security during the Bush administration was nothing more than partisanship masquerading as principles.

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