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.
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.
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.
President Obama’s choices of John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and John Brennan to lead respectively the State Department, Pentagon, and Central Intelligence Agency confirm that Obama wishes to position his legacy somewhat to the left even of Jimmy Carter. There has been a lot of attention to Chuck Hagel’s record over the last couple of weeks, but John Brennan has benefited from flying under the radar, if only because of the controversy surrounding Hagel.
It’s worth recalling, however, Brennan’s comments in 2010 upon returning from a visit to Lebanon. From a Reuters report at the time:
The Obama administration is looking for ways to build up “moderate elements” within the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrilla movement and to diminish the influence of hard-liners, a top White House official said on Tuesday. John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, met with Lebanese leaders during a recent visit. “Hezbollah is a very interesting organization,” Brennan told a Washington conference, citing its evolution from “purely a terrorist organization” to a militia to an organization that now has members within the parliament and the cabinet. “There is certainly the elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us what they’re doing. And what we need to do is to find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and to try to build up the more moderate elements,” Brennan said.
Scott Shane of the New York Times has written a long and somewhat awkward article about the indictment, plea bargain, and federal prison sentencing of former CIA officer John Kiriakou. Long, because the story is complicated, and Shane must recount about a decade’s worth of national security history and policy to get us from A to Z. Awkward, because Shane is a prominent element in the federal indictment against Kiriakou.
At the heart of this case is information Kiriakou provided to Shane for a story, and to another reporter for a second story. We often see such stories play out through a drama in which reporters protect their sources and risk jail time to do so. But in this case, Shane could not protect Kiriakou, nor was it at all clear that Kiriakou would have needed such protection. Kiriakou became a minor media star in 2007 when he spoke out about the agency’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding. Kiriakou defended the decision to waterboard in 2002 (“I think the second-guessing of 2002 decisions is unfair,” he told Shane) but was against the practice going forward. Shane asked Kiriakou about another CIA officer. Kiriakou said he knew the officer, and that the two had worked together in pursuit of Abu Zubaydah. The officer never agreed to talk to Shane, and had never been undercover. But Kiriakou’s email to Shane turned up in the indictment against him for revealing the identity of an agent.
This past year was a banner year for the CIA on celluloid. Normally the intelligence agency’s operatives are seen in movies as murderous bad guys abusing their power–see for example any of the “Bourne” films or the Denzel Washington flick “Safe House.” This is a theme that dates back to the Church Committee’s revelations of CIA abuses in the 1970s, which prompted paranoid movies like Robert Redford’s “Three Days of the Condor” and Warren Beatty’s “Parallax View.”
But a different–and more truthful–view of the agency’s operations has been presented in 2012′s “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” both of which highlight its triumphs: in the first instance, smuggling six U.S. diplomats out of Tehran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis using a clever ruse of making a science-fiction movie; in the second instance, tracking down Osama bin Laden, making possible the SEAL Team Six raid that ended with his death.
One of the many unanswered questions of the Benghazi attack is why it took so long for CIA backup forces to get from Tripoli to Benghazi. According to a new Senate report, this may have been an intentional delay by the Libyan government. Eli Lake reports:
The biggest recent development—which was overshadowed by the fiscal cliff negotiations—came on New Year’s Eve, when the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee released a report that raised the question of whether Libyan officials assisted the Benghazi terrorists. The report found that a team of CIA contractors dispatched from Tripoli to Benghazi on the night of the attacks waited at least three hours after arriving at the Benghazi airport before departing to the scene because of negotiations with Libyan government officials. According to the report, members of Congress still don’t know the exact reason for the delay. “Was it simply the result of a difficult Libyan bureaucracy and a chaotic environment or was it part of a plot to keep American help from reaching the Americans under siege in Benghazi?” the report asks.
Apparently I am not the only one skeptical of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s plan to double the size of its human spy force. (I argued in this Los Angeles Times op-ed that we already have enough intelligence personnel–we need to focus on improving their quality.) The Senate has put a temporary hold on the DIA initiative pending a Defense Department explanation of how it will fix existing problems with its attempts to gather “human intelligence”–as opposed to the kind of technical intelligence capabilities at which the Pentagon and the entire U.S. government excel.
The Senate language says that the DIA “needs to demonstrate that it can improve the management of clandestine [human intelligence] before undertaking any further expansion.” The same might be said of the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community: They expanded tremendously after 9/11 and in the process they did manage to improve certain capabilities–in particular the kind of targeted intelligence needed to identify and eliminate terrorist kingpins. But there is little sign that our ability to gather broader strategic intelligence has improved and considerable reason for skepticism about the intelligence community’s ability to comprehend, much less affect, fast-moving, complex events such as the Arab Spring. Witness failures from the non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to the claim made by a now-discredited 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that Iran had stopped its nuclear program.
General John Allen is now back in Kabul, directing a major military campaign involving 68,000 U.S. troops and 37,000 allied troops. But he would have to be superhuman to keep his focus entirely on the war effort, for he is still under fire from the home front. According to the New York Times, “some 15 investigators” are “working seven days a week in the Pentagon inspector general’s office,” poring over emails exchanged between Allen and Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, who struck up friendships with many senior military officers.
The question is: Why? Is there some credible evidence that Allen somehow compromised our national security by his interactions with Kelley? Is Kelley suspected of being an al-Qaeda mole? Is Allen suspected of being another Benedict Arnold? Not that I’m aware of. To judge by the numerous leaks that have accompanied this puzzling investigation, an outgrowth of the same investigation that already forced David Petraeus’s resignation as CIA director, the worst that could have occurred is that Allen and Kelley might have exchanged a few emails judged to be flirtatious or even salacious. Is this really a matter that should be occupying the full-time attention of 15 investigators—and diverting the attention of a general in command of a war zone?
David Petraeus reportedly told Congress on Friday that the original CIA talking points linked the Benghazi attack to terrorism, but that part was edited out by unknown officials before distribution. The question is, who edited the talking points, and was it politically motivated?
According to Senator Saxby Chambliss, every agency that could have made these changes also pleaded ignorance at Friday’s closed-door hearing. The one entity that wasn’t at the hearing and could have changed the talking points? The White House:
Leaders from the State Department, FBI, CIA, including former CIA Director David Petraeus, testified on Thursday and Friday. Regarding the allegations that the original CIA talking points had been changed so that terrorist involvement was not included, Sen. Chambliss said, “Everybody there was asked do you know who made these changes; and nobody knew. The only entity that reviewed the talking points that was not there was the White House.”
The most unseemly aspect of the scandal surrounding David Petraeus is the gleeful Schadenfreude being exhibited by so many who are eager to kick a great man when he is temporarily down. One of the most egregious and nauseating examples is this New York Times op-ed by Lucian Truscott IV entitled “A Phony Hero for a Phony War.” It is insulting not only to Petraeus but to all those men and women who have served valiantly and at great risk in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Truscott is a West Point graduate with a famous name–his grandfather, Lucian Truscott Jr., was a notable general in World War II. Truscott IV, to judge by his preening description of himself, has rather less achievements to his name; he did not last long in the army and has made a career as a freelance writer and screenwriter, often sniping at the military establishment. He is apparently so in thrall to his grandfather and his contemporaries that he seems to think that no modern general can possibly measure up. “Iraq wasn’t a real war at all,” he sneers, which will come as news to the thousands of Americans killed there and the tens of thousands injured.
During closed-door hearings with the House and Senate intelligence committees today, David Petraeus reportedly told lawmakers that the CIA “talking points” issued after the attack — which supported the “spontaneous demonstration” narrative — were altered by other agencies prior to distribution. AP reports:
Lawmakers said Petraeus testified that the CIA’s draft talking points written in response to the assault on the diplomat post in Benghazi that killed four Americans referred to it as a terrorist attack. But Petraeus told the lawmakers that reference was removed from the final version, although he wasn’t sure which federal agency took out the reference. …
Petraeus testified that the CIA draft written in response to the raid referred to militant groups Ansar al-Shariah and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) but those names were replaced with the word “extremist” in the final draft, according to a congressional staffer. The staffer said Petraeus testified that he allowed other agencies to alter the talking points as they saw fit without asking for final review, to get them out quickly.
CNN reports that David Petraeus will testify today in a closed-door hearing with the Senate Intelligence Committee that he knew the Benghazi attack was an act of terrorism carried out by Ansar al Sharia “almost immediately.” What’s more, he will reportedly distance himself from Susan Rice’s “spontaneous demonstration” talking points, which were ostensibly given to her by the CIA. Video and partial transcript below (h/t The Weekly Standard’s Dan Halper):
I had meant to write this a couple days ago, but as I was doing so, the motherboard on my 3-month-old laptop died. It’s fixed now, and so I’ve gotten my work back, and I think some of these points remain relevant, even as the story moves on. Jonathan Tobin has argued that Petraeus was right to resign, and I largely agree with his excellent points, but want to add one: I’m not so concerned about how unfair it is that more senior leaders like Bill Clinton not only cheated on their wives, but survived politically with even greater popularity. A military officer like Petraeus should be held to a higher standard than even the commander-in-chief.
Every officer and his or her spouse are a team. At every level of David Petraeus’s career, Holly Petraeus was his often unacknowledged partner not only in terms of personal support, but also in career. Officers’ wives are active not only in the military community, but also in the entertaining and diplomacy, which form an important part of any flag officers’ duties. Had Holly Petraeus not been so capable, her husband may not have achieved such a rapid rise. For an officer to betray his wife reflects not only a personal failing, which is more the business of the Petraeus family and few others, but also the betrayal of a long-standing, professional teammate.
This morning’s Wall Street Journal sheds light on why the FBI’s discovery of David Petraeus’s affair may have been enough to lead to his downfall:
In David Petraeus’s final days at the helm of the Central Intelligence Agency, his relations with chiefs of other U.S. agencies, including his boss, National Intelligence Director James Clapper, took a contentious turn. …
Mr. Petraeus wanted his aides to push back hard and release their own timeline of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi and a nearby CIA safe house, seeking to set the record straight and paint the CIA’s role in a more favorable light. Mr. Clapper and agencies including the Pentagon objected, but Mr. Petraeus told his aides to proceed, said the senior officials.
By all accounts, the driving force behind Mr. Petraeus’s departure last Friday was the revelation about his extramarital affair with his biographer. But new details about Mr. Petraeus’s last days at the CIA show the extent to which the Benghazi attacks created a climate of interagency finger-pointing. That undercut the retired four-star general’s backing within the Obama administration as he struggled with the decision to resign.
President Obama held a press conference this afternoon, and both the questions and the answers about the Benghazi consulate attack and the scandal surrounding David Petraeus were revelatory in their omission of one aspect of the story. Obama offered a tetchy response to a question about UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who was tasked with selling the administration’s line that it was an anti-Islam filmmaker who was responsible for the events that led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others that night. The president’s defense of Rice was another salvo in the ongoing fight over whether she should even be nominated to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. (Obama’s defiant air seemed to suggest he does plan to submit that nomination.)
And the Petraeus affair is sordid and steamy–a combination we simply cannot expect the press corps to ignore. But the events of the last week have made clear that Clinton is off the hook for what may have been the most consequential mistake of anyone in this episode. Yes, the CIA seems to have made mistakes in Benghazi, and yes, Susan Rice misled the American people (on the administration’s orders, we can presume). But the State Department was responsible for handling the diplomatic mission’s request for more security–a request they denied. Yet no one is suggesting Clinton should tender her own resignation.
It is hard to know what to make of FBI agents hauling a computer and crates of documents out of Paula Broadwell’s house as if she were a mafia don or a terrorist kingpin. That the bureau is devoting these kinds of resources to this case suggests that there must not be a lot of crime or terrorism to deal with anymore. What’s going on? My theory: The FBI is on a fishing expedition to justify what looks to be its increasingly untenable decision to treat a few annoying emails, sent by Paula Broadwell to Jill Kelley, as quite literally a federal case.
As the Washington Post notes: “The surprise move by the FBI follows assertions by U.S. officials that the investigation had turned up no evidence of a security breach — a factor that was cited as a reason the Justice Department did not notify the White House before last week that the CIA director had been ensnared in an e-mail inquiry.”
According to ABC News, the FBI is currently investigating Paula Broadwell for possessing classified information in her home and on her computer:
A source familiar with the case also told ABC News that Broadwell admitted to the FBI she took documents from secure government buildings. The government demanded that they all be given back, and when federal agents descended on her North Carolina home on Monday night it was a pre-arranged meeting.
Prosecutors are now determining whether to charge Broadwell with a crime, and this morning the FBI and military are pouring over the material. The 40-year-old author, who wrote the biography on Gen. Petraeus “All In,” is cooperating and the case, which is complicated by the fact that as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Military Reserve she had security clearance to review the documents.
The FBI found classified material on a computer voluntarily handed over by Broadwell earlier in the investigation. Prosecutors will now have to determine how important the classified material is before making a final decision. Authorities could decide to seek disciplinary action against her rather than pursue charges.
I agree with Max about the government’s tendency to overclassify. For all we know, the information Broadwell had could have been completely mundane. There are conflicting stories about whether she had a security clearance, but given her military and intelligence background, it’s seems likely she did. In that case, she would have been allowed access to classified information on her own, regardless of her relationship with Petraeus.
The theory that David Petraeus was pushed out at the CIA because someone didn’t want him testifying at this week’s Senate hearing never made much sense. He was going to have to testify eventually anyway, whether voluntarily or dragged there by a subpoena. And as we saw from his resignation last week, Petraeus seems like someone who prefers taking preemptive action rather than waiting for the hatchet to fall:
Former CIA Director David Petraeus has agreed to testify about the Libya terror attack before the House and Senate intelligence committees, Fox News has learned. …
The logistics of Petraeus’ appearance are still being worked out. But a source close to Petraeus said the former four-star general has contacted the CIA, as well as committees in both the House and Senate, to offer his testimony as the former CIA director.
Fox News has learned he is expected to speak off-site to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Friday about his Libya report.
The House side is still being worked out.
I, for one, am beginning to long for the days when people, including generals and other public officials, were allowed to conduct their indiscretions discreetly.
I just don’t think I can stand to hear another word about David Petraeus’s embarrassing mid-life crisis. Or about a hot mama (Jill Kelley) getting harassing notes from a not-quite-as-hot mama (Paula Broadwell) about a man neither of them had any business being proprietary about.