The Errors of Telling of Leon Panetta’s Error

By my count there are 27 paragraphs in the Daily Beast’s breathless attempt to un-ring Leon Panetta’s bell for him–to tell a story in which Panetta’s revelation that the CIA had an assassination program it had not briefed Congress on was all a big misunderstanding. It takes novelist Joseph Finder, who wrote this story, until paragraph 23 to reveal the context of HPSCI’s reaction to Panetta’s briefing on the program that hadn’t previously been briefed.

More seriously, this controversy has given ammunition to congressional efforts to broaden CIA briefings. Instead of allowing the CIA to limit disclosure of the most sensitive, most highly classified stuff to just the “Gang of Eight”—the leaders of those committees and of the House and Senate—they want to require the CIA to brief the full membership of the intelligence committees.

Somehow, Finder neglects to provide his readers that information where it chronologically makes sense–between the time Panetta briefed Congress on June 24 …

On June 23, in the course of a routine briefing by the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, Panetta first learned about the assassination squads. Alarmed, he terminated the program at once and called the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX). He told Reyes he’d discovered something of grave concern, and requested an urgent briefing for the House and Senate intelligence committees as soon as possible. Less than 24 hours later, he was on the Hill, "with his hair on fire," as a Republican member of the House committee put it. “The whole committee was stunned,” said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA).

And when he describes them leaking the letter and turning this into a big stink.

Afterward, seven Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee sent Panetta an indignant letter: “Recently you testified that you have determined that top CIA officials have concealed significant actions from all members of Congress, and misled members for a number of years from 2001 to this week," the Democratic lawmakers wrote. They demanded he “correct” his statement back in May that the CIA does not mislead Congress.

Ten days later, one of them leaked the letter.

That is, Finder totally neglects to mention the full chronology, which looks something like this:

June 24: Panetta’s briefing on this program

June 26: HPSCI passes a funding authorization report expanding the Gang of Eight briefings

July 8: The Administration responds with an insulting appeal to a "fundamental compact" between Congress and the President on intelligence matters

July 8: Reyes announces CIA lied to Congress

In other words, there is a clear correlation here, between the Administration’s refusal to fix a system that contributed to massive domestic and international law-breaking, and between this investigation. HPSCI pretty clearly made this stink in response to Obama’s response to their attempts to fix a broken system.

Big whoop. It’s not like the investigation isn’t long overdue in the first place.

But Finder makes the possibility that Panetta’s briefing–and not Obama’s refusal to allow HPSCI to proactively fix this problem–would elicit the calls to fix the Gang of Eight system.

Which brings me to Finder’s next laughable story-telling tactic. He pretends that the CIA hasn’t violated the National Security Act, repeatedly. And he does so with a snotty–but factually incorrect–shot at Nancy Pelosi’s correct claim (one that Porter Goss agrees with) that CIA didn’t brief her about Abu Zubaydah’s torture until it was too late.

A lot of Democrats had been waiting for this moment: an opportunity to shine daylight on the abuses of intelligence during the Bush-Cheney years. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, an object of controversy, even ridicule, after charging that the CIA had lied to her about waterboarding, now felt vindicated.

If you weren’t already sure that this was more CIA propaganda directed at Congress, that should be a siren-like sign that it is.

But of course, Finder pretends there isn’t already massive evidence the CIA has violated the National Security Act, partly by making almost no mention of the 2001 shoot-down of a missionary plane in Peru.

A staffer on the oversight committee told me that, although Panetta’s disclosure will be the main event, there are two other areas of “concern,” including an incident that occurred in 2001.

This is an event that even Crazy Pete Hoekstra is furious about. But Finder would like to pretend there’s no there there, either.

And as to the main thrust of his story, that there’s no there there in the assassination program? Well, if you hadn’t already decided Finder had zero credibility, consider this. The entire premise of Finder’s tale is that the assassination program was no more than a PowerPoint.

But once Panetta had spoken with Tenet, Goss, and Hayden, he learned that this secret “program” wasn’t much more than a PowerPoint presentation and a task force assigned to think it through.

He says there was no reason to brief Congress.

Nor did [Hayden] brief Congress, according to this associate, because it didn’t approach the legal threshold. It was hardly “significant anticipated action” that obligates a congressional briefing, and it wasn’t clear that it would ever in fact lead to covert action. This was still in the exploratory, intelligence-collection stage.

But then claims that Congress had already been briefed.

Congress had already been briefed, repeatedly, on the White House order to kill terrorists.

Which sort of suggests it was worthy of being briefed.

And Finder admits that–contrary to all his claims about programs going live or not–it did go live in one country.

“Sensitive information” had been collected in a single foreign country, my sources tell me.

For a guy claiming he’s sure he knows what the program is, Finder’s own tale is pretty contradictory.

Now, there is something mighty curious about this article. While Finder boasts of using "a half-dozen sources, including several very senior, recently retired CIA officials, clandestine-service officers, and Cabinet-level officials from the Bush administration," his discussion of Panetta’s conversations with Tenet, Goss, and Hayden all seem to come from their side.

Panetta “as much as admitted” to them (in the words of one CIA insider) that he’d misunderstood. Without explicitly apologizing, he assured the men—whom he’d in effect accused of breaking the law—not to worry: The whole thing would quietly go away.

Which is pretty damn interesting, given that this ends up being a call for Panetta’s firing.

Not only has Panetta become deeply unpopular within the agency, but, as these recent events demonstrate, Panetta—honorable, decent, savvy—probably wasn’t the best choice after all.

(And note seemingly-related attempts on Panetta’s part to deny he’s being fired.)  Now, if these guys really believe that Panetta accused them of breaking the law–three guys that, well, we know to have broken the law–then maybe we shouldn’t really accept their side of the story.

And if all that hasn’t convinced you this story is a piece of shit, tell me who this sounds like.

As one very former, very senior Bush administration official said to me in annoyance, “You know what? Let’s videotape them all. And when some important covert action gets torpedoed by the those guys on the intelligence committees and then we get hit again, let’s put those tapes up on YouTube for everyone to see who disarmed us. See what they think. It cuts both ways.”

Whichever of the two people who hang around man-sized safes this is, his presence in the story surely doesn’t recommend its truthfulness or judgment about legality.

It’s a nice tale this guy Finder has written. But there’s zero reason to believe it–like the rest of his work–is anything but fiction.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

30 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    Jeff Stein over at CQ Politics also tears down Finder’s BS house of fictionalized cards:

    …CIA spokesman George Little said Finder is wrong.

    “This story rests on the mistaken premise that Director Panetta told the Congress the CIA had broken the law,” Little told SpyTalk.

    “He did not. It’s also wrong to suggest that the Director said the Agency had misled the Congress. He did no such thing. He decided that the time had come to brief Congress on a counterterrorism effort that was, in fact, much more than a PowerPoint presentation…

    (My Bold)

    Given that he apparently can’t do non-fiction, Finder shouldn’t give up his day job.

  2. beguiner says:

    I remember in early July, the cable news networks were complaining about Nancy Pelosi’s lies regarding the CIA. In fact, I could swear I saw Karl Rove on one show stating that Nancy Pelosi was hurting morale at the CIA with her accusations.

    Suddenly Karl Rove is concerned with morale at the CIA. He said it all with a straight face.

  3. R.H. Green says:

    I believe it was Addington who was fond of shouting at people who balked at his counterterrorism proposals that they would have blood on their hands if there was another attack and anyone refused to take needed action to prevent it. It’s the kind of argument that’s difficult to refute, especially when it’s being shouted with an air of bombastic self-indulgence. What can you say?

    • Hmmm says:

      (1) Seriously?
      (2) Ottawa, located in a non-US country where extradition would slow down any possible arrest scenario?
      (3) Ottawa, seat of a foreign non-US-type government?
      (4) Oh you poor dear Canukistanians you, you never ever in a million years deserved this.

      • skdadl says:

        (1) Well, y’know …
        (2) That might have been true in the past. We used to have some principles. Lately, we seem to have become kinda flexy about who gets protected and who doesn’t.
        (3) Let me fix that for you: Ottawa, seat of a foreign non-US-type government? the most stubborn defender of the notion of the unitary executive since Cheney was wheeled off the stage in January (and that in a country where the theory has no constitutional basis at all).
        (4) Well, no one did, eh? But it’s very kind of you to say so.

  4. TarheelDem says:

    Sounds like Panetta is getting close to finding something out. Too close for some. Ain’t it interesting when the CIA plays their bureaucratic battles in the press.

    • emptywheel says:

      Panetta’s not getting close–remember that he’s also posting stupid op-eds threatening Congress.

      I think they’re just signaling to him that he’s not protecting the Company enough.

    • prostratedragon says:

      I seem to recall when it appeared some blog-wondering somewhere as to why. Guess we know now: it’s so that too much spin venting in one place won’t make us suspicious.

  5. greenwarrior says:

    impossible to imagine the cia might actually assassinate anyone. /s

    to summarize: finder’s got a troll bridge for sale over at the daily beast.

      • greenwarrior says:

        i don’t think so. i was simply making a joke, not tearing down what you do.

        all your brilliant analysis is the really important part. it probably would have been wise for me to preface my comment with that.

  6. Rayne says:

    This bit:

    On June 23, in the course of a routine briefing by the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, Panetta first learned about the assassination squads. Alarmed, he terminated the program at once and called the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX).

    suggests it’s more than a bunch of harmless PowerPoint slides and a bunch of guys sitting around thinking about the slides. How does one terminate a bunch of slides and a think-fest anyhow without getting some immediate pushback?

    This piece smelled more like a redirection to me. More focus on the CIA and what it did or didn’t do, now with the help of some very senior people saying, “Look over there, there’s nothing over there…”

    And all the while, the JSOC’s evil twin program continues unabated for all we know.

    • cinnamonape says:

      As one very former, very senior Bush administration official said to me in annoyance, “You know what? Let’s videotape them all. And when some important covert action gets torpedoed by the those guys on the intelligence committees and then we get hit again, let’s put those tapes up on YouTube

      Maybe Porter Goss? Funny though that he would suggest that he’s suggesting that hearings held in Top-Secret could be revealed…would the CIA support the same on their side? Top Secret meetings in which former informants turn out to be terrorists, or innocents are tortured or have drones fire missiles on them due to info from charlatans?

      Why even have the Intelligence Committee under sworn oath and with clearances if you are simply going to reveal information about their briefings and deliberations later? This is simply the threat of blackmail from people who want absolute power. BTW would this not be a pretty clear statement of an illegal act by the CIA?My understanding was that the CIA was barred from activities in the US, particularly in the political process. Exposing the classified discussions of Congressional meetings would seem a pretty clear cut violation of the Charter.

      Ironically these guys don’t even have the cajones to attach their name to such comments. Once again they hide behind the “unnamed former WH official ” shield.

      • cinnamonape says:

        As one very former, very senior Bush administration official said to me in annoyance, “You know what? Let’s videotape them all. And when some important covert action gets torpedoed by the those guys on the intelligence committees and then we get hit again,

        And would this not suggest that this “very former, very senior Bush administration official ” was briefed on this project…that it was far more than some bullet point. If it was merely exploratory then why compare it to a “important covert action”? Why would he be suggesting that Congress “shut it down” when it was Panetta..and then not shut down anyhow, since it wasn’t actually nothing more than a thought balloon?

        It sounds more like this official was talking about a real once-active covert operation briefed to the WH.

  7. MadDog says:

    Related to EW’s post here, I’ve been trying to get a hold of that letter GOP senators warn Holder against CIA abuse inquiry, and the only place I’ve been able to find it is at Kit Bond’s Senate website, but everytime I click on his link to the document, it comes up with this garbage: “The document you requested can not be found or is undergoing routine maintenance.”

    Anybody else manage to locate a copy?

    I’d surely like to read the implied threats to AG Holder from between the lines.

  8. MadDog says:

    Oh, and related to EW’s post topic, Mark Mazetti of the NYT has this lil’ juicy bit:

    C.I.A. Sought Blackwater’s Help in Plan to Kill Jihadists

    The Central Intelligence Agency in 2004 hired outside contractors from the private security contractor Blackwater USA as part of a secret program to locate and assassinate top operatives of Al Qaeda, according to current and former government officials.

    Executives from Blackwater, which has generated controversy because of its aggressive tactics in Iraq, helped the spy agency with planning, training and surveillance. The C.I.A. spent several million dollars on the program, which did not capture or kill any terrorist suspects.

    The fact that the C.I.A. used an outside company for the program was a major reason that Leon E. Panetta, the new C.I.A. director, became alarmed and called an emergency meeting to tell Congress that the agency had withheld details of the program for seven years, the officials said…

    • bmaz says:

      Wouldn’t there need to be a barrel full of pixie dust dumped on some EO or EOs and probably a host of other things to legally sanction private citizens and/or corps executing foreign subjects?

      • MadDog says:

        I’m guessing twas all part and parcel of PapaDick’s 4th Branch.

        Shorter PapaDick: “Governing is too important to be left to the government, so let’s outsource it and make some fookin’ money!”

    • Sara says:

      “The fact that the C.I.A. used an outside company for the program was a major reason that Leon E. Panetta, the new C.I.A. director, became alarmed and called an emergency meeting to tell Congress that the agency had withheld details of the program for seven years, the officials said…”

      And the VP of Blackwater’s business division for Intelligence Work — Well Cofer Black, the former head of Counterterrorism at CIA. This is exactly what I am getting at — but it is, remember, 80% of the Program Budget at CIA.

  9. Sara says:

    Let me speculate a bit on this one…

    I am fairly certain from reading pretty deeply into the public source material available, that during Bill Clinton’s administration, CIA did not have an Assassination Capacity. Much of the CIA materials regarding tracking al-Qaeda between about 1995 and 2001 has seen the light of day either in memoirs (of people who profoundly disagree) or in 9/11 commission documents reflects this. In many ways I depend on an understanding of the hoops AG Janet Reno set up for trying to knock off some of bin Laden’s organization after the bombing of the African US Embassies, and the Millennium plots in December, 1999, and Jan, 2000 when Clinton’s National Security team tried to write a Presidential Finding that would allow for assassinating bin Laden, it is pretty clear there were no existing assets to do the job, and they also lacked a clear legal doctrine and structure for authorizing an assassination. I actually read a good deal of the post 9/11 macho stuff on the part of Republicans, and stuff like Ashcroft’s attack on Jamie Gorlik during the 9/11 Commission’s work as indigative of cover to create such a capacity in CIA, or perhaps in DOD. (Never forget all the conflict, post 9/11 between CIA and DOD between Tenet and Cheney’s new CIA under the auspices of Feith and company in the late 2001-2003 period — I don’t think it was all about how to read raw intelligence data.) Republicans during Clinton’s years would have creamed him royally if it looked like he wanted to resolve this structural and doctrinal problem, and officially and legally have a way to knock off a bin Laden, but having done this vis a vis Clinton, they had to reverse poles once Bush was in office, and 9/11 had occurred — and they needed a cover for a 180 degree turn on whether the President had the Authority to order an Assassination. And this turn is precisely what happened.

    OK — we get ourselves to the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001, and the legal authorities get cleaned up, more or less, but that does not resolve the matter of capacity — CIA simply did not have assets that could do targeted and trackless assassinations. All those old stories about “Executive Action” — apparently long gone or just a legend. For this I more or less depend on Gary Berntsen’s book, Jawbreaker, which covers the first weeks and months after 9/11 when CIA tried to pull together from more or less scratch the relevant capacities and assets to attack al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. In fact what Berntsen ended up with was a crew of Army Rangers and other special forces, a few CIA types, all of whom did not know each other, or their mutual skills, had never trained together, and had vastly different ideas about tactics — and above all, most had no previous experience working with Afghans from the Northern Alliance. Given that the tactics involved fairly heavy bombing missions, called in from the ground — the fact that the on site intelligence guys had never previously worked with the Air Force, is somewhat indigative of the rough nature of it all. (Also interesting how many of the intelligence types had been called back from Retirement. Keep in Mind.)

    Now you have to throw into the mix the DC politics of all this. In fact the rough group CIA pulled together in September, 2001, did a very credible job. So Credible in fact that in December, when they have al-Qaeda cornered in Tora Bora, Rumsfeld steps in and gets Bush to pull the CIA off the mission (Sent Brentsen home), and turn it all over to DOD, even though DOD had not responded to requests to block the Afghan/Pak border as the bombs were flying on Tora Bora. Problem really was chain of command — the successful effort was CIA strategy, and Rumsfeld, and his actual field commander, Tommy Franks, were bypassed in that setup. Bendtsen works for Cofer Black, and through him for George Tenet, and Tenet discusses all with Bush (and yes Cheney), Tenet also had to brief the Intelligence Committees, and at the time, the Senate Committee was chaired by a Democrat, Senator Bob Graham of Florida. Graham has a great deal to say about all this in his book, “Intelligence Matters” — He was one of the first persons one can assume was very well briefed, who called the Bush Administration on its failure to persue a winning strategy in Afghanistan, for the interconnected dual reasons of saving assets to be used later in Iraq. Because of the politics in DC that were all about command and control — through CIA which was doing pretty well, and about DOD’s lead position– DOD didn’t know shit about Afghanistan, didn’t care to learn. but sure as hell didn’t like the public example of small units under CIA auspices, being fairly successful with their anti-Taliban/al-Qaeda mission. The Politics of Turf Wars. Not new, but in this instance Rumsfeld and Cheney were on the side of DOD, and clearly didn’t appreciate the successes of the ramshackle built CIA operation which they did NOT command.

    But no matter — neither DOD nor CIA had a targeted assassination capability in late 2001-02. I think we can project from this very easily some sort of effort to build one. And I assume we should also believe that CIA and DOD would have, given the lay of the land at that point, both tried to build the capacity. A Competition if you will. Tenet would have wanted a Presidential Finding to allow him to proceed — and from what we know, he apparently got it, with warnings not to brief Congress — and DOD doesn’t have to brief congress on such details, so they probably went ahead with their plans. Bush was probably not kept sufficently in the loop so as to actually practice Executive Administrative Leadership, and Cheney probably spent hours figuring how to frustrate CIA’s efforts, because he would have wanted Rummy to win the race. What a way to run a Railroad.

    Now I simply put chin in hand and think — What would Tenet try to do? My guess — and this is total guesswork, is that he would have looked to the Mossad, and their very well trained hit teams, the Kidon. This is a capacity to do nothing but very carefully plan — sometimes for months — specific assassinations of those judged by Israel’s political leadership to be very much in need of being rubbed out. They don’t do anything else — they plan targeted assassinations, and then they execute them, anywhere in the world. I think Tenet would have gone with the Kidon model — and since the interests of Israel and the US would be identical in taking down the leadership of al-Qaeda, there could easily have been some hand-off’s or subcontracting involved until CIA could figure out how to do it in the US context, and get around to selecting and training the right kind of assets. One interesting matter — CIA is very limited in what it can brief to Congress when a non-US Intelligence Service is involved, which given the order not to brief Congress, was a very convenient limitation.

    But while in general the interests of Mossad and CIA were very close, and nearly totally parallel — there is a long history of semi-bad blood between the two services. You can guage this just by remembering how hyper CIA gets whenever anyone suggests Jonathan Pollard ought to be traded to them and all — so it would not be a permenant collaborative relationship. Not a good thing to be dependent, particularly when the possibilites of national interests coming to verge. Mossad apparently rather frequently takes down and blackmails Saudi’s — US almost never.

    So now on to another book of rather recent vintage — Tim Shorrock’s “Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing” on which I have commented frequently. Writing in 2008, Shorrock says that about 80% of CIA program money is spent on outsourced programs and missions. In effect, the 80 thousand plus folk at Langley are one giant procurement outfit, a procurement outfit that no longer maintains in-house expertise, and frequently doesn’t own the technology, hardware and software, or the product it generates — that ownership stays with the outsourcing vendors, who in some instances can hand it off to another entity that will pay. And he goes to great lengths to describe how so many of the for profit vendors are not US partnerships or corporations. He calls it the Security Industrial Complex, Channeling a bit of Dwight Eisenhower who warned against it all. One “Virtue” of this “Security Industrial Complex” is that because it is all privatized, it doesn’t have to report shit to Congress. In fact one major matter Obama, and probably Leon Panetta had to confront on taking office might just be that the Republican Security Industrial Complex partners or owners just might have decided not to brief the new administration on this and that. Maybe they did build a top of the line Targeted Assassination Outfit, but they privatized it.

    Now I think Leon Panetta is one very smart and very tough cookie, and I suspect a lot of stuff was shoved under the rug when he arrived at Langley, and he is going to spend months getting his mind around stuff, and trying to refashion the place so that it actually serves Obama’s intelligence needs and requirements. But one thing he clearly needs to do fairly quickly, is bring all the missions and tasks that have been outsourced back in house, or at least under the full control of himself and his President.

    • Boston1775 says:

      They don’t do anything else — they plan targeted assassinations, and then they execute them, anywhere in the world. I think Tenet would have gone with the Kidon model — and since the interests of Israel and the US would be identical in taking down the leadership of al-Qaeda, there could easily have been some hand-off’s or subcontracting involved until CIA could figure out how to do it in the US context, and get around to selecting and training the right kind of assets.

      ———————————–

      In the last half of the twentieth century, with the advent of Project Paperclip in which Nazis were brought to the US and Canada to work in universities, hospitals, NASA and the military on rockets and mind control, the CIA has trained doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, neurologists and pharmacologists to create assassins, spies, sex-slaves and more. The surviving records of MKULTRA and many more programs, funded by the CIA either directly or through cut-out organizations, plus the testimony of those brought into these programs against their will tell us that the United States was up to date on “training the right kind of assets.”

      I suggest that the creation of Blackwater and other military forces not under the direct authorization of the US government is for precisely that reason: someone wanted their own military forces for their own reasons and paid for, of course, by their dupes, the American people.

      • Boston1775 says:

        I highlighted the thing about Israel and US having identical interests because I question everyone’s interests in al-Qaeda, in the very creation of the term al-Qaeda, and all that has been done in that name.

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