Press and Media

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A Tale of Celebrity Bon Vivant Civil Servants and Access Journalism

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 12.27.12 PMThere is a distinct problem in this country with excessive inbreeding of politicians, lobbyists and journalists. In a country where so many are now ruled by so few in power, it is becoming, if not already become, the biggest threat to American democracy. I would add in corporations, but, heck, who do you think the politicians, lobbyists and journalists represent at this point?

Now, corporations and their money through their mouthpiece lobbyists have long had a stranglehold on politics, whether through the corps themselves or their wealthy owners. But the one saving mechanism has historically been claimed to be the “Fourth Estate” of the American press who were there on behalf of the people as a check on power. But what if the Fourth Estate becomes, in fact, part of the power? What then?

What if the crucial check on federal and state power is by journalists who are little more than stenographers clamoring for access and/or co-opted social friends and elites with the powers that be? What if the sacrosanct civil servants of this country are nothing but Kardashian like shills out for a free gilded ride before they leave office to cash in with private sector riches befitting their holiness?

Golly, if only there was an example of this incestuous degradation. Oh, wait, get a load of this just put up by Kate Bennett’s KGB File at Politico:

In a generally stay-at-home administration, one member of the Obama Cabinet is proving to be the toast of the town. Jeh Johnson, the oh-so-serious-on-the-outside secretary of Homeland Security, is fast becoming Washington’s No. 1 social butterfly, dining out at posh restaurants like CityCenter’s DBGB, as he did last week with a small group that included Amy Klobuchar, Steny Hoyer, CNN’s Jim Sciutto, the New York Times’ Ashley Parker, author Aaron Cooley, and lobbyist Jack Quinn and his wife Susanna.

For a guy who’s been running a 24/7 war against terror since 2013, Johnson seems to have a lot of time to trip the light fantastic. He can often be seen enjoying regular catch-up sessions with BFF Wolf Blitzer at Café Milano (back table, naturally); and mingling at black-tie soirées, such as the Kennedy Center Spring Gala, the Opera Ball, or a champagne-fueled VIP garden party at Mount Vernon to toast French-American relations, all of which Johnson attended—and stayed at beyond the requisite cocktail-hour schmooze.
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“There’s rarely an invitation he’ll turn down,” says an aide to Johnson, who prefers to remain anonymous, of his boss’s penchant for spending three-to-four evenings a week at social functions — and actually enjoying them.

I am not going to bother to dissect that, it speaks all too clearly for itself. And it is hard to figure which is more pukeworthy, the bon vivant civil servant or the elitism displayed by the supposed watcher last bastion journalists. It is all of the same cloth.

What’s wrong in Washington DC? Here you go. When the pathology on the boneyard of American democracy is run, this vignette will appear.

Maybe this is why Tom Vilsack could find a spare couple of hours out of one of his days to explain in a deposition why he and the Obama Administration knee jerkily demanded Shirley Sherrod’s resignation based upon a crank fraudulent video by a schlock like Andrew Breitbart.

Because “Executive Privilege” now means “Privileged Executives” who can party all night with their elitist journalistic pals and screw the rest of the government, and people it serves, during the day. Just like the Founders envisioned obviously.

On the Nonsense of Norms about Secrets

At a panel on secrecy yesterday, Bob Litt proclaimed that the NYT “disgraced itself” for publishing names, some of which were widely known, of the people who were conducting our equally widely known secret war on drones.

Sadly, Litt did not get asked the question implied by the Washington Post’s Greg Miller (who has, in the past, caught heat for not publishing some of the same names).

So CIA tried to convince not to name CTC chief, but helped do profile of CTC women with names and photos??

Did the NYT “disgrace itself” for publishing a column by Maureen Dowd that covers over some of the more unsavory female CIA officers — notably, Alfreda Bikowsky — who have nevertheless been celebrated by the Agency?

I’d submit that, yes, the latter was a far more disgraceful act, regardless of the credit some of the more sane female CIA officers deserve, because it was propaganda delivered on demand, and delivered for an agency that would squawk Espionage Act had the NYT published the same details in other circumstances.

Keep that in mind as you read this post from Jack Goldsmith, claiming — without offering real evidence — that this reflects a new “erosion of norms” against publishing classified information.

I mean, sure, I agree the NYT decision was notable. But it’s only notable because comes after a long series of equally notable events — events upping the tension underlying the secrecy system — that Goldsmith doesn’t mention.

There’s the norm — broken by some of the same people the NYT names, as well as Jose Rodriguez before them — that when you take on the most senior roles at CIA, you drop your cover. By all appearances, as CIA has engaged in more controversial and troubled programs, it has increasingly protected the architects of those programs by claiming they’re still undercover, when that cover extends only to the public, and not to other countries, even adversarial ones. That is, CIA has broken the old norm to avoid any accountability for its failures and crimes.

Then there’s the broken norm — exhibited most spectacularly in the Torture Report — of classifying previously unclassified details, such as the names of all the lawyers who were involved in the torture program.

There’s the increasing amounts of official leaking — up to and including CIA cooperating with Zero Dark Thirty to celebrate the work of Michael D’Andrea — all while still pretending that D’Andrea was still under cover.

Can we at least agree that if CIA has decided a Hollywood propagandistic version of D’Andrea’s is not classified, then newspapers can treat his actual career as such? Can we at least agree that as soon as CIA has invited Hollywood into Langley to lionize people, the purportedly classified identities of those people — and the actual facts of their career — will no longer be granted deference?

And then, finally, there’s CIA’s (and the Intelligence Community generally) serial lying. When Bob Litt’s boss makes egregious lies to Congress to cover up for the even more egregious lies Keith Alexander offered up when he played dress-up hacker at DefCon, and when Bob Litt continues to insist that James Clapper was not lying when everyone knows he was lying, then Litt’s judgement about who “disgraced” themselves or not loses sway.

All the so-called norms Goldsmith nostalgically presents without examination rest on a kind of legitimacy that must be earned. The Executive has squandered that legitimacy, and with it any trust for its claims about the necessity of the secrets it keeps.

Goldsmith and Litt are asking people to participate with them in a kind of propagandistic dance, sustaining assertions as “true” when they aren’t. That’s the habit of a corrupt regime. They’d do well to reflect on what kind of sickness they’re actually asking people to embrace before they start accusing others of disgraceful behavior.

The Collective Yawn at America’s “Weaponization of Information”

You know you’re in trouble when Dana Rohrabacher is the voice of reason.

That’s what happened in Wednesday’s House Foreign Relations Committee hearing on “Russia’s Weaponization of Information,” which was basically an attempt to claim RT is a tremendous weapon in Putin’s efforts to conquer the world. It included Liz Wahl complaining about the “conspiracy theories” tolerated and encouraged at RT.

While some of the theories peddled are outright absurd, there are a surprising amount of people prone to being manipulated that think it’s hip to believe in any alternative theory, feeling proud of perceiving themselves to be enlightened and even prouder when they amass sizable social media followers that hang on every misguided and outright false theory that is propagated. Russia is aware of this population of paranoid skeptics and plays them like a fiddle.

Those that challenge any narrative against Russia are branded CIA agents, of being puppets for neo-conservatives intent on reigniting a cold war, and face the ire of seemingly countless online trolls or hecklers on the internet that hijack online discussions.

In response, Rohrabacher suggested the US media has its own limits. (after 1:25) “I would hope that we are honest enough with one another to realize that we have major flaws in our dissemination of facts and information in the United States as well.” Rohrabacher went on to criticize those seeking to restart the Cold War, suggesting that Putin is Brezhnev or even Hitler. “There’s a little bit of fanaticism on both sides. … If we’re going to have peace in this world we’ve got to be disciplined in searching for that truth.” He complained that most narratives of Ukraine ignore the violent overthrow of an elected leader.

Wahl pushed back, arguing that in Russia, unlike in the US, “there’s an attempt to manipulate and advocate a war to achieve an authoritarian leader’s objectives, and fabricating facts, twisting truths, making up lies.” Wahl continued, coming close to suggesting that  “Look at Brian Williams, he makes some mistakes and he’s assassinated on Twitter.”

Notably, the hearing was led by climate change denier Ed Royce and included climate change denier Scott Perry, both men adhering to fictions that their donors and craziest supporters want to hear, talking about Communists telling people what they wish to hear.

Then, the next day, the NYT caught up to Moon of Alabama, As’ad AbuKahlil, and the Daily Beast’s  about Richard Engel’s claim to have been kidnapped by Assad loyalists in 2012. And while the NYT (and the HuffPo) don’t criticize Engel, who was in real danger, the NYT does include damning details about NBC’s own awareness that the story Engel was telling was not true.

NBC executives were informed of [Free Syrian Army tied Sunnis] Mr. Ajouj and Mr. Qassab’s possible involvement during and after Mr. Engels’s captivity, according to current and former NBC employees and others who helped search for Mr. Engel, including political activists and security professionals. Still, the network moved quickly to put Mr. Engel on the air with an account blaming Shiite captors and did not present the other possible version of events.

[snip]

NBC’s own assessment during the kidnapping had focused on Mr. Qassab and Mr. Ajouj, according to a half-dozen people involved in the recovery effort. NBC had received GPS data from the team’s emergency beacon that showed it had been held early in the abduction at a chicken farm widely known by local residents and other rebels to be controlled by the Sunni criminal group.

NBC had sent an Arab envoy into Syria to drive past the farm, according to three people involved in the efforts to locate Mr. Engel, and engaged in outreach to local commanders for help in obtaining the team’s release. These three people declined to be identified, citing safety considerations.

Ali Bakran, a rebel commander who assisted in the search, said in an interview that when he confronted Mr. Qassab and Mr. Ajouj with the GPS map, “Azzo and Shukri both acknowledged having the NBC reporters.”

Several rebels and others with detailed knowledge of the episode said that the safe release of NBC’s team was staged after consultation with rebel leaders when it became clear that holding them might imperil the rebel efforts to court Western support.

Perhaps NBC had good reason for reporting a story they had reason to believe was false. Perhaps they agreed to blame Shiites as part of the deal to get Engel back safely. If they do, they would do well to make that clear now.

But then, why would they? Aside from Democracy Now and Glenn Greenwald, this story has not received that much attention.

In both Syria and Ukraine, the US press has largely been as obedient as the press is forced to be in Russia, telling convenient narratives that justify our armed intervention. The notion that US Congressmen who themselves spew propaganda are squealing about Putin’s great power of propaganda is almost pathetic in the face of all that.

CIA’s Girlie PsyOp: Call MoDo

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MoDo in disguise at the Prop 8 trial.

Apparently, after years of fostering a “Sister’s Club” image of CIA women that celebrates their badassery, the CIA has realized the image is unfair to the majority of women who work at the Agency. So, on the occasion of Showtime announcing a Homeland character that fits that mold will move from the CIA next season, CIA invited Maureen Dowd into the Langley conference room to chat with some women.

The C.I.A. sisterhood is fed up with the flock of fictional C.I.A. women in movies and on TV who guzzle alcohol as they bed hop and drone drop, acting crazed and emotional, sleeping with terrorists and seducing assets.

“The problem is that they portray most women in such a one-dimensional way; whatever the character flaw is, that’s all they are,” said Gina Bennett, a slender, thoughtful mother of five who has been an analyst in the Counterterrorism Center over the course of 25 years and who first began sounding the alarm about Osama bin Laden back in 1993.

[snip]

I talked to several current and former women at the C.I.A. at the request of the usually close-lipped agency, which wants to show a stable side missing from portrayals like the one in the new NBC drama “State of Affairs.” In the premiere, Katherine Heigl’s C.I.A. analyst gets wasted on shots, picks up a stranger and upbraids her shrink for being “judge-y” — all before briefing the woman president. The women I spoke with agreed that the “honey pot” image of C.I.A. women using sex to get secrets, as Carrie did in “Homeland,” was Hollywood sensationalism.

Of course, CIA’s bossy badass woman does have an archetype: Alfreda Bikowsky who got innocent people tortured and flew around the world to watch waterboarding. You can tell from some of the quotations in the Torture Report that many of her colleagues disdained her unhinged approach. Nevertheless, CIA kept promoting her, such that she is the still mostly secret embodiment of this image.

But rather than doing anything about that — rather than moving Alfreda on — CIA decided having MoDo interview some more reasonable CIA women (though curiously, not some who are more critical of the Agency’s treatment of women) to make that image go away.

Regardless of the role of women at the Agency — which as I understand it is definitely far more banal than CIA-backed Hollywood images, especially in the way most jobs are — this ploy really makes me worry about CIA’s understanding of propaganda, which they’re supposed to be good at. For years they’ve pitched this image in media — Hollywood — that flatten everyone into caricatures, not just female characters. And now they think they can alter that by talking to one snippy NYT columnist?

How the Sterling Prosecution Threatens Even Unclassified Tips

In a piece for Salon, I describe how the government managed to get Jeffrey Sterling convicted of 7 charges under the Espionage Act for one leak. More importantly, I show how the jury’s conviction of him for 2 of those charges — related to “causing” James Risen to write a 2003 NYT story on Merlin that got quashed — may well amount to convicting him for tipping Risen, without sharing any classified information, to the operation.

Here’s the key part of that discussion:

D.C. information brokers should be worried that Sterling faces 80 years in prison based off this circumstantial evidence. All the more so, given the evidence supporting the charge that Sterling leaked to Risen in time for and caused him to write the article Risen told CIA he had in completed draft on April 24, 2003. After all, the only pieces of evidence that the government submitted from before the time when Risen told CIA he had a completed article were the CNN email, phone calls reflecting Risen and Sterling spoke for four minutes and 11 seconds across seven phone calls, and Sterling’s entirely legal discussion with staffers from the Senate Intelligence Committee.

No matter what you think all the later phone calls between Sterling and Risen indicate, short of evidence of a face-to-face meeting in this earlier period, the evidence seems to suggest Sterling was doing something that people in DC do all the time: point an investigative reporter to where she might find classified scoops, without providing those scoops themselves. That’s especially true given the way the CIA’s own notations about Risen’s story seem to track the reporter fleshing out information, from initial outlines of the operation (that happen to map what Sterling told Senate staffers) to, weeks later, inclusion of that elusive document FBI never managed to find. That is, it appears Risen got a tip, possibly from Jeffrey Sterling, but that he spent weeks using his sources to flesh out that tip.

In both the indictment and discussions about jury instructions, the government interpreted the Espionage Act to cover what might be an unclassified tip through two means. First, they pointed to language in the Espionage Act that criminalizes someone “caus[ing secrets] to be communicated, delivered, or transmitted,” and from that argued Sterling was responsible not just for the leak to Risen but also for the journalist’s attempt to publish a newspaper article and his completion and his publisher’s delivery to Virginia of a book chapter. Then, for most counts, they argued that Sterling did not have to have handed Risen secret information directly, he could do so indirectly.

If the jury found Sterling indirectly got secrets into Risen’s hands and, from that, caused him to write an article and a book chapter on it (irrespective of the additional work Risen did, the work of his editors at the Times and the publishers at Simon and Schuster and the commercial freight company that carried those secrets in a bound book to Virginia), that was enough to send him to prison for most of the rest of his life.

While it’s all well and good that DOJ backed off plans to force James Risen to testify, I think few realize the implications of Sterling being held responsible for an entire NYT story based on four minutes and 11 seconds of phone conversations.

They may well criminalize providing unclassified tips to get reporters to chase down classified stories.

World Leaders on Twitter

When the National Security Council tweeted out on Narenda Modi’s meeting with President Obama, I realized that Modi has 9.7 million twitter followers (which makes sense, given India’s population), which got me interested in whether there was another world leader who had more than Modi.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far (I’m including the Dalai Lama and Pope for comparison purposes).

Barack Obama: 53.7M

Pope Francis (17.6M combined, with lots of obvious overlap): Spanish 7.8M, English 5.4M, Portuguese 1.3M, Italian 2.9M, Arabic 180k, Latin 319K, German 242K

Dalai Lama: 10.2M

Narendra Modi: 9.7M

Recep Tayyip Erdogan: 5.6M

Enrique Pena Nieto: 3.54M

Juan Manuel Santos (Colombia): 3.52M

Cristina Kirchner: 3.5M

Dilma Roussef: 3.2M

Joko Widodo (President of Indonesia): 2.66M

Najib Razak (PM of Malaysia): 2.33M

Nicolas Maduro: 2.23M

Rafael Correa (President of Ecuador): 1.97M

Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud: 1.6M

David Cameron: 900K

Francois Hollande 858K

Paul Kagame (Rwanda): 787K

Uhuru Kenyatta: 715K

Stephen Harper: 650K English, 17.9K French

Bibi Netanyahu: 355K Hebrew, 190K English

Shinzo Abe: 446K

Tony Abbott (Australia): 430K

Hassan Rouhani: 119K Persian293K English

Park Geun-Hye (South Korea): 372K

Jacob Zuma: 348K

John Key (New Zealand): 149K

Luis Guillermo Solis (Costa Rica): 133K

Lee Hsien Loong (Singapore): 128K

Michelle Bachelet (Chile): 59K

Evo Morales: 56K

Goodluck Jonathan (Nigeria): 25K

Abdel Fattah Elsisi: 1.8K (no tweets)

Enda Kenny (Irish Taoiseach): 26K

No twitter account: Angela Merkel

The Privileges Waging a “War” on Terror Thereby Accords AQAP


“Hey, William Shirer? It’s J. Edgar here. I think you’re disgusting for reporting from Nazi Germany.”

Actually, I have no idea what J. Edgar Hoover thought of William Shirer’s reporting from Nazi Germany. I don’t even know whether Hoover ever spoke to Shirer. But I’m trying to imagine what it would feel like for the FBI Director to publicly call out one of the most invaluable journalists — and after that, historians — during World War II and tell him his work was disgusting.

It’s an image conjured up by this Jack Goldsmith response to my earlier post on Jim Comey’s suggestion that the NYT was “disgusting” for giving an AQAP member anonymity to clarify which Parisian terrorists they have ties with and with they do not.

Marcy Wheeler implies that Comey here “bullies” the NYT.   No, he criticized it and “urge[d]” it to “reconsider.”  He made no threat whatsoever, and he had no basis to make one.  That is not bullying.   Wheeler is on stronger ground in pointing out that the USG speaks to the press through anonymous sources all the time, including in its claims about civilian casualties in drone strikes.  I don’t like press reliance on anonymous sources.  But I also don’t think that the U.S. government and its enemy in war, AQAP, are on the same footing, or should be treated the same way in NYT news coverage.  (Imagine if the NYT said: “A source in the child exploitation ring told the New York Times on condition of anonymity that his group was responsible for three of the child kidnappings but had nothing to with the fourth.”)  The NYT appears to think they are on the same footing and should be treated the same when it comes to anonymous sources.  Comey disagrees, and there is nothing wrong with him saying so publicly.  The press is immune from many things, but not from criticism, including by the government.

For what it’s worth, I actually can imagine it might be incredibly important for a newspaper to give criminals anonymity to say something like this, particularly if the newspaper could vet it. It might well save lives by alerting cops they were looking for two child exploitation rings, not one. As with the NYT quote, which alerts authorities that the threat is a lot more nebulous than declaring it AQAP might make it seem.

Yet Goldsmith is involved in a category error by comparing AQAP to a gang. Sure, they are thuggish and gang-like (albeit less powerful than some Mexican cartels).

But the US does not consider them a gang. It considers them, legally, an adversary in war (just ask Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed based on such an assertion). And there is a very long and noble history of journalists reporting from both sides in time of war, through whatever means (though as with Shirer, the journalists ultimately need to judge whether they’re still able to do independent reporting). Indeed, having journalists who could make some claim to neutrality has been fundamentally important to get closer to real understanding. More recently, Peter Bergen’s reporting — including his secure meeting with Osama bin Laden — was crucially important to US understanding after 9/11, when few knew anything about bin Laden.

And the logic behind giving an AQAP source anonymity — and secure communications — is particularly powerful given that the US shows no respect for journalists’ (or human rights workers’ or lawyers’) communications in its spying. Nor does it consider anyone “in” a terrorist group, whether they be propagandists, cooks, or drivers, illegitimate for targeting purposes. Thus, any non-secure communication can easily lead immediately to drone killing. But killing this one guy talking to NYT, however much that might make Jim Comey feel good, is not going to solve the problem of Muslims in the west choosing to declare allegiance to one or another Islamic extremist group before they go on a killing spree. Hell, if some of the claims floating around are correct, killing Awlaki hasn’t even diminished his ability to inspire murder.

In the case of Yemen (or Pakistan, or Somalia, or Syria) in particular, just speaking to a journalist can put someone in grave danger. For example, I’ve long wondered whether problematizing the US government claims about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in Jeremy Scahill’s book made Mullah Zabara, who at least accepted AQAP’s role in his province, a target for assassination. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to him (and Scahill) for revealing Abdulmutallab was staying at Fahd al-Quso’s farm, which presented a critical counter detail to some of the government’s claims accepted credulously in the press.

The US government and the US public is far, far too ignorant about the people we’re fighting. A little better insight into their views would help us all. If journalists have to use secure communications and extend anonymity to get that — and ethically, there may be little else they can do — then they should do that.

We are not winning this conflict, and we won’t win it, so long as we try to criminalize the adversary’s propaganda rather than offer a more compelling ideology than they are to those they’re successfully recruiting. And this urge for someone as powerful as Jim Comey to get snitty when the NYT reports not ideology, but information, from AQAP reveals nothing more than an impotence to wage that ideological battle.

Jim Comey Bullies NYT to Stop Publishing Anonymous Claims about Drone Killings

Best as I can tell, the FBI Director has officially told the NYT to stop republishing anonymous government claims about drone strikes anymore.

“Your decision to grant anonymity to a spokesperson for [an organization] so he could clarify the role of his group in assassinating innocents, including a wounded police officer, and distinguish it from the assassination of other innocents in Paris in the name of another group of terrorists, is both mystifying and disgusting,” Mr. Comey said in a letter to The Times.

He added: “I fear you have lost your way and urge you to reconsider allowing your newspaper to be used by those who have murdered so many and work every day to murder more.”

Oh wait. That’s not what Comey was complaining about.

He’s complaining about this paragraph, which — in an article that also grants “American counterterrorism authorities” anonymity (with no explanation) — helps clarify the relationship between the perpetrators of the Hebdo Charlie attack.

A member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who spoke to The New York Times on the condition of anonymity, said the joint timing of the two operations was a result of the friendship between Mr. Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers, not of common planning between the Qaeda group and the Islamic State.

That is, Comey is complaining that the NYT is using the same methods — anonymous sourcing — to find more knowledgeable sources to explain the attacks that it uses to parrot official governmental sources. Only Comey and his colleagues’ claims about the attack may be laundered through anonymity under his approach. Not better positioned sources.

Which I guess means he’s happy that the NYT anonymously publishes the claims of US government officials clarifying that the civilians they kill in drone strikes are not civilians, or even clarifying whether the CIA or DOD killed a particular person. He just doesn’t want the NYT to anonymously quote other killers’ spokespersons trying to clarify what the killing is about.

Meet the Press: 12 Years of Unchallenged Cheney Claims about Iraq and Al Qaeda

Chuck Todd figured the best way to engage in journalism after the release of the Torture Report was not to invite one of the many interrogators who objected to torture or, having performed it, learned that it damaged them as much as the detainee (Kudos to ABC and CNN for having done so), but instead to invite Dick Cheney on to defend anal rape (which Todd did not call anal rape).

And while Todd had a Tim Russert style gotcha — Dick Cheney predicting 20 years ago that overthrowing Saddam would lead to the disintegration of Iraq and untold chaos — when Dick Cheney explained that 9/11 changed that earlier analysis, Todd offered the most impotent rebuttal, noting that the report undermines that claim, without doing any of several things:

  • Rather than engaging in “report says he says” two side false equivalency, point out that the evidence — the facts — refute that
  • Pointing out the new evidence, offered by Carl Levin this week, that Cheney had knowingly and repeatedly lied on Meet the Press about this topic
  • Reminding Cheney that CIA and DOD set off to find a way to “exploit,” not just “interrogate” detainees, and on the measure of producing false confessions to be used propaganda, the torture was a key part of starting an illegal war that led to the death of 4,000 Americans and untold Iraqis

Todd, of course, did none of those things.

I guess Meet the Press believes they’ll return to the glory of the Tim Russert era if they do the same thing Tim Russert did in his last years, offer Cheney a platform to lie and lie and lie.

For 12 years now, Meet the Press has been willing platform for unchallenged Dick Cheney lies.

In Response to NYT Lawsuit, FBI Reclassifies 26 Words

Last week, a number of people hailed the further declassification of DOJ Inspector General’s Report on FBI’s use of Exigent Letters.

That enthusiasm is misplaced, however. What too few people noticed is the thankless work Charlie Savage did to identify what was newly declassified. He had FOIAed the IG Report, which is what set off the declassification review.

In fact, FBI redacted three things that had previously been visible. On page 55/PDF 68, it redacted the title, “Diagram 2.1: Calling Circle or “Community of Interest.” On page 105/PDF 118 they redacted language indicating they use a certain kind of “language” to order what are probably also communities of interest. Finally, on page 207/PDF 220, FBI newly redacted the title, “Chart 4.3 Records for 10 Telephone Numbers Uploaded to FBI Databases With the Longest Periods of Overcollection.”

So the NYT sued the FBI to declassify language that should be declassified, given everything we’ve learned about related programs subsequent to the Snowden leaks, and FBI responded by trying to pretend we don’t know they were getting (and still get, per DOJ IG’s most recently report) call chains from telecoms.

To be fair, FBI did declassify some new stuff. That includes:

  • Roughly 44 uses of some form of the word “search”
  • Roughly 33 uses of some form of “target”
  • Roughly 24 references to years, either 2004 or 2005
  • The names of 3 of a number of journalists whose records had been improperly collected and details of the collection

About the  most interesting declassification was a citation to a Carrie Johnson story, published well over a year before the IG Report came out, describing the collection on those 3 journalists. The IG Report invoked this language in the story…

Mueller called the top editors at The Washington Post and the New York Times to express regret that agents had not followed proper procedures when they sought telephone records under a process that allowed them to bypass grand jury review in emergency cases.

… as evidence to support a footnote, which (except for the reference to Johnson’s article) had been unclassified, explaining,

In addition to the letter, Director Mueller called the editors of the two newspapers to express regret that the FBI agents had not followed proper procedures when they sought the reporters’ telephone records.

That is, they had classified reference to a published news article as S/NF! (Though I suppose it is possible that the fact they were hiding is that Glenn Fine had to read the WaPo to figure out what happened here, because Mueller wasn’t speaking directly to him.)

Congratulations to Carrie Johnson who I guess now classifies as a state secret!

I asked the Savage (and through him, NYT’s lawyer, David McCraw) how the NYT felt about FBI classifying, rather than declassifying language in response to his suit, and he suggested NYT expects DOJ to pay them for their time. “We have incurred no outside counsel fees and anticipate that the government will be required to pay us for the time spent by in-house counsel.”

Still, I think Savage (and FOIA requesters generally) should get finder’s fees every time the government newly classifies stuff years later … impose some kind of fine for stupid overclassification.

Update: Corrected timing on Johnson story which came out in August 2008, so 17 months before the IG Report.

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