Over the last few days, I’ve tracked the accusations and counter-accusations between CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee.
A number of people have asked why, as a way to end this issue, the Committee doesn’t just declassify the entire SSCI Report.
But it’s not so simple as that.
It’s not clear there are the votes to release the Report.
Recall that when the Committee approved the Report back in 2012, the vote was largely split on party lines, with the exception of John McCain, who voted as an Ex Officio member (as Ranking Member of Senate Armed Services Committee) to release the Report. McCain is no longer SASC Ranking member: Jim Inhofe is, and I’m betting he’s not going to vote to release the Report.
There are few other changes in the Committee proper since the report was originally finalized. Martin Heinrich and Angus King have replaced Bill Nelson and Kent Conrad, and Susan Collins and Tom Coburn have replaced Olympia Snowe and Roy Blunt.
And while Heinrich has quickly become one of the better overseers on the Committee, including on torture, it’s not actually clear whether King would vote to release the report. Collins, too, has been reported to be undecided (and her vote would be critical to making this a “bipartisan vote,” now that McCain doesn’t have a vote). There are even hints that Mark Warner wouldn’t vote to support its declassification (though he supported its finalization).
And importantly, King and Collins have been reported to be undecided after the time when, in January, the Committee at least began to suspect they’d been surveilled.
There are, obviously, two different issues (though Saxby Chambliss, at least, sides with CIA on both counts). But there’s been little outcry from the swing votes on releasing the underlying report itself.
Update: h/t to JK for the link to the Collins/King report I was not finding.
In yesterday’s Threat Hearing, James Clapper and John Brennan provided so much news early, I suspect many didn’t stick around to hear the question Angus King posed to Jim Comey. He asked about the significance of the phone dragnet.
SEN. KING: Director Comey, do you have views on the significance of 215? You understand this is not easy for this committee. The public is very skeptical and in order for us to continue to maintain it, we have to be convinced that it is in fact effective and not just something that the intelligence community thinks is something nice to have in their toolkit.
DIR. COMEY: Yeah, I totally understand people’s concerns and questions about them. They’re reasonable questions. I believe it’s a useful tool. For the FBI, its primary value is agility. That is, it allows us to do in minutes what would otherwise take us in hours. And I’ll explain what I mean by that. If a terrorist is identified in the United States or something blows up in the United States, we want to understand, OK, is there a network that we’re facing here?
And we take any telephone numbers connected to that terrorist, to that attack. And what I would do in the absence of 215 is use the legal process that we use every day, either grand jury subpoenas or national security letters, and by subpoenaing each of the telephone companies I would assemble a picture of whether there’s a network connected to that terrorist. That would take hours.
What this tool allows us to do is do that in minutes. Now, in most circumstances, the difference between hours and minutes isn’t going to be material except when it matters most. And so it’s a useful tool to me because of the agility it offers. [my emphasis]
Comey prefaced his entire answer by making it clear he was only addressing the way the FBI uses the dragnet. That suggests he was bracketing off his answer from possible other uses, notably by NSA.
If the FBI Director brackets off such an answer after 7 months of NSA pointing to FBI’s efforts to thwart plots, to suggest his Agency’s use may not be the most important use of the dragnet, can we stop talking about plots thwarted and get an explanation what role the dragnet really plays?
That said, it’s worth comparing Comey’s answer to what the PCLOB said about FBI’s use of the dragnet. Because in the 5 cases the government cited claiming the dragnet found particular leads (the exception is Basaaly Moalin, which PCLOB said might have been found via active investigations FBI already had going), FBI found the same leads via other means (and the implication for some of these is that FBI found those other leads first).
Operation WiFi: Those numbers simply mirrored information about telephone connections that the FBI developed independently using other authorities.
David Headley: Those numbers, however, only corroborated data about telephone calls that the FBI obtained independently through other authorities.
3 other cases: But in all three cases, that information simply mirrored or corroborated intelligence that the FBI obtained independently through other means.
That is, usually the dragnet isn’t even a matter of agility. It’s a matter of redundancy.
It seems Jim Comey, sharing the dais with several colleagues who’ve already torched their credibility, had no interest in pretending the dragnet is primarily about the investigations of his Agency.
Perhaps the rest of the us can dispense with that myth too now?
The Obama Administration is getting more and more like that crazy old man in the park talking to an imaginary friend. Only it works in reverse. It sends out real people to engage in hours of conversations with other real people about a real topic and then pretends both were pretend.
It sends John Brennan to the Senate for 3.5 hours where he has conversations about drones over and over with people, never once claiming not to understand what they mean when they discuss drones and/or targeted killing.
He responds to Ron Wyden’s questions about how to be more transparent on drones.
WYDEN: So it was encouraging last night when the president called and indicated that, effective immediately, he would release the documents necessary for Senators to understand the full legal analysis of the president’s authority to conduct the targeted killing of an American.
Let me now move to the public side of oversight, making sure that the public’s right to know is respected. One part of oversight is Congressional oversight and our doing our work. The other is making sure that the American people are brought into these debates, just like James Madison said, this is what you need to preserve a republic.
And I want to start with the drone issue. In a speech last year, the president instructed you to be more open with the public about the use of drones to conduct targeted killings of Al Qaeda members.
So my question is, what should be done next to ensure that public conversation about drones, so that the American people are brought into this debate and have a full understanding of what rules the government’s going to observe when it conducts targeted killings?
BRENNAN: Well, I think this hearing is one of the things that can be done because I think this type of discourse between the executive and the legislative branch is critically important.
I believe that there need to be continued speeches that are going to be given by the executive branch to explain our counterterrorism programs. I think there is a misimpression on the part of some of American people who believe that we take strikes to punish terrorists for past transgressions. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We only take such actions as a last resort to save lives when there’s no other alternative to taking an action that’s going to mitigate that threat.
WYDEN: One other point with respect to (inaudible) public oversight. If the executive branch makes a mistake and kills the wrong person or a group of the wrong people, how should the government acknowledge that?
I’m going to have a series of posts on the proposed FISA Drone (and/or Targeted Killing) Court, starting with a description of why I think there’s movement to do this now.
There are, as I see it, three different motivations among those now backing a FISA Drone (and/or Targeted Killing) Court.
First, there’s Dianne Feinstein. Now that the white paper has been released — and the actual OLC memos to the other members of her committee — it has been made clear that the program she has been assuring Americans, based on her Gang of Four review, is lawful is not the slam dunk she made it out to be. And while Mike Rogers’ constituents may not object to his continued reassurances that it is okay for the President to kill an American based on his sole authority (though they may; we shall see), DiFi’s are likely to. (Saxby Chambliss, of course, is not running for re-election; Dutch Ruppersberger has been rather quiet in the last few days). So to the degree that DiFi takes a lead on this issue, it is an effort to put a palatable spin on something she has been spinning as legal for years.
If a FISA Drone (and/or Targeted Killing) Court is necessary and justified, it should have been in 2009, when she took over the Chair at Senate Intelligence Committee (or at the very least, by January 2010, when it became clear the Obama Administration was targeted Anwar al-Awlaki). But somehow, DiFi is only backing the idea now that her poor judgment in letting the killings continue without oversight is being exposed. To some degree, I’d put Patrick Leahy (who doesn’t want to be tough with Obama) and Chuck Grassley in this position, as well.
Then there’s John Brennan, who in response to Angus King’s suggestion of a FISA Drone (and/or Targeted Killing) Court said,
And that’s why I do think it’s worthy of discussion. And the point particularly about due process really needs to be taken into account because there’s not a different standard as far as if a U.S. citizen joins Al Qaida, you know, in terms of the intelligence base or whatever. But American citizens by definition are due much greater due process than anybody else by dint of their citizenship.
I think this is a very worthwhile discussion. I look forward to talking to the committee and others about it. What’s that appropriate balance between executive, legislative and judicial branch responsibilities in this area?
I think Brennan’s motivation is far better summed up in the response he gave Jello Jay Rockefeller, who basically used his second round question to deliver a very sloppy blow job to Brennan. In response, Brennan got firey.
I want every member of this committee to be an ardent advocate, proponent, and defender of the men and women of the Central Intelligence Agency.
And I see it as my obligation to represent them to you on their behalf, so that when times get tough and when people are going to be criticizing and complaining about the CIA, I have all of you to say you knew about what the CIA was doing, you supported it, and you will defend it.
My impression is that, contrary to the moral rectitude myth, Brennan is a pretty amoral guy. It’s not right and wrong that motivates him; it’s allegiance, and as CIA Director (and, probably, even now) his allegiance is going to be to the institution.
And as he said in no uncertain terms to Jello Jay, he believes it is the role of the Intelligence Committee to support and defend the illegal actions the CIA does.
Brennan likely also knows that the easiest way to give the Committee cover for ardently defending what is, at its core, indefensible, and the only way to do so without affecting the flexibility accorded to the Executive Branch, is to let them pawn off the moral questions to a court operating in secret. Continue reading →
Those defending the language on imminence in the white paper released last week are right on one count: it is not new language. Below the fold, I’ve excerpted the language on imminence from three different formulations on imminence –Brennan’s speech at Harvard, the white paper, and Holder’s Northwestern speech — to show the consistency (and also, with John Brennan’s September 16, 2011 speech, exactly two weeks to Anwar al-Awlaki notice that this was now US policy).
All three point to al Qaeda’s non-combatant structure to describe the need for a more flexible concept of imminence. Both the white paper and Holder’s speech discuss a “window of opportunity,” which I find to be one of the more provocative aspects of this definition. And while Holder’s speech appears to have been edited to make it pretty, it is almost precisely the ideas presented in the white paper on imminence. There is clear continuity between Brennan’s 2011 speech, the white paper, and Holder’s speech.
Which is why I’m interested in the language Brennan used last week when responding to Angus King’s proposal for a FISA court for drone (and what should be targeted killing generally).
It’s telling not because it introduces wholesale new ideas. But because it makes clear what is implicit — but unstated — in the three other formulations.
A person who poses an imminent threat does not have to have committed any crime in the past. Imminence is exclusively about the future possibility of violence, not necessarily past involvement in it.
BRENNAN: Senator, I think it’s certainly worth of discussion. Our tradition — our judicial tradition is that a court of law is used to determine one’s guilt or innocence for past actions, which is very different from the decisions that are made on the battlefield, as well as actions that are taken against terrorists. Because none of those actions are to determine past guilt for those actions that they took. The decisions that are made are to take action so that we prevent a future action, so we protect American lives. That is an inherently executive branch function to determine, and the commander in chief and the chief executive has the responsibility to protect the welfare, well being of American citizens. So the concept I understand and we have wrestled with this in terms of whether there can be a FISA-like court, whatever — a FISA- like court is to determine exactly whether or not there should be a warrant for, you know, certain types of activities. You know… KING: It’s analogous to going to a court for a warrant — probable cause…
BRENNAN: Right, exactly. But the actions that we take on the counterterrorism front, again, are to take actions against individuals where we believe that the intelligence base is so strong and the nature of the threat is so grave and serious, as well as imminent, that we have no recourse except to take this action that may involve a lethal strike.
The white paper actually has the most language about past deeds, but with the language about membership plus past involvement in activities that pose an imminent threat that I keep pointing to, it doesn’t actually require past deeds either. It does, however, at least imply that an American must be involved in past crimes to be deemed an imminent threat.
John Brennan’s language last week does not.
And that’s precisely the explanation he gave for why the courts aren’t the appropriate place to measure imminent threat: because they only get involved when people have already committed crimes. This new definition of imminence envisions declaring people to be imminent threats even before they’ve committed a crime.
One note about this. Brennan ties all this to the President’s responsibility “to protect the welfare, well being of American citizens.” The biggest threat to the well being of the American citizens is not terrorists at this point, not by a long shot. It’s the big banksters who serially collapse our economy and require bailouts (and, it should be said, are often funding terrorists and drug cartels along the way because it is profitable). Does this definition of “imminent” threat extend to the banksters who are a much more systematic front than the rump of al Qaeda is at this point?
In any case, be warned. If the plan for a FISA Drone (and Targeted Killing) Court moves forward, it will not be measuring guilt — what courts were established to measure. But instead, potential future guilt.