The morning of John Brennan’s confirmation hearing, I posted what I deemed the 5 most important questions to ask him. Three were: Will you stop lying, how much of Dick Cheney’s illegal wiretap program did you run, and will you permit CIA to spy on Americans.
1) Do you plan to continue lying to Americans?
You have made a number of demonstrable lies to the American people, particularly regarding the drone program and the Osama bin Laden raid. Most egregiously in 2011, you claimed “there hasn’t been a single collateral death” in almost a year from drone strikes; when challenged, you revised that by saying, “the U.S. government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths,” even in spite of a particularly egregious case of civilian deaths just months earlier. On what basis did you make these assertions? What definition of civilian were you using in each assertion? (More background)
In addition, in a speech purportedly offering transparency on the drone program, you falsely suggested we know the identities of all people targeted by drones. Why did you choose to misrepresent the kind of intelligence we use in some strikes?
4) What role did you have in Bush’s illegal wiretap program?The joint Inspector General report on the illegal wiretap program reported that entities you directed — the Terrorist Threat Integration Center in 2003 and 2004, and the National Counterterrorism Center in 2004 and 2005 — conducted the threat assessments for the program.
What role did you have, as the head of these entities, in the illegal wiretapping of Americans? To what extent did you know the program violated FISA? What role did you have in counseling Obama to give telecoms and other contractors immunity under the program? What influence did you have in DOJ decisions regarding suits about the illegal program, in particular the al-Haramain case that was thrown out even after the charity had proved it had been illegally wiretapped? Did you play any role in decisions to investigate and prosecute whistleblowers about this and other programs, notably Thomas Drake? (More background)
5) Did you help CIA bypass prohibitions on spying domestically with the NYPD intelligence (and other) programs?
In your additional prehearing questions, you admit to knowing about CIA’s role in setting up an intelligence program that profiled Muslims in New York City. What was your role in setting up the program? As someone with key oversight over personnel matters at the time, did you arrange Larry Sanchez’ temporary duty at the NYPD or CIA training for NYPD detectives?
Have you been involved in any similar effort to use CIA resources to conduct domestic spying on communities of faith? You said the CIA provides (among other things) expertise to local groups spying on Americans. How is this not a violation of the prohibition on CIA spying on Americans? (More background)
As it turns out, all three questions are directly pertinent for the latest dust-up between SSCI and the CIA Director.
Tensions between the CIA and its congressional overseers erupted anew this week when CIA Director John Brennan refused to tell lawmakers who authorized intrusions into computers used by the Senate Intelligence Committee to compile a damning report on the spy agency’s interrogation program.
The confrontation, which took place during a closed-door meeting on Tuesday, came as the sides continue to spar over the report’s public release, providing further proof of the unprecedented deterioration in relations between the CIA and Capitol Hill.
After the meeting, several senators were so incensed at Brennan that they confirmed the row and all but accused the nation’s top spy of defying Congress.
“I’m concerned there’s disrespect towards the Congress,” Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who also serves as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told McClatchy. “I think it’s arrogant, I think it’s unacceptable.”
And you know what, Senator Levin? Brennan doesn’t actually care what you think. This Committee confirmed him last year, at a point where it was already clear he would lie and spy if he thought it would help the CIA. That was the moment to win respect from Brennan.
But at this point — especially because it seems Brennan has confidence his boss won’t fire him — he knows he can get away with this.
Ken Dilanian has a very interesting article in the Los Angeles Times outlining the latest failure in Congress’ attempts to exert oversight over drones. Senator Carl Levin had the reasonable idea of calling a joint closed session of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees so that the details of consolidating drone functions under the Pentagon (and helping the CIA to lose at least one of its paramilitary functions) could be smoothed out. In the end, “smooth” didn’t happen:
An effort by a powerful U.S. senator to broaden congressional oversight of lethal drone strikes overseas fell apart last week after the White House refused to expand the number of lawmakers briefed on covert CIA operations, according to senior U.S. officials.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who chairs the Armed Services Committee, held a joint classified hearing Thursday with the Senate Intelligence Committee on CIA and military drone strikes against suspected terrorists.
But the White House did not allow CIA officials to attend, so military counter-terrorism commanders testified on their own.
But perhaps the White House was merely retaliating for an earlier slight from Congress:
In May, the White House said it would seek to gradually move armed drone operations to the Pentagon. But lawmakers added a provision to the defense spending bill in December that cut off funds for that purpose, although it allows planning to continue.
Dilanian parrots the usual framing of CIA vs JSOC on drone targeting:
Levin thought it made sense for both committees to share a briefing from generals and CIA officials, officials said. He was eager to dispel the notion, they said, that CIA drone operators were more precise and less prone to error than those in the military.
The reality is that targeting in both the CIA and JSOC drone programs is deeply flawed, and the flaws lead directly to civilian deaths. I have noted many times (for example see here and here and here) when John Brennan-directed drone strikes (either when he had control of strike targeting as Obama’s assassination czar at the White House or after taking over the CIA and taking drone responsibility with him) reeked of political retaliation rather than being logically aimed at high value targets. But those examples pale in comparison to Brennan’s “not a bake sale” strike that killed 40 civilians immediately after Raymond Davis’ release or his personal intervention in the peace talks between Pakistan and the TTP. JSOC, on the other hand, has input from the Defense Intelligence Agency, which, as Marcy has noted, has its own style when it comes to “facts”. On top of that, we have the disclosure from Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald earlier this week that JSOC will target individual mobile phone SIM cards rather than people for strikes, without confirming that the phone is in possession of the target at the time of the strike. The flaws inherent in both of these approaches lead to civilian deaths that fuel creation of even more terrorists among the survivors.
Dilanian doesn’t note that the current move by the White House to consolidate drones at the Pentagon is the opposite of what took place about a year before Brennan took over the CIA, when his group at the White House took over some control of JSOC targeting decisions, at least with regard to signature strikes in Yemen.
In the end, though, it’s hard to see how getting all drone functions within the Pentagon and under Senate Armed Services Committee oversight will improve anything. Admittedly, the Senate Intelligence Committee is responsible for the spectacular failure of NSA oversight and has lacked the courage to release its thorough torture investigation report, but Armed Services oversees a bloated Pentagon that can’t even pass an audit (pdf). In the end, it seems to me that this entire pissing match between Congress and the White House is over which committee(s) will ultimately be blamed for failing oversight of drones.
Imagine a McCain Committee as the inheritor of the tradition of Frank Church and Otis Pike.
(Yes, I did that to make bmaz’ head explode.)
Only, McCain proposes to investigate not just whether NSA has engaged in things it was not authorized to do. But also to investigate Snowden’s leaks themselves and the potential role of contractors in making leaks more likely.
All that said, I might be excited about McCain’s proposal to review the dragnet, as described:
(3) The nature and scope of National Security Agency intelligence-collection programs, operations, and activities, including intelligence-collection programs affecting Americans, that were the subject matter of the unauthorized disclosure, including–
(A) the extent of domestic surveillance authorized by law;
(B) the legal authority that served as the basis for the National Security Agency intelligence-collection programs, operations, and activities that are the subject matter of those disclosures;
(C) the extent to which such programs, operations, and activities that were the subject matter of such unauthorized disclosures may have gone beyond what was authorized by law or permitted under the Constitution of the United States;
(D) the extent and sufficiency of oversight of such programs, operations, and activities by Congress and the Executive Branch; and
(E) the need for greater transparency and more effective congressional oversight of intelligence community activities.
There’s just one problem with McCain’s proposal.
Here’s the list of the people who would be on the Committee (he provides titles, I’m providing names):
There are a number of very big NSA defenders on this list — in addition to DiFi and Saxby, both Jello Jay and Coburn are Intel Committee members who have never questioned the dragnet (indeed, Coburn has called for getting rid of the controls on the phone dragnet!). Chuck Grassley, too, has generally been supportive of the dragnet in SJC hearings on the subject. Most of the rest are simply not the caliber of people who might critically assess the dragnet much less show real interest in Americans’ privacy. Only Carl Levin and Pat Leahy, alone among the 12 named members, have been explicitly skeptical of the dragnet at all.
McCain proposes a Select Committee to investigate the dragnet. And he proposes to fill it with people who are really happy with the dragnet as it currently exists.
Update: Just to give a sense of how terrible this make-up for a Select Committee is, compare it with the bipartisan list of 26 Senators who asked James Clapper for more information on other uses of Section 215 last June. Just one Senator from that list — Pat Leahy — would be on McCain’s committee.
Six days ago, Fat Al Gore (my shorthand for climate change) attacked the Philippines, killing as many 10,000 and leaving 250,000 homeless.
It was Fat Al Gore’s most successful attack thus far.
With Fat Al Gore’s growing success in mind, consider these data points.
Senate Homeland Security Committee doesn’t recognize Fat Al Gore as a threat
The Senate Homeland Security Committee is holding a hearing on “Threats to the Homeland.” It is focused almost entirely on what witnesses describe a dispersed Al Qaeda threat (which doesn’t have the ability to attack in the US), self-radicalized extremists who don’t have the ability to conduct large-scale attacks, and cybersecurity (though Carl Levin did bring up corporate anonymity as a threat, and Republicans brought up Benghazi, which isn’t the “Homeland” at all; also, Ron Johnson leaked that Secret Service officers have proven unable to keep their dick in their pants in 17 countries).
None of the three witnesses even mentioned climate change in their testimony.
Obama’s Chief of Staff threatened to “kill” Steven Chu for admitting islands would disappear because of climate change
Meanwhile, the lead anecdote of this mostly interesting (but in parts obviously bullshit) profile of how Obama disempowered his cabinet ministers tells how Rahm went ballistic because Steven Chu (whose energy initiative created a bunch of jobs) publicly admitted that some islands will disappear because of climate change.
In April 2009, Chu joined Obama’s entourage for one of the administration’s first overseas trips, to Trinidad and Tobago for a Summit of the Americas focused on economic development. Chu was not scheduled to address the media, but reporters kept bugging Josh Earnest, a young staffer, who sheepishly approached his boss, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, with the ask. “No way,” Gibbs told him.
“Come on,” Earnest said. “The guy came all the way down here. Why don’t we just have him talk about all the stuff he’s doing?”
Gibbs reluctantly assented. Then Chu took the podium to tell the tiny island nation that it might soon, sorry to say, be underwater—which not only insulted the good people of Trinidad and Tobago but also raised the climate issue at a time when the White House wanted the economy, and the economy only, on the front burner. “I think the Caribbean countries face rising oceans, and they face increase in the severity of hurricanes,” Chu said. “This is something that is very, very scary to all of us. … The island states … some of them will disappear.”
Earnest slunk backstage. “OK, we’ll never do that again,” he said as Gibbs glared. A phone rang. It was White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel calling Messina to snarl, “If you don’t kill [Chu], I’m going to.”
Much later the story notes that Heather Zichal is on her way out too.
Even blue-chip West Wingers such as economic adviser Gene Sperling and climate czar Heather Zichal are heading for the exits.
Washington insiders applaud fracking while ignoring climate change
Meanwhile, also as part of its big new magazine spread, Politico has two related pieces on DC insiders views.
There’s this “Real Game Changers” piece capturing the “big forces they see shaking up U.S. politics.” David Petraeus talks about “the ongoing energy revolution in the U.S.” Jeb Bush promises, “With natural gas as an exponentially growing source, we can re-industrialize.” And while several thinkers describe the problem of economic inequality, only Al Gore talks about Fat Al Gore.
Carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels is changing our climate and transforming our world. From more destructive and more frequent climate-related extreme weather events, floods and droughts, melting ice and rising sea levels, to climate refugees, crop failure, higher asthma rates and water scarcity, the consequences are profound. As citizens, we’re already paying the high costs. Billions of dollars to clean up after extreme weather events. Rising insurance bills. Lives lost.
Meanwhile, former respectable energy historian turned shill Daniel Yergin congratulates America on being almost energy independent.
Here’s his only mention of the word “climate.”
In a major climate speech this past June, he declared, “We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions.”
Yes, we’re going to fight climate change by burning carbon (gas) instead of carbon (coal).
To be fair to the DC elite, the reason we’re embracing fracking is to give ourselves space to ditch the terrorist funding Saudis. So there is a real national security purpose to it.
But of course, it’s a purpose that addresses a far less urgent threat than that terrorist Fat Al Gore, who just killed 10,000 people.
Cora Currier describes the absurd response she got when she asked for a list of our enemies.
At a hearing in May, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked the Defense Department to provide him with a current list of Al Qaeda affiliates.
The Pentagon responded – but Levin’s office told ProPublica they aren’t allowed to share it. Kathleen Long, a spokeswoman for Levin, would say only that the department’s “answer included the information requested.”
A Pentagon spokesman told ProPublica that revealing such a list could cause “serious damage to national security.”
“Because elements that might be considered ‘associated forces’ can build credibility by being listed as such by the United States, we have classified the list,” said the spokesman, Lt. Col. Jim Gregory. “We cannot afford to inflate these organizations that rely on violent extremist ideology to strengthen their ranks.”
Thing is, this is not entirely new. At least until February, the government had been refusing to give Ron Wyden a list of every country in which we’ve used lethal force. And he’s on the Intelligence Committee!
Indeed, Currier suggests one reason this might be classified would be if Obama was fighting these enemies under Inherent Authority.
The AUMF isn’t the only thing the government relies on to take military action. In speeches and interviews Obama administration officials also bring up the president’s constitutional power to defend the country, even without congressional authorization.
But, as Jack Goldsmith notes, something else seems to be going on here, because the response Currier got suggests the list is classified Secret, not whatever Top Secret compartment the government maintained for a year Wyden couldn’t access.
The language of the DOD release suggests that at least a few more groups (or elements of groups), and maybe many more groups (or elements), are on the AUMF “list.” The existence of a “list” (which was unclear in the May 2013 AUMF hearing), and the fact that there may be at least a few groups (or elements of groups) on it, is itself news in the AUMF-watcher world. It is also consistent with suggestions and implications in reports, such as in Mark Mazzetti’s book, that the AUMF is being invoked in various ways by DOD Special Operations Forces for non-covert military activities in many countries around the globe.
Third, it is entirely unclear why the USG can acknowledge some groups without unduly “inflating” them, and not others. And this in turn makes me skeptical of the notion of “inflation.” To be sure, some groups that are AUMF-able (such as, perhaps, the Haqqani network, a known but not acknowledged U.S. target) perhaps cannot be named because the operations are covert actions and involve deals of non-acknowledgment with foreign governments (or elements of foreign governments). But that cannot be a comprehensive explanation for DOD’s secrecy. By stating that disclosure of groups on the list would “reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to the national security,” DOD has tipped off that the list is classified only at the secret (as opposed to top secret) level. (See Section 1.2 of E.O. 13,256.) Covert actions are typically classified at the top secret level. This implies (but does not prove) that some if not all of the AUMF-groups in question are not subjects of covert actions.
But remember: There are two other instances where the government has refused to clarify who is, and is not, an enemy.
When a bunch of people who have talked to, but not assisted, terrorists sued to stop the NSAA’s provisions allowing indefinite detention, the government refused (until it became convenient) to say whether they could be detained or not.
Then, as part of the Bradley Manning charges, the government kept one of the enemies it was going to prove he had aided classified (but ultimately didn’t argue he had aided that enemy in court).
Prosecutors accuse him of “aiding the enemy,” and three in particular: al-Qaida, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and a “classified enemy” referred to by a Bates number, which is a form of legal document identification.
Three professors of military law – Yale Law School’s Eugene Fidell, Duke University School of Law’s Scott Silliman and Texas Tech University School of Law’s Richard Rosen – told Courthouse News they had never heard of a case involving a “classified enemy.”
After being informed that the phrase stumped the professors, a military spokeswoman insisted that the confusion stemmed from a misunderstanding, because “who the enemy ‘is’ is not classified.”
“What ‘is’ classified is that our government has confirmed that this enemy is in receipt of certain compromised classified information, and that the means and methods of collection that the government has employed to make that determination are classified,” the spokeswoman said in an email.
One thing about all these instances — refusing to share a list of lethal force targeted countries with Ron Wyden, sharing a classified list with Carl Levin only on request, refusing to tell Americans (and one member of parliament from Iceland) whether they are counted as enemies, and refusing to tell Manning which enemy he supposed aided — is that they provide the executive maximum flexibility. That may not be the only thing this extreme secrecy about enemies does. But it is one thing it does do, along with hiding how broad the unilaterally declared war under Inherent Authority is.
It sure does make things confusing, though!
Carl Levin is one of the few people in DC who has tried to hold banks accountable — in his case, via investigations conducted at the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Never mind that DOJ has serially taken his investigations and, seemingly, wiped their ass with them for all the banksters who have been held accountable as a result.
One particularly noteworthy ass-wiping came after Levin referred Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein to DOJ for lying to his customers and, more importantly, to Congress. To him.
The chairman of the U.S. Senate’s investigative subcommittee said he believes Goldman Sachs officials made misleading statements about their trading during the financial crisis and should be investigated criminally.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said on Wednesday that he plans to refer Goldman officials, and potentially officials from other organizations, to the Justice Department for possible prosecution and to the Securities and Exchange Commission for possible civil proceedings.
“In my judgment, Goldman clearly misled their clients and they misled the Congress,” said Levin, the chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
“We will be referring this matter to the Justice Department and the SEC,” Levin said.
DOJ did what it does — which apparently includes chatting up CEOs — while it is pretending to investigate when it is actually wiping its ass. Then after a year it decided it wasn’t going to prosecute Blankfein.
Still. Just over 2 years ago, Carl Levin believed that when people, even very powerful people, lie to Congress, DOJ should at least consider prosecuting them.
Levin also said he was still “troubled” by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the NSA did not collect data on millions of Americans.
“I’m troubled by that testimony, obviously. I don’t know how he’s tried to wiggle out from it, but I’m troubled by it,” Levin said. “How you hold him accountable, I guess the only way to do that would be for the president to somehow or other fire him.”
But, Levin added, “I think he’s made it clear that he regrets saying what he said, and I don’t want to call on the president to fire him although I am troubled by it.”
Golly! Clapper regrets what he said (or rather, that he got caught saying it?). So rather than suggesting we hold Clapper accountable the way Levin tried to do with Blankfein, he instead thinks maybe if the President feels like it on his own because Levin himself isn’t going to call on him to do this, Obama should “somehow or other fire” Clapper.
In today’s Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on the AUMF, Carl Levin asked Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict Michael Sheehan whether CIA should get to use drone strikes, in addition to DOD. (at 1:29)
Levin: Should the use of these drones be limited to the Department of Defense or should other government agencies be allowed to use such force as well, for instance the CIA.
Shaheen: Mr. Chairman, the President has indicated that he has a preference preference for those activities be conducted under Title 10 [that is, DOD], we’re reviewing that right now, but I think we also recognize that that type of transition may take quite a while depending on the theater of operation.
That language — depending on the theater of operation — would seem to suggest the problem is target country dependent. Which is to say, the CIA will not give up its authority to use drones in Pakistan and/or Yemen anytime soon.
The reasons why that’s true presented in this Defense Week article aren’t all that convincing. The article starts with the claim that moving CIA’s drone targeting to DOD wouldn’t make much difference, in part because it’s always a uniformed Air Force pilot pulling the trigger to kill someone.
It does point to some nifty toys that CIA has acquired through its more “agile” contracting regime.
The CIA has outfitted its Air Force UAVs, all purchased from General Atomics, with special features, sources say. They say the agency has a more “agile” contracting process than the Air Force.
The refits include four-bladed propellers, which enable the CIA UAVs to take off from shorter runways and may give them a higher operating ceiling as well. With more blades, “you can slice through more air,” one UAV expert said.
The UAVs assigned to the CIA also carry more advanced sensors. For example, they shoot high-definition, 1080p full-motion video, while the Air Force UAV sensors offer just standard definition. Air Force drones may be used as much to gather intelligence as for airstrikes, where CIA UAVs are configured so they can watch, gather intelligence, and eventually kill.
But in either case — at least this article claims — whether DOD or CIA flies the drones, the targeting relies on Counterterrorism Center intelligence.
One former intelligence officer points out that the most important part of the entire program isn’t the UAVs at all. It’s the intelligence that officials use to pick their targets. And that’s the part the Air Force would have the most difficult time getting, if it were not for the CIA.
“Where is the intelligence going to come from in the first place?” he asked rhetorically. “The targeting? It’s the CTC,” the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center.
Which of course doesn’t explain what about the theaters in which CIA owns the drones rather than DOD (which the article agrees are Pakistan and Yemen) would make it so hard to transition.
I suspect the reasons are different for each. In Pakistan, we’re facing a new Prime Minister in Nawaz Sharif who has claimed to be skeptical of drones. And we’re facing the tensions between Pakistan’s security establishment and its democratic government that necessitate a thoroughly unconvincing kabuki about whether Pakistan consents.
There’s a similar tension in Yemen, too. In addition, I suspect we’re captive to what our drone base hosts in Saudi Arabia want. And there was never much chance they were going to accept a partner other than the old Riyadh Station Chief, John Brennan, run their drone program.
In other words, nothing will change anytime soon. As has been clear in every single piece that simultaneously said DOD would be taking over drone killing even while admitting there would be exceptions tied to Brennan for quite some time.
Surprise: Obama’s National Security people are going to keep saying they’re moving drones to DOD, even while admitting they don’t mean that’s happening right now.
Yesterday, the Senate Armed Services Committee announced a hearing to revisit the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force. In addition to a bunch of DOD figures (but not the recently departed Jeh Johnson, the DOD-connected person who said the most interesting things about the AUMF), it’ll have (I’ve linked their most salient comments on the AUMF):
Rosa Brooks, Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center
Geoffrey Corn, Professor of Law, South Texas College of Law
Jack Goldsmith, Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
Kenneth Roth, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch
Charles Stimson, Manager, National Security Law Program, The Heritage Foundation
Curiously, John Bellinger who (as far as I understand) started the discussion of a new AUMF is not slated to testify. Also note that the Deputy Director of Special Operations for Counterterrorism will testify, but no one from CIA is scheduled to; while JSOC can operate under the President’s inherent authority, it likely prefers the legal cover of an AUMF (and therefore may be one of the entities pushing for an AUMF that matches reality on the ground).
Politico reports that this hearing is more than speculative: Levin and no-longer-SASC-Ranking-Member-but-he-might-as-well-be John McCain are planning to rewrite the AUMF, with help from Bob Corker, Dick Durbin, and Lindsey “all detainees must be military” Graham.
And if the inclusion of Graham in that group doesn’t scare you, remember that this crowd is substantively the same one that enshrined military detention in 2012′s NDAA. While that effort might be regarded as “reasonable” Carl Levin and John McCain’s attempt to present something more reasonable than House Armed Services Committee Buck McKeon was pushing for, and while the NDAA originally included exceptions for US citizens, in the event, the White House pushed Carl Levin to effectively rubber stamp its claims to unlimited authority, including detaining (or killing) US citizens.
And if that doesn’t have you worried enough about this effort, consider this quote, which mocks the contributions Rand Paul or Ted Cruz might make to this debate.
“Can you imagine what Paul or Cruz would do with this?” said one top Democratic aide. “It could be a disaster. And it would be worse in the House.”
As a threshold matter, a top aide who can’t distinguish between Paul’s more heartfelt libertarianism from Cruz’ authoritarianism pretending to be libertarianism is a concern. But to call the influence of both as “a disaster” is troubling.
Ultimately, though, what is likely to happen with this debate is that all players will be unwilling to discuss openly what we’ve actually been doing in the name of war against al Qaeda, up to and including waging war in the “homeland.” That’s one thing the 2001 AUMF was written to exclude. And I can almost guarantee you, it’s an authority the President — and the top Democratic aides who mock Rand Paul — will want to preserve.
Congratulations to Shrub, who today gets his very own (as Jim calls it) Lie Bury.
How appropriate that even as the President who lied us into war with false WMD claims was speaking, the national security establishment was hyperventilating over what some are claiming is “confirmation” that Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons.
The reports are based on a letter sent to John McCain and Carl Levin — in response to a request they made 24 hours ago — stating (in part) the following:
Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin. This assessment is based in part on physiological samples. Our standard of evidence must build on these intelligence assessments as we seek to establish credible and corroborated facts. For example, the chain of custody is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and in what conditions. We do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime. Thus far, we believe that the Assad regime maintains custody of these weapons, and has demonstrated a willingness to escalate its horrific use of violence against the Syrian people.
Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient — only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making, and strengthen our leadership in the international community.
This letter comes a week after, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had suggested whether Syria had used chemical weapons was a policy question, not an intelligence one, and DIA Director Mike Flynn had said (in response to a question about North Korea intelligence) that DIA’s standard for confidence was lower than that of other Intelligence Community Agencies.
The government is saying the following:
And based on that information, McCain and far too many members of the press are saying this “confirms” that Assad used chemical weapons.
Well, if and when we go to war based on WMD this time, Obama will be able to say that Congress was the entity making the most out of carefully caveated intelligence claims, not the President (though John Kerry appears to speaking without nuance).
Update: I’ve changed the headline to try to clarify the relationship between the Bush library ceremony and this release. I’m still not certain I’m happy with it, though, so please let me know if you’ve got suggestions.
Update: Arms Control Wonk’s Jeffrey Lewis commented on this, talking about the implicit shortcomings in the claims above (though with more credibility). In addition, he notes that because we’ve made this a “red line,” it increases the likelihood those who want us to intervene will cross it themselves.
Having set a red line for US involvement to deter Assad, we’ve also created an incentive for certain groups to tell stories that might result in more US assistance. As I have noted before, these groups don’t appear particularly scrupulous when it comes to the truth. So, I’d be very, very careful about leaping to conclusions.
And he also observes that even while the evidence might support a claim that someone in Assad’s regime used Sarin, it doesn’t appear to amount to an attack.
Suddenly the constant references to the “small scale” use becomes more clear — we don’t have multiple victims in a single use, as might be expected if the Syrians gassed a military unit or a local community. At most, we have two events in which only one person was exposed.
Since Carl Levin announced he would retire, I’ve been hoping to see Justin Amash take on Mike Rogers in a Republican primary. This National Journal article captures the dynamics of that possibility well (though may overestimate how much money Amash could raise).
But before I get into why I’d be so fascinated about such a race, check out how former Republican Attorney General Mike Cox describes Mike Rogers.
If Rogers were to run, he would have to give up his chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee, for which there are no term limits. Former GOP Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox downplayed that motivation, saying Rogers’ ambition for higher office trumps his desire to make a meaningful influence in foreign policy. “If [Rogers] lost, he could make a lot of money in D.C. as a lobbyist,” Cox said last week. “He’s so full of [expletive] to begin with. He tells all these stories about being an FBI agent, and he was in the FBI for two years. Like he was J. Edgar Hoover.”
“He’s so full of shit to begin with.”
This is the great hope of MI’s GOP to take over Levin’s seat.
Now, Gary Peters, who’ll run on the Democratic side, is one of MI’s rising Democratic stars. And as the article notes, he hails from Oakland County, which is critical not just because of the fundraising base there, but because it’s the second largest county and pretty evenly split; Peters has a proven ability to win that critical swing county’s votes.
Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that if Amash ran (whether or not he won), I’d probably end up represented by a GOP neanderthal rather than Amash (because Democrats are unlikely to win the district in an off year, and because there are tons of up-and-coming neanderthal GOPers in the Grand Rapids area), I’d still really like to see a Rogers-Amash race.
That’s because it’d serve as a nationally watched race between the GOP’s rising libertarian wing and one of the GOP’s most authoritarian leaders. Mike Rogers has championed CISPA and whatever other new surveillance efforts anyone wanted. Justin Amash led those few Republicans who opposed it. Amash even came out in favor of reading Dzhokhar Tsarnaev a Miranda warning this weekend.
In other words, in a battle between Rogers and Amash, civil liberties and the Constitution would be central.
Mike Cox was making fun of Rogers’ self-promotion when he drew the analogy with J. Edgar (and there’s an implicit respect for Hoover in his comment). But it’s high time someone started making the analogy between the fear-mongering and surveillance Rogers and others embrace and Hoover’s.