Denis McDonough

In Telling of Brennan Fit, Panetta Somehow Forgets the Torture Documents Stolen Back for the White House

As you likely know, I’m firmly of the belief that one should call DC memoirs — especially those written by National Security figures — autobiographical novels, because they tend to stray so far from the truth (that’s true of all autobiographies, but in DC it seems far more motivated). Turbo-Tax Timmy Geithner is about the only DC figure whose memoir has ever been treated with any of the skepticism it deserves.

With that in mind, I wanted to look at this detail from Leon Panetta’s book, which Katherine Hawkins alerted me to.

To illustrate how Obama’s micromanagement hurt relations with Congress, Panetta describes the negotiations with Dianne Feinstein over the cables that went into the torture report.

She requested access for her staff to every operational cable regarding the program, a database that had to be in the hundreds of thousands of documents. These were among the most sensitive documents the agency had. But Feinstein’s staff had the requisite clearances and we had no basis to refuse her. Still, I wanted to have some control over this material, so I proposed a deal: Instead of turning over the documents en masse to her staff, we would set up a secure room in Virginia. Her staff could come out to the secure facility and review documents one by one, and though they could take notes, the documents themselves would stay with CIA.

When the White House found out, they went apeshit, calling Panetta into the Situation Room for a spanking.

“The president wants to know who the fuck authorized this release to the committees,” Rahm said, slamming his hand down on the table. “I have a president with his hair on fire, and I want to know what the fuck you did to fuck this up so bad.”

I’d known Rahm a long time, and I was no stranger to his language or his temper, so I knew when to worry about an outburst and when it was mostly for show. On this occasion, my hunch was that Rahm wasn’t that perturbed but that Obama probably was and that others at the table, particularly Brennan and McDonough, were too. Rahm was sticking up for them by coming after me.

[snip]

It went back and forth like this for about fifteen minutes. Brennan and I even exchanged sharp words when I, unfairly, accused him of not sticking up for the agency in the debate over the interrogation memos. Finally, the White House team realized that whether they liked it or not, there was no way we could go back on our deal with the committee. And just like that, the whole matter was dropped.

Rahm and Brennan spanked Panetta, he claims, but then the whole thing blew over.

There are just three problems with this story.

First, according to the quotations Dianne Feinstein revealed from her agreement with Panetta, the CIA wasn’t supposed to “have … control over this material.”

Per an exchange of letters in 2009, then-Vice Chairman Bond, then-Director Panetta, and I agreed in an exchange of letters that the CIA was to provide a “stand-alone computer system” with a “network drive” “segregated from CIA networks” for the committee that would only be accessed by information technology personnel at the CIA—who would “not be permitted to” “share information from the system with other [CIA] personnel, except as otherwise authorized by the committee.”

Far more significantly, Panetta doesn’t mention the documents that disappeared during Panetta’s tenure — ostensibly, on orders from the White House.

In early 2010, the CIA was continuing to provide documents, and the committee staff was gaining familiarity with the information it had already received.

In May of 2010, the committee staff noticed that [certain] documents that had been provided for the committee’s review were no longer accessible. Staff approached the CIA personnel at the offsite location, who initially denied that documents had been removed. CIA personnel then blamed information technology personnel, who were almost all contractors, for removing the documents themselves without direction or authority. And then the CIA stated that the removal of the documents was ordered by the White House. When the committee approached the White House, the White House denied giving the CIA any such order.

After a series of meetings, I learned that on two occasions, CIA personnel electronically removed committee access to CIA documents after providing them to the committee. This included roughly 870 documents or pages of documents that were removed in February 2010, and secondly roughly another 50 were removed in mid-May 2010.

And Panetta also doesn’t mention what may or may not be the same set of documents, those withheld by CIA on behalf of the White House, as described by Stephen Preston in response to Mark Udall.

With specific reference to documents potentially subject to a claim of executive privilege, as noted in the question, a small percentage of the total number of documents produced was set aside for further review. The Agency has deferred to the White House and has not been substantively involved in subsequent discussions about the disposition of those documents.

In other words, CIA didn’t live up to its deal with Feinstein, not with respect to this set of documents, anyway. After turning over all the cables it believed SSCI had a right to obtain, it then took some back. As far as we know, it never did provide them.

We know that one of the Torture Report’s conclusions is that the CIA lied to the White House.

While there’s good reason to believe CIA lied to Condi Rice, there’s also abundant reason to believe that Dick Cheney and David Addington knew precisely what was going on. If I had to guess, the documents CIA stole back probably make that clear.

Panetta would have us believe that, after his spanking by John Brennan and others, the whole matter was dropped. Which is a convenient tale, except that it obscures that the White House succeeded in clawing back documents CIA originally believed SSCI was entitled to.

Cofer Black Gets to Rebut Torture Report that Shouldn’t Include Him

Brennan with TortureIn a piece that gets at some of the points of leverage between the White House and CIA over torture, Mark Mazzetti describes George Tenet’s effort to “challenge” the torture report.

It suggests Brennan’s close ties to Tenet — Brennan was once Tenet’s Chief of Staff – led the CIA Director to reach out to Tenet to lead pushback. It describes how Brennan’s close ties to Obama Chief of Staff Denis McDonough from when he served as White House Counterterrorism Czar led McDonough to intervene when Dianne Feinstein tried to require any CIA review to take place in Senate Intelligence Committee space.

All that’s beside the real source of CIA’s power over the White House — the fact that torture operated as a Presidentially-authorized covert op for years, as has the drone program, which means CIA has the ability to implicate both George Bush personally (and Obama, in illegal drone strikes), as well as the Office of the President more generally.

My favorite detail, however, is that Cofer Black has also been involved in this pushback campaign.

Just after the Senate Intelligence Committee voted in April to declassify hundreds of pages of a withering report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and interrogation program, C.I.A. Director John O. Brennan convened a meeting of the men who had played a role overseeing the program in its seven-year history.

The spies, past and present, faced each other around the long wooden conference table on the seventh floor of the C.I.A.’s headquarters in Northern Virginia: J. Cofer Black, head of the agency’s counterterrorism center at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks; the undercover officer who now holds that job; and a number of other former officials from the C.I.A.’s clandestine service. Over the speakerphone came the distinctive, Queens-accented voice of George J. Tenet.

Over the past several months, Mr. Tenet has quietly engineered a counterattack against the Senate committee’s voluminous report, which could become public next month. [my emphasis]

According to Ken Dilianian’s version of the same story, Black will not be allowed to preview the report — he’s probably among the dozen people who thought they could review it but recently learned they would not be able to.

About a dozen officials were called in recent days and told they could read the executive summary at a secure room at the Office of Director of National Intelligence, as long as they agreed not to discuss it, four former officials said.

Then, on Friday, CIA officials called them and told them that due to a miscommunication, only former CIA directors and deputy directors would be given that privilege. Former directors Michael Hayden, Porter Goss and George Tenet have been invited to read it, as have former acting directors John McLaughlin and Michael Morell.

Black’s involvement, of course, should be a story unto itself.

According to the CIA’s official version of torture, it got authorized under the September 17, 2001 Finding by language authorizing the capture and detention of top Al Qaeda officials. But they didn’t start considering torture until they picked up Abu Zubaydah at the end of March in 2002. They didn’t start torturing, the official story goes, until DOJ gave them the green light in August 1, 2002.

Why, then, would Black need to be involved in the torture pushback?

He left the Counterterrorism Director spot in May 2002, well before the torture started — at least according to the CIA version, but not the personal experience of Ibn Sheikh al-Libi and Binyam Mohamed, both of whom got tortured before Black’s departure. In his book Jose Rodriguez claims, falsely, the torture program started in June, and he led it. If this official CIA chronology is correct, Black should have had no role — and no personal interest — in the torture program.

And yet there he is with the other torturers, leading pushback.

Even in their pushback effort, then, the CIA proves that they’ve been lying for years.

What will John Brennan do, Suspend his operations?

Brennan with Torture

These with a thousand small deliberations

Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,

Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,

With pungent sauces, multiply variety

In a wilderness of mirrors. What will the spider do,

Suspend its operations, will the weevil

Delay?

–T.S. Eliot, Gerontian

This image — captioned, “President Barack Obama talks with CIA Director John Brennan, center, and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough in a West Wing hallway of the White House, May 10, 2013” – may officially be my new favorite official White House photograph.

I first learned of it when Katherine Hawkins pointed to this MuckRock FOIA request, which noted that the document in Brennan’s hand was titled, “The Central Intelligence Agency’s Response to The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program.”

In other words, John Brennan was speaking to Obama and the Chief of Staff about CIA’s complaints about the SSCI Torture Report on May 10. And White House photographer Pete Souza had framed the event amidst reflections and dark lighting that would make even James Jesus Angleton weep.

I’m fond of the photo, too, for what it shows.

As you recall, SSCI’s torture report was completed last December. CIA was initially supposed to respond to SSCI about the report by February 15, but that got held up, in part, because of Brennan’s confirmation, during which he appeared to avoid reading the report to avoid saying anything about it before being confirmed. Almost immediately after Brennan was confirmed, the CIA started leaking about how much they didn’t like it (even while claiming they still hadn’t finished reviewing the document). It turns out those leaks were factually incorrect. On April 11, Brennan was still stalling about the content of the review and completely ignoring any possibility it would be released publicly (though had spoken with Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss earlier that week about it). On May 1, Mark Udall got shrill, advising the President he could “excise the demons” of torture by releasing the report. On May 7, CIA was still compiling its “defiant” response to the report; National Security Council Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden told me the White House was still reviewing the document. Also on May 7, a collection of human rights organizations called on the White House to appoint someone to oversee the release of the report.

3 days later, Brennan was in the White House with a report on CIA’s complaints about the report, all written up.

But here’s the thing: that meeting was May 10. It was almost 7 weeks later before Brennan would present that report (again with leaks about how inaccurate millions of CIA cables are) — in the company of Joe Biden — to Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss (though there were reports that they ended up discussing other issues instead).

CIA has had its complaints all typed up for over two months now. And the only sign of any discussion about declassifying the report that describes how many lies CIA told about this program is Feinstein’s request to Jim Comey in his confirmation hearing that he would read it, why by itself seems a concession that we all won’t get to.

So did the White House decide not to release the report two months ago and just never tell us all?

We Have Always Been at War with Eastasia Adherents

Back on September 18, 2001, here’s who we declared war against.

the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons,

On March 13, 2009, here’s how Obama expanded that AUMF to include “associated forces.”

The President has the authority to detain persons that the President determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and persons who harbored those responsible for those attacks. The President also has the authority to detain persons who were part of, or substantially supported, Taliban or al-Qaida forces or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act, or has directly supported hostilities, in aid of such enemy armed forces. [my emphasis]

Here’s how, on Monday, the White House described the speech Obama will make tomorrow on counterterrorism.

On May 23, the President will give a speech at the National Defense University on the Administration’s counterterrorism policy. In his speech, the President will discuss our broad counter-terrorism policy, including our military, diplomatic, intelligence and legal efforts. He will review the state of the threats we face, particularly as al Qaeda core has weakened but new dangers have emerged; he will discuss the policy and legal framework under which we take action against terrorist threats, including the use of drones; he will review our detention policy and efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay; and he will frame the future of our efforts against Al Qaeda, its affiliates and adherents. [my emphasis]

Now, in point of fact, this war against “adherents” is not new. Denis McDonough invoked it in a speech on March 6, 2011.

Preventing radicalization that leads to violence here in America is part of our larger strategy to decisively defeat al Qaeda. Overseas, because of the new focus and resources that the President has devoted to this fight, the al Qaeda leadership in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan is hunkered down and it’s harder than ever for them to plot and launch attacks against our country. Because we’re helping other countries build their capacity to defend themselves, we’re making it harder for al Qaeda’s adherents to operate around the world.

Here at home, we’ve strengthened our defenses, with improvements to intelligence and aviation screening and enhanced security at our borders, ports and airports. As we’ve seen in recent attempted attacks, al Qaeda and its adherents are constantly trying to exploit any vulnerability in our open society. But it’s also clear that our dedicated intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security personnel have disrupted many more plots and saved many American lives.

[snip]

For all these reasons—our stronger defenses at home; our progress against al Qaeda overseas; the rejection of al Qaeda by so many Muslims around the world; and the powerful image of Muslims thriving in America—al Qaeda and its adherents have increasingly turned to another troubling tactic: attempting to recruit and radicalize people to terrorism here in the United States.

[snip]

But with al Qaeda and its adherents constantly evolving and refining their tactics, our understanding of the threat has to evolve as well.

Obama invoked adherents, sort of, shortly thereafter.

Bin Laden and his murderous vision won some adherents.

And John Brennan invoked adherents in speeches on June 29, 2011, September 16, 2011, April 30, 2012, and October 26, 2012.

So the Administration has been at war against al Qaeda adherents (and affiliates, another new category) for some time.

But if I’m not mistaken, tomorrow will mark the most detailed discussion in which the President describes this war that no one declared against adherents. And given that Congress has shown newfound interest in the scope of the AUMF that includes neither adherents nor associated forces, it will be interesting to see how the President describes this expanded war.

The Perils of “Strategic Messaging”

”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Senior Bush aide, quoted by Ron Suskind

The WSJ has a fascinating account of how President Obama’s efforts to extend our will without military intervention failed in Syria.

Early in the article, it describes that, as the Administration was debating intervening directly last summer, senior officials “misjudged” the situation because rebels “appeared” to be getting close to killing Bashar al-Assad.

Just as pressure to intervene grew last summer, White House officials were buoyed by a series of attacks where rebels appeared to be getting close to killing Mr. Assad. Several senior officials now acknowledge the U.S. misjudged how long Mr. Assad could hold on.

Many paragraphs later, the article elaborates on what caused this “misjudgment” about Assad’s resilience. It describes how in this period last summer, the Obama Administration was focused on post-Assad planning, rather than on getting rid of Assad, because the intelligence had “created a sense” that Assad would be ousted by the rebels acting alone.

The administration committee charged with Syria policy was kept on a tight leash by Mr. McDonough, then the deputy national security adviser and a close confidante to Mr. Obama, participants say. They said Mr. McDonough made clear that Mr. Obama wasn’t interested in proposals that could lead the U.S. down a slippery slope to military intervention; instead, he had the committee focus mostly on post-Assad planning.

“It was clear to all participants that this was what the White House wanted, as opposed to really focusing on key questions of how do you get to the post-Assad period,” one participant said.

Administration officials said one of the reasons the committee was told to focus on post-Assad planning was because intelligence at the time created “a sense” in the White House that Mr. Assad could be killed by rebels or his own people, eliminating the need for riskier measures to support the rebel campaign.

“Appeared to be getting close” … “created a sense.”

The article doesn’t say it explicitly, but either the intelligence the White House was getting about Syria was faulty, or the White House was reading into the intelligence what it wanted to hear (perhaps in their hopes that the “Obama Doctrine” would work better than Donald Rumsfeld’s fetish for a light footprint).

That passage on how problematic intelligence led the Administration to assume Assad’s downfall is almost immediately followed by the airing of a dispute about whether or not the Administration was also focused on “strategic messaging.”

Likewise, high-level White House national security meetings on Syria focused on what participants called “strategic messaging,” how administration policy should be presented to the public, according to current and former officials who took part in the meetings.

Another administration official disputed that account, saying there were multiple cabinet-level meetings “with extensive and rigorous analysis presented” and that he didn’t recall strategic messaging ever being a “central topic of discussion at senior levels.” [my emphasis]

I find it telling that WSJ so closely follows a description of some kind of problem with intelligence with the (disputed) suggestion that even as the Administration was acting on faulty intelligence, it was focusing on its own “strategic messaging.”

Go skim Moon of Alabama’s archive from last July. It’s a very good read not only of the abundant open source evidence Assad might not be ousted so easily (and if he was, the problems that would create), but also of how much western propaganda was spinning what was going on in Syria.

That’s the thing: much of what was being reported — in public western reports, at least — was propaganda. Perhaps Israeli, perhaps rebel, perhaps Turkish, perhaps American. But obviously propaganda.

Now, the article presents a different chronology: the Administration got faulty intelligence (or misread what it got), and in response moved onto spinning what they were doing in Syria.

But I can’t help but wonder whether the Administration fell for its own propaganda about what it was doing in Syria?

The Benghazi Truthers and the OLC Hold-Outs

Screen shot 2013-02-14 at 8.41.25 AMDianne Feinstein announced yesterday that the Senate Intelligence Committee would not, as originally planned, vote on John Brennan’s nomination today. No Valentine’s Day love for Brennan I guess.

DiFi cited outstanding questions on Benghazi and the 7 OLC memos the White House has withheld.

That’s important background to this Joshua Hersh story, which makes fun of Richard Burr (who had just made a joke about his relative Aaron Burr killing Alexander Hamilton) grilling Jack Lew about who briefed Obama on Benghazi the night of the attack. As Hersh points out, the White House has released a picture showing Denis McDonough briefing the President that day, which ought to answer Burr’s question.

What Hersh doesn’t say is that Burr specifically asked Lew whether Brennan was in this loop. In the closed session on Tuesday, apparently, Brennan said he wasn’t. This comes on top of the White House withholding — at least as of last Thursday — Presidential Daily Briefs and some emails about the response to Benghazi as it unfolded.

Now, Lew’s role in Benghazi briefings really won’t affect his job as Treasury Secretary. But Brennan’s role might, particularly if the Murdoch boosted eBook alleging he was running ops in Libya out of the White House is true (I’m not saying it is).

In any case, the persistence of the Benghazi truthers has introduced an interesting dynamic I didn’t expect. Of the Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee, only Susan Collins and possibly Tom Coburn are not full-on Benghazi truthers (and James Inhofe, who gets a vote if he wants one as Armed Services Committee Ranking member, could add another truther vote).

But Collins is part of the other group — along with at least Ron Wyden and Mark Udall — holding up Brennan’s nomination, those demanding the 7 OLC memos on targeted killing the White House has thus far refused to turn over to the Committee purportedly overseeing these killings. That puts the vote somewhere in the vicinity of 9 votes holding out for something from the White House, 6 votes ready to vote Brennan’s nomination forward.

So who will the White House cede to? The Benghazi truthers, or the OLC holdouts? And is what is in the material the White House has thus far withheld enough for these groups to vote against Brennan?

Note, there’s always the possibility these groups will converge. The public record supports the conclusion that Libyan militants in Derna claimed to have been struck or at least surveilled by a drone. Those militants have ties, at least, to the militants who carried out the attack on the Benghazi post, and the public record also supports the claim the militants were avenging that drone surveillance or strike.  If that drone was approved by an unknown memo authorizing continued strikes in Libya, it would be something that both the Benghazi truthers and the OLC holdouts would be interested in.

Barack Obama (and the Three Musketeers of Selective Leaking) Says Barack Obama Wanted an OBL Trial

The AP made some news yesterday with this Barack Obama quote from Mark Bowden’s new book, The Finish.

Frankly, my belief was if we had captured him, that I would be in a pretty strong position, politically, here, to argue that displaying due process and rule of law would be our best weapon against al-Qaida, in preventing him from appearing as a martyr.

It’s a quote repeated and expanded in this exclusive piece from Vanity Fair, which will have an excerpt of the book in its next edition.

Now, both of these excerpts make it clear: This is a direct quote of an Obama claim, made after the fact. But if that didn’t already make you suspect the political efficacy of telling this story just weeks before the election, check out Bowden’s acknowledgements, above.

Not only does Bowden thank the Three Musketeers of Obama’s selective leaking, John Brennan, Tom Donilon, and Denis McDonough.

But it also thanks Obama personally.

(It also thanks CIA Director David Petraeus, a man who never met press coverage he didn’t like.)

Look, I’d love to imagine that Obama would have made the political effort to give Osama bin Laden a trial had he been captured alive. I’ve even rationalized how much easier that would be, given that we presumably would avoid the whole torture phase that has made trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

There are both political and legal reasons why it serves Obama’s interests to say he considered the possibilities of a live capture followed by a trial. And given how closely Bowden worked with those trying to make the most of Obama’s OBL killing, I don’t see any reason to treat the claim as credible.

And this book–with Obama’s top aides identified as sources so clearly–is yet another reason why I think Mark Bissonnette won’t experience any legal troubles for publishing a book covering the same topic.

As Fraud History Emerges for Bales, US Pushes FISA Court as Ideal for Afghan Night Raid Approval

The background for Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, the suspect in the mass killing of civilians in Afghanistan last week, became much murkier with the revelation that his career as an investment manager ended in a judgment of $1.4 million against him for fraud. He was accused of “churning” a client’s retirement account, selling off holdings in safer investments to purchase more volatile penny stocks. In the meantime, the fallout from the attack continues, as the US continues its effort to reach a SOFA agreement with Afghanistan ahead of the NATO summit in Chicago scheduled for May. The latest offering appears to be establishment of a system in which Afghan judges would be put into position to approve “warrants” before night raids take place. Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough took to the airwaves on NPR this morning to hold up the US FISA court as the shining example on which the Afghan system should be modeled.

In this morning’s Washington Post, we get quite a few details on the fraud case against Bales. The former client, Gary Liebschner, had employed the firm Bales worked for to manage his retirement account:

That is not the man that Liebschner said he dealt with when Bales was much younger and listed as the “investment executive” on his retirement account. The fund held stock that Liebschner had inherited and earned during his AT&T days, as well as other investments.

/snip/

A severe reaction to medication left Liebschner hospitalized and in a rehabilitation center from November 1998 until June 1999. At the time, his wife, Janet, who took time off from her nursing job, was pressed for money to cover car and mortgage payments, as well as the cost of renovations to their home to make it wheelchair-accessible, she said.

She hadn’t previously been in charge of the couple’s finances, she said, but after she began to examine account statements, she realized that the fund had been severely depleted.

Her husband’s retirement account had nearly $700,000 in 1998, his statements show. By early 2000, the fund had about $30,000 in it.

That is an appallingly bad job of investment management, and it is easy to see how a finding of fraud was found against Bales and the firm for which he worked. A big caveat here, though, is whether Janet Liebschner withdrew funds to cover the home renovation and other expenses listed, and if so, how much was withdrawn. We don’t have the exact dates of when the account sat at about $700,000 or when it was found to be depleted, but the period of 1998 through 2000 was fairly robust for investments. Below is a chart of the Dow Jones Industrial Average from the beginning of 1998 through the end of 2000. There was a dip in mid-1998 that gave up the gains from earlier that year, but then from the fall of 1998 through the end of 2000, the market advanced by roughly 33%, from about 7500 to about 10,000: Continue reading

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