I do hope the Harvard students who listened to this speech from CIA General Counsel Stephen Preston–in which he purported to explain what a law-abiding agency the CIA is and which appears to be the CIA’s effort to prove that the Anwar al-Awlaki killing was legal–are sophisticated enough to realize he, like all spooks, was peddling deceit. I’ll get to those details below.
But first I want to focus on how he bookends his claim that CIA’s “activities are subject to strict internal and external scrutiny.”
He starts by admitting that courts and citizens are not part of this “external scrutiny.”
It is true that a lot of what the CIA does is shielded from public view, and for good reason: much of what the CIA does is a secret! Secrecy is absolutely essential to a functioning intelligence service, and a functioning intelligence service is absolutely essential to national security, today no less than in the past. This is not lost on the federal judiciary. The courts have long recognized the state secrets privilege and have consistently upheld its proper invocation to protect intelligence sources and methods from disclosure. Moreover, federal judges have dismissed cases on justiciability or political question grounds, acknowledging that the courts are, at times, institutionally ill-equipped and constitutionally incapable of reviewing national security decisions committed to the President and the political branches.
Let’s unpack the logic of this: first, CIA operations are subject to strict “external scrutiny.” But because–”national security”–such external scrutiny is not possible.
Next, Preston claims that the courts have been in the business of consistently upholding the “proper invocation” of state secrets “to protect intelligence sources and methods.” Of course, just about every invocation of state secrets has been subsequently or contemporaneously shown to be an effort to protect–at best–misconduct and, in most cases, illegal activities: things like kidnapping, illegal wiretapping, and torture. So when he describes this “proper invocation” of states secrets, he is effectively saying that when lawsuits threatened to expose CIA’s law-breaking, courts have willingly dismissed those cases in the name of sources and methods.
And even before it gets to that stage, courts will bow to the Executive Branch’s claim that only Congress and the Executive can decide what forms of law-breaking by the CIA will be tolerated; courts are “ill-equipped” to judge the legality of illegal actions if those illegal actions are committed by the CIA.
So to prove that CIA’s ops are subject to “external scrutiny,” Preston starts by admitting that two of the most important agents of external scrutiny–citizens and courts–don’t actually exercise any scrutiny, particularly in cases where the government is willing to invoke state secrets to shield illegal activities.
Back when John Negroponte appointed him to be the Director of National Intelligence’s Civil Liberties Protection Officer, Alexander Joel admitted he had no problem with Cheney’s illegal domestic wiretap program.
When the NSA wiretapping program began, Mr. Joel wasn’t working for the intelligence office, but he says he has reviewed it and finds no problems. The classified nature of the agency’s surveillance work makes it difficult to discuss, but he suggests that fears about what the government might be doing are overblown.
“Although you might have concerns about what might potentially be going on, those potentials are not actually being realized and if you could see what was going on, you would be reassured just like everyone else,” he says.
That should trouble you, because he’s the cornerstone of oversight over the National Counterterrorism Center’s expanded ability to obtain and do pattern analysis on US person data.
The Guidelines describe such oversight to include the following:
There are a few reasons to be skeptical of this. First, rather than replicate the audits recently mandated under the PATRIOT Act–in which the DOJ Inspector General develops the metrics, these Guidelines have NCTC develop the metrics themselves. And they’re designed to go to the CLPO, who officially reports to the NCTC head, rather than an IG with some independence.
That is, to a large extent, this oversight consists of NCTC reporting to itself.
In September, I wrote about EFF’s efforts to find out whether Obama had an Intelligence Oversight Board–the board that’s supposed to provide some outside review over potential problems and abuses in the intelligence community.
And the results show a distinct lack of intelligence. Meaning, they’re kind of dumb.
There are three documents:
Maybe I’m just being persnickety, but that appears to suggest ODNI doesn’t know whether David Boren is a Co-Chair of IOB, or just its third member.
And note that the name of the person who puts together James Clapper’s Holiday Party is a secret. Cause the terrorists will win if they know who sets up our intelligence community holiday parties, I guess.
Frankly, maybe the big question is not who the members of IOB are, but who the staffers are, because it appears that between December 2009 and October 2010, IOB got new staffers, seemingly replacing Homer Pointer (who had gone on the record several times complaining about the non-existent IOB) with Ray Heddings (who had worked at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency) as Counsel.
So while at one level, these three documents may tell us nothing. At another, they make me wonder whether the Administration’s solution to rising questions about the IOB was simply to replace the guy, internally, who actually cared?
I’ve written recently about Obama’s refusal to appoint anyone to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which is supposed to ensure the government protects privacy while laying out a dragnet to catch terrorists, most recently when Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton issued their 10-year report card on the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations. And I wrote about Bush’s efforts to bypass the intelligence oversight that is supposed to be exercised by the Intelligence Oversight Board by simply eliminating the part of the Presidential Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board that did that oversight, the IOB.
But it seems Obama has ensured–as he has with PCLOB–that IOB can’t do its job. Or at least that’s the appearance from the government’s stone-walling on information about the board.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been trying to see whether Obama has fulfilled his promise to restore the IOB to functionality by FOIAing who is on it and what they’ve been doing (and whether they’ve been ignoring the National Security Letters the Army has been sending out).Thus far, the government has denied their FOIA.
The IOB is supposed to alert the president and attorney general when it spots behavior that is unlawful or contrary to executive order. However, in his nearly three years in office, President Obama has not yet announced any appointments to the IOB. EFF’s suit comes after the ODNI refused to respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for membership, vacancies, and other information about the IOB made earlier this year.
“The IOB has a critically important mission – civilian oversight of America’s intelligence activities. The board exists to make sure government agencies are not overstepping their authority and abusing citizens’ rights,” said EFF Open Government Legal Fellow Mark Rumold. “History has shown that intelligence agencies overseeing their own behavior is like the fox guarding the henhouse. If the IOB is ineffective, impaired, or short-staffed, that’s information Americans need to know.”
So now they’re suing to get that information.
But there’s something else weird about Obama’s stone-walling here. Here’s the list of people Obama has appointed to the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, the board that oversees the IOB.
You know, Lee Hamilton, the 9/11 Commission Chair who just weeks ago was nagging the Administration that, “there should be a board within the executive branch to oversee adherence to the [privacy] guidelines we recommend and the commitment the government makes to defend our civil liberties.” And Phillip Zelikow, who wasn’t involved in the anniversary nagging, but who was involved in the original recommendation? (FWIW, Chuck Hagel voted for PCLOB as part of the larger counterterrorism reform package of which it was a part.)
These men obviously think (or at least used to think) our intelligence community needs some oversight. I realize PCLOB isn’t the same thing as IOB (as originally conceived and even as statutorily defined PCLOB was supposed to be stronger in some ways than IOB, though it was targeted at privacy, not intelligence violations). So why not push for oversight designated to be a part of the board on which they serve?
Seven years ago, Hamilton and Zelikow signed off on the this language:
[W]hile protecting our homeland, Americans should be mindful of threats to vital personal and civil liberties. This balancing is no easy task, but we must constantly strive to keep it right.
This shift of power and authority to the government calls for an enhanced system of checks and balances to protect the precious liberties that are vital to our way of life.
Right now, even as Hamilton and Zelikow serve as Obama’s handpicked independent intelligence advisors, the checks and balances on our intelligence system are actually worse than when they signed off on those words. They may not be able to do anything about EFF’s FOIA to learn what has become of the IOB. But it’d be nice if they used their advisory position to implement checks and balances more generally on the intelligence community.
Smintheus provides a good background on Bush’s Executive Order to gut PFIAB (h/t scribe).
On Friday afternoon the White House posted without fanfare a new Executive Order that revamps an important though little known intelligence board. There are a few minor changes, but the most radical revision appears to be that the board has now been stripped of nearly all its powers to investigate and check illegal intelligence activities. It’s difficult to see what legitimate reasons there could have been for gutting the oversight activities of the board in this way, and the WH has not explained the changes.
The newly revised IOB is much more passive. Gone is the duty to review agency guidelines regarding illegal intelligence activities. Gone is the duty to hold accountable the intelligence watchdog offices, such as inspectors general, who are supposed to serve as a bulwark against illegal activities.
Gone is the duty ("shall…forward") to take illegal activities directly to the Attorney General.
I wanted to add just a few details of context.
First, recall that the referrals by IOB–and the absence of any response to such referrals–got Alberto Gonzales in trouble.
In 2005, Gonzales had assured Congress there were no violations of privacy associated with the PATRIOT Act. But last year it became clear that Gonzales received reports of at least six violations.
As he sought to renew the USA Patriot Act two years ago, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales assured lawmakers that the FBI had not abused its potent new terrorism-fighting powers. "There has not been one verified case of civil liberties abuse," Gonzales told senators on April 27, 2005.
Six days earlier, the FBI sent Gonzales a copy of a report that said its agents had obtained personal information that they were not entitled to have. It was one of at least half a dozen reports of legal or procedural violations that Gonzales received in the three months before he made his statement to the Senate intelligence committee, according to internal FBI documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
When cornered on his lie, Gonzales invented some mumbo jumbo about how violations that get reported to the IOB aren’t really violations.