Tommy Vietor

Did Tommy Vietor Hang Out CIA on UndieBomb 2.0?

The same day that the White House released 94 pages of Benghazi emails, which not only show that most at CIA supported the talking points used by the Administration but also include annotations of the CIA roles involved that reveal far more about CIA’s structure than any FOIA response I’ve ever seen, Tommy Vietor went on the record about UndieBomb 2.0 with both the WaPo and MSNBC. It appears he did so to reinforce the fear-mongering language Eric Holder used (though like Holder, Vietor doesn’t explain why John Brennan got a promotion after contributing to such a damaging leak). He said this to WaPo.

Vietor said that it would be a mistake to dismiss the unauthorized disclosure because al-Qaeda failed to carry out its plot.

“We shouldn’t pretend that this leak of an unbelievably sensitive dangerous piece of information is okay because nobody died,” he said.

But the WaPo account also seems to serve (like the Benghazi email dump does) to place blame on CIA.

It answers a question I hinted at yesterday: whether the CIA and White House were on different pages on what to do with the AP story. Reportedly, after AP had given the CIA time to kill Fahd al-Quso (the WaPo doesn’t mention that was the purpose of the delay), CIA’s Mike Morell told the AP the security issue had been addressed, but asked for one more day. As AP considered that request, the White House overrode that discussion.

Michael J. Morell, the CIA’s deputy director, gave AP reporters some additional background information to persuade them to hold off, Vietor said. The agency needed several days more to protect what it had in the works.

Then, in a meeting on Monday, May 7, CIA officials reported that the national security concerns were “no longer an issue,” according to the individuals familiar with the discussion.

When the journalists rejected a plea to hold off longer, the CIA then offered a compromise. Would they wait a day if AP could have the story exclusively for an hour, with no government officials confirming it for that time?

The reporters left the meeting to discuss the idea with their editors. Within an hour, an administration official was on the line to AP’s offices.

The White House had quashed the one-hour offer as impossible. AP could have the story exclusively for five minutes before the White House made its own announcement. AP then rejected the request to postpone publication any longer.

This must be the crux of the animosity here. CIA told AP the danger had passed (though according to some reports, our informant was still in Yemen). At that point, the AP should have and ultimately did feel safe to publish. But then the White House made this ridiculous request, effectively refusing to let AP tell this story before the White House had a shot at it.

Which is why this claim, from Tommy Vietor, is so absurd.

But former White House national security spokesman Tommy Vietor, recalling the discussion in the administration last year, said officials were simply realistic in their response to AP’s story. They knew that if it were published, the White House would have to address it with an official, detailed statement.

“There was not some press conference planned to take credit for this,” Vietor said in an interview. “There was certainly an understanding [that] we’d have to mitigate and triage this and offer context for other reporters.”

Jeebus Pete! If your idea of “mitigating and triaging” AP’s fairly complimentary story is to make it far, far worse by hinting about the infiltrator, you’re doing it wrong!

Vietor, who presumably had a role in setting up the conference all at which Brennan tipped off Richard Clarke (though according to Brennan, he did not sit in on the call), insists to MSNBC that telling someone we had “inside control” of this plot does not constitute a gigantic clue that the entire plot was just a sting.

Tommy Vietor, then chief national security spokesman for the White House, disputed the idea that Brennan disclosed sensitive details in his background briefing and said  it was “ridiculous” to equate Brennan’s use of the  phrase  “inside control” with having an “informant.”

It’s a nonsense claim, of course. Someone fucked up the “mitigating and triaging” process, and that’s what made this leak so dangerous, not AP’s initial story. But, presumably because AP didn’t let White House tell the official story before they reported their scoop (and did they plan on telling us all we had inside control on the op if they got to tell the story first?!?), the AP has, as far as we know, borne the brunt of the investigation into the leak.

For the moment let me reiterate two more details.

It appears that Vietor is blaming CIA for the way this went down. And guess what? The guy who blathered about “inside control” has now taken over the CIA.

Then there’s this. Eric Holder noted yesterday that the investigation into David Petraeus for leaking classified information — understood to be limited to his mistress Paula Broadwell, mind you — is ongoing. That means the FBI interview he had on April 10 was not sufficient to answer concerns about his involvement in leaking classified information.

It’s interesting this is coming down to a conflict between White House and CIA, isn’t it?

There’s a Place for Resolving Disputes, and the Administration Chose Not To Use It

As I was writing my flurry of posts on the AP call record seizure yesterday, former National Security Council Spokesperson Tommy Vietor and I were chatting about the facts of the case on Twitter. He disputes two of the AP’s claims: that they held the story as long as the Administration wanted them to, and that the White House had planned an announcement.

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Now, as I have said in the past, I’m somewhat skeptical of the White House’s claims, given that their story changed as the story was blowing up. Furthermore, the White House had done a big dog-and-pony show on a similar operation — the thwarting of the Toner Cartridge plot in 2010, which was also tipped by a Saudi infiltrator. So it is reasonable to believe they planned to do another one in 2012.

That said, note that the AP’s latest version of this is rather vague about whom they were discussing the story with, referring only to “federal government officials,” whereas previously they had referred to “White House and CIA” requests.

So there may well be some confusion about what happened, or it may be that David Petraeus’ CIA was planning a dog-and-pony show that the White House didn’t know about. No one seems to dispute, however, that the AP did consult with the White House and CIA, and did hold the story long enough to allow the government to kill Fahd al-Quso, all of which the Administration seems to have forgotten.

In short, behind the broad call record grab, there’s a legitimate dispute about key details regarding how extensively the AP ceded to White House wishes before publishing a story the Attorney General now claims was the worst leak ever.

But there’s a place where people go to resolve such disputes. It’s called a court.

And as this great piece by the New Yorker’s counsel, Lynn Oberlander on the issue notes, one of the worst parts of the way DOJ seized the AP records is that it prevented the AP from challenging the subpoena — and the details that are now being disputed — in court.

The cowardly move by the Justice Department to subpoena two months of the A.P.’s phone records, both of its office lines and of the home phones of individual reporters, is potentially a breach of the Justice Department’s own guidelines. Even more important, it prevented the A.P. from seeking a judicial review of the action. Some months ago, apparently, the government sent a subpoena (or subpoenas) for the records to the phone companies that serve those offices and individuals, and the companies provided the records without any notice to the A.P. If subpoenas had been served directly on the A.P. or its individual reporters, they would have had an opportunity to go to court to file a motion to quash the subpoenas. What would have happened in court is anybody’s guess—there is no federal shield law that would protect reporters from having to testify before a criminal grand jury—but the Justice Department avoided the issue altogether by not notifying the A.P. that it even wanted this information. Even beyond the outrageous and overreaching action against the journalists, this is a blatant attempt to avoid the oversight function of the courts.

I obviously don’t know better than Oberlander what would have happened. But I do suspect the subpoena would have been — at a minimum –sharply curtailed so as to shield the records of the 94 journalists whose contacts got sucked up along with the 6 journalists who worked on the story.

Moreover, I think these underlying disputed facts — as well as the evidence that the gripe about the AP story (as opposed to the later stories that exposed MI5′s role in the plot) has everything to do with the AP scooping the White House — may well have led a judge to throw out the entire subpoena.

If the AP had been able to present proof, after all, that the White House (or even the CIA) had told them the story wouldn’t damage national security, then it would have had a very compelling argument that the public interest in finding out their source is less urgent than the damage this subpoena would do to the free press.

So I don’t know what would have happened. But I do know it is a real dispute that may well have a significant impact on the subpoena.

And that’s why we have courts, after all, to review competing claims.

Of course, the Obama Administration has an extensive history of choosing not to use the courts as an opportunity to present their case. Most importantly (and intimately connected to this story), the government has chosen not to present their case against Anwar al-Awlaki on four different occasions: the Nasser al-Awlaki suit, the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab trial, the ACLU/NYT FOIAs, and now the wrongful death suit. This serial refusal to try to prove the claims they make about their counterterrorism efforts in Yemen doesn’t suggest they’re very confident that the facts are on their side.

Which may well be why DOJ chose to just go seize the phone contacts rather than trusting their claims to a judge.

Tommy Vietor and I Exchange On the Record Non-Dickish Comments

Back in the days, just weeks ago, when Tommy Vietor was the National Security Council Spokesperson, I tended to attribute the dickish comments made by Senior Administration Officials in articles in which he was also quoted to him.

When he left, we had this exchange on Twitter.

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I will say this for him. He’s a good sport.

I don’t envy his position trying to claim the Obama Administration lives up to its self-billing as the Most Transparent Administration Evah™, based on releasing White House visitor logs.

All that said, I would have added two points to the exchange above.

First, the Administration is not conducting counterterrorism exclusively under the AUMF.

Obama’s own Administration went to the mat in 2009 to prevent a short phrase — maybe 6 words — from being released under FOIA making it clear that torture was originally conducted under the September 17, 2001 Gloves Come Off Memorandum of Notification on President Bush’s authorization alone. And they managed to win that battle by arguing the MON — which authorizes targeting killing, among other things — is still active. So, no, Tommy, the Administration is not operating — not exclusively anyway — under the AUMF.

Also, what the fuck kind of democracy are we if we require lawsuits for basic democracy to take place? It’s all well and good of Vietor to say we (only Trevor Timm of the three of us really has the funds to sue sue sue, and even then, only in selective situations) should just sue our way to democracy. But the law says we shouldn’t have to sue.

Anyway, it was a particularly fun appearance, and great to be on with Kevin Gosztola and Trevor Timm as well.

ACLU, Obama’s White Whale

Screen shot 2013-02-28 at 10.47.36 AMNPR’s Carrie Johnson, ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer, and I discussed yesterday whether the Administration decided to blow off the House Judiciary Committee panel on targeted killing because appearing and answering questions might compromise their uncompromising stance in the targeted killing FOIA.

It’s a point Ben Wittes made in a response to my query from yesterday,

I can’t imagine what kind of stupidity drove the decision to blow off the committee.

(Note, thanks to Wittes for displaying my potty-mouth in its well-celebrated glory; MSNBC Lawfare is not.)

In which he suggests both John Brennan’s nomination and ACLU’s FOIA may have driven that decision.

I can imagine two reasons, though I agree with Marcy that it was stupid—and, I will also add, wrong—of the administration to stiff the committee. The first is John Brennan’s pending confirmation. The last thing administration wants right now, prior to a Senate vote on Brennan, is to create a forum in which officials get more questions on targeted killings.

The second reason, as I said at the hearing, is FOIA litigation. Every disclosure prompts more demands for more disclosures and prompts arguments that material is not, in fact, secret. So there’s a hunker-down-and-say-nothing mentality that has kicked in. As I say, it’s wrong. And as the tone of yesterday’s hearing—where Republicans and Democrats alike were clamoring for judicial review of targeting decisions—shows, the administration has a lot of work to do with Congress if it means to maintain confidence in its policies—work that will have to be done, at least in part, in public. But it’s not hard, in my opinion, to imagine what’s behind it.

First, with regards to Brennan’s nomination, I present this:

The Senate intelligence committee on Wednesday postponed until next week a vote on the confirmation of White House aide John Brennan to be CIA director, dashing hopes of Democratic leaders who had hoped to have a vote on Thursday.

[snip]

No explanation for the delay was immediately available. However, the Obama administration has been at odds with members of the committee’s Democratic majority over White House unwillingness to disclose some highly classified legal documents related to “targeted killings,” including the use of lethal drone strikes against suspected militants.

[snip]

On Wednesday, administration officials met with intelligence committee members to discuss the contents of the disputed documents. Copies of the material were not turned over to the committee, however, said a source familiar with the matter.

On Tuesday, the Administration shared the Benghazi emails with the Benghazi Truthers, which had been their plan to move Brennan’s nomination forward without turning over any more memos. And while some Republicans, just moments after they received the emails, made a mild stink about Brennan’s thoroughly predictable involvement in efforts to craft talking points about the attack, by Wednesday, that already proved insufficient to move the nomination.

By Wednesday, the Administration was sharing more information on the memos, not Benghazi. And then, after sharing such information, we learn the Administration has been left to stew over the weekend.

Now, perhaps the leaks to National Journal changed the game:

A senator who sits on the Intelligence Committee and has read some of the memos also said that the still-unreleased memos contain secret protocols with the governments of Yemen and Pakistan on how targeted killings should be conducted. Information about these pacts, however, were not in the OLC opinions the senator has been allowed to see. The senator, who also would speak to National Journal only on condition of anonymity, said the only memos that the committee has been given represent mainly legal analysis justifying the drone strikes, and that the rest contain “case-specific” facts about operations.

In response to which an anonymous official who looks like Tommy Vietor made dickish comments about how unreasonable it would be to let the Senate Intelligence Committee exercise oversight and how mean it is to use confirmations to insist on being able to do so because it just feeds into Republican plots.

An Obama administration official who is familiar with the negotiations with Feinstein’s committee indicated that the White House was miffed at efforts by the senator and her staff to obtain all the memos at once, because such efforts play into the Republican strategy of using the dispute to delay the confirmation of John Brennan, Obama’s nominee to head the CIA and the main architect of the drone program, as well as Chuck Hagel as Defense secretary.

“These guys don’t even know what the hell they’re asking for,” the official said. “They think they can ‘reverse-engineer’ the [drone] program by asking for more memos, but these are not necessarily things that exist or are relevant…. What they’re asking for is to get more people read into very sensitive programs. That’s not a small decision.”

Perhaps senior administration officials leaking information presumably contained in the memos to the NYT didn’t help matters.

And while lofty Senators on Intelligence Committees usually couldn’t give a damn about lowly Congressman on Judiciary Committees, I can’t imagine yesterday’s hearing helped. Because in that hearing, a bunch of very partisan Republicans made a case that will be credible to moderates and civil libertarians like me (not to mention, really feed the Tea Partiers) that the Administration is abusing its power, both in regards to the way it is treating Congress, but also in its claims to potentially unchecked authority. (Note, on that front, I owe HJC Chair Bob Goodlatte an apology: it was a well-run and well-crafted hearing.)

With the Talking Point emails shared, Benghazi is frittering out, and the Republicans will need a new scandal to fundraise off of. And a potential fight over whether or not the President has to say whether he thinks he can kill Americans in America has the distinct advantage over both Fast and Furious (their most successful scandal to date) and Benghazi (which wasn’t nearly as successful) in that people across the political spectrum (save those who think Obama should be trusted with this authority because, well, he’s trustworthy) may think it’s reasonable.

That is, while (some) Republicans may only be picking this up because it demonstrates the Administration’s double standard with respect to the Bush Administration, or because their prerogatives have been slighted, or because they figure this paranoid level of secrecy might be hiding real misconduct, the targeting killing memos are close to reaching a tipping point at which they turn into a real political issue.

And that may be what the Administration will be stewing over this weekend.

In the face of that threat, then, there’s just the FOIA. Mean old ACLU Legal Director Jameel Jaffer, FOIAing for more information on the President’s authority to kill Americans (and also, it should be said, helping the Awlaki and Khan families sue for wrongful death). How dare he do that, even if John Brennan, in one of the Administration’s key counterterrorism speeches, emphasized how important presumptive disclosure on FOIA was?

Our democratic values also include—and our national security demands—open and transparent government. Some information obviously needs to be protected. And since his first days in office, President Obama has worked to strike the proper balance between the security the American people deserve and the openness our democratic society expects.

[snip]

The President also issued a Freedom of Information Act Directive mandating that agencies adopt a presumption of disclosure when processing requests for information.

So what if John Brennan says the terrorists will win if the Administration plays stupid games with FOIA? There are lawsuits to be won, damnit!

Now, I have no doubt that the Administration might delay Congressional oversight solely to gain an advantage over the ACLU. Not only did Daniel Klaidman’s sources reveal such suits were at the forefront of their considerations when deciding not to be as transparent as promised, but it appears the Administration already delayed Congressional oversight so as to gain an advantage in ACLU’s FOIA suit.

So yes, it is likely that is one of the reasons DOJ chose to snub the Committee, thereby making this issue more of a political issue.

But it seems the Administration has lost all perspective about how those FOIAs might play out. That’s true, as Jack Goldsmith pointed out, because even if a judge rules that the Administration has revealed what it has been trying to avoid revealing, it’s not the end of the FOIA world for them.

But what if the Court does rule that the USG has acknowledged CIA’s involvement in drone strikes?  What would the ACLU gain, since the whole world already knows this fact?  Such a ruling would require CIA to file a Vaughn index listing responsive documents to the CIA request.  But at that point the government would have further legal options for non-disclosure.  As I once explained:

Even if the D.C. Circuit concludes that the USG has in effect officially acknowledged CIA involvement in drone strikes, however, it need not follow that the CIA must cough up a list of all responsive documents.  These lists alone – which typically contain document titles, dates, and the like – can disclose quite a lot about what the CIA is doing.  Some of the information in a Vaughn index might reveal or point to sources and methods or other properly classified information that would harm national security.  I see no reason why the D.C. Circuit could not rule that the USG has acknowledged CIA involvement, but then rule that (a) the CIA need not produce a Vaughn index if doing so would disclose properly classified information, or (b) the CIA must produce a Vaughn index but can redact any entries in the index (including all of them) that would, if revealed, disclose properly classified information.  Option (a) was suggested by Judge Easterbrook in Bassiouni v. CIA, 392 F. 3d 244 (7th Cir. 2005) – an approach that, as Easterbrook noted, is entirely consistent with the FOIA statute.  Option (b) is simply a more fine-grained substitute for the Easterbrook approach that would force the government to explain its redactions (and which need be no trickier than the already-tricky process of forcing the government to explain why the documents referenced in a Vaughn index need not be disclosed).

Even if ACLU wins on the “official acknowledgment” issue, in short, it has a long way to go to get the records it seeks.  But as we have seen more than once in the last decade, even heavily redacted Vaughn indexes can reveal important information and constitute the basis for further FOIA requests and further disclosures (through FOIA or other means).

I’d add that, at least in the 2nd Circuit, the Administration seems to be protected by overly broad protection for the Memorandum of Notification that authorizes targeted killing and everything else.

And unless there are really big disclosures in there that even I can’t imagine (plus, who besides me is going to look that closely?), there’s simply nothing that will come out in FOIA that will be more damaging than inciting the Republicans to turn this — a real example of abuse of power — into their next political scandal.

Trust me, Obama folks, you made the wrong calculation here, and you’d do well to reverse course before it’s too late.

Though I will make one final caveat.

I don’t think the FOIA could be all that damaging to the Administration.

But I do think the wrongful death suit might. This discussion will make it very hard for the Administration to dismiss of this counterterrorism suit the same way they have every other one, by invoking state secrets (and while there might be standing issues, particularly for Nasser al-Awlaki, Sam Alito won’t be able to suggest the Awlakis and Khans can’t prove their family members were killed in a US drone strike). And having lost the veil of state secrets, there are all sorts of issues that might come out, both about Awlaki’s history, and about why the FBI let Samir Khan leave when every other known radical trying to head to Yemen gets arrested before he boards a plane.

And, quite simply, if they can’t prevent Khan from pursuing this wrongful death suit, some interesting legal conclusions.

So while I think to the extent the Administration is still stalling Congress because of the FOIA, they’re crazy. If that’s the case, they’d be risking giving Republicans a really dangerous issue to politicize next.

All that said, I think the wrongful death suit may present real issues for them, particularly as this information becomes more public. But if it does, then it just serves to prove that the case for killing Awlaki and Khan and Abdulrahman doesn’t withstand legal review.

US Media Shocked–Shocked!!–by Press Secretary’s Glomar on Drones

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Kudos to Chris Hayes for getting his now MSNBC colleague Robert Gibbs to admit that he was instructed, effectively, to give a Glomar — neither confirm nor deny — about the drone program.

“When I went through the process of becoming press secretary, one of the first things they told me was, ‘You’re not even to acknowledge the drone program. You’re not even to discuss that it exists,” said Gibbs, now an MSNBC contributor. That policy of secrecy, Gibbs said, made it difficult to deal with reporters asking about the program. Describing one such notable exchange in 2009 with Major Garrett, then of Fox News, Gibbs said, “I would get a question like that and literally I couldn’t tell you what Major asked, because once I figured out it was about the drone program, I realize I’m not supposed to talk about it.”

Gibbs added: “Here’s what’s inherently crazy about that proposition: you’re being asked a question based on reporting of a program that exists. So you’re the official government spokesperson acting as if the entire program…pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

[snip]

“I think you’ve seen recently the president discuss the need and desire to be more forthcoming,” Gibbs said. “I have not talked to him about this, so I want to be careful, this is my opinion, but I think what the president has seen is, our denial of the existence of the program when it’s obviously happening undermines people’s confidence overall in the decisions that their government makes.” [my emphasis]

The press seems shocked by this. But the instruction to Gibbs to neither confirm nor deny is precisely parallel to the response the national security establishment has given to NYT and ACLU under FOIA: based on its claim that the program itself has never been officially confirmed (Gibbs, conveniently, is no longer on the payroll, so this exchange will be added to the long list of confirmations the program exists that get discounted as confirmation by judges), the government also refuses to confirm or deny that they have documents explaining things like how an American can be killed under the program.

Of course Gibbs has to neither confirm nor deny, because if he didn’t the government would have to share information about the program with mere citizens.

But the requirement that Gibbs issue the public equivalent of a Glomar — along with the press’ seeming surprise about this — is a testament that the government puts more stock in maintaining legal deniability in the face of crumbling actual deniability than in maintaining its democratic legitimacy.

That is, for whatever reason (and I suspect it’s a combination of legal concern about the actions actually committed and an unwillingness to reveal the real state of our relationships with the Pakistanis, Saudis, and Yemenis), the Administration is willing to have even its former press secretary suggest this treatment of widely acknowledged covert operations undermines the faith in government more generally.

Gibbs, for his part, seems to think the Administration is moving to make these things more transparent. Meanwhile, someone who looks suspiciously like Gibbs’ former colleague at the National Security Council, Tommy Vietor, is bitching at the Intelligence Committees because they insist on being briefed on the drone program they’re supposed to be overseeing.

“These guys don’t even know what the hell they’re asking for,” the official said. “They think they can ‘reverse-engineer’ the [drone] program by asking for more memos, but these are not necessarily things that exist or are relevant…. What they’re asking for is to get more people read into very sensitive programs. That’s not a small decision.”

I’d say this Tommy Vietor lookalike probably has a better read on the Administration’s interest in transparency than Gibbs at this point.

The White House’s Self-Authorization to Use Military Force in Algeria and Mali

Back when the Administration dug in its heels over releasing 7 OLC memos on targeted killing, I suggested at least some of the authorized targeted killing in places we’re not at war.

This National Journal story seems to suggest that that’s correct, at least in the case of Mali and Algeria.

Others may have been signed with the leaders of Algeria and Mali, the legal expert said. Given the widespread unpopularity of the drone program, the disclosure of these agreements could prove extremely embarrassing both for the United States and partner governments.

I have also suggested (though usually verbally) that others of the missing 7 memos authorize signature strikes in the two places we’re using them — Pakistan and Yemen. And while the NJ story is more confused on this point (it seems unclear how many memos there are, for example), it does appear that several of the memos involve secret protocols with those two countries.

A senator who sits on the Intelligence Committee and has read some of the memos also said that the still-unreleased memos contain secret protocols with the governments of Yemen and Pakistan on how targeted killings should be conducted. Information about these pacts, however, were not in the OLC opinions the senator has been allowed to see.

I’d be really curious how much the Yemeni memo involves protocols with Yemen, and how much it involves protocols with our buddies the Saudis.

The best part of the story, though, is the cranky Administration figure who may or may not be Tommy Vietor bitching that Dianne Feinstein would use this opportunity to force the Administration to hand over what it would otherwise refuse to hand over.

An Obama administration official who is familiar with the negotiations with Feinstein’s committee indicated that the White House was miffed at efforts by the senator and her staff to obtain all the memos at once, because such efforts play into the Republican strategy of using the dispute to delay the confirmation of John Brennan, Obama’s nominee to head the CIA and the main architect of the drone program, as well as Chuck Hagel as Defense secretary.

“These guys don’t even know what the hell they’re asking for,” the official said. “They think they can ‘reverse-engineer’ the [drone] program by asking for more memos, but these are not necessarily things that exist or are relevant…. What they’re asking for is to get more people read into very sensitive programs. That’s not a small decision.”

Uh, last I checked the only Republican — on the Senate Intelligence Committee, at least — who has made a stink about the OLC memos is Susan Collins (though given the reporting on this front, which says only Democrats care about memos, I think she may have flipped parties). The Democrats — plus Collins — who are pushing for memos are pushing to conduct oversight, not to delay the confirmation of Brennan and Hagel per se.

Maybe if the Administration hadn’t adopted a worse transparency standard than Bush lawyer Steven Bradbury, it wouldn’t leave key votes like this the only opportunity to conduct oversight.

But that’s a choice the Administration made, not some Republicans — or even Democrats — in the Senate.

I’m Confused. Are THESE Leaks Permissible, or Not?

As you read this Reuters story, remember that the House voted to mandate investigations into leaks that undermined Israel’s case for war against Iran and that the biggest new news in David Sanger’s reporting on StuxNet is that Joe Biden and others believed the Israelis set StuxNet free of Natanz. Leaks that inconvenience Israel’s hawks, you see, are bad, even if they serve US interests.

The Reuters story is a response to two reports in Ha’aretz yesterday that a new NIE–or maybe not an NIE but a top intelligence report–says Iran is closer to developing nukes than the US previously believed.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak confirmed on Thursday Haaretz’s report that President Barack Obama recently received a new National Intelligence Estimate report on the Iranian nuclear program, which shares Israel’s view that Iran has made significant progress toward military nuclear capability, and said that the report has raised the urgency of the issue.

Speaking on Israel Radio on Thursday morning, Barak said that there is a U.S. intelligence report “being passed around senior offices,” and that, as far as Israel knows, this report has brought the U.S. position over Iran closer to the Israeli position, and made the issue more urgent.

[snip]

Haaretz reported on Thursday that the National Intelligence Estimate report on Iran was supposed to have been submitted to Obama a few weeks ago, but it was revised to include new and alarming intelligence information about military components of Iran’s nuclear program. Haaretz has learned that the report’s conclusions are quite similar to those drawn by Israel’s intelligence community.

Not a single member of Congress called for a witch hunt into who leaked the NIE–or maybe not an NIE but a top intelligence report–to Israel and/or Ha’aretz.

Apparently, it’s okay to leak intelligence to Israel if it helps build a case (just in time to roll out a new product in September, I’ll note) for war, but not if it hampers Israel’s efforts to gin up a war. Is that the rule?

If so, what about this Reuters story?

In it, we have anonymous sources back in full force, refuting (sort of) those reports. Note the sourcing.

The United States still believes that Iran is not on the verge of having a nuclear weapon and that Tehran has not made a decision to pursue one, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

[snip]

But a White House National Security Council spokesman disputed the Israeli reports, saying the U.S. intelligence assessment of Iran’s nuclear activities had not changed since intelligence officials delivered testimony to Congress on the issue earlier this year.

“We believe that there is time and space to continue to pursue a diplomatic path, backed by growing international pressure on the Iranian government,” the spokesman said. “We continue to assess that Iran is not on the verge of achieving a nuclear weapon.”

[snip]

Another U.S. official said the United States regularly exchanges intelligence reporting with its allies, which would include Israel.

Apparently, Tommy Vietor (or someone sitting next to him) felt obliged to refute the reports, but would not do so on the record, not even to back his two sentence quote in the Reuters report. It’s okay for Ehud Barak, who was fed this intelligence either in normal intelligence sharing or alternately just handed the US the report in question and now is claiming that the report has been incorporated into the NIE (says a US official who seems determined to provide some explanation for this leak), to talk about leaked US intelligence on the record, but it’s not okay for the NSC spokesperson to do so.

It’s a new twist on the A1 cutout Dick Cheney used, I’m fairly certain: launder the leak through leaks to Israel, because no one in Congress or DC generally (except the FBI) gives a damn about leaks to Israel.

Whatever. I’m thoroughly confused. Am I right that the leak to Israel is considered acceptable but now the sources for the Reuters report will be targets of a witch hunt?

At What Point Will the Administration Admit “American interests” Equal “What the Saudis Want”?

There are a couple of stories this weekend on our undeclared war in Yemen that deserve some close focus.

As I pointed out in the wake of the NYT and Daily Beast stories on drone targeting, the Administration had been successfully distracting attention from Obama’s embrace of signature strikes directed out of John Brennan’s office by focusing on the vetting that goes (or went) into the Kill List.

With that in mind, compare how Greg Miller reports on those issues in this story. A key source or sources for the story are one or more former US official who describe a liberalization of the Kill List.

Targets still have to pose a “direct threat” to U.S. interests, said a former high-ranking U.S. counterterrorism official. “But the elasticity of that has grown over time.”

[snip]

One of the U.S. objectives in Yemen has been “identifying who those leaders were in those districts that were al-Qaeda and also in charge of the rebellion,” said a former senior U.S. official who was involved in overseeing the campaign before leaving the government. “There was a little liberalization that went on in the kill lists that allowed us to go after them.”

[snip]

The effort nearly ground to a halt last year amid a political crisis that finally forced Yemen’s leader for three decades, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to step down. As he fought to cling to power, U.S. officials said they became concerned that he was trying to direct U.S. strikes against his adversaries under the guise of providing locations of supposed terrorist groups.

“There were times when we were intentionally misled, presumably by Saleh, to get rid of people he wanted to get rid of,” said the former U.S. official involved in overseeing the campaign.

Now, as I noted, both the AP and Daily Beast emphasized the importance of Mike Mullen (who left on September 30, the day we killed Anwar al-Awlaki) and James Cartwright (who left on August 3) to Kill List vetting. That was an aeon ago in our war on Yemen, though the discussion of pulling back on targeting because we finally admitted to ourselves that Ali Abdulllah Saleh was playing a double game with us did happen while they were still around. And, for the moment, I can’t think of any other similarly high-ranking people who have left.

Now compare what these former officials said with what current officials are telling Miller (well, ignore Tommy Vietor, because he’s obviously blowing smoke).

“We’re pursuing a focused counterterrorism campaign in Yemen designed to prevent and deter terrorist plots that directly threaten U.S. interests at home and abroad,” said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council. “We have not and will not get involved in a broader counterinsurgency effort.”

But other U.S. officials said that the administration’s emphasis on threats to interests “abroad” has provided latitude for expanding attacks on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the Yemen affiliate is known. Continue reading

Your Obligatory Fran Fragos Townsend Leak

Remember how the detail that UndieBomb 2.0 involved a Saudi infiltrator got out? John Brennan had a private teleconference with Richard Clarke and Fran Fragos Townsend and implied as much, which led to Clarke reporting it (and not long after, ABC confirming it with foreign sources).

At about 5:45 p.m. EDT on Monday, May 7, just before the evening newscasts, John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s top White House adviser on counter-terrorism, held a small, private teleconference to brief former counter-terrorism advisers who have become frequent commentators on TV news shows.

According to five people familiar with the call, Brennan stressed that the plot was never a threat to the U.S. public or air safety because Washington had “inside control” over it.

Brennan’s comment appears unintentionally to have helped lead to disclosure of the secret at the heart of a joint U.S.-British-Saudi undercover counter-terrorism operation.

A few minutes after Brennan’s teleconference, on ABC’s World News Tonight, Richard Clarke, former chief of counter-terrorism in the Clinton White House and a participant on the Brennan call, said the underwear bomb plot “never came close because they had insider information, insider control.”

Now, National Security Council Spokesperson Tommy Vietor, who aggressively but rather unconvincingly tried to claim that the Administration had never intended to publicly announce UndieBomb 2.0, is claiming that the Administration is obligated to hold such teleconferences because the Administration is obligated to be “transparent” about potential threats.

The Yemen plot had many intelligence and national security officials flummoxed and angered by its public airing.  Despite that, a senior administration official then briefed network counterterrorism analysts, including CNN’s Frances Townsend, about parts of the operation.

But such briefings are an “obligation” for the administration once a story like the Yemen plot is publicized, insisted National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.

“The reason that we brief former counterterrorism officials is because they are extremely conscientious about working with us about what can and cannot be said or disclosed,” Vietor told Security Clearance.  “They understand that there is an obligation for the U.S. to be transparent with American people about potential threats but will work with us to protect operational equities because they’ve walked in our shoes.”

This is the Administration that appears to have just fired a guy for revealing that the bankster threat is growing while the terrorist threat is diminishing, claiming they had to hold a teleconference with TV commentators just before prime time to make sure Americans regarded a Saudi-managed plot as a real threat.

Vietor’s in trouble. Presumably on his advice, the White House was prepping a big roll out of UndieBomb 2.0 the day after this call with Townsend and Clarke. Clearly, by going ahead with the teleconference, he was trying to get maximum spin value out of the plot, after the AP had broken it. Indeed, the detail that led Clarke to learn the “plot” was really a sting–that we (or our buddies the Saudis) were in control the whole time–is precisely the same spin that Brennan’s sanctioned leaks have pushed in the Kill List and StuxNet stories.

But for a variety of reasons, it has become politically costly to admit the White House had planned to spin this. And so, Tommy Vietor keeps trying to tell new stories, hoping one will hold together.

Continue reading

As Bush Did with Judy Miller, Obama Insta-Declassifies for David Ignatius

One more point about the David Ignatius wankfest today.

In his story pitching OBL as a still-ambitious terrorist rather than an out-of-touch idiot, David Ignatius claimed the documents he based his article on had already been declassified.

The scheme is described in one of the documents taken from bin Laden’s compound by U.S. forces on May 2, the night he was killed. I was given an exclusive look at some of these remarkable documents by a senior administration official. They have been declassified and will be available soon to the public in their original Arabic texts and translations. [my empahsis]

But National Security Council spokesperson Tommy Vietor says that’s not yet the case.

A White House spokesman confirmed that the documents found in the raid are in a declassification process that is “still ongoing,” and National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said it “would likely be a few months before they’re fully available” to the media and public. (The CIA had no comment.) [my emphasis]

Either these documents are declassified, in which case the White House should be handing them out to anyone who asks, or they’re not yet declassified, in which case, someone should be prosecuted for handing them to Ignatius.

The most likely explanation, however, is that the Administration is playing the same game the Bush Administration played with Judy Miller, sharing still-classified documents with a reporter who will spin things in a favorable light, so as to pre-empt any response a
more open assessment of the documents will have. That the Obama Administration is doing it to support his reelection and not an illegal war doesn’t make the ploy any less cynical.

Emptywheel Twitterverse
bmaz @zefirotorna If there are bigger pieces of human scum at this time on earth than McCulloch and @GovJayNixon it's hard to fathom who they are
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bmaz RT @zefirotorna: @bmaz Agree on @GovJayNixon. And he said no a special prosecutor about 6 hours ago. He and McCulloch are on this together.
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bmaz @KellyCDenver @larosalind this is actually Honergirl. Look them up on google. Just killer.
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bmaz Well @laRosalind I'm here with my Gin Blossom friends http://t.co/Eqc74Mk0DG
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emptywheel @FalguniSheth It's actually a family thing. My grandmother (or great grandmother) gets credit. @bmaz
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bmaz @ScottGreenfield That is Dara Lind, @DLind She is very cool and does excellent work. She is not your average Voxer.
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bmaz RT @emptywheel: Ya'll know the best way to make yummy turkey is to slather it all with bacon, right? http://t.co/nqlLQ4ABlh
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bmaz @nickmartin Cool. Let me know and we will get lunch again or something. Happy holidays!
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bmaz @nickmartin You back for Christmas this year?
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bmaz Would have been better if Obama had spared the life of Abdulrahman Awlaki instead of turkeys Mac and Cheese, but bygones I guess.
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bmaz @ggreenwald @benwizner I really wanted to be ED BALLS, but will settle for First Sea Lord.
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