DOD Inspector General Report: SOCOM Purged Their Osama bin Laden Files after Judicial Watch FOIA

I wanted to point to one more detail from the DOD Inspector General’s report on Leon Panetta’s leaks to Zero Dark 30’s filmakers.

The very last page of the report describes how Admiral William McRaven responded after realizing the SEALs who had participated in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound had all hung around a Hollywood producer with their name badges exposed.

According to ADM McRaven, the DoD provided the operators and their families an inordinate level of security. ADM McRaven held a meeting with the families to discuss force protection measures and tell the families that additional protective monitoring will be provided, and to call security personnel if they sensed anything. ADM McRaven also directed that the names and photographs associated with the raid not be released. This effort included purging these records to another Government Agency. [my emphasis]

The report doesn’t reveal when SOCOM purged its records and handed the documents to, presumably though not definitely, CIA, though if McRaven directed it, it happened after he took command in August 2011. (Update: That’s probably not right, as he was in command of the operation in any case.)

But it’s a relevant question because Judicial Watch had FOIAed pictures of OBL on May 3, 2011, and sued 10 days later, so before all the leaking and presumably therefore the purging began. On June 26, 2011, just two days after Panetta’s leaky party, the government stalled on the suit, saying Judicial Watch had not exhausted its administrative remedies. By September 26, DOD claimed they had no pictures of OBL (though earlier this year there were reports 7 new photos had been found) and CIA claimed none of the 52 pictures they had could be released. Along with that filing, McRaven submitted a declaration explaining why these photos couldn’t be released, though the interesting parts remain redacted. John Bennett’s declaration for the CIA does not describe when the Agency searched its files for photographs, and therefore doesn’t indicate whether they searched before or after DOD purged its files.

Now, none of this timing would mitigate CIA’s claims about the extremely grave harm that would arise from releasing OBL death porn.

But it is, at the very least, very sketchy — and all that’s before having a really good sense of when the purging and the FOIA response occurred.

Update: I spoke to Judicial Watch’s lawyer for this FOIA, Michael Bekesha, and they have never been informed of this purge. Though it may explain some other details about the progress of the FOIA, including some funkiness with the classification of the photos.

Update: Here’s DOD’s declaration about their search from September 26, 2011.

It’s interesting for two reasons. First, they make claims about SOCOM files that is the exact opposite of what DOD said in the NYT/ACLU FOIA for Anwar al-Awlaki related OLC memos. Whereas in the drone FOIA, they claimed CENTCOM handled SOCOM’s FOIA responses, this one says,

The mission of USSOCOM is to provide Special Operations Forces to defend the United States and its interests. A priority of USSOCOM is to “Deter, Disrupt, and Defeat Terrorist Threats,” and a primary aspect of this priority is to plan and conduct special operations. When a special operation is conducted, the military service Components of USSOCOM (U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Navy Special Warfare Command, U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command, and Marine Corps Special Operations Command) provide Special Operations Forces (personnel and equipment) to the operation. Accordingly, it is DoD FOIA policy that documents created or maintained by these military service Components during or for a joint special operation come under the cognizance of USSOCOM and not the military services for purposes of the FOIA. Therefore, USSOCOM and not the military services, is responsible for the searches of records responsive to plaintiff’s FOIA request at those service components that may have participated in the subject operation.

And like CIA, they don’t date their search description at SOCOM, so don’t say whether it happened pre- or post-purge.

USSOCOM searched the Headquarters and relevant Components, and no records responsive to plaintiff’s request were located. The specific filing systems searched at the Headquarters USSOCOM offices and relevant Components were all hard copy and electronic records including all email records during the inclusive dates of May 1, 2011, through May 31, 2011.

Al Pacino Couldn’t Protect CIA Headquarters

There’s a funny passage from the DOD Inspector General on Leon Panetta’s blabbing about the Osama bin Laden raid that was leaked to POGO.

It describes CIA’s apparent helplessness from protecting CIA Headquarters from being breached by outsiders, even while many of our nation’s most elite warriors were present.

In a description of how a Hollywood Executive (possibly Kathryn Bigelow) managed to attend a celebration of the successful Osama bin Laden raid, the report explains,

On June 24, 2011, the CIA held an awards ceremony in a tent located on the grounds of the CIA headquarters. Two to four days prior to this awards ceremony, a CIA [Public Affairs Officer] contacted a DoD PAO to notify the DoD PAO that one of the Hollywood executives may attend the event. According to the DoD PAO, the CIA PAO attempted to prevent this from happening. The DoD PAO did not inform his Chain of Command or the special operators who were going to attend this ceremony about the possibility that a Hollywood executive might also attend. The DoD PAO said he did not forward this information because he hoped the CIA PaO would be able to ensure the Hollywood executive would be refused access. The DoD PAO’s current Deputy Commanding General told us he knew of those DoD PAO actions and did not fault the DoD PAO for not getting the information to the command group.

According to the DoD PAO, the day of the event, the CIA PAO contacted the DoD PAO to state that efforts failed and the “Chief of Staff” directed that the Hollywood executive be given access to the event.

It seems that Leon Panetta’s Chief of Staff, Jeremy Bash, and CIA’s Public Affairs Officer disputed who let the crafty Hollywood executive breach the nation’s premier spy agency. But breach Langley he or she did.

Mind you, all this went down a month before Pentagon Press Secretary George Little revealed that Panetta wanted Al Pacino to play him in Zero Dark 30.

Mr. Little: “I hope they get Pacino to play [Secretary Panetta]. That’s what he wants, no joke!”

Nevertheless, the lesson from this sordid tale appears to be that if terrorists want to breach CIA Headquarters, all they have to do is dangle the name of a famous actor who might play the part of the CIA Director, and they’ll walk into the middle of a highly classified party, even as Osama bin Laden’s killers prowl the site.

This must be what Obama means when he claims to run the most Transparent Administration Ever™.

Leon Panetta: Sheep Dipping Secrets

POGO has a story that adds a new twist to an old story.

The old story is Leon Panetta, leaking classified info, in this case, leaking info on the Osama bin Laden raid to a Zero Dark Thirty executive.

In June 2011, when he was director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Panetta discussed the information at a CIA headquarters event honoring participants in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, according to an unreleased report drafted by the Inspector General’s office and obtained by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).

“During this awards ceremony, Director Panetta specifically recognized the unit that conducted the raid and identified the ground commander by name,” the draft report says.  “According to the DoD Office of Security Review, the individual’s name is protected from public release” under federal law, the report says.

“Director Panetta also provided DoD information, identified by relevant Original Classification Authorities as TOP SECRET//SI//REL TO USA, AUS, CAN, GBR, NZL, as well as, SECRET/ACCM,” the report says.

This is the investigation Peter King requested in 2011.

The new, but predictable, twist, is that when DOD’s Inspector General tried to investigate this, it apparently got no cooperation from Panetta himself, who had subsequently moved over to head DOD itself. More importantly, the IG stalled the report, apparently until Panetta retired.

The unknown fate of the IG report was the subject of a December 2012 email exchange—obtained by POGO—between a congressional staff member and an employee in the IG’s office.  The congressional aide mentions having heard that someone in the IG’s office was “sitting on it until Secretary Panetta retires” and asks the IG employee for any information about it.

The IG employee replies:  “That effort . . . has been controlled and manipulated since inception by the IG Front Office.”  The employee adds:  “There is a version ready to hit the street, been long time ready to hit the street…but we will see if that happens anytime soon.  Highly unusual tight controls and tactical involvement from senior leadership on this project.”

The employee says the matter reflects broader problems within the IG’s office.

“I have grave concerns that the message and findings are now controlled and subject to undue influence across the board at DoD IG.  I have never experienced or seen so much influence or involvement by outsiders now in developing and issuing oversight reports.”

The IG employee invokes whistleblower status.

“I consider this protected communications on alleged wrong-doings within the Government.”

While it doesn’t say so directly, POGO suggests the Obama Administration may have pulled this off by withholding the nomination for the Acting Inspector General to become its permanent IG.

The Defense Department IG’s job has been vacant since December 2011, and the office has been headed on a temporary basis by Lynne M. Halbrooks, who is now the principal deputy inspector general. She has sought support to be named permanent inspector general, a presidential appointment that traditionally involves the approval of the secretary.

In short, Panetta exposed a classified identity to a movie maker, as well as SIGINT pertaining to the Osama bin Laden raid (perhaps reports on the intercepts the government used to identify the courier?). But rather than being treated like John Kiriakou, for example, Panetta got moved into a position to prevent any release of this information.

The term “sheep dip” has been adopted to refer to the practice of having Special Forces operate under CIA guise, as they did on this OBL raid, to operate under CIA’s covert authorities. It turns out the institutional shell game with the OBL raid served not to keep secrets, nor even to sustain deniability from the Pakistanis (particularly after Panetta identified Shakeel Afridi), but rather to allow the Administration to treat this covert operation just like they do covert operations like drones (Joby Warrick’s book, The Triple Agent, includes a lot on drones that obviously comes from Panetta’s office too), to make them selectively public.

Michael Hayden, Troll Extraordinaire

“Intelligence agencies often act on the edges of executive prerogative and move forward based on a narrow base of lawfulness and limited congressional notification,” says Michael Hayden, the guy who oversaw Bush’s illegal wiretap for 2.5 years before the full Gang of Eight first got adequately briefed, and who never briefed Congress on CIA’s assassination program.

In the same piece, Hayden hails media editors who ceded to his requests to hold or adjust a story.

So, how do we limit the damage? Well, journalists will have to expand the kind of sensitivities to the national welfare that some already show. In those calls I made to slow, scotch or amend a pending story, most on the other end of the line were open to reasonable arguments. In one case a writer willingly changed a reference that had read “based on intercepts” to “based on intelligence reports,” somewhat amazed that that change made much of a difference. (It did.)

But then insists the UndieBomb 2.0 story — for which AP editors had made precisely those kinds of concessions — was right to be investigated because John Brennan’s push back to it exposed a mole.

The two prominent cases being debated were indeed serious leaks, because they touched upon sources, not just information.

In the case of the Associated Press report on a Yemen-based bomb plot, the source had apparently penetrated an al Qaeda network and there were hopes that he could continue to be exploited.

[snip]

And, since the Yemen source appears to have actually been recruited by a liaison partner, the impact of a leak goes far beyond our own service. In that same talk with bureau chiefs, I pointed out that several years before 9/11, one chief of station reported that a press leak of liaison intelligence had “put us out of the (Osama) bin Laden reporting business”.

In both stories, investigations were in order. Journalists, of all people, should understand the need to protect sources and relationships.

As the LAT story Hayden links to says clearly, “The AP did not mention the informant in its report.” And, as I laid out some weeks back, to believe our mole was going to return, the former head of the CIA would have to believe that AQAP shows great tolerance for recruits who fuck up and then return right after high ranking operatives get drone killed.

Because to maintain that claim, you’d have to explain how an AQAP operative who had been entrusted with the latest version of Ibrahim al-Asiri’s UndieBomb sometime in early April, had left (at least as far as Sanaa), had not apparently succeeded in his mission (which was, after all, meant to be a suicide bombing), could return to AQAP without the UndieBomb and infiltrate even further than he had the first time.

“Oh, hi, AQAP gatekeeper” — their story must imagine the mole saying as he returned to AQAP — “I’ve both failed in my mission and somehow lost the bomb you gave me, but based on that would you be willing to let me spend some quality time with even higher-ranking AQAP operatives?”

In short, Hayden appears to have decided it’d be a good idea to ignore the facts, good sense, and his own history so as to suggest that the Obama Administration is worse than the reasonable old Bush Administration.

But the investigations have been very aggressive and the acquisition of journalists’ communications records has been broad, invasive, secret and—one suspects—unnecessary.

A quick survey of former Bush administration colleagues confirmed my belief that a proposal to sweep up a trove of AP phone records or James Rosen’s e-mails would have had a half-life of about 30 seconds in that administration.

Just ignore the fact that the government was asking people questions about James Risen‘s phone contacts — indicating they had probably doing just what the Obama Administration did to the AP reporters, only without telling him — before Obama took over.

But here’s my favorite part:

The government may also want to adjust its approach to enforcement. The current tsunami of leak prosecutions is based largely on the Espionage Act, a blunt World War I statute designed to punish aiding the enemy. It’s sometimes a tough fit. The leak case against former National Security Agency employee Thomas Drake collapsed of its own overreach in 2011.

Perhaps in many of these cases the best approach is not through the courts or the Department of Justice.

Remember, Drake was investigated for telling a journalist about Hayden’s own boondoggle that cost many times what NSA’s existing better solution cost. There is virtually no way the investigation against him didn’t rely, in part, on Hayden’s own testimony.

And now, 6 years after the investigation into Drake started in earnest, Hayden suggests Drake shouldn’t have been criminally investigated at all.

Hayden can afford that very belated generosity, of course. He’s been profiting off the same kind of boondoggles Drake tried to expose for years now.

I mean, sure, the main jist of what Hayden says is true: the Administration is pursuing leaks far too aggressively. But coming from a guy who has long benefitted from the Executive Branch asymmetric abuse of secrecy, he’s not exactly the right person to be making the point.

Journalists: Eric Holder Believes You’re Probably a Criminal But Won’t Charge You

As I noted the other day, Eric Holder seems intent on calling journalists whom he believes are co-conspirators in a criminal leak something else.

Which is why I think this detail, from Politico’s leaks-about-a-meeting-about-leaks story, is the most telling I’ve seen on the Holder meeting.

“The guidelines require a balance between law enforcement and freedom of the press, and we all argued that the balance was out of kilter, with the national security and law enforcement interests basically overwhelming the public’s right to get information,” one journalist at the meeting said. “The language concerning ‘aiding and abetting’ comes out of the Privacy [Protection] Act, and they discussed trying to revise that language so that reporters don’t need to be defined as co-conspirators in order to execute search warrants.”

This is a reference to part of the Privacy Act that prohibits the government from seizing media work product unless it is connected to a crime (see pages 5 ff for how it affected the James Rosen warrant application). After claiming Rosen was aiding and abetting a violation of the Espionage Act and therefore his emails could be seized, the FBI then said that since he was potentially criminally liable, he should not get notice. In other words, the aiding abetting was an investigative tactic DOJ used to get around protections put into place just for someone like Rosen.

And DOJ’s solution for abusing a protection meant to protect someone like Rosen is apparently to simply redefine the law, so it can overcome those protections without having to accuse Rosen of being a criminal.

The outcome would remain the same; DOJ would just avoid saying mean things about people associated with powerful media outlets.

But the letter Principal Assistant Deputy Attorney General Peter Kadzik sent to answer Bob Goodlatte and Jim Sensenbrenner’s questions about Eric Holder’s testimony about whether he ever prosecuted a journalist makes it clear he thinks James Rosen probably is a criminal, regardless of what he calls it.

When the Department has initiated a criminal investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, the Department must, as it does in all criminal investigations, conduct a thorough investigation and follow the facts where they lead. Seeking a search warrant is part of an investigation of potential criminal activity, which typically comes before any final decision about prosecution. Probable cause sufficient to justify a search warrant is different from a decision to bring charges for that crime; probable cause is a significantly lower burden of proof than beyond a reasonable doubt, which is required to obtain a conviction on criminal charges.

Note the slippage here: Kadzik says the standard for a probable cause warrant is different than the standard for charging, then says a probable cause warrant is different from the standard for convicting.

What Kadzik is implicitly suggesting is that while DOJ might think Rosen was a criminal co-conspirator, they’d never win their case against him. So they never considered charging him.

I joked some weeks ago that journalists should take solace in all this: Obviously, Eric Holder holds them in precisely the same category as banksters, those who are guilty of a crime but that DOJ chooses not to charge with one.

This letter seems to support this.

Manning Prosecution: I Don’t Think the Government’s Report Says What It Claims It Does

Kevin Gosztola reports that the government plans to use a document Bradley Manning is alleged to have accessed as part of its proof that he knew he’d be leaking any further information to al Qaeda and other enemies by leaking it to WikiLeaks.

Morrow revealed a new aspect of the case against Manning, namely that they believed because Manning had accessed an Army intelligence report on the “threat” posed by WikiLeaks he would have known that WikiLeaks was valuable to the nation’s enemies. It is an argument that essentially uses his decision to access the report against him.(Keep in mind the government maintains he should never have read this report.)

The report itself is actually ambiguous about whether or not our adversaries were using WikiLeaked data. It both presents it as a possibility that we didn’t currently have intelligence on, then presumes it.

(S//NF) Will the Wikileaks.org Web site be used by FISS, foreign military services, foreign insurgents, or terrorist groups to collect sensitive or classified US Army information posted to the Wikileaks.org Web site?
(S//NF) Will the Wikileaks.org Web site be used by FISS, foreign military services, or foreign terrorist groups to spread propaganda, misinformation, or disinformation or to conduct perception or influence operations to discredit the US Army?
[snip]
(S//NF) It must be presumed that Wikileaks.org has or will receive sensitive or classified DoD documents in the future. This information will be published and analyzed over time by a variety of personnel and organizations with the goal of influencing US policy. In addition, it must also be presumed that foreign adversaries will review and assess any DoD sensitive or classified information posted to the Wikileaks.org Web site. [my emphasis]

But I’m more interested in three other things Manning would have learned from that document. First, he’d have learned from this paragraph that the way to make sure someone didn’t fulfill his “obligation to expose alleged wrongdoing within DoD through inappropriate venues” is not training about the appropriate venues to expose DOD wrongdoing, but via better info security — that is, by ensuring that alleged wrongdoing remains secret.

(U//FOUO) The unauthorized release of DoD information to Wikileaks.org highlights the need for strong counterintelligence, antiterrorism, force protection, information assurance, INFOSEC, and OPSEC programs to train Army personnel on the proper procedures for protecting sensitive or classified information, to understand the insider threat, and to report suspicious activities. In addition, personnel need to know proper procedures for reporting the loss, theft, or comprise of hard or soft copy documents with sensitive information or classified information to the appropriate unit, law enforcement, or counterintelligence personnel. Unfortunately, such programs will not deter insiders from following what they believe is their obligation to expose alleged wrongdoing within DoD through inappropriate venues. Persons engaged in such activity already know how to properly handle and secure sensitive or classified information from these various security and education programs and has chosen to flout them.

And of course, the INFOSEC DIA believed was the answer to potential exposure of alleged wrongdoing is precisely the INFOSEC that the Army had failed to achieve 18-24 months later, when Manning was leaking this material, the INFOSEC DOD refused to implement even after a real adversary had inserted malware into our computers in Iraq via use of removable media, the same means Manning used to get this information.

If this document is proof Manning should have known (the conflicting statements notwithstanding) that leaking to WikiLeaks would amount to leaking to our adversaries, it’s also proof that DOD knew they had an INFOSEC problem that might lead to leaked information, one they pointedly didn’t address.

But I’m also amused by one of the case studies in the danger of leaked WikiLeaks information: that it might be used to suggest DOD is getting gouged by our contractors working on JIEDDO, our counter-IED program.

(S//NF) The author of the above-mentioned article incorrectly interprets the leaked data regarding the components and fielding of the Warlock system, resulting in unsupportable and faulty conclusions to allege war profiteering, price gouging and increased revenues by DoD contractors involved in counter-IED development efforts.

Mind you, the claim that JIEDDO contractors were robbing us blind is a conclusion shared by some very respected defense reporters.

Launched in February 2006 with an urgent goal — to save U.S. soldiers from being killed by roadside bombs in Iraq — a small Pentagon agency ballooned into a bureaucratic giant fueled by that flourishing arm of the defense establishment: private contractors.

An examination by the Center for Public Integrity and McClatchy of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization revealed an agency so dominated by contractors that the ratio of contractors to government employees has reached six to one.

As well as by GAO itself.

In other words, while this internal report claimed WikiLeaks inaccurately concluded that JIEDDO was a boondoggle, in fact WikiLeaks’ conclusion might have been one of the earliest indications of a problem later confirmed by other outlets, that JIEDDO was a boondoggle.

Even by 2009, Manning might have read this document and concluded that WikiLeaks had served precisely the outcome it claimed, exposing wrongdoing.

Finally, check out some of these classification marks, including the questions about whether or not our adversaries might exploit publicly available information bolded above. Not conclusions, mind you, but questions (intelligence gaps, really).

That’s a secret we have to keep from our allies? Really?

No. It’s not. It’s an example of rampant overclassification.

To sum up: not only doesn’t this report assert that leaking to WikiLeaks amounts to leaking to our adversaries; on the contrary, the report identifies that possibility as a data gap. But it also provides several pieces of support for the necessity of something like WikiLeaks to report government wrongdoing.

Update: Swapped in Gosztola’s corrected post on CIA/Army Intel document.

Navy v. Egan, not Just Branzburg v. Hayes, Needs Fixed

Today, 340 new journalists will join the 10 or so who have been covering the Bradley Manning prosecution closely for the last several years; his trial starts today at Fort Meade.

Expect to see a bunch of essays on secrecy to mark the beginning of the trial.

This one, in which Steven Coll calls for the Supreme Court to revisit the Branzburg v. Hayes decision that established a spirit but not a law protecting press sources, has already generated a lot of attention.

In the long run, to rebalance the national-security state and to otherwise revitalize American democracy, the United States requires a Supreme Court willing to deepen protections for investigative reporters, as the majority in Branzburg would not.

Among some other minor factual inaccuracies (including what the AP UndieBomb 2.0 leak was originally about), it includes this claim.

[Obama’s] longest-serving advisers are disciplined and insular to a fault; press leaks offend their aesthetic of power.

While I agree Obama’s advisors are insular to a fault, and agree they revel in an aesthetic of power, they do not despise all press leaks. Even aside from the typical policy debate leaks of classified information, the White House has long reveled in “leaking” classified information to selected members of the press, to get the information out there on its own terms. The tactic is not new — it is precisely the A1 cut-out approach the Bush Administration used to get us into the Iraq War. But the Obama Administration may have expanded its use (that is actually the reason Republicans in Congress were demanding investigations of the leaks that followed the AP story, the ones that, unlike the AP, exposed our mole).

Which is why Coll proposes an inadequate solution to what I agree is the key problem.

Obama inherited a bloated national-security state. It contains far too many official secrets and far too many secret-keepers—more than a million people now hold top-secret clearances. Under a thirty-year-old executive order issued by the White House, the intelligence agencies must inform the Justice Department whenever they believe that classified information has been disclosed illegally to the press. These referrals operate on a kind of automatic pilot, and the system is unbalanced. Prosecutors in Justice’s national-security division initially decide on whether to make a criminal case or to defer to the First Amendment. The record shows that in recent years the division has been bent on action.

I’m not opposed to establishing clearer laws about when a journalist’s sources may be protected. But that can be used — as Dick Cheney tried to use it — as a screen for his exposure of Valerie Plame. Protecting journalists’ sources will not only protect real whistleblowers, but it will also protect the system of official leaks that both Bush and Obama have used to accrue power and avoid accountability.

So not only is fixing Branzburg v. Hayes not enough to fix our “unbalanced … bloated national security state,” it doesn’t get at the underlying problem

As a threshold measure, journalists should be calling for the limitation or repeal of the Espionage Act, which is the real stick Obama is using to cut down on unsanctioned leaks. It’s bad enough for whistleblowers to risk losing their clearance, and with it, a well-compensated livelihood. But as soon as you start talking extended prison sentences, as soon as you start accusing whistleblowers of being worse than an enemy’s spy because they shared damning information with the public generally, that’s going to silence unsanctioned leaks.

Just as importantly, this entire structure of abuse of power rests on a different SCOTUS decision, Navy v. Egan, which gives the Executive absolute control over security clearances (and therefore the less powerful leverage usually wielded against whistleblowers, the ability to strip their clearance), but which has been interpreted by Bush and Obama to give the Executive unfettered authority to determine what is secret and what is not. This decision — which is precisely what David Addington told Scooter Libby he could rely on to justify outing Plame on Cheney’s order — is also what the Obama Administration cited when it refused to litigate al-Haramain and in so doing granted the Bush Administration impunity for illegal wiretapping. The Executive’s claim to have unlimited authority to decide what is secret and not is also what prevents the Senate Intelligence Committee from declassifying the torture report on its own authority. It is also the basis for the authority to stall releasing video of US helicopters gunning down a Reuters team to Reuters under FOIA, which led to Manning leaking it to WikiLeaks himself.

The Obama and Bush Administrations have claimed that no one — not Congress, not the Courts — has the authority to review their arbitrary use of secrecy to accrue more power. That claim is an expansive reading of Navy v. Egan, but thus far not one anyone has challenged before SCOTUS. And that is what has enabled them (with the limited exception of the Plame outing) to avoid all consequences for their asymmetric use of leaks.

So, yes, it would be useful if SCOTUS decided that journalists and others engaging in legitimate investigation can protect sources, especially when investigating national security. But until the underlying system — the Executive’s claim that it can abuse secrecy to protect itself — is changed, secrecy will remain a cancer rotting our democracy.

Classification Games Hiding the Afghan Defeat

Amidst all the discussion of the Administration’s crack-down on leaks, two details have made it clear the Administration is using its own abuse of classification to hide reports of our impending defeat in Afghanistan.

Administration leaks to enforce and protect our pro-corruption policy

One of those comes from Sarah Chayes, the former Stanley McChrystal advisor. She was last seen on the pages of this blog complaining about CIA support for corruption in Afghanistan. In a new piece, she offers one of the most interesting takes on the Administration’s pursuit of leaks.

While her main point is that if reporters were as exposed as their sources to legal consequences for leaks, they might better judge the truly important leaks, she throws some fascinating details showing how broken the classification system is.

Far too much information is protected by unwarranted classification. It’s hard to take a system seriously that places so many gigabytes of material that are not critical to national security under the same umbrella as the few nuggets that are. I’ve seen a New Yorker article included among prep documents for a National Security Council meeting stamped SECRET//NOFORN (meaning that only cleared U.S. citizens were allowed to read it).

[snip]

In September 2010, a flurry of coverage in major U.S. newspapers reported a supposed government decision on how corruption in Afghanistan would be handled. Perusing the articles with growing wonder, I looked down at a memo on my desk. Not only were passages quoted from it classified, the document was also watermarked DRAFT. No decision had been made yet because debate on the draft had not even reached the level of Cabinet secretaries. It was a classic Washington case of offensive leaking. For months, I was convinced that the perpetrator was the late Richard Holbrooke, then special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But I kept asking reporters. Finally I traced the leak to a senior White House official, whose career has progressed untroubled.

She makes it very clear what the second example of classification abuse is. While she links to this early September 2010 WaPo article describing a decision to ignore corruption in Afghanistan, in her own account of what happened, she points to mid-September as the period when it became clear top figures in the Administration had bought off on supporting corruption in exchange for “progress” towards wiping out the Taliban.

Effectively, Chayes is suggesting that a top White House figure effectively won the debate in support of ignoring corruption in Afghanistan by leaking a draft classified decision as a fait accompli. Given her suggestion that this person’s career has “progressed,” it’s a safe bet that it is one of the people — like current National Security Advisor Tom Donilan, current CIA Director John Brennan, or current Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes — who got promoted since this leak.

Chayes doesn’t provide much guidance about which New Yorker article was classified SECRET and used in a National Security Council meeting, but I’m betting it was this Dexter Filkins article that rehearses the same issues of corruption. As I’ve noted, while the NYT (where Filkins had recently departed) only hinted at how badly the collapse of the Kabul Bank implicated Hamid Karzai’s corrupt administration, Filkins provided extensive details. The Filkins article, like the earlier series of articles, arises out of the decision to capitulate to CIA bagman Muhammad Zia Salehi’s blackmail to avoid prosecution.

Salehi telephoned Karzai from his jail cell. “He told Karzai, ‘If I spend one night in jail, I’ll bring the whole thing down,’ ” the Western official recalled.

Out of fear Salehi would “bring the whole thing down,” it seems, the Obama Administration chose to abuse the classification system to ignore — while hiding the true extent of — the corruption of our Afghan partners.

Selective protection of CIA’s efforts to convince our allies to remain in Afghanistan

Meanwhile, one of the things the government convinced Bradley Manning trial judge Denise Lind to keep secret even after it had been inadvertently released once appears to relate to CIA’s efforts to shore up support for the Afghan War among our European allies.

Alexa O’Brien makes a compelling argument that one of the witnesses who will testify to the harm allegedly caused by Manning’s leaks in secret is Robert Roland. She further argues that Roland will testify about 2 CIA Red Cell Memos, one of which strategizes how to ward off political opposition to the Afghan War of the kind that got our coalition partners in the Netherlands ousted (the other, which I wrote about herepertains to concerns that other countries will figure out we export terrorism). The analysis of the memo itself is rather unsophisticated; it argues if we emphasize the benefit for women of our continued presence in Afghanistan and the support one poll showed Afghans had for our presence, it’ll be enough to keep French and German voters in line.

But I guess it is rather embarrassing to have CIA’s reflections, however naive, on how to counter democratic opposition to war out there. And I suppose Roland’s identity might have been protected until whatever reviewer missed it in one of Manning’s defense filings.

At this point, however, both are public. Yet Roland’s identity and the CIA reports are being treated with far more sensitivity than far more damning State reports that will be discussed publicly.

Ah well. The report I want to see is the CIA plan to shore up support for the Afghan war as it becomes more and more clear the war serves only to prop up the crooks the CIA has been bribing for 12 years.

Press Freedom: It Depends on What the Meaning of the Word “Is” Is

As we get further away from last week’s what’s-new-is-old counterterrorism speech, I’m increasingly convinced all that happened was the Administration yoked the word “continuing” onto the word “imminent” and declared an entirely new standard that just happens to replicate the existing one.

Which is why I think this detail, from Politico’s leaks-about-a-meeting-about-leaks story, is the most telling I’ve seen on the Holder meeting.

“The guidelines require a balance between law enforcement and freedom of the press, and we all argued that the balance was out of kilter, with the national security and law enforcement interests basically overwhelming the public’s right to get information,” one journalist at the meeting said. “The language concerning ‘aiding and abetting’ comes out of the Privacy [Protection] Act, and they discussed trying to revise that language so that reporters don’t need to be defined as co-conspirators in order to execute search warrants.”

This is a reference to part of the Privacy Act that prohibits the government from seizing media work product unless it is connected to a crime (see pages 5 ff for how it affected the James Rosen warrant application). After claiming Rosen was aiding and abetting a violation of the Espionage Act and therefore his emails could be seized, the FBI then said that since he was potentially criminally liable, he should not get notice. In other words, the aiding abetting was an investigative tactic DOJ used to get around protections put into place just for someone like Rosen.

And DOJ’s solution for abusing a protection meant to protect someone like Rosen is apparently to simply redefine the law, so it can overcome those protections without having to accuse Rosen of being a criminal.

The outcome would remain the same; DOJ would just avoid saying mean things about people associated with powerful media outlets.

And note, from the reports I’ve seen thus far, none of these crack journalists seem to have suggested to DOJ that even the way it was using the Espionage Act to go after sources (many of whom are whistleblowers) is a dangerous misapplication of statute, just like calling James Rosen a co-conspirator is. That is, DOJ’s use of the Espionage Act to give the clearance system more teeth than it was meant to have seems to have escaped these media representatives’ notice.

Ah well. If they had raised DOJ’s abuse of the Espionage Act, DOJ would just do what they appear to intend to do with its abuse of Privacy Act restrictions: redefine the terms and proceed as they had been.

Torquemada Pursued Suspected Muslims, Not Journalists

In an article flattering Eric Holder’s sense of remorse once he realized how inappropriate it was to claim a journalist engaging in flattery might be a co-conspirator in a leak, Daniel Klaidman quotes a Holder friend explaining that the Attorney General doesn’t see himself as some kind of Torqemada figure pursuing journalists.

But for Attorney General Eric Holder, the gravity of the situation didn’t fully sink in until Monday morning when he read the Post’s front-page story, sitting at his kitchen table. Quoting from the affidavit, the story detailed how agents had tracked Rosen’s movements in and out of the State Department, perused his private emails, and traced the timing of his calls to the State Department security adviser suspected of leaking to him. Then the story, quoting the stark, clinical language of the affidavit, described Rosen as “at the very least … an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator” in the crime. Holder knew that Justice would be besieged by the twin leak probes; but, according to aides, he was also beginning to feel a creeping sense of personal remorse.

[snip]

As attorney general, a position at the intersection of law, politics, and investigations, Holder has been at the center of partisan controversy almost since taking office. But sources close to the attorney general says he has been particularly stung by the leak controversy, in large part because his department’s—and his own—actions are at odds with his image of himself as a pragmatic lawyer with liberal instincts and a well-honed sense of balance—not unlike the president he serves. “Look, Eric sees himself fundamentally as a progressive, not some Torquemada out to silence the press,” says a friend who asked not to be identified. [my emphasis]

Granted, the Torquemada metaphor was Holder’s friend’s, not his own. And granted, Holder’s DOJ has worked to avoid the kind of Muslim-bashing people like Peter King have called for (though his DOJ has also slow-walked its investigation into NYPD’s profiling of Muslims and allowed FBI to engage in similar behavior).

But the reference to Torquemda highlighted how limited this remorse is — just to investigations involving journalists, not Muslims, for example — and how thin Holder’s apparent understanding of the problem remains.

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