And Bill Burck thinks American citizens should not know that fact before Kavanaugh gets a lifetime appointment.
Happy Birthday to me! To us! To the emptywheel community!
On December 3, 2007, emptywheel first posted as a distinct website. That makes us, me, we, ten today.
To celebrate, over the next few days, the emptywheel team will be sharing some of our favorite work from the last decade. I’ll be doing probably 3 posts featuring some of my most important or — in my opinion — resilient non-surveillance posts, plus a separate post bringing together some of my most important surveillance work. I think everyone else is teeing up their favorites, too.
Putting together these posts has been a remarkable experience to see where we’ve been and the breadth of what we’ve covered, on top of mainstays like surveillance. I’m really proud of the work I’ve done, and proud of the community we’ve maintained over the years.
For years, we’ve done this content ad free, relying on donations and me doing freelance work for others to fund the stuff you read here. I would make far more if I worked for some free-standing outlet, but I wouldn’t be able to do the weedy, iterative work that I do here, which would amount to not being able to do my best work.
If you’ve found this work valuable — if you’d like to ensure it remains available for the next ten years — please consider supporting the site.
During the bailout, I did a post trying to imagine the worst that could happen if GM went bankrupt. One of my biggest worries — that China would start importing Buicks, making it far harder for US manufacturers to compete, has already happened.
This was, of course, before Republican mismanagement poisoned the entire city of Flint, MI. Perhaps the post is even more true now.
While most of DC was busily engaged in both sides journalism on the impact of Obama’s decision to release the torture memos in 2009, I (and readers here!) was reading closely. Which is how I noted the reference to the 183 waterboards CIA administered to KSM in one month.
In a series of posts at the end of 2009, I laid out how ObamaCare still required participants to spend too much of their income on health insurance and care, which would lead to lots of people to not use it. That has turned out to be one of the biggest problems with ObamaCare (and one of the reason it wasn’t all that popular until Trump tried to take it away). If Democrats ever wrest control from the Republicans again, this is a problem that still needs to be fixed.
I found a lot of things (including Gul Rahman’s ID, but I waited on that to protect the identity of the CIA officer who oversaw his killing) in the Office of Professional Management report on John Yoo’s torture memos released in 201. One that remains important — and poorly understood — is that the first torture actually operated under authorization from a freelance fax from Yoo issued weeks before the famous August 1 Bybee memo, rather than the full OLC memo itself.
There were two or three of Bev’s badly missed book salons I hosted that I particularly enjoyed (Bob Woodward is another). But none was better than hosting Steven Rattner, for his very blinkered view of his own role in the auto bailout. The comment thread in it was epic, too, but sadly gone.
After a panel on the Scooter Libby case, I meditated on how those with the secrets increasingly use journalists as a stand in for due process. This is not a post I’ve returned to a lot, but particularly given everything that has transpired since, particularly given where Assange has gone since, it strikes a nerve.
The NYT has a story about how China started rolling up CIA’s spy network in 2010, the cause of which (the story says) still has not been solved. One possible cause is that a Chinese-American exposed America’s spies to the Chinese. But the government was never able to establish enough proof that he was the Chinese mole to arrest him, not even when they lured him back to the US to try to bust him.
The mole hunt eventually zeroed in on a former agency operative who had worked in the C.I.A.’s division overseeing China, believing he was most likely responsible for the crippling disclosures. But efforts to gather enough evidence to arrest him failed, and he is now living in another Asian country, current and former officials said.
As investigators narrowed the list of suspects with access to the information, they started focusing on a Chinese-American who had left the C.I.A. shortly before the intelligence losses began. Some investigators believed he had become disgruntled and had begun spying for China. One official said the man had access to the identities of C.I.A. informants and fit all the indicators on a matrix used to identify espionage threats.
After leaving the C.I.A., the man decided to remain in Asia with his family and pursue a business opportunity, which some officials suspect that Chinese intelligence agents had arranged.
Officials said the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. lured the man back to the United States around 2012 with a ruse about a possible contract with the agency, an arrangement common among former officers. Agents questioned the man, asking why he had decided to stay in Asia, concerned that he possessed a number of secrets that would be valuable to the Chinese. It’s not clear whether agents confronted the man about whether he had spied for China.
The man defended his reasons for living in Asia and did not admit any wrongdoing, an official said. He then returned to Asia.
A second possibility is that bad tradecraft allowed China to discover America’s spies.
Those who rejected the mole theory attributed the losses to sloppy American tradecraft at a time when the Chinese were becoming better at monitoring American espionage activities in the country. Some F.B.I. agents became convinced that C.I.A. handlers in Beijing too often traveled the same routes to the same meeting points, which would have helped China’s vast surveillance network identify the spies in its midst.
Some officers met their sources at a restaurant where Chinese agents had planted listening devices, former officials said, and even the waiters worked for Chinese intelligence.
A third possibility — which the NYT doesn’t examine at length and which it ties to the poor tradecraft — is that China hacked the CIA’s method of communicating with assets.
Others believed that the Chinese had hacked the covert system the C.I.A. used to communicate with its foreign sources.
Some investigators believed the Chinese had cracked the encrypted method that the C.I.A. used to communicate with its assets.
This carelessness, coupled with the possibility that the Chinese had hacked the covert communications channel, would explain many, if not all, of the disappearances and deaths, some former officials said.
I lay these three possibilities out because the timing of the moment the exposure became critical — 2010 and 2011 — and the allusions to a hacked covert communication channel sound a lot like what CIA whistleblower John Reidy complained about seeing his employer, SAIC, oversee starting in 2005. While his complaint is heavily redacted, it sounded like he accused SAIC of providing inadequate security for a system serving the intersection of human assets and electronic reporting.
[H]is heavily redacted appeal at least appears to suggest his complaint was very serious and should have been a timely way to limit the compromise of CIA assets and officers.
Reidy describes playing three roles in 2005: facilitating the dissemination of intelligence reporting to the Intelligence Community, identifying Human Intelligence (HUMINT) targets of interest for exploitation, and (because of resource shortages) handling the daily administrative functions of running a human asset. In the second of those three roles, he was “assigned the telecommunications and information operations account” (which is not surprising, because that’s the kind of service SAIC provides to the intelligence community). In other words, he seems to have worked at the intersection of human assets and electronic reporting on those assets.
Whatever role he played, he described what by 2010 had become a “catastrophic intelligence failure” in which “upwards of 70% of our operations had been compromised.” The problem appears to have arisen because “the US communications infrastructure was under siege,” which sounds like CIA may have gotten hacked. At least by 2007, he had warned that several of the CIA’s operations had been compromised, with some sources stopping all communications suddenly and others providing reports that were clearly false, or “atmospherics” submitted as solid reporting to fluff reporting numbers. By 2011 the government had appointed a Task Force to deal with the problem he had identified years earlier, though some on that Task Force didn’t even know how long the problem had existed or that Reidy had tried to alert the CIA and Congress to the problem. [my emphasis]
All that seems to point to the possibility that tech contractors had set up a reporting system that had been compromised by adversaries, a guess that is reinforced by his stated desire to bring a “qui tam lawsuit brought against CIA contractors for providing products whose maintenance and design are inherently flawed and yet they are still charging the government for the products.”
The task force described in Reidy’s complaint coincides with the “Honey Badger” investigation described in the NYT, and the scale of the losses — 70% of operations compromised — sounds the same too. Reidy complained that those working on the task force didn’t learn how long he had been calling attention to the problem. And as he was appealing his complaint, he was being spied on by the intelligence community.
Of course, Reidy’s complaints were especially easy to silence because he was a contractor that the intelligence contractor community basically blacklisted.
I’m checking with the NYT reporters to see if this sounds like their story. But either the CIA had two catastrophic intelligence failures at the same time in 2010, or this sounds like the Chinese compromise.
In which case the fourth possibility to explain the compromise is that shitty intelligence contractors created the problem and then covered it up.
It is, as I understand it, fairly customary for each new presidential administration to rewrite the Executive Order on classification. George W Bush didn’t do so right away — he finalized his classification EO on March 23, 2003. Obama moved a bit more quickly, superseding the Bush EO with his own classification EO on December 29, 2009.
But even among the flood of Executive Orders that Trump has signed thus far in his term, I don’t believe he has modified the Obama one.
That means a change made in 2003, which was retained in the Obama EO, remains in place: the inclusion of the Vice President among those who is and can name Original Classification Authorities (here’s Bill Clinton’s EO for comparison). Here’s the language that gave Dick Cheney classification authorities:
Classification Authority. (a) The authority to classify information originally may be exercised only by:
(1) the President and, in the performance of executive duties, the Vice President;
And here’s how Obama slightly tweaked that language to retain that authority for Joe Biden:
a) The authority to classify information originally may be exercised only by:
(1) the President and the Vice President;
Now, Cheney got this authority at an interesting time. That was a key time for Torture cover-up; in fact, sometime in that period, someone in the White House ordered George Tenet to make torture a Special Access Program. He was already pushing back against the CIA whistleblowers who knew the intelligence behind Iraq was crap, an effort that would lead to Scooter Libby sharing Valerie Plame’s identity with Judy Miller on Cheney’s orders (it remains unclear whether Cheney had Bush’s permission to leak this). Yet for some reason, the new classification rules appear most closely connected with Stellar Wind (I believe this had to do with a change in whom Stellar Wind could target).
In any case, from that moment forward, the Vice President has had the authority to classify things. As you can imagine, given Cheney’s role in the Plame outing, there was a heated and still publicly unresolved debate whether the Vice President also got declassification authorities, including of things that the President or Presidential authority had classified.
I raise this issue because more and more people have started raising questions about whether Mike Pence is sabotaging Donald Trump, especially as leaks like this come out of the White House.
President Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, had relieved “great pressure” on him, according to a document summarizing the meeting.
“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
Mr. Trump added, “I’m not under investigation.”
The conversation, during a May 10 meeting — the day after he fired Mr. Comey — reinforces the notion that Mr. Trump dismissed him primarily because of the bureau’s investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and Russian operatives. Mr. Trump said as much in one televised interview, but the White House has offered changing justifications for the firing.
The White House document that contained Mr. Trump’s comments was based on notes taken from inside the Oval Office and has been circulated as the official account of the meeting. One official read quotations to The Times, and a second official confirmed the broad outlines of the discussion.
If Pence believes — perhaps based on knowledge personally imparted by Cheney allies — that he has the ability to declassify anything that the President can, then he can leak details of White House events with utter impunity. Having him insta-declassify things would be a fairly safe way to feed the never-ending stream of embarrassing information coming out of the White House.
Oh, sure. He’d have utterly venal motive to do so. By feeding the Trump Russian scandal, Pence would make it increasingly likely he’d become President without having to expose his regressive views to the review of voters. But there’s nothing Trump could do about it so long as an EO granting Pence the same authorities that Cheney abused to great effect remains on the book.
Loretta Lynch is an excellent nominee for Attorney General, and her prior actions in whitewashing the blatant and rampant criminality of HSBC should not be held against her, because she didn’t know that at the time she last whitewashed that criminal enterprise, right?
No. Nothing could be further from the truth.
This is a cop out by Lynch’s advocates. Lynch either knew, or damn well should have known. She signed off on the HSBC Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA), if she was less than fully informed, that is on her. That is what signing legal documents stands for….responsibility. Banks like HSBC, Credit Suisse, ING etc were, and still are, a cesspool of criminal activity and avoidance schemes. Willful blindness to the same old bankster crimes by Lynch doesn’t cut it (great piece by David Dayen by the way).
But, all the above ignores the Swiss Alps sized mountains of evidence that we know Lynch was aware of and blithely swept under the rug by her HSBC DPA. So, we are basically left to decide whether Lynch is a bankster loving toady that is her own woman and cravenly whitewashed this all on her own, or whether she is a clueless stooge taking orders to whitewash it by DOJ Main. Both views are terminally unattractive and emblematic of the oblivious, turn the other cheek to protect the monied class, rot that infects the Department of Justice on the crimes of the century to date.
And that is only scratching the real surface of my objections to Lynch. There are many other areas where Lynch has proven herself to be a dedicated, dyed in the wool “law and order adherent” and, as Marcy Wheeler artfully coined, “executive maximalist”. Lynch’s ridiculous contortion, and expansion, of extraterritorial jurisdiction to suit the convenient whims of the Obama Administration’s unparalleled assault on the Rule of Law in the war on terror is incredibly troubling. Though, to be fair, EDNY is the landing point of JFK International and a frequent jurisdiction by designation. Some of these same questions could have been asked of Preet Bharara (see, e.g. U.S. v. Warsame) Loretta Lynch has every bit the same, if not indeed more, skin in the game as Bharara, whether by choice or chance.
Lynch has never uttered a word in dissent from this ridiculous expansion of extraterritorial jurisdiction. Lynch’s record in this regard is crystal clear from cases like US v. Ahmed, Yousef, et. al. where even Lynch and her office acknowledged that their targets could not have “posed a specific threat to the United States” much less have committed specific acts against the US.
This unconscionable expansion is clearly all good by Lynch, and the ends justify the means because there might be “scary terrists” out there. That is just dandy by American “executive maximalists”, but it is toxic to the Rule of Law, both domestically and internationally (See, supra). If the US, and its putative Attorney General, are to set precedents in jurisdictional reach on common alleged terroristic support, then they ought live by them on seminal concerns like torture and war crimes under international legal norms. Loretta Lynch has demonstrated a proclivity for the convenience of the former and a toady like disdain for the latter.
And the same willingness to go along to get along with contortion of the Rule of Law in that regard seems beyond certain to extend to her treatment of surveillance issues and warrant applications, state secrets, over-classification, attack on the press and, critically, separation of powers issues. Those types of concerns, along with how the Civil Rights Division is utilized to rein in out of control militarized cops and voting rights issues, how the OLC stands up to Executive overreach, whether OPR is allowed to continue to shield disgraceful and unethical AUSAs, and whether she has the balls to stand up to the infamously insulated inner Obama circle in the White House. Do you really think Loretta Lynch would have backed up Carolyn Krass and OLC in telling Obama no on the Libyan War Powers Resolution issue?
For my part, I don’t think there is a chance in hell Lynch would have stood up to Obama on a war powers, nor any other critical issue, and that is a huge problem. Krass and Holder may have lost the Libyan WPR battle, but at least they had the guts to stand up and say no, and leave a record of the same for posterity.
That is what really counts, not the tripe being discussed in the press, and the typically preening clown show “hearing” in front of SJC. That is where the rubber meets the road for an AG nominee, not that she simply put away some mobsters and did not disgrace herself – well, beyond the above, anyway (which she absolutely did) – during her time as US Attorney in EDNY. If you are a participant in, or interested observer of, the criminal justice system as I am, we should aspire to something better than Eric Holder. Holder may not have been everything hoped for from an Obama AG when the Administration took office in January of 2009, but he was a breath of fresh air coming off the AG line of the Bush/Cheney regime. Loretta Lynch is not better, and is not forward progress from Holder, indeed she is several steps down in the wrong direction. That is not the way to go.
The fact that Loretta Lynch is celebrated as a great nominee by not just Democrats in general, but the so called progressives in specific, is embarrassing. She is absolutely horrible. If Bush had put her up for nomination, people of the progressive ilk, far and wide, would be screaming bloody murder. Well, she is the same person, and she is a terrible nominee. And that does not bode well for the Rule of Law over the remainder of the Obama Administration.
And this post has not even touched on more mundane, day to day, criminal law and procedure issues on which Lynch is terrible. And horrible regression from Eric Holder. Say for instance pot. Decriminalization, indeed legalization, of marijuana is one of the backbone elements of reducing both the jail and prison incarceration rate, especially in relation to minorities. Loretta Lynch is unconscionably against that (See, e.g., p. 49 (of pdf) et. seq.). Lynch appears no more enlightened on other sentencing and prison reform, indeed, she seems to be of a standard hard core prosecutorial wind up law and order lock em up mentality. Lynch’s positions on relentless Brady violations by the DOJ were equally milquetoast, if not pathetic (See, e.g. p. 203 (of pdf) et. seq.). This discussion could go on and on, but Loretta Lynch will never come out to be a better nominee for Attorney General.
Observers ought stop and think about the legal quality, or lack thereof, of the nominee they are blindly endorsing. If you want more enlightened criminal justice policy, to really combat the prison state and war on drugs, and to rein in the out of control security state and war on terror apparatus, Loretta Lynch is a patently terrible choice; we can, and should, do better.
In a stunning and blatantly obvious move to try to hide its failed efforts in Afghanistan, the military suddenly decided back in October that they would classify any and all information on the capabilities of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) despite data having been provided to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) for the 24 quarterly reports that preceded the one dated October 30, 2014 (pdf). Initial digging on that classification decision appeared to put the classification decision in the hands of ISAF Joint Command. The head of ISAF Joint Command then broke his own classification of ANSF capability a few days later when he proclaimed that ANSF is a “hugely capable fighting force” in a news briefing.
The timing for this classification couldn’t have been worse. US forces were in the final stages of the handoff of Afghan security to ANSF and Barack Obama eventually relied on butchered semantics to proudly proclaim that the war was over, despite a residual fighting force to which he had secretly given expanded combat powers.
Today, though, the classification of ANSF capability last quarter looks less like an arbitrary move by the Commander of ISAF Joint Command and more like a total information shutdown on Afghanistan. Perhaps Lt. Gen. Anderson just got the call for a shutdown before everyone else. In the SIGAR quarterly report released today (pdf), we learn that the military now has classified “nearly every piece of data used by the inspector general to assess the Afghan security forces.” In an appendix to the report, SIGAR lists the more than 140 questions that the military previously responded to openly but now says the answers are classified. Here is a sampling that SIGAR provided in the email sent out releasing the report:
–The over 140 SIGAR questions that received classified or otherwise restricted responses are listed starting on page 211. Sample of questions:
–Please provide a broad definition of the terms “unavailable” and “present for duty.” (page 211)
–Total amount of funding that the United States has expended on Afghan National Army food from Afghan Security Forces Fund (ASFF) for the current year. (page 211)
–How has the $25 million authorized by Congress for women in the Afghan army been used? (page 212)
–Total amount of funding that the United States has expended on Afghan National Police salaries from ASFF for the current year. (page 212)
–Please provide details of DOD/NATO-funded contracts to provide literacy training to the ANSF, including: a. the cost of the contract(s) and estimated cost(s) to complete (page 213)
–Please confirm that the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force-Afghanistan (CJIATF-A) is dissolved. (page 215)
–Please offer an assessment of the anticorruption initiatives of Afghan Ministry of Defense and Afghan Ministry of Interior (page 215)
As the New York Times article linked above points out, the military also initially tried to classify the number of US forces present in Afghanistan and only relented on that point when it was pointed out that the number had already been released by the Obama Administration.
The “explanation” offered by the Commander of US troops in Afghanistan, General John F. Campbell, is far from satisfactory. Here is an excerpt from his letter to SIGAR explaining the sudden expansion of classification:
Campbell then had the temerity to add later in his letter that he is “committed to maximum transparency in our operations”. Just wow. That sounds like Obama declaring himself the most transparent President ever, and then going on to rely on expanded classification coupled with unprecedented levels of prosecution of whistleblowers.
But instead of just looking like a move Obama would make, perhaps it did come at his behest. Not only is the military clamming up on virtually all information out of Afghanistan, it appears that the State Department is as well. From page 147 of SIGAR’s report:
Despite the requirement of Public Law 110-181 that federal agencies provide requested information or assistance to SIGAR, the State Department did not answer any of SIGAR’s questions on economic and social-development this quarter, and failed to respond to SIGAR’s attempts to follow up.
Had only one Federal agency, the Defense Department, suddenly shut down the flow of information, it would have been easy to believe that they were ones trying to hide their own failures. But now that a second agency, the State Department, has shut down information flow at the same time, and won’t even provide an explanation for their move, it seems clear to me that the order to shut down information flow had to come from above. With both the Defense Department and State Department going silent, could such an order have come down from anyone other than Obama himself? The failure that is our Afghanistan war has entered its fourteenth year, has spanned two presidents and is now being summarily swept under the rug by the Most Transparent Administration Ever®.
Postscript: For more evidence on just how failed the Afghanistan effort has been, recall that John Kerry’s brokered extra-constitutional National Unity Government was over three months late in finally announcing a full slate of 19 cabinet nominees. Sadly, the slate included poorly screened candidates and the Afghan Parliament yesterday rejected 10 of those nominees while voting to confirm only 9.
In the aftermath of publication of the Pentagon Papers, the Nixon Administration was so incensed that they both broke into and wiretapped the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Lewis Fielding, in an attempt to get material with which to smear Ellsberg. Ellsberg and his attorneys eventually learned of the illegal wiretap and sued Attorney General John Mitchell. Mitchell and the government were provided some shielding in Ellsberg v. Mitchell by the concept of state secrets.
Glenn Greenwald noted that when he was running for office, Barack Obama disparaged the Bush Administration’s use of the doctrine of state secrets and the expansion of its use to dismiss entire cases rather than to simply suppress individual pieces of information. And yet, once Obama got into office, Greenwald pointed out that the Obama Administration used the exact same tactic to get dismissal of Mohamed v. Jeppesen Dataplan, in which a victim of CIA rendition and torture attempted to sue the company used as a front for arranging rendition flights.
These two cases, along with other highpoints of government malfeasance in using state secrets to hide criminal behavior or simple errors by the government such as Al-Aulaqi v. Obama and Al-Haramain v. Bush all appear as case law on which the Justice Department rests its arguments in a filing (pdf) in a case in which Greek shipping executive Victor Restis is suing United Against Nuclear Iran (under their legal name of American Coalition Against Nuclear Iran, Inc.) for damages caused by UANI’s spreading of information that Restis argues is false and defaming. As I pointed out earlier, this information was spread by UANI as part of their “name and shame” campaign aimed at companies they felt were helping Iran to avoid sanctions put into place to prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons. The government’s argument is fairly straightforward, even though the government is not a named party in the suit:
The United States has reviewed the pleadings and record in this case in order to determine whether discovery and further litigation is likely to risk disclosure of information in which the Government has a specific governmental privilege and whether the claims and defenses in this action can be adjudicated without the need for or risk of disclosure of privileged information.
The Government has concluded that information that would be at risk of disclosure in discovery and further proceedings is properly subject to the state secrets privilege and should be excluded from this case. Further, because information subject to the state secrets privilege is inherently at risk of disclosure in further proceedings, the Government also seeks dismissal of this lawsuit. The reasons for these determinations are set forth in classified declarations submitted in support of the United States’ assertion of the state secrets privilege solely for the Court’s ex parte, in camera review (the “State Secrets Privilege Declarations”).
So just what is this state secrets information that could be exposed in the case? Here (pdf) is how attorneys for Restis describe the basis for UANI’s accusations:
Plaintiffs soon learned through a journalist to whom Defendants had spread these false allegations that Defendants were relying on two patently fraudulent documents whose authenticity or credibility Defendants have never attempted to defend, despite ample opportunity to do so. Nevertheless, in an effort to bolster its false allegations, Defendants repeatedly and publicly claimed that these statements were based on “numerous documents and statements,” “highly credible confidential sources,” as well as “valid research, credible documents, distinguished relationships, and preeminent sourcing.”
Hmmm. Relying on documents that are “patently fraudulent”. That sounds a lot like the forged Iraq yellowcake document to me. And Restis’ team has an idea for how the documents came into UANI’s possession (from the same filing):
Plaintiffs have reason to believe that the documents were forged by Anastasios Pallis, a Greek businessman who had a falling out with Plaintiff Mr. Restis when the latter discovered that the former had stolen millions of Euros from him and then reported Pallis to authorities. Plaintiffs understand that Mr. Pallis provided these documents to UANI through Meir Dagan, a member of UANI’s Advisory Board and former director of Israeli intelligence.
In a piece at MoJo, David Corn argues the Senate Intelligence Committee – CIA fight has grown into a Constitutional crisis.
What Feinstein didn’t say—but it’s surely implied—is that without effective monitoring, secret government cannot be justified in a democracy. This is indeed a defining moment. It’s a big deal for President Barack Obama, who, as is often noted in these situations, once upon a time taught constitutional law. Feinstein has ripped open a scab to reveal a deep wound that has been festering for decades. The president needs to respond in a way that demonstrates he is serious about making the system work and restoring faith in the oversight of the intelligence establishment. This is more than a spies-versus-pols DC turf battle. It is a constitutional crisis.
I absolutely agree those are the stakes. But I’m not sure the crisis stems from Feinstein “going nuclear” on the floor of the Senate today. Rather, I think whether Feinstein recognized it or not, we had already reached that crisis point, and John Brennan simply figured he had prepared adequately to face and win that crisis.
Which is why I disagree with the assessment of Feinstein’s available options as laid out by Shane Harris and John Hudson in FP.
If she chooses to play hardball, Feinstein can make the tenure of CIA Director John Brennan a living nightmare. From her perch on the intelligence committee, she could drag top spies before the panel for months on end. She could place holds on White House nominees to key agency positions. She could launch a broader investigation into the CIA’s relations with Congress and she could hit the agency where it really hurts: its pocketbook. One of the senator’s other committee assignments is the Senate Appropriations Committee, which allocates funds to Langley.
Take these suggestions one by one: Feinstein can only “drag top spies” before Congress if she is able to wield subpoena power. Not only won’t her counterpart, Saxby Chambliss (who generally sides with the CIA in this dispute) go along with that, but recent legal battles have largely gutted Congress’ subpoena power.
Feinstein can place a hold on CIA-related nominees. There’s even one before the Senate right now, CIA General Counsel nominee Caroline Krass, though Feinstein’s own committee just voted Krass out of Committee, where Feinstein could have wielded her power as Chair to bottle Krass up. In the Senate, given the new filibuster rules, Feinstein would have to get a lot of cooperation from her Democratic colleagues to impose any hold if ever she lost Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s support (though she seems to have that so far).
But with Krass, what’s the point? So long as Krass remains unconfirmed, Robert Eatinger — the guy who ratcheted up this fight in the first place by referring Feinstein’s staffers for criminal investigation — will remain Acting General Counsel. So in fact, Feinstein has real reason to rush the one active CIA nomination through, if only to diminish Eatinger’s relative power.
Feinstein could launch a broader investigation into the CIA’s relations with Congress. But that would again require either subpoenas (and the willingness of DOJ to enforce them, which is not at all clear she’d have) or cooperation.
Or Feinstein could cut CIA’s funding. But on Appropriations, she’ll need Barb Mikulski’s cooperation, and Mikulski has been one of the more lukewarm Democrats on this issue. (And all that’s assuming you’re only targeting CIA; as soon as you target Mikulski’s constituent agency, NSA, Maryland’s Senator would likely ditch Feinstein in a second.)
Then FP turns to DOJ’s potential role in this dispute.
The Justice Department is reportedly looking into whether the CIA inappropriately monitored congressional staff, as well as whether those staff inappropriately accessed documents that lay behind a firewall that segregated classified information that the CIA hadn’t yet cleared for release. And according to reports, the FBI has opened an investigation into committee staff who removed classified documents from the CIA facility and brought them back to the committee’s offices on Capitol Hill.
Even ignoring all the petty cover-ups DOJ engages in for intelligence agencies on a routine basis (DEA at least as much as CIA), DOJ has twice done CIA’s bidding on major scale on the torture issue in recent years. First when John Durham declined to prosecute both the torturers and Jose Rodriguez for destroying evidence of torture. And then when Pat Fitzgerald delivered John Kiriakou’s head on a platter for CIA because Kiriakou and the Gitmo detainee lawyers attempted to learn the identities of those who tortured.
There’s no reason to believe this DOJ will depart from its recent solicitous ways in covering up torture. Jim Comey admittedly might conduct an honest investigation, but he’s no longer a US Attorney and he needs someone at DOJ to actually prosecute anyone, especially if that person is a public official.
Implicitly, Feinstein and her colleagues could channel Mike Gravel and read the 6,000 page report into the Senate record. But one of CIA’s goals is to ensure that if the Report ever does come out, it has no claim to objectivity. Especially if the Democrats release the Report without the consent of Susan Collins, it will be child’s play for Brennan to spin the Report as one more version of what happened, no more valid than Jose Rodriguez’ version.
And all this assumes Democrats retain control of the Senate. That’s an uphill battle in any case. But CIA has many ways to influence events. Even assuming CIA would never encourage false flags attacks or leak compromising information about Democrats, the Agency can ratchet up the fear mongering and call Democrats weak on security. That always works and it ought to be worth a Senate seat or three.
If Democrats lose the Senate, you can be sure that newly ascendant Senate Intelligence Chair Richard Burr would be all too happy to bury the Torture Report, just for starters. Earlier today, after all, he scolded Feinstein for airing this fight.
“I personally don’t believe that anything that goes on in the intelligence committee should ever be discussed publicly,”
Burr’s a guy who has joked about waterboarding in the past. Burying the Torture Report would be just the start of things, I fear.
And then, finally, there’s the President, whose spokesperson affirmed the President’s support for his CIA Director and who doesn’t need any Democrats help to win another election. As Brennan said earlier today, Obama “is the one who can ask me to stay or to go.” And I suspect Brennan has confidence that Obama won’t do that.
Which brings me to my comment above, on AJE, that Brennan knows where the literal bodies are buried.
I meant that very, very literally.
Not only does Brennan know firsthand that JSOC attempted to kill Anwar al-Awlaki on December 24, 2009, solely on the President’s authority, before the FBI considered him to be operational. But he also knows that the evidence against Awlaki was far dodgier than it should have been before the President authorized the unilateral execution of an American citizen.
Worse still, Feinstein not only okayed that killing, either before or just as it happened. But even the SSCI dissidents Ron Wyden, Mark Udall, and Martin Heinrich declared the Awlaki killing “a legitimate use of the authority granted the President” in November.
I do think there are ways the (Legislative) Democrats might win this fight. But they’re not well situated in the least, even assuming they’re willing and able to match Brennan’s bureaucratic maneuvering.
Again, I don’t blame Feinstein for precipitating this fight. We were all already in it, and she has only now come around to it.
I just hope she and her colleagues realize how well prepared Brennan is to fight it in time to wage an adequate battle.
In accepting the Sam Adams prize, Chelsea Manning raised the ACLU/NYT lawsuits for the OLC memo authorizing the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. (h/t Kevin Gosztola)
In doing so, she borrows an argument about separation of power and secrecy Judge Colleen McMahon made in her opinion on the FOIA.
As they gathered to draft a Constitution for their newly liberated country, the Founders – fresh from a war of independence from the rule of a King they styled a tyrant- were fearful of concentrating power in the hands of any single person or institution, and most particularly in the executive. That concern was described by James Madison in Federalist No. 47 (1788):
The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, selfappointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny ….
The magistrate in whom the whole executive power resides cannot of himself … administer justice in person, though he has the appointment of those who do administer it.
The Framers — who were themselves susceptible to being hanged as traitors by the King of England during the Revolutionary War — were as leery of accusations of treason as they were of concentrating power in the hands of a single person or institution. As a result, the Constitution accords special protections to those accused of the most heinous of capital crimes; Article 3, Sec. 3 sets the procedural safeguard that, “No Person shall be convicted of treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.”
Interestingly, the Treason Clause appears in the Article of the Constitution concerning the Judiciary — not in Article 2, which defines the powers of the Executive Branch. This suggests that the Founders contemplated that traitors would be dealt with by the courts of law, not by unilateral action of the Executive. As no less a constitutional authority than Justice Antonin Scalia noted, in his dissenting opinion in Hamdi, 542 U.S. at 554, “Where the Government accuses a citizen of waging war against it, our constitutional tradition has been to prosecute him in federal court for treason or some other crime.”
The founders of America – fresh from a war of independence from King George lll – were particularly fearful of concentrating power. James Madison wrote that “the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”(1)
When drafting Article III of the American Constitution, the founders were rather leery of accusations of treason, and accorded special protections for those accused of such a capital offense, providing that “[n]o person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.”
For those of you familiar with the American Constitution, you may notice that this provision is under the Article concerning the Judiciary, Article III, and not the Legislative or Executive Articles, I and II respectively. And, historically, when the American government accuses an American of such crimes, it has prosecuted them in a federal criminal court.
After having repeated McMahon’s lesson on the checks our Founders gave Article III courts over the President, Manning described how frustrated McMahon was in not being able to release the OLC memo to ACLU and NYT.
In a recent Freedom of Information Act case(2) – a seemingly Orwellian “newspeak” name for a statute that actually exempts categories of documents from release to the public – a federal district court judge ruled against the New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union. The Times and the ACLU argued that documents regarding the practice of “targeted killing” of American citizens, such as the radical Sunni cleric Anwar Nasser al-Aulaqi were in the public’s interest and were being withheld improperly.
The government first refused to acknowledge the existence of the documents, but later argued that their release could harm national security and were therefore exempt from disclosure. The court, however, felt constrained by the law and “conclud[ed] that the Government [had] not violated the FOIA by refusing to turn over the documents sought in the FOIA requests, and [could not] be compelled . . . to explain in detail the reasons why [the Government’s] actions do not violate the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
However, the judge also wrote candidly about her frustration with her sense that the request “implicate[d] serious issues about the limits on the power of the Executive Branch under the Constitution and laws of the United States,” and that the Presidential “Administration ha[d] engaged in public discussion of the legality of targeted killing, even of [American] citizens, but in cryptic and imprecise ways.” In other words, it wasn’t that she didn’t think that the public didn’t have a right to know – it was that she didn’t feel that she had the “legal” authority to compel disclosure.
Against that background, Manning notes that she was charged with treasonable offense, and wonders whether under the Awlaki precedent she could have been drone killed, just like Awlaki.
I was accused by the Executive branch, and particularly the Department of Defense, of aiding the enemy – a treasonable offense covered under Article III of the Constitution.
Granted, I received due process. I received charges, was arraigned before a military judge for trial, and eventually acquitted. But, the al-Aulaqi case raises a fundamental question: did the American government, and particularly the same President and Department, have the power to unilaterally determine my guilt of such an offense, and execute me at the will of the pilot of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle?
She then compares (I think, though the timing on this is perhaps understandably murky) the release of both the OLC memo and follow-up speeches — and its revelation of the powers claimed by the President — with her own releases.
Until documents held by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel were released after significant political pressure in mid-2013, I could not tell you. And, very likely, I do not believe I could speak intelligently of the Administration’s policy on “targeted killing” today either.
There is a problem with this level of secrecy, obfuscation, and classification or protective marking, in that they supposedly protect citizens of their nation; yet, it also breeds a unilateralism that the founders feared, and deliberately tried to prevent when drafting the American Constitution. Now, we have a “disposition matrix,” classified military commissions, and foreign intelligence and surveillance courts – modern Star Chamber equivalents.
I am now accepting this award, through my friend, former school peer, and former small business partner, Aaron, for the release of a video and documents that “sparked a worldwide dialogue about the importance of government accountability for human rights abuses,” it is becoming increasingly clear to me that the dangers of withholding documents, legal interpretations, and court jurisprudence from the public that pertain to the right to “life, liberty, and property” of a state’s citizens is as fundamental and important to protecting against such human rights abuses.
Of course, we still don’t know what happened to Anwar al-Awlaki; the White Paper leaves many of the key details obscure. Even as the government prepares to execute another of its citizens.
But in comparing her own releases with the government’s refusal to reveal precisely how they decided to execute an American with no due process, Manning points to where this has already gone.
And she makes a compelling case that the government’s claims of secrecy cannot be trusted.
I’m not all that interested in the debate about offering Edward Snowden some kind of amnesty, as I think he could never accept the terms being offered, it arises in part out of NSA’s PR effort, and distracts from the ongoing revelations.
But I am interested in this. Amy Davidson wrote a column refuting Fred Kaplan’s assertion that because Snowden “signed an oath, as a condition of his employment as an NSA contractor, not to disclose classified information,” comparisons with Jimmy Carter’s pardon for draft dodgers are inapt. She notes (as a number of people have already) that the only “oath” that Snowden made was to the Constitution.
To begin with, did Snowden sign “an oath…not to disclose classified information”? He says that he did not, and that does not appear to have been contradicted. Snowden told the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman that the document he signed, as what Kaplan calls “a condition of his employment,” was Standard Form 312, a contract in which the signatory says he will “accept” the terms, rather than swearing to them. By signing it, Snowden agreed that he was aware that there were federal laws against disclosing classified information. But the penalties for violating agreement alone are civil: for example, the government can go after any book royalties he might get for publishing secrets.
Snowden did take an oath—the Oath of Office, or appointment affidavit, given to all federal employees:
I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
Now, some would argue—and it would have to be an argument, not an elision—that he violated this oath in revealing what he did; Snowden told Gellman that the revelations were how he kept it—protecting the Constitution from the officials at the N.S.A., which was assaulting it. Either way this is just not an oath, on the face of it, about disclosing classified information. [my emphasis]
Former Obama DOD official Phil Carter then attempted to refute Davidson on Twitter. He did so by pointing to the “solemnity” of the forms Snowden did sign, and then noting such “promises are far more legally enforceable than an ‘oath’ of office.”
I don’t dispute Carter’s point that nondisclosure agreements are easier to enforce legally than an oath to the Constitution. And, as noted above, in her original piece Davidson admitted that Snowden had acknowledged there were laws against leaking classified information. No one is arguing Snowden didn’t break any laws (though if our whistleblower laws covered contractors, there’d be a debate about whether that excuses Snowden’s leaks).
Nevertheless, Carter’s comment gets to the crux of the point (and betrays how thoroughly DC insiders have internalized it).
We have an ever-growing side of our government covered by a blanket of secrecy. Much of what that secrecy serves to cover up involves abuse or crime. Much of it involves practices that gut the core precepts of the Constitution (and separation of powers are as much at risk as the Bill of Rights).
Yet we not only have evolved a legal system (by reinforcing the clearance system, expanding the Espionage Act, and gutting most means to challenge Constitutional violations) that treats crimes against secrecy with much greater seriousness than crimes against the Constitution, but DC folks (even lawyers, like Carter) simply point to it as the way things are, not a fundamental threat to our country’s government.
That plight — where our legal system guards this country’s “secrets” more greedily than it guards the Constitution — is the entire point underlying calls for amnesty for Snowden. He has pointed to a system that not only poses a grave threat to the Bill of Rights, but just as surely, to separation of powers and our claim to be a democracy.
Moreover, those who (like Carter) point to our failed branches of government as better arbiters of the Constitution than Snowden ignore many of the details in the public record. Just as one example, David Kris has suggested that the entire reason Colleen Kollar-Kotelly wrote a badly flawed opinion authorizing the Internet dragnet was because George Bush had created a constitutional problem by ignoring Congress’ laws and the courts.
More broadly, it is important to consider the context in which the FISA Court initially approved the bulk collection. Unverified media reports (discussed above) state that bulk telephony metadata collection was occurring before May 2006; even if that is not the case, perhaps such collection could have occurred at that time based on voluntary cooperation from the telecommunications providers. If so, the practical question before the FISC in 2006 was not whether the collection should occur, but whether it should occur under judicial standards and supervision, or unilaterally under the authority of the Executive Branch. [my emphasis]
And while Kris argued Congress’ subsequent approval of the dragnets cures this original sin, the record in fact shows it did so only under flawed conditions of partial knowledge. Of course, these attempts to paper over a constitutional problem only succeed so long as they remain shrouded in secrecy.
That the first response of many is to resort to legalistic attempts to prioritize the underlying secrecy over the Constitution raises questions about what they believe they are protecting. The next torture scandal? Covert ops that might serve the interest of certain autocratic allies but actually make Americans less secure? The financial hemorrhage that is our military industrial complex? The sheer ignorance our bloated intelligence community has about subjects of great importance? Petty turf wars? Past failures of the national security system we’re encouraged to trust implicitly?
At some point, we need to attend to protecting our Constitution again. If Article I and III have gotten so scared of their own impotence (or so compromised) that they can no longer do so, then by all means lets make that clear by revealing more of the problems.
But we need to stop chanting that our Constitution is not a suicide pact and instead insist that our secrecy
oaths non-disclosure agreements should not be suicide bombs.