10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2013-2015

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 4 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.


What a Targeted Killing in the US Would Look Like

Amid now-abandoned discussions about using the FISA court to review targeted killing, I pointed out that a targeted killing in the US would look just like the October 28, 2009 killing of Imam Luqman Abdullah.

Article II or AUMF? “A High Level Official” (AKA John Brennan) Says CIA Can Murder You

When the second memo (as opposed to the first 7-page version) used to authorize the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, it became clear that OLC never really decided whether the killing was done under Article II or the AUMF. That’s important because if it’s the latter, it suggests the President can order anyone killed.

John Brennan Sworn in as CIA Director Using Constitution Lacking Bill of Rights

I know in the Trump era we’re supposed to forget that John Brennan sponsored a whole lot of drone killing and surveillance. But I spent a good deal of the Obama Administration pointing that out. Including by pointing out that the Constitution he swore to protect and defend didn’t have the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth amendment in it.


The Day After Government Catalogs Data NSA Collected on Tsarnaevs, DOJ Refuses to Give Dzhokhar Notice

I actually think it’s unreasonable to expect the government’s dragnets to prevent all attacks. But over and over (including with 9/11), NSA gets a pass when we do reviews of why an attack was missed. This post lays out how that happened in the Boston Marathon case. A follow-up continued that analysis.

A Guide to John Rizzo’s Lies, For Lazy Journalists

Former CIA General Counsel John Rizzo lies, a lot. But that doesn’t seem to lead journalists to treat his claims skeptically, nor did it prevent them from taking his memoir as a statement of fact. In this post I summarized all the lies he told in the first 10 pages of it.

Obama to Release OLC Memo after Only 24 Congressional Requests from 31 Members of Congress

Over the year and a half when one after another member of Congress asked for the OLC memos that authorized the drone execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, I tracked all those requests. This was the last post, summarizing all of them.

The West’s Ideological Vacuum

With the rise of Trump and the success of Russia intervening in US and European politics, I’ve been talking about how the failures of US neoliberal ideology created a vacuum to allow those things to happen. But I’ve been talking about the failures of our ideology for longer than that, here in a post on ISIS.

KSM Had the CIA Believing in Black Muslim Convert Jihadist Arsonists in Montana for 3 Months

There weren’t a huge number of huge surprises in the SSCI Torture Report for me (indeed, its scope left out some details about the involvement of the White House I had previously covered). But it did include a lot of details that really illustrate the stupidity of the torture program. None was more pathetic than the revelation that KSM had the CIA convinced that he was recruiting black Muslim converts to use arson in Montana.


The Jeffrey Sterling Trial: Merlin Meets Curveball

A big part of the Jeffrey Sterling trial was CIA theater, with far more rigorous protection for 10 year old sources and methods than given to 4 year old Presidential Daily Briefs in the Scooter Libby trial. Both sides seemed aware that the theater was part of an attempt, in part, to help the CIA gets its reputation back after the Iraq War debacle. Except that the actual evidence presented at trial showed CIA was up to the same old tricks. That didn’t help Sterling at all. But neither did it help CIA as much as government prosecutors claimed.

The Real Story Behind 2014 Indictment of Chinese Hackers: Ben Rhodes Moves the IP Theft Goal Posts

I’ve written a lot about the first indictment of nation-state hackers — People’s Liberation Army hackers who compromised some mostly Pittsburgh located entities, including the US Steel Workers. Contrary to virtually all the reporting on the indictment, the indictment pertained to things we nation-state hack for too: predominantly, spying on negotiations. The sole exception involves the theft of some nuclear technology from Westinghouse that might have otherwise been dealt to China as part of a technology transfer arrangement.

Obama’s Terrorism Cancer Speech, Carter’s Malaise Speech

In response to a horrible Obama speech capitulating to Republican demands he treat the San Bernardino attack specially, as Islamic terrorism, I compared the speech to Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech. Along the way, I noted that Carter signed the finding to train the mujahadeen at almost the exactly moment he gave the malaise speech. The trajectory of America has never been the same since.

Other Key Posts Threads

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2008-2010

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2011-2012

Devin Nunes’ So-Called Bibi Netanyahu Precedent

Throughout his ongoing information operation to claim the Obama White House spied on the Trump transition team, Devin Nunes has pointed to what he claimed was a precedent: when, in December 2015, members of Congress suddenly copped on that their conversations with Bibi Netanyahu would get picked up incidentally. In his March 22 press conference, he explained,

We went through this about a year and a half ago as it related to members of Congress, if you may remember there was a report I think it was in the Wall Street Journal and but then we had to have we had a whole series of hearings and then we had to have changes made to how Congress is informed if members of Congress are picked up in surveillance and this looks it’s like very similar to that.

Eli Lake dutifully repeated it in the second of his three-post series pitching Nunes’ information operation.

A precedent to what may have happened with the Trump transition involved the monitoring of Israel’s prime minister and other senior Israeli officials. The Wall Street Journal reported at the end of 2015 that members of Congress and American Jewish groups were caught up in this surveillance and that the reports were sent to the White House. This occurred during a bitter political fight over the Iran nuclear deal. In essence the Obama White House was learning about the strategy of its domestic political opposition through legal wiretaps of a foreign head of state and his aides.

But Lake didn’t apparently think through what the implications of Nunes’ analogy — or the differences between the two cases.

Here’s the WSJ report and CBS and WaPo versions that aren’t paywalled. All make it very clear that Devin Nunes took the lead in worrying about his conversations with Bibi Netanyahu being sucked up (I don’t remember Republicans being as sympathetic when Jane Harman got sucked up in a conversation with AIPAC). They also describe that Obama’s WH, faced with the potential that their surveillance would be seen as spying on another branch of Congress, had the NSA take charge of the unmasking.

The administration believed that Israel had leaked information gleaned from spying on the negotiations to sympathetic lawmakers and Jewish American groups seeking to undermine the talks.

According to the Journal, when the White House learned that the NSA eavesdropping had collected communications with U.S. lawmakers, it feared being accused of spying on Congress and left it to the NSA to determine what information to share with the administration. The Journal said the NSA did not pass along the names of lawmakers or any of their personal attacks on White House officials.

That’s not to say they’d take the same approach here — indeed, Lake now claims, at  least, that Susan Rice requested some Trump officials’ names to be unmasked, distinguishing it from the Bibi case in that White House did not leave it up to NSA to decide what to unmask (though the underlying reporting makes the silly claim that Rice, Loretta Lynch, and John Brennan were among a very limited number of people who could request a name be unmasked).

The larger point is, even assuming the collection of conversations between your political opponents and a foreign government designed to undermine your executive branch authority was scandalous, it’d still fall under the very legitimate concern of separation of powers.

Yes, Trump’s aides are from a different party. But they are nevertheless part of the executive branch. And the entire basis of counterintelligence spying — the entire point of FISA — is to ensure that executive branch officials are not targeted by foreign countries to be spies, which is part of the reason Mike Flynn attracted attention (which is not to justify the leaking of that intercept). Add in the legitimate necessity to implement executive branch policy and this is a very different case than the Bibi case, even if you want to defend (as I do, to a point) Republican members of Congress collaborating with foreign governments to undermine Article II authorities.

Nunes’ imagined solution — from his March 22 White House press conference — is ever nuttier.

Q: You’ve said legal and incidental. That doesn’t sound like a proactive effort to spy.

Nunes: I would refer you to, we had a similar issue with members of Congress that were being picked up in incidental collection a little over a year ago, we had to spend a full year working with the DNI on the proper notification for members of Congress to be notified which comes through the Gang of Eight. I would refer you to that because it looks very similar to that, would be the best way I can describe it.

The ODNI current informs the Gang of Eight when members of Congress get spied on (which means claims that a lot of GOP candidates got spied on is likely hot air, but which also means that if Nunes were collected as a member of the transition team, he’d have been the first to learn of it). Which is an important protection for separation of powers, but which also enables corrupt members of Congress to not just learn they’re being surveilled but, potentially, to alert the foreign targets what channels we’re using.

Maybe Trump wants that standard applied to the executive branch, but if he adopts it, we’re going to have a leaking free for all. Not to mention, it would make it absolutely impossible for the government to protect against espionage related to elections.

Or perhaps Nunes is just saying something more simple. Perhaps Nunes is saying the “dozens” of intercepts where Trump officials had been unmasked (to the extent that’s true) disclosed Trump’s transition-period attempts to drum up a war with Iran at the behest of Israel. Perhaps the real stink here is that, in the very same days Mike Flynn was telling Russia sanctions would be loosened, Trump was publicly undermining US efforts to take a stand against Israeli illegal settlements.

Perhaps, ultimately, this is still about a belief that the Israelis should never be wiretapped.

The Real Story Behind 2014 Indictment of Chinese Hackers: Ben Rhodes Moves the IP Theft Goal Posts

As I’ve noted repeatedly, there has been some abysmal reporting on the indictment, in May 2014, of 5 Chinese People’s Liberation Army hackers. Over and over reporters claim, without any caveat, that the indictment was for the theft of intellectual property, the kind of economic espionage we claim to forswear but complain about China conducting. Here are two recent examples.

David Sanger:

And when Unit 61398 of the People’s Liberation Army in China was exposed as the force behind the theft of intellectual property from American companies, the Justice Department announced the indictment of five of the army’s officers. Justice officials hailed that as a breakthrough. Inside the intelligence community and the White House, however, it was regarded as purely symbolic, and the strike on the Office of Personnel Management continued after the indictments were announced.

Elias Groll:

But nearly a year and a half after that indictment was unveiled, the five PLA soldiers named in the indictment are no closer to seeing the inside of a federal courtroom, and China’s campaign of economic espionage against U.S. firms continues.

Given that China’s hacking of US targets is so central to this week’s visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, I wanted to return to that indictment to tease out what it actually showed. Because it — and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes’ description of it in the lead-up to Xi’s visit — makes it clear the US is really talking about far more than IP theft.

The May 2014 indictment was mostly about monitoring negotiations and trade disputes

The indictment includes 31 charges. Just one of those charges — involving the theft of nuclear plant information from Westinghouse — is for economic espionage. Just one of those charges — involving the same theft from Westinghouse — is for theft of a trade secret. I’ll return to the Westinghouse charges in a second.

The additional charges include 9 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act violations (1-9) for breaking into various computers and stealing information, much of it to enable further hacking, 14 charges (10-23) of damaging a computer by planting malware in various computers, and 6 charges ( 24-29) of identity theft for stealing identity information associated with the targets of the attacks.

Yes, all those other 29 charges did involve hacking to obtain information. But that’s the point of what I wrote in my previous post on this: the theft isn’t the core of what we — at least explicitly — complain about China taking, the technology IP of private companies.

Here’s what PLA allegedly took from the five victims other victims, aside from Westinghouse, described in the indictment:

  • SolarWind (a German company with a location in Oregon): PLA allegedly stole detailed information on SolarWind’s financial position at a time when SolarWind was litigating a dumping complaint against Chinese solar manufacturers
  • US Steel: During a period when it was litigating cases against the Chinese steel industry, including against Baosteel, PLA allegedly stole data from (apparently) a sysadmin mapping USS’ computers and mobile devices
  • Allegheny Technologies Incorporated: During a period when it had already started a joint venture with China’s Baosteel but also when it was in anti-dumping litigation against the company, PLA monitored ATI’s computers
  • Alcoa: Immediately after Alcoa and Aluminum Corporation of China bought a 14% stake of Rio Tinto together, PLA monitored Alcoa’s computers
  • US Steel Workers: During a period when it, and the steel industry, was pushing for anti-dumping action against China, PLA stole emails including strategic information

Note the last one: the Steelworkers. A bunch of business reporters are pointing to this indictment — for stealing strategic discussions from a union! — as proof that China is stealing intellectual property from US corporations and sharing it with Chinese companies.

The one case of IP theft in the indictment is reverse engineering, not independent IP theft

In addition to those four corporations and one union, there’s Westinghouse, the one victim against which DOJ actually alleged economic espionage. In 2007, Westinghouse entered into a joint venture, which included significant but carefully negotiated tech transfer. The indictment doesn’t describe which entity involved in the deal it had in mind (several companies were involved, including ones that are more independent from the state), though it is almost certainly China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation, which has no illusions of independence from the state.  The deal was signed with ExIm Bank support and export licensing approval. Since that time, the deal has been renegotiated over what technology would get transferred to China, and Westinghouse is still building new reactors under the deal, with the latest one opening in May 2015. A subsequent contract sold even more advanced nuke plants, with Westinghouse expecting 100% localization through the contract.

In the middle of this 8 year relationship that has and will lead to Westinghouse transferring the technology to build these plants, on May 6, 2010, the indicted hackers allegedly stole information pertaining to design specs for pipes within nuclear power plants; the indictment does not say whether those pipes were included in the technology transfer. In the economic espionage section, the indictment alleges this information got transferred for the benefit of a foreign government, China, not naming even Chinese nuclear authority SNPTC, much less any of the individual joint ventures involved in the deal. That is, even in the charge pertaining to economic espionage, the indictment does not claim this was about benefitting a specific company, but instead was about benefitting the country as a whole. And it’s not like the US can claim it doesn’t spy on specific nuclear companies in the interest of the country as a whole.

And even the Westinghouse hack included the theft of information pertaining to negotiations. The indictment notes that in the advance of Hu Jintao’s state visit to the US in 2011, as Westinghouse and SNPTC were negotiating further construction, one of the hackers targeted deliberative emails regarding these negotiations.

Some stolen e-mails described the status of the four AP1000 plants’ construction. Many other stolen e-mails, however, concerned Westinghouse’s confidential business strategies relating to [SNPTC], including Westinghouse’s (a) strategies for reaching an agreement with [SNPTC] on future nuclear power plant construction in China; and (b) discussions regarding cooperation and potential future competition with [SNPTC] in the development of nuclear power plants elsewhere around the world.

Altogether, the indictment alleges, PLA hackers took 1.4G of data, which in the grand scale of nuclear plans and negotiations is not all that much data.

All of which is to say that the economic espionage charge was a fairly minor theft in the scope of the larger indictment, constituting nowhere near the kinds of data China steals from Defense contractors, and not alleging a transfer to a specific company. It’s also, both in the scale of data stolen from US companies doing business in China (where reverse engineering is often considered the cost of doing business) and the scale of Chinese IP theft here, miniscule.

The US spies on trade disputes too

The rest of the indictment — by far the bulk of the charges — involves spying during a range of negotiations, several of them international trade disputes (though there’s also an aspect of intimidation anytime takes a trade dispute against China). We know that NSA spies on other countries involved in trade disputes, including spying on the American attorneys representing foreign governments in trade disputes. It spies rampantly in advance of larger trade negotiations. And I would be shocked if the US didn’t spy on countries considering huge arms deals with ostensibly private US companies, especially when those deals are central to the petrodollar laundering that serves as the foundation to our Middle East strategy. That is, much of what we charged China’s PLA hackers for in this indictment, the US does. And we certainly spy on individual foreign companies for US national advantage, as when we mapped out Huawei very similarly to the way China mapped out USS.

None of that’s to excuse it. But it is to say no one should expect an indictment that involved — in the grand scheme of things — miniscule amounts of IP theft and lots more amounts of trade negotiation theft to teach China a lesson about IP theft. If we want to teach China a lesson about IP theft, then maybe we should indict it for IP theft, especially the kind of IP theft outside the realm of ongoing business relations which we claim to be the real concern.

That has never happened, and reporters should stop claiming it has.

Ben Rhodes now says this is about IP theft and confidential information

All that said, in the run-up to Xi Jinping’s visit, the Administration has actually gotten slippery on what it means when it invokes this kind of theft.

In an on the record conference call Tuesday, Ben Rhodes claimed (according to the transcript), “the United States government has already engaged in law enforcement actions, for instance, that targeted Chinese entities who we believed were behind that type of activity,” referring to this 2014 indictment. He had just described the activity as, “cyber-enabled theft of confidential business information and proprietary technology from U.S. companies” and described the goals as, “the protection of intellectual property and the ability of businesses to operate without concern of cyber theft.” In addition to “proprietary technology,” Rhodes is now including the cyber-enabled theft of “confidential business information” to China’s sins.

That is, in the days before a big public discussion about cyber theft, Ben Rhodes is moving the goal posts, describing the action of concern to include both “proprietary technology” — what they’ve been talking about for years — and “confidential business information” — which definitely describes what the PLA hackers took but doesn’t describe what they usually talk about when discussing IP theft.

Interestingly, Rhodes went on to suggest China would change its ways because otherwise US corporations won’t want to do business with them. “[T]he chief reason I think the Chinese have an interest in changing some of their behavior in the cyber realm is because if they’re operating outside of established international rules and norms, they’re ultimately going to alienate businesses, including U.S. businesses who have been critical to Chinese economic growth.” This is not the model of stealing data on the F-35 from Lockheed and subcontractors, the quintessential example of IP theft people like to point to. Rather, it’s the use of hacking to reverse engineer products China is buying from US companies, something Chinese companies usually do by stealing tools used in plants in China. Maybe Rhodes is correct that companies aren’t going to rush headlong into the fastest growing market anymore knowing China will reverse engineer, including by cyber-theft, of the things they’re buying, though I think that’s only likely if China’s growth continues to skid to a halt.

Ultimately, Rhodes accused China of cheating capitalism at a more fundamental level. “[T]hat’s something that gets at the integrity of the global economy, and that’s why we’ve been so focused on this.” Which is where it gets rather farcical, because it’s not like the US as a country doesn’t do what it can to bend the rules for its companies. Plus, if the Administration wants to take on China’s cheating, there are far easier ways to do it, such as on currency.

The roll-out of some kind of mutual understanding on cyber issues this week will be interesting regardless of Rhodes’ moving of the goal posts. But that he has done so — and broadened our age-old complaint about IP theft to now include the theft of confidential business information (some, but not all of which, we also do), is itself notable.

On that Acknowledged Covert Op in Syria

The NYT has a tick-tock of Obama’s Syria policy. I find it fascinating for two reasons.

Obama uses “covert” status as a legal fiction, nothing more

First, consider the coverage of the covert op — one acknowledged explicitly by Chuck Hagel in Senate testimony. NYT says President Obama actually signed the Finding authorizing arming the rebels in April, not June, as Hagel claimed, but Obama did not move to implement it right away.

President Obama had signed a secret order in April — months earlier than previously reported — authorizing a C.I.A. plan to begin arming the Syrian rebels.

Indeed, the story may have been driven by CIA types trying to blame Obama for indolence after first signing that finding.

As to the decision to do this as a covert op, NYT describes it arose — first of all — out of difficulties over using the Armed Forces to overthrow a sovereign government.

But debate had shifted from whether to arm Syrian rebels to how to do it. Discussions about putting the Pentagon in charge of the program — and publicly acknowledging the arming and training program — were eventually shelved when it was decided that too many legal hurdles stood in the way of the United States’ openly supporting the overthrow of a sovereign government.

Those difficulties, of course, were the same ones present that should have prevented Obama from considering bombing a sovereign government in August, which of course weren’t the ones that ultimately persuaded Obama not to bomb.

The big reason to do it as a covert op, however, came from the need to be able to deny we were arming al Qaeda-linked rebels.

Besides the legal worries, there were other concerns driving the decision to make the program a secret.

As one former senior administration official put it, “We needed plausible deniability in case the arms got into the hands of Al Nusra.”

Yet in spite of this explanation — one which you’d think would demand secrecy — the NYT notes that Ben Rhodes went and announced this policy publicly.

But, the NYT notes (perhaps in anticipation for the inevitable FOIA), the President didn’t say anything about it himself.

Where the hell was the IC getting its rosy scenario about Assad’s overthrow?

The other striking thing about the story is how it portrays Obama’s policies to have been driven by (unquestioned by the NYT) overly rosy assessments of Assad’s demise.

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Drones: Counterterrorism But Not Strategy

As one of the few civilian Americans who has been present in a zone where the US operated its drone campaign, David Rohde has a fairly unique perspective from which to comment on the tactic. And while in this long piece on drones, he recognizes their value, he also warns against their risks.

In 2008, I saw this firsthand. Two Afghan colleagues and I were kidnapped by the Taliban and held captive in the tribal areas of Pakistan for seven months. From the ground, drones are terrifying weapons that can be heard circling overhead for hours at a time. They are a potent, unnerving symbol of unchecked American power. At the same time, they were clearly effective, killing foreign bomb-makers and preventing Taliban fighters from gathering in large groups. The experience left me convinced that drone strikes should be carried out — but very selectively.

Ultimately, he notes that in both Pakistan and Yemen, the drones are contributing to increased instability.

For me, the bottom line is that both governments’ approaches are failing. Pakistan’s economy is dismal. Its military continues to shelter Taliban fighters it sees as proxies to thwart Indian encroachment in Afghanistan. And the percentage of Pakistanis supporting the use of the Pakistani Army to fight extremists in the tribal areas — the key to eradicating militancy — dropped from a 53 percent majority in 2009 to 37 percent last year. Pakistan is more unstable today than it was when Obama took office.

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John Brennan Boasts that an Obama Decision Killed Anwar al-Awlaki

Okay, I don’t know for a fact that the Senior Administration Official Jake Tapper rather irresponsibly gave anonymity to is John Brennan. After all, Ben Rhodes loves to boast anonymously too.

But given the Administration’s past caution about describing Obama’s role in the Awlaki assassination, I find it interesting that John Brennan this SAO is now claiming credit, in Obama’s name, for Awlaki’s killing, too.

The president emphasized the internationality of the NATO effort, and that’s part of what a senior White House official tells ABC News is the way Obama looks at foreign policy.

“What we’re demonstrating is you can move to a more targeted use of US force and be more successful in achieving our objectives,” a Senior White House official tells ABC News. This means a “smaller footprint, a more targeted use of force. It means less of a cost to taxpayers and troops, and also clearly results in our ability to take care of our interests.”

“With al Qaeda, we’re going after them in a very targeted way,” the Senior White House official says. “With Libya, we identified the unique capabilities the US has to go after Gadhafi,” and then NATO took the lead. The US role from that point on was to be the “glue” of the operation “keeping the coalition together,” providing “targeting, intelligence, refueling, and command and control.”

“Bin laden, Awlaki, Gadhafi have all met their demise in some fashion because of decisions the president made” utilizing this foreign policy view, the senior administration official said. [my emphasis]

Not surprisingly, John Brennan this SAO didn’t boast about the internationality of our effort in Somalia, where al-Shabaab made a grisly display of the bodies of 70 Burundian soldiers serving in AMISOM yesterday; al-Shabaab said they had ambushed the soldiers. John Brennan this SAO only boasts about the victories, you see. Nor did John Brennan this SAO claim credit for killing an American teenager the other day. We’re still pretending that was an accident.

But for the record, John Brennan this SAO can no longer control himself. He’s gonna claim credit not just for Osama bin Laden and Qaddafi–even claim credit for providing the command and control in what was purportedly a kinetic action–but also boast that Obama’s orders resulted in the death of an American citizen.

John Brennan: Immunizing the Truth

The first time I read Nicholas Schmidle’s breathtaking account of Osama bin Laden’s killing, I gave up when I got to this passage:

John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, told me that the President’s advisers began an “interrogation of the data, to see if, by that interrogation, you’re going to disprove the theory that bin Laden was there.” The C.I.A. intensified its intelligence-collection efforts, and, according to a recent report in the Guardian, a physician working for the agency conducted an immunization drive in Abbottabad, in the hope of acquiring DNA samples from bin Laden’s children. (No one in the compound ultimately received any immunizations.)

The article, which alternated between incredibly detailed accounts of the SEALs’ actions with more generalized depictions of Obama’s leadership, seemed designed to puff up the operation anyway. And while I’m not at all qualified to fact check the military details of it, the fact that Schmidle cited the Guardian–and not any of his own sources–for the most criticized aspect of the raid tells you a lot about the agenda of his sources. Furthermore, the fact that the Guardian provided slightly different details about the outcome of the immunization operation than Schmidle …

A nurse known as Bakhto, whose full name is Mukhtar Bibi, managed to gain entry to the Bin Laden compound to administer the vaccines. According to several sources, the doctor, who waited outside, told her to take in a handbag that was fitted with an electronic device. It is not clear what the device was, or whether she left it behind. It is also not known whether the CIA managed to obtain any Bin Laden DNA, although one source suggested the operation did not succeed.

… may indicate yet another level of manipulation on this detail of the raid.

Since that first reading, a number of people who are qualified to fact check the military details have suggested it was a nice propaganda piece. But they all remained mum about how they could tell.

Which is why I found this article, which describes Schmidle’s efforts to avoid questions about his sourcing, instructive. Among other things, it explains that Schmidle has made linguistic mistakes when covering Pakistan in the past, and suggests he might have limited linguistic understanding here, too.

He even describes how the translator Ahmed hollered in Pashto at the locals that a security operation was ongoing to allay their suspicions about the nature of the cacophony in the cantonment town. (This detail caught my eye as the majority of persons in Abbottabad, where the raid took place, speak Hindko rather than Pashto.)

While this piece doesn’t tell us what details are false, it emphasizes that Schmidle did not source the article where it appears to be sourced, to the SEALs who took part in the operation.

Now, I’m not surprised folks within the Obama Administration are leaking such heroic versions of the OBL raid. But in the context of the Administration’s war on leaks, it deserves more discussion. For example, I find it telling that a “counterterrorism official” repeatedly refutes the events presented from the perspective of the SEALs that–we know–Schmidle isn’t reporting directly.

After blasting through the gate with C-4 charges, three SEALs marched up the stairs. Midway up, they saw bin Laden’s twenty-three-year-old son, Khalid, craning his neck around the corner. He then appeared at the top of the staircase with an AK-47. Khalid, who wore a white T-shirt with an overstretched neckline and had short hair and a clipped beard, fired down at the Americans. (The counterterrorism official claims that Khalid was unarmed, though still a threat worth taking seriously. “You have an adult male, late at night, in the dark, coming down the stairs at you in an Al Qaeda house—your assumption is that you’re encountering a hostile.”)


Three SEALs shuttled past Khalid’s body and blew open another metal cage, which obstructed the staircase leading to the third floor. Bounding up the unlit stairs, they scanned the railed landing. On the top stair, the lead SEAL swivelled right; with his night-vision goggles, he discerned that a tall, rangy man with a fist-length beard was peeking out from behind a bedroom door, ten feet away. The SEAL instantly sensed that it was Crankshaft. (The counterterrorism official asserts that the SEAL first saw bin Laden on the landing, and fired but missed.)

These are, after all, some of the details that raise legal questions about the raid (and which John Brennan botched in the days immediately following the raid). And by presenting this story falsely as if Schmidle spoke directly to the SEALs, it allows whatever Administration official who gave it to him the ability to both admit that SEALs fired at unarmed men while providing a Hollywood version that glosses over that part. From a narrative perspective, it’s worthy of a popular novelist.

Finally, though, the whole thing raises questions about who leaked this, presumably with Obama’s explicit or implicit permission.

Here’s a list of the named sources Schmidle relies on, in rough order of appearance:

Shuja Nawaz, an expert on the Pakistani Army

John Radsan, a former assistant general counsel at the C.I.A.

General James Cartwright

John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser

Ben Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser



Ben Rhodes, the deputy national-security adviser

And here’s a list of the anonymous sources:

Senior defense and Administration officials

special-operations officer who is deeply familiar with the bin Laden raid

A senior counterterrorism official

a senior Defense Department official

a Pakistani senior military official

a senior adviser to the President

the special-operations officer

the special-operations officer

the counterterrorism official

The counterterrorism official

the special-operations officer

A former helicopter pilot with extensive special-operations experience

the special-operations officer

The senior adviser to the President

the senior Defense Department official

the special-operations officer

the special-operations officer

the special-operations officer

the special-operations officer

the special-operations officer

the special-operations officer

The senior adviser to the President

In other words, this story relies almost entirely on four sources: the special-operations officer, the senior counterterrorism official, the senior Defense Department official, and the senior adviser to the President. And among the named sources in the article are Obama’s counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, General James Cartwright, and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. (Former helicopter pilot and assistant commander of JSOC, Brigadier General Marshall Webb, figures prominently in the narrative, though is not quoted by name.)

And Brennan and Rhodes were reported by Schmidle to be present at some of the key low attendance events described here, such as the meeting at which Obama announced his decision to go with a SEALs operation, and the meeting at which the SEALs briefed Obama after the mission. Which is all the more telling, given that Schmidle attributed his story’s sourcing to the SEALs recollections.

…some of their recollections—on which this account is based—may be imprecise and, thus, subject to dispute.

In other words, it seems likely that Brennan and Rhodes serve as both anonymous and named sources for this story.

John Brennan had a direct role in Jeffrey Sterling’s battles with the CIA. Sterling is now being tried for allegedly leaking information equivalent to the information included in this story. Mind you, if Brennan leaked these details, he no doubt did so under the Insta-Declassification schtick that Scooter Libby used when he leaked Valerie Plame’s identity and the contents of the Iraq NIE. If the President okays leaks, they’re legal in this day and age; otherwise, they deserve the harshest punishment.

Still, this story is so thinly-veiled an Administration puff piece, it ought to attract as much attention for the sheer hypocrisy about secrecy it demonstrates as it will for the heroism such hypocrisy attempts to portray.

Update: Here’s the reason I focused on Webb (shown typing on his computer above) as the “special-forces official.”

Brigadier General Marshall Webb, an assistant commander of JSOC, took a seat at the end of a lacquered table in a small adjoining office and turned on his laptop. He opened multiple chat windows that kept him, and the White House, connected with the other command teams. The office where Webb sat had the only video feed in the White House showing real-time footage of the target, which was being shot by an unarmed RQ 170 drone flying more than fifteen thousand feet above Abbottabad. The JSOC planners, determined to keep the operation as secret as possible, had decided against using additional fighters or bombers. “It just wasn’t worth it,” the special-operations officer told me. The SEALs were on their own.

Obama returned to the White House at two o’clock, after playing nine holes of golf at Andrews Air Force Base. The Black Hawks departed from Jalalabad thirty minutes later. Just before four o’clock, Panetta announced to the group in the Situation Room that the helicopters were approaching Abbottabad. Obama stood up. “I need to watch this,” he said, stepping across the hall into the small office and taking a seat alongside Webb. Vice-President Joseph Biden, Secretary Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed him, as did anyone else who could fit into the office. On the office’s modestly sized LCD screen, helo one—grainy and black-and-white—appeared above the compound, then promptly ran into trouble. [my emphasis]

First, this passage describes Webb alone in the office that ultimately filled up. Sure, others must have known he was there, alone in the office, but it is a detail that no other people were present for.

More tellingly, why include the detail that Obama took a seat alongside Webb? It’s a detail that Schmidle could get from the photo–so it’s not a question of how Schmidle learned the detail. Rather, it’s a question of who would care (and who would orient the President’s actions from Webb’s perspective, rather than orienting Obama’s position in the room generally). In a way, it feels like one of those renaissance paintings that includes an image of the patron in the corner of the frame, just to make sure the viewer knows who sponsored the whole thing.