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The Epistemology of Security Clearance Dick-Waving

As I disclosed last month, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

I really couldn’t be bothered to get hot and bothered about President Trump stripping John Brennan of his security clearance. Brennan himself has been involved in the politicization of security clearances (perhaps most directly in Jeffrey Sterling’s case), and to have David Petraeus, of all people, complain about politicized security clearances, discredits the pushback. I’m far more concerned about the loyalty policing at EPA, Interior, Department of Education, and on the DOJ team attacking ObamaCare than I am about Brennan, because the bullying of those more obscure people will have a tangible effect on Americans’ lives. Indeed, the fact that Trump issued a declaration stripping Brennan of his clearance on July 26 but we only learned about it on August 15 is a testament to how little impact this has, other than the posturing around it.

But it has led to dangerous politicization elsewhere.

After being stripped of his clearance, Brennan wrote this op-ed.

In it, Brennan spends six paragraphs setting up how deceitful are Russians generally and his former counterpart Alexander Bortnikov specifically, and how successfully they recruit targets, including Americans, leading from a description of Russian “perfidy” directly to deeming election tampering denials “hogwash.”

Brennan then turns to Trump. He leads his accusation that Trump “colluded” with Russia by describing how asking for Russian to find Hillary’s missing emails “openly authorized his followers to work” with Russians.

The already challenging work of the American intelligence and law enforcement communities was made more difficult in late July 2016, however, when Mr. Trump, then a presidential candidate, publicly called upon Russia to find the missing emails of Mrs. Clinton. By issuing such a statement, Mr. Trump was not only encouraging a foreign nation to collect intelligence against a United States citizen, but also openly authorizing his followers to work with our primary global adversary against his political opponent.

Brennan then points to what he has read in “the reporting of an open and free press” to declare Trump’s claims of no collusion — as he had just claimed Russia’s denials of election interference — to be “hogwash.”

Such a public clarion call certainly makes one wonder what Mr. Trump privately encouraged his advisers to do — and what they actually did — to win the election. While I had deep insight into Russian activities during the 2016 election, I now am aware — thanks to the reporting of an open and free press — of many more of the highly suspicious dalliances of some American citizens with people affiliated with the Russian intelligence services.

Mr. Trump’s claims of no collusion are, in a word, hogwash.

The only questions that remain are whether the collusion that took place constituted criminally liable conspiracy, whether obstruction of justice occurred to cover up any collusion or conspiracy, and how many members of “Trump Incorporated” attempted to defraud the government by laundering and concealing the movement of money into their pockets.

In response, Richard Burr issued this testy statement, defending Trump’s action of stripping the clearance of a former CIA Director with whom Burr got along splendidly when he was spying on Burr’s own separate branch of government oversight committee.

Director Brennan’s recent statements purport to know as fact that the Trump campaign colluded with a foreign power. If Director Brennan’s statement is based on intelligence he received while still leading the CIA, why didn’t he include it in the Intelligence Community Assessment released in 2017? If his statement is based on intelligence he has seen since leaving office, it constitutes an intelligence breach. If he has some other personal knowledge of or evidence of collusion, it should be disclosed to the Special Counsel, not The New York Times.

If, however, Director Brennan’s statement is purely political and based on conjecture, the president has full authority to revoke his security clearance as head of the Executive Branch.

I’m offended by Burr’s statement not just because it ignores the plain language of Brennan’s op-ed, which it links, but for the epistemology of the Russian investigation suggested by the Senate Intelligence Committee Chair. Here’s the logic of the statement:

1. Brennan “purports” to know Trump colluded with a foreign power

Here, Burr ignores how Brennan defines it — first “authorizing his followers to work” with Russia by calling on them to find Hillary’s missing emails, and then “highly suspicious dalliances of some American citizens with people affiliated with the Russian intelligence services” — stuff that’s public. He also ignores that Brennan himself says he doesn’t know whether the “collusion” involved constitutes a criminally liable conspiracy. That is, Brennan is defining collusion as something less than a criminal conspiracy to cooperate to cheat on the election, but Burr doesn’t care.

2. Why doesn’t Brennan’s claim show up in the Brennan-led Intelligence Community Assessment?

Again, Burr ignores Brennan’s description of becoming aware of this in the time period after he “had deep insight into Russian activities during the 2016 election” — so after he left the CIA — and taunts him that the ICA Brennan oversaw showed no evidence of collusion. The implication is Brennan’s ability to know if there were collusion ended on January 20, 2017. (Burr is also ignoring that there were two different investigations even while Brennan was in government — the intelligence investigation led by Brennan, which by law should not be targeting Americans, and the several parallel counterintelligence investigations at FBI, which could investigate Americans.)

Burr then presents three and only three possibilities for how Brennan might have knowledge of collusion, once again ignoring the free press that Brennan clearly attributes it to. First, either intelligence, or personal knowledge:

3. If Brennan has something called “intelligence” proving Trump’s collusion, then it must have come from an intelligence breach.

4. If he has something called “personal knowledge” of collusion, then it must only be shared with Mueller’s team, not with the NYT.

That’s it, according to the Senate Intelligence Chair, for real information about collusion. Either it’s intelligence to which Brennan is no longer entitled (assuming, of course, that Gina Haspel would have no reason to share intelligence about Russia with Brennan in some kind of consultation, which — if Brennan did then pass that on publicly, would be the only proper reason to strip his clearance). Or it’s “personal information,” usually called “evidence,” which may only be shared with Mueller and not with the press. “Intelligence,” which is the purview of the Intelligence Committee and the agencies it oversees. Or “evidence,” which is the purview of a DOJ investigation. Either/or.

That’s, of course, illogical, and not just because Burr’s own committee is investigating some of the same “evidence” that the FBI is, notably what happened on social media and what some witnesses have testified about, in secret, to the committee, and witnesses to both (like Rob Goldstone) have also commented publicly.

It’s illogical, too, because there are other ways to get real evidence of collusion. I believe I have evidence of collusion. I shared it with the FBI, sure. But after I revealed that I had provided information to the FBI in July, I also shared limited parts of it with some Republican Congressmen, in hopes of explaining to them how serious the investigation is and showing that entire parts of it don’t derive from Peter Strzok’s decisions. I’ve also discussed, prospectively, sharing it with some former top intelligence officials (unsurprisingly, not Brennan), in the interests of elucidating parts of the Russian attack they missed.

Yet even though his either/or proposition is false, Burr then uses it to proclaim Trump’s treatment of Brennan proper based on this remarkable statement:

5. “If, however, Director Brennan’s statement is purely political and based on conjecture, the president has full authority to revoke his security clearance as head of the Executive Branch.”

Having set up this false either/or proposition, Burr then suggests anything else must be “purely political” and “based on conjecture,” and — without showing the logical relation between the two clauses in this sentence — states that the President has the authority to revoke Brennan’s security clearance.

(If NOT (intelligence or evidence,) THEN political conjecture) THEN strip the damn clearance.

It is true that thus far the case law suggests that a President does have the authority to strip Brennan’s clearance (though a Brennan challenge, or even more easily, a Bruce Ohr challenge, might establish new limits to that authority). But that authority has no relationship to the claimed political or conjectural nature of Brennan’s comments. Not only does Burr suggest it does — suggest that stripping security clearances because of speech perceived to be political is not just proper but justified — but by yoking these two clauses together in one sentence, Burr suggests punishing political speech is in some way intimately tied to the authority therein.

Plus, as Brad Heath noted, Burr’s statement argues that Trump was right to strip Brennan’s clearance on July 26 because of statements Brennan made on August 16.

The Chairman of the Intelligence Committee, mind you, made this statement.

But here’s the reason why I really care about this.

Back when he was CIA Director, I openly criticized Brennan for the way he worked the press to get the most hawkish read of the Russian attack into the press. But I didn’t think his efforts arose from partisanship. Rather, it was an effort to raise alarm bells about the attack in the last weeks of the Administration. Such use of the press happens all the time when Administration officials are trying to advance their favored policy decisions.

Burr, however, is using his position of authority to affirmatively tie security clearances to speech he (or the President) deems excessively political. He’s doing it even as he argues there are just two appropriate categories of weighing whether collusion happened or not, intelligence (his purview) or evidence (Mueller’s). And he’s doing it as his committee is leading what has, up to this point, been the only Congressional investigation not utterly discredited by partisan bickering.

That pisses me off for several reasons. First, Burr is in the same breath being a raging partisan and asserting that his committee is one of the only entities that can appropriately weigh whether Trump conspired with Russia to win the election. He’s putting a thumb on the scale at precisely the moment that he claims only he (and Mueller) get to decide whether collusion happened. This raises real questions in my mind about what would happen if and when SSCI came upon information that shows Trump conspired with Russia. It raises real doubts in my mind about whether SSCI is able to conduct their investigation.

More importantly, he’s wrong. He’s wrong for the obvious reason that journalists are discovering important threads of the Russia investigation. Indeed, the part of SSCI’s work they’re most proud about — Russia’s use of social media — came out of a lot of really good reporting on the topic.

He’s wrong because we’re a democracy and whether Trump conspired with Russia will one day be most critically decided in a political sphere. As we get closer to that day, the American public has every right to read these two data points together and consider whether they show Trump and the Russians conspiring.

“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

For example, on or about July 27, 2016, the Conspirators attempted after hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a third-party provider and used by Clinton’s personal office. At or around the same time, they also targeted seventy-six email addresses at the domain for the Clinton Campaign.

And he’s wrong because none of the certified experts are getting the Russia story entirely right. As I said, I’ve had conversations in the last several months with Republican congressmen, former top intelligence officials, and a whole lot of experts on the Russian attack, including (but not limited to) top InfoSec people, other journalists, and some key witnesses. Even aside from the stuff I went to the FBI about (which might give me special insight to what happened, but also has made me admittedly blindered about other issues) all of those people, including me, have missed key things or gotten key details wrong. Just as one example, in conversations I’ve had with that ilk of people, every single person save one has either misread key parts of the GRU indictment or read in their prior assumptions (the one exception had the advantage of being a key witness behind at least two paragraphs of the indictment). That’s just one example, but it’s an example that suggests we need more honest discussion and less of Burr and Trump’s attempt to decertify democratic speech about what the President did.

The Chair of the Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, effectively asserted that he is one of the few authorities with the right to say, based off what his committee does in private, whether Trump conspired with Russia or not, and that any citizen deigning to weigh in based off the public evidence may be properly disciplined by the President. The statement goes a long way to discredit the investigation his committee is doing, a real blow to his staffers’ success at bridging any partisan divide. Most importantly, because it so badly gets the epistemology of an attack that targeted all Americans wrong, it raises real questions about Burr’s understanding of the Russian attack at issue.

Gina Haspel Destroyed the Tapes in 2005 to Hide What She Destroyed in 2002

When Gina Haspel was testifying on Wednesday, she confused those of us who know the history of the torture tapes well. She made two claims that didn’t accord with the public record of the tapes that were destroyed. First, she said that only one detainee was depicted on the 92 tapes that got destroyed. Additionally, she said she, “didn’t appear on the tapes, as has been mischaracterized in the press.”

Yet as an inventory of the tapes shows, two of the tapes depicted Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri, though those tapes were taped over every day.

So there should have been two tapes depicting Nashiri’s torture, and given that she oversaw his torture, there’s a good chance she’d appear on them.

When Charlie Savage asked CIA about the discrepancy, they pointed to a CIA IG review done of the tapes that showed a number of the tapes had been altered before the review.

“Gina Haspel supervised the torture of al-Nashiri, which raises the stakes on the question of whether there were or were not remaining tapes of his torture,” said Hina Shamsi, the director of the A.C.L.U.’s national security project.

Asked about the apparent discrepancy, the C.I.A. pointed without comment to several pages of another document previously released under the Freedom of Information Act that discussed how the agency logged the contents of the 92 tapes before destroying them. It said 11 were blank, two were blank “except for one or two minutes of recording,” and “two were broken and could not be reviewed.”

In 2010, I noted that John Durham was clearly investigating two rounds of torture tape destruction: the second round, in 2005, when Gina Haspel helped her boss Jose Rodriguez destroy all the undamaged tapes. And the first round, in 2002 or 2003, when someone destroyed the evidence on what must be the most damning tapes.

As you recall, when the CIA IG reviewed the torture tapes in May 2003 (that is, five months after McPherson’s review), there were 15 tapes in some state of damage or erasure.

OIG found 11 interrogation tapes to be blank. Two others were blank except for one or two minutes of recording. Two others were broken and could not be reviewed. OIG compared the videotapes to logs and cables and identified a 21-hour period of time” which included two waterboard sessions” that was not captured on the videotapes.

You see, John Durham is investigating two incidents of torture tape destruction: the first, when in 2002 or 2003 someone removed evidence of two sessions of waterboarding (and potentially, the use of mock burial that would be declared torture by John Yoo) from the videotapes. And the second one, on November 8, 2005, when someone destroyed all the tapes, which not only destroyed evidence of waterboarding that violated the terms of the Bybee Two memo, but also destroyed evidence of the first round of destruction.

And John McPherson is likely the only person who can pinpoint when the first round of destruction occurred, before or after November-December 2002.

Now, all that doesn’t tell us precisely what Durham is after or whom, though I’d suggest he’s at least as interested in the people in the loop of the first round of destruction as the second.

As I said, it was not clear who he was after, the names of the people who had destroyed the tapes in the second round or in the first round.

But it appears CIA has now confirmed that: Gina Haspel. The CIA appears to be saying that Gina Haspel was the culprit both of those times.

And when she testified under oath on Wednesday that she supported destroying the tapes because the faces off officers appeared on the tapes, she was only partly telling the truth. It appears virtually certain (particularly given the focus on declassifying the Durham report so people can read his conclusions), she also supported destroying the tapes to hide the first round of destruction she had carried out. If so, she may have done so to hide the fact that her own face didn’t appear on the tapes, if it once had.

One more point: This makes Haspel’s enthusiasm for keeping torture in 2005-2007 all the more damning. Over two years earlier, Haspel appears to have destroyed evidence of how bad torture was. But she was still pushing to keep it even after hiding what she had done.

Gina Haspel Seems to Admit Knowing Jane Harman Opposed Torture Tape Destruction — Just Not Caring

Gina Haspel provided two significantly different responses in questions for the record about her knowledge of Jane Harman’s opposition to torture tape destruction and Carl Levin’s proposal to launch a commission to investigate torture.

Here’s how she answered a Dianne Feinstein question about Harman, who first said CIA shouldn’t destroy the tape in 2003 while serving as Ranking Member.

Question: (U) At the time of the tapes’ destruction, were you aware of the request from Representative Jane Harman that the videos be preserved? Were you aware of CIA attorneys’ concerns that congressional investigators or a congressionally authorized commission might seek access to them? Were you aware of the White House Counsel’s and Director of National Intelligence’s instructions that they not be destroyed?

Response: (U) To the best of my recollection, at the time of the destruction of the videotapes, I was aware of concerns raised in several quarters about destroying the tapes, but I was told that there were no legal prohibitions to destroying the tapes. Ultimately, the decision to destroy the tapes was made by the former Deputy Director for Operations.

In response to a question about Harman, Haspel admits that she was aware of opposition to destroying the tapes (Harman’s opposition showed up in a number of internal reviews, so there was would have been a paper trail documenting her knowledge). Her response suggests Congressional opposition to destroying the tapes did not affect the legal question.

Compare that to her answer about Carl Levin’s initial efforts to conduct an inquiry into torture just days before the tapes were destroyed.

Question: (U) Were you aware that legislation had been introduced in the U.S. Congress to review detainee issues when you drafted the cable authorizing the destruction of detainee interrogation videotapes on November 8, 2005? Please describe all conversations you had regarding congressional oversight of this matter prior to the destruction of the videotapes.

Response: (U) To the best of my recollection, I was not aware of this proposed legislation and I do not recall any discussions pertaining to congressional oversight of detainee videotapes prior to the destruction in November 2005.

Here, she offers a “do not recall” answer, probably because she and Jose Rodriguez did not memorialize any discussions of the possibility that Congress might shortly demand that CIA retain the tapes, if they had any discussions, so there was no proof she knew of it. She’s also discounting Harman’s objection as something other than “congressional oversight of detainee videotapes.”

Ultimately, it all comes down to not giving a shit what Congress thinks, though, while carefully protecting herself against claims that they destroyed the tapes in response to Levin’s actions, as opposed to the public reporting on the torture program that also immediately preceded the tape destruction.

Did Trump Modify PPD-28 Last Year before Retaining It?

In a series of questions for the record about whether CIA will continue to publicly post its surveillance procedures, CIA Director nominee Gina Haspel suggested she wouldn’t note changes if doing so would expose sources and methods.

Yes, subject only to my duty to protect classified information and intelligence sources and methods.

One question to which she gave that answer pertained to PPD-28, the Obama directive that provided some protections to foreign citizens.

The CIA’s PPD-28 Section 4 policies and procedures are publicly available. Will you ensure that the CIA continues to post these procedures as well as any modifications, superseding policies and procedures, or significant interpretations?

When Wyden asked about the importance of PPD-28 to bilateral relationships, Haspel explained that the Trump Administration had reviewed and retained it last year (Mike Pompeo had floated ditching it in his confirmation hearing). But in discussions about modifications, she envisioned only substantial modifications might interest allies.

PPD-28 underlies the US commitment to the EU/US Privacy Shield. This administration reviewed PPD-28 last year and decided to retain it. If PPD-28 were substantially modified or eliminated, our European partners might re-evaluate their commitment to the Privacy Shield that support trans-Atlantic commercial data flows.

The answers certainly leave the possibility that, in reviewing PPD-28 last year, the Trump Administration did make classified modifications, but did not consider them major enough to tell our European friends about.

Ron Wyden Makes It Clear Gina Haspel Pushed for Torture to Continue in 2005

Among the many, many damning details of Gina Haspel’s confirmation hearing, one sticks out. Ron Wyden asked her whether, during the 2005 to 2007 period, whether she ever asked for the torture program to be continued or expanded. She didn’t answer. Instead, she dodged:

Haspel: Like all of us who were in the counterterrorism center and working at CIA in those years after 9/11, we all believed in our work, we were committed, we had been charged with making sure the country wasn’t attacked again. And we had been informed that the techniques in CIA’s program were legal and authorized by the highest legal authority in our country and also the President. So I believe, I and my colleagues in the counterterrorism center were working as hard as we could with the tools that we were given to make sure that we were successful in our mission.

Wyden: My time is short and that, respectfully, is not responsive to the question. That was a period where the agency was capturing fewer detainees, waterboarding was no longer approved, and especially in light of that Washington Post story, I would really like to have on the record whether you ever called for the program to be continued, which it sure sounds to me like your answer suggested. You said, well we were doing our job it ought to be continued.

This makes it clear that Haspel was involved in reauthorizing torture in 2005, in a process that was as rife with lies to DOJ as the original authorization process had been.

It also makes Haspel directly responsible for the torture of people like Abu Farj al-Lbi, which the torture report describes this way.

On May 2005, one day after al-Libi’s arrival at DETENTION SITE BLACK, CIA interrogators received CIA Headquarters approval for the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Faraj al-Libi. CIA interrogators began using the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Faraj al-Libi on May 28, 2005, two days before the OLC issued its memorandum analyzing whether the techniques violated U.S. obligations under the Convention Against Torture.891

The CIA interrogated Abu Faraj al-Libi for more than a month using tlie CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques. On a number of occasions, CIA interrogators applied the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques to Abu Faraj al-Libi when he complained of a loss of hearing,repeatedly telling him to stop pretending he could not hear well.892 Although the interrogators indicated that they believed al-Libi’s complaint was an interrogation resistance technique, Abu Faraj al-Libi was fitted for a hearing aid after his transfer to U.S. military custody at Guantanamo Bay in 2006.893 Despite the repeated and extensive use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques on AbuFaraj al-Libi, CIA Headquarters continued to insist throughout the summer and fall of 2005 that Abu Faraj al-Libi was withholding information and pressed for the renewed use of the techniques. The use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques against Abu Faraj al-Libi was eventually discontinued because CIA officers stated that they had no intelligence to demonstrate that Abu Faraj al-Libi continued to withhold information, and because CIA medical officers expressed concern that additional use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques “may come with unacceptable medical or psychological risks.894 After the discontinuation of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, the CIA asked Abu Faraj al-Libi about UBL facilitator Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti for the first time.895 Abu Faraj al-Libi denied knowledge of al-Kuwaiti.896

That Haspel appears to have pushed to use torture with al-Libi is significant for multiple reasons. First, as noted, the CIA tortured al-Libi immediately after taking him into custody. There was no show of seeing whether he would cooperate. The CIA used his claim of hearing problems — a claim that turned out to be true — as an excuse to do more torture. CIA apparently kept asking to resume torture with him, even though it didn’t work.

Really importantly for the legacy of the torture program, al-Libi not only didn’t reveal the identity of Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti while he was being tortured, he continued to lie about it after he was tortured.

But Haspel’s involvement in this might be most problematic given the timing of it. As noted, the CIA asked for custody of al-Libi while they were still getting torture reauthorized; the first two Bradbury memos, authorizing torture and then their use of them in combination, were approved on May 10. As further noted, however, CIA started torturing al-Libi before the last Bradbury memo was signed on May 30. We know from Jim Comey’s memos about that process that DOJ was pushed very hard to approve them. Critically important, however, is that Alberto Gonzales made a case against reapproving torture at the May 31 principals meeting. In spite of DOJ concerns, the principals committee reapproved all the techniques.

That’s because CIA had already started torturing al-Libi. Effectively, CIA (so, presumably, Haspel, among others), rushed to torture al-Libi so that the government would have no choice but to reauthorize it.

Gina Haspel’s Fluid Moral Compass

I expected to dislike Gina Haspel, but be impressed with her competence (the same view I always had about John Brennan). But she did not come off as competent in her confirmation hearing, in large part because the lies surrounding her career cannot be sustained.

Let’s start with the questions she didn’t answer (usually offering a non-responsive rehearsed answer instead). She refused to say:

  • Whether she believes, with the benefit of hindsight, torture was immoral.
  • If a terrorist tortured a CIA officer, whether that would be immoral.
  • Whether the torture program was consistent with American values.
  • Whether she oversaw the torture of Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri.
  • Whether she was in a role supervising torture before she became Jose Rodriguez’ Chief of Staff.
  • Whether she pushed to keep the torture program between 2005 and 2007 (see that question here).
  • Whether she would recuse from declassification decisions relating to her nomination.
  • Whether Dan Coats should oversee declassification decisions regarding her nomination.
  • Whether she has been alone with President Trump.
  • Whether she would tell Congress if he asked her for a loyalty oath.

She also answered that she didn’t think torture worked, but then hedged and said she couldn’t say that because we got evidence from it.

She did answer one question that went to the core of her abuse when she participated in the destruction of the torture tapes. She said she would consider it insubordination today if an officer bypassed her for something as substantive as destroying the tapes, as Jose Rodriguez did. But she as much as said she would have destroyed the tape much earlier, because of the security risk they posed to the officers who appeared in the videos.

Then there was the logical inconsistency of her presentation. Several Senators, including Mark Warner, Dianne Feinstein, Ron Wyden, and Kamala Harris, complained about the selective declassification of information surrounding her confirmation. Haspel explained that she had to abide by the rules of classification just like everyone else. Not only was that transparent bullshit on its face (as Harris noted, the CIA released a great deal of information that revealed details of her operations), during the course of the hearing she provided details about her first meeting with an asset, Jennifer Matthews’ life and assignments, and a counter-drug program that also must be classified, and yet she was willing to simply blurt them out.

Perhaps most remarkable, though, is a key claim she made to excuse the destruction of the torture tape.

She claimed she did not recall which of the long list of entities that opposed the destruction of the torture tape she knew about at the time. That includes a move by Carl Levin to form a congressional commission to investigate torture. But on several occasions, she said that because the torture was covered in cable traffic, no other evidence needed to be kept.

That assumes, of course, that both the specific CIA cable and CIA cables generally are a fair rendition of any event CIA does (it’s not; in this case, and some videos were destroyed before the reviews finding them to match).

But when the Senate Intelligence Committee did a 6.700 page report based on the cables CIA used to describe their own torture, CIA wailed because SSCI didn’t interview the individual officers. Haspel effectively suggested that cables, in the absence of the torture tapes, would be sufficient for a congressional commission. Yet when Congress used cables to do an investigation of torture, CIA then claimed that was invalid.

When asked whether torture was moral, Haspel instead repeatedly insisted she has a sound moral compass. Except what her testimony made clear is that her idea of moral compass has everything to do with what is good for the CIA and its officers. It has absolutely nothing to do with traditional moral values. That’s not actually surprising. That’s what we ask of clandestine CIA officers: to break the rules normal people adhere to, in the name of serving our country, and to remain absolutely loyal to those whose lives are exposed in doing so.

Except today, Haspel proved unable to move beyond the fluid moral compass of a CIA officer to adopt a more stringent moral code of an official serving a democracy.

The Distinction between Torturing Abu Zubaydah and al-Nashiri and Just al-Nashiri

When Gina Haspel got nominated-by-tweet to be CIA Director, a lot of people pointed to a ProPublica story from last year reporting that Haspel was in charge of the CIA’s black site in Thailand from the start of the torture, and that she had taken glee out of Abu Zubaydah’s treatment. ProPublica has since retracted that story, based on public clarifications from people like James Mitchell.

The nomination of Haspel this week to head the CIA stirred new controversy about her role in the detention and interrogation of terror suspects, as well as the destruction of videotapes of the interrogation of Zubaydah and another suspect. Some critics cited the 2017 ProPublica story as evidence that she was not fit to run the agency.

Those statements prompted former colleagues of Haspel to defend her publicly. At least two said that while she did serve as chief of base in Thailand, she did not arrive until later in 2002, after the waterboarding of Zubaydah had ended.

The New York Times, which also reported last year that Haspel oversaw the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and another detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, published a second story this week making the same point. It quoted an unnamed former senior CIA official who said Haspel did not become base chief until late October of 2002. According to the Times, she was in charge when al-Nashiri was waterboarded three times.

As they note, the story did correctly describe Haspel overseeing the coverup of the tapes.

In response, a lot of human rights activists have argued that it’s all the same: torturing one person is still torture, and the corrected story still puts Haspel in charge when Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri was waterboarded.

But that’s not correct in one important way.

The treatment of Abu Zubaydah clearly exceeded the techniques as laid out in the Bybee Memo, both in severity and repetition. We know far less about the specific details of Nashiri’s torture while he was still in Thailand. We know he was waterboarded three times. And we know that not even Liz BabyDick Cheney (who was torture-splaining John McCain yesterday for his concerns about Haspel) claims that waterboarding elicited useful information from Nashiri.

Nashiri would be treated using techniques, including threats from a drill, not authorized by the Bybee Memo, but that happened after he got shipped out to the next black site. There’s no currently public reason to believe Haspel was involved in that treatment.

So, while we can say with certainty that whoever tortured Zubaydah at the Thai black site and whoever oversaw it cannot claim to be relying on the OLC authorization to torture — because his treatment exceeded what got approved, we can make no such assertion with regards to Nashiri. That’s critically important for Haspel’s claim that she was just doing what DOJ authorized.

She still did oversee torture. She did oversee the destruction of the torture tapes (with legal sanction from the counterterrorism center’s own lawyers). But we don’t have evidence she oversaw torture that violated even the expansive guidelines approved by Jay Bybee.

Some Cover-Ups Are More Equal Than Other Cover-Ups

Over at TNR, I’ve got a piece that mocks how former top spooks and officials pretend the partisanship of HPSCI is anything new.

On Monday, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee released what it claimed to be a summary of its investigation into Russia’s role in the election. Among its conclusions, it disagreed with the intelligence community’s 2017 assessment that Vladimir Putin and the Russian government “developed a clear preference” for candidate Trump.

The summary, presumably drafted by aides of Trump transition official and committee Chairman Devin Nunes, disputed that assessment even in the face of the recent indictment of Russian internet trolls, which laid out how they set up anti-Hillary and pro-Trump campaign rallies. The indictment also showed how their social media activity pursued the same anti-Hillary, pro-Trump line, launching hashtags like #TrumpTrain and #Hillary4Prison, the Twitter account March for Trump, and the Facebook accounts Clinton FRAUDation and Trumpsters United.

Even some Republicans on the committee have delicately distanced themselves from the report. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina affirmed that Russia was “motivated in whole or in part by a desire to harm [Hillary Clinton’s] candidacy or undermine her Presidency had she prevailed.” Florida’s Tom Rooney, like Gowdy retiring after this term, said, “I absolutely think there was evidence they were trying to help Trump at some points.”

The report also garnered criticism from former spooks and top officials. John McLaughlin, CIA’s deputy director during the first years of the George W. Bush administration, complained on Twitter about the partisan nature of the stunt.

As a subject or observer of Cong oversight of intell for 40 years, I’ve never seen a party drive a stake thru the process as House Reps just did. It depends on a bi-partisan approach that at least gives the minority a voice. Take that away and the thing dies. It just did.

So did Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder:

Republican House Intell Comm shut down Russia probe before doing a complete job This is a coverup and a lasting stain on the reputation of what used to be a bipartisan Committee when it was run by Republican Rogers and Democrat Ruppersberger. Politics beat a desire for the truth

Only, McLaughlin has seen such partisanship in congressional oversight before—when he benefited from it. In 2003, after Republicans regained the majority in the Senate, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Pat Roberts agreed with the CIA to shut down initial efforts by his Democratic predecessor, Bob Graham, to oversee Bush’s torture program. The CIA memorandum of his briefing recorded, “[T]he Senator interjected that he saw no reason for the Committee to pursue such a request and could think of ‘ten reasons right off why it is a terrible idea’ for the Committee to do any such thing,” like observing interrogation as practiced in person. In the same period, Jane Harmon, then the ranking member of House Intelligence Committee, asked the CIA general counsel, “Have enhanced techniques been authorized and approved by the president?” In response, he gave her an evasive answer.

If partisanship drives a stake through effective oversight of the intelligence community, then the efforts to bypass Democratic concerns about torture killed that vampire long ago.

Furthermore, for much of the period that Holder is describing, between 2011 and 2015, Republicans were obsessed with turning the tragedy of the Benghazi assault into a circus. The House Intelligence Committee did its own report on the incident, replete with “additional views” from Rogers offering a sharper attack on the Obama administration, especially Susan Rice. Democrats were left offering “minority views” from Ruppersberger reminding lawmakers that blame for the attack should lie with the attackers.

I realize, of course, I left something out: that Holder was part of the cover-up himself.

In any case, I otherwise thought it a useful piece.

Welcome to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Pompeo — the Latest Committee to Have Reason to Investigate Russia!

Yesterday, Rex Tillerson committed the one unforgivable sin on the Trump Administration: holding Russia accountable for its actions. While Trump and Sarah Huckabee Sanders equivocated, Tillerston strongly stated that the poison used in the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter obviously came from Russia.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Britain “clearly came from Russia” and “certainly will trigger a response.”

Tillerson says he doesn’t know whether Russia’s government had knowledge of the poisoning. But he is arguing the poison couldn’t have originated anywhere else. He says the substance is known to the U.S. and doesn’t exist widely. He says it’s “only in the hands of a very, very limited number of parties.”

Tillerson calls the poisoning “a really egregious act” and says it’s “almost beyond comprehension” that a state actor would use such a dangerous substance in a public place.

Today, Tillerson’s counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, drew the unenviable task of denying Russia’s involvement, even while the Russian Embassy and Putin himself barely hid their glee about the attack.

“Russia is not responsible,” Sergei Lavrov said during a televised press conference that marked an escalation of the standoff with the UK over the poisoning of the former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

Lavrov also suggested Moscow would not comply with a Tuesday midnight deadline set by Theresa May to deliver an explanation or face retaliation. He said Moscow’s requests to see samples of the nerve agent had been turned down, which he called a violation of the chemical weapons convention outlawing the production of chemical weapons.

“We have already made our statement on this case,” he said. “Russia is ready to cooperate in accordance with the convention to ban chemical weapons if the United Kingdom will deign to fulfil its obligations according to the same convention.”

Trump did the predictable thing: Fired Tillerson by tweet, naming Mike Pompeo his successor and torturer Gina Haspel America’s first female CIA Director.

Of course, both those nominations require confirmation. And while it would probably be easy for Haspel to work as Acting Director for the foreseeable future, it may be far, far harder for Pompeo to make the move.

Admittedly, Pompeo was confirmed CIA Director with a 66-32 vote (this was before Democrats got bolder about opposing Trump’s more horrible nominees, and Pompeo was, after all, a member of Congress). But Pompeo likely faces a harder time even getting through committee. While Senate Foreign Relations Committee Dems Jeanne Shaheen and Tim Kaine are among the idiotic Dems who voted for Pompeo for CIA Director, SFRC Republican Rand Paul was the sole Republican voting against Pompeo. So even if just Shaheen and Kaine flip their votes, Pompeo will be bottled up in SFRC. But SFRC also includes several of the other Republicans who’ve been most skeptical of Trump and/or his dalliances with Russia: Bob Corker (who is retiring and has been chilly about Pompeo’s confirmation in the past), Jeff Flake (who is retiring), and Marco Rubio (who was hacked by Russia himself; though he has already said he would support Pompeo).

Since Pompeo’s last confirmation, he has done several things to coddle Trump’s Russia dalliance, as I laid out here.

Already, Pompeo’s cheerleading of Wikileaks during the election should have been disqualifying for the position of CIA Director. That’s even more true now that Pompeo himself has deemed them a non-state hostile intelligence service.

Add in the fact that Pompeo met with Bill Binney to hear the skeptics’ version of the DNC hack, and the fact that Pompeo falsely suggested that the Intelligence Community had determined Russia hadn’t affected the election. Finally, add in the evidence that Pompeo has helped Trump obstruct the investigation and his role spying on CIA’s own investigation into it, and there’s just far too much smoke tying Pompeo to the Russian operation.

Remember, too, that in his last confirmation process, Pompeo refused to rule out using hacked intelligence from Russia, something Rubio should be particularly concerned about.

Pompeo can also expect to be grilled about why he ignored the sanctions against Russia’s top intelligence officers so they could all come for a meet and greet earlier this year.

I’m not saying it won’t happen. But it will be tough for Pompeo to get through the narrowly divided SFRC, much less confirmation in the full senate.

House Intelligence Republicans yesterday made asses of themselves in an attempt to get Russian investigations off the front page. But by nominating Pompeo to be Secretary of State, Trump just gave an entirely different committee, one far more hawkish on Russia issues, reason to start a new investigation into Trump — and Pompeo’s — Russia dalliances.

Are Covert Ops Spinning Free from Presidential Findings (Again)?

Around the same time Donald Trump was dodging all responsibility for the catastrophically botched Yemen raid, he was planning to give his generals more authority to launch such raids on their own, without his approval.

President Donald Trump has signaled that he wants his defense secretary, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, to have a freer hand to launch time-sensitive missions quickly, ending what U.S. officials say could be a long approval process under President Barack Obama that critics claimed stalled some missions by hours or days.

[snip]

Despite the controversy, Trump has signaled that he wants to operate more like the CEO he was in the private sector in such matters, and delegate even more power to Mattis, which may mean rewriting one of President Barack Obama’s classified Presidential Policy Directives on potentially lethal operations in countries where the U.S. is not officially involved in combat.

Meanwhile, Trump is also moving drone-killing back to the CIA after a protracted effort by the Obama Administration to put them exclusively on DOD’s hands.

President Donald Trump has given the Central Intelligence Agency secret new authority to conduct drone strikes against suspected terrorists, U.S. officials said, changing the Obama administration’s policy of limiting the spy agency’s paramilitary role and reopening a turf war between the agency and the Pentagon.

The new authority, which hadn’t been previously disclosed, represents a significant departure from a cooperative approach that had become standard practice by the end of former President Barack Obama’s tenure: The CIA used drones and other intelligence resources to locate suspected terrorists and then the military conducted the actual strike. The U.S. drone strike that killed Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in May 2016 in Pakistan was the best example of that hybrid approach, U.S. officials said.

The Obama administration put the military in charge of pulling the trigger to promote transparency and accountability. The CIA, which operates under covert authorities, wasn’t required to disclose the number of suspected terrorists or civilian bystanders it killed in drone strikes. The Pentagon, however, must publicly report most airstrikes.

These may be unrelated developments (though, as referenced by DB, they both would have been governed under Barack Obama’s drone killing rulebook, because it actually applied to all targeted killing, whether conducted by drone or raid).

But they portent a potentially horrible development: diminished involvement of the President in the granular details of Findings that approve covert operations.

Findings are the presidential documents meant to outline a covert operation and give notice to Congress’ Intelligence Committees that they’re happening. They’re supposed to be updated as programs change. While there’s a lot to complain about the secrecy of them, they at least serve as a way to make a political figure — the President — responsible for whatever goes on in covert operations.

If Trump delegates more authority for targeted killing while at the same time moving more of it back into CIA’s hands, that likely means more covert targeted killings will happen without the kind of close involvement that occurred for much (though not all) of Obama’s Administration.

There are two problems with that. First, it makes it more likely the CIA will discount political consequences of individual operations — not because the CIA is not politically savvy (in areas like this they’re more savvy than the Reality Show president), but because they will be able to deny any screw-ups.

It also makes it more likely the White House and CIA will end up in mutual recriminations the next time there’s a really unpopular strike, with CIA officers bearing the brunt of Trump’s abdication of the role he’s supposed to play in covert operations.

There’s recent precedent for such a problem: the torture program, where the Finding signed by George Bush (crafted by Dick Cheney) let CIA set its own policy, which left the CIA without cover when the shit started hitting the fan.

I assume the CIA is well aware of the risks of such a structure (though Gina Haspel’s elevation to Deputy Director after being a key player in many of the worst parts of the torture scandal may make her less worried about the risks, given that she has ultimately been protected). But the men and women at the implementing stage of such a policy shift may not have much leeway to fight it.