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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.