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Hillary Claims to Support Targeted Spying But Advisor Matt Olsen Was Champion of Bulk Spying

Spencer Ackerman has a story on what Hillary Clinton meant when she said she supports an “intelligence surge” to defeat terrorism. Amid a lot of vague language hinting at spying expansions (including at fusion centers and back doors), her staffers told Ackerman she supported the approach used in USA Freedom Act.

Domestically, the “principles” of Clinton’s intelligence surge, according to senior campaign advisers, indicate a preference for targeted spying over bulk data collection, expanding local law enforcement’s access to intelligence and enlisting tech companies to aid in thwarting extremism.

The campaign speaks of “balancing acts” between civil liberties and security, a departure from both liberaland conservative arguments that tend to diminish conflict between the two priorities. Asked to illustrate what Clinton means by “appropriate safeguards” that need to apply to intelligence collection in the US, the campaign holds out a 2015 reform that split the civil liberties community as a model for any new constraints on intelligence authorities.

The USA Freedom Act, a compromise that constrained but did not entirely end bulk phone records collection, “strikes the right balance”, said [former NSC and State Department staffer and current senior foreign policy advisor Laura] Rosenberger. “So those kinds of principles and protections offer something of a guideline for where any new proposals she put forth would be likely to fall.”

It then goes on to list a bunch of advisors who have been contributing advice on the “intelligence surge.”

The campaign did not identify the architects of the intelligence surge, but it pointed to prominent counter-terrorism advisers who have been contributing ideas.

They include former acting CIA director Michael Morell – who has come under recent criticism for his attacks on the Senate torture report – ex-National Counterterrorism Center director Matt Olsen; Clinton’s state department counter-terrorism chief Dan Benjamin; former National Security Council legal adviser Mary DeRosa; ex-acting Homeland Security secretary Rand Beers; Mike Vickers, a retired CIA operative who became Pentagon undersecretary for intelligence; and Jeremy Bash, Leon Panetta’s chief of staff at the CIA and Pentagon.

It appalls me that Hillary is getting advice from Mike Morell, who has clearly engaged in stupid propaganda both for her and the CIA (though he also participated in the Presidents Review Group that advocated far more reform than Obama has adopted). I take more comfort knowing Mary DeRosa is in the mix.

But I do wonder how you can take advice from Matt Olsen — who was instrumental in a lot of our current spying programs — and claim to adopt a balanced approach.

Olsen was the DOJ lawyer who oversaw the Yahoo challenge to PRISM in 2007 and 2008. He did two things of note. First, he withheld information from the FISC until forced to turn it over, not even offering up details about how the government had completely restructured PRISM during the course of Yahoo’s challenge, and underplaying details of how US person metadata is used to select foreign targets. He’s also the guy who threatened Yahoo with $250,000 a day fines for appealing the FISC decision.

Olsen was a key player in filings on the NSA violations in early 2009, presiding over what I believe to be grossly misleading claims about the intent and knowledge NSA had about the phone and Internet dragnets. Basically, working closely with Keith Alexander, he hid the fact that NSA had basically willfully treated FISA-collected data under the more lenient protection regime of EO 12333.

Charlie Savage provided two more details about Olsen’s fondness for bulk spying in Power Wars. As head of NCTC, Olsen was unsurprisingly the guy in charge of arranging, in 2012, for the NCTC to have access to any federal database it claimed might have terrorist information in it (thereby deeming all of us terrorists). Savage describes how, in response to his own reporting that NCTC was considering doing so — at a time when the plan was to have a further discussion about the privacy implications of the move — ODNI pushed through the change without that additional privacy consideration. That strikes me as the same kind of disdain for due process as Olsen exhibited during the Yahoo challenge.

Finally, Savage described how, when Obama was considering reforms to the phone dragnet in 2014, Olsen opposed having the FISC approve query terms before querying the database as legally unnecessary. It’s hard to imagine how Olsen would really be in favor of USAF type reforms, which codify that change.

In short, among Hillary’s named advisors, the one with the most direct past involvement in such decisions (and also the one likely to be appointed to a position of authority in the future) has advocated for more bulk spying, not less.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

CIA Director Entry Number 2: Mike Morell, Fabulist

As Eli Lake wrote the other day, there are three men angling to be CIA Director under President Hillary: John Brennan, Mike Morell, and Mike Vickers.

I’ve already explained what is terrifying about Vickers’ audition to be CIA Director: after laying out the Hillary as Commander-in-Chief case (which appears to be mandatory for these things), Vickers then talks about how we need to escalate our wars and belligerence.

To be sure, we will need more aggressive counterterrorism strategies, stronger support for the Syrian opposition as the only plausible counterweight to authoritarianism and extremism within Syria, more effective counters to Iranian and Russian expansion, and better strategies for deterring and competing with China over the long term.

Henceforth, I will refer to Vickers as The Escalationist.

Today, Mike Morell submitted his audition to be CIA Director.

As Vickers did (these do seem to be formulaic), Morell lays out his extensive bipartisan past (Vickers claims service under 4 Republican and 2 Democratic Presidents, Morell claims 3 of each), then talks about how serving with Hillary convinced him she has the temperament to be Commander-in-Chief.

I spent four years working with Mrs. Clinton when she was secretary of state, most often in the White House Situation Room. In these critically important meetings, I found her to be prepared, detail-oriented, thoughtful, inquisitive and willing to change her mind if presented with a compelling argument.

Like Vickers, Morell lauds Hillary’s courage in pushing for the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Mrs. Clinton was an early advocate of the raid that brought Bin Laden to justice, in opposition to some of her most important colleagues on the National Security Council.

[snip]

I never saw her bring politics into the Situation Room. In fact, I saw the opposite. When some wanted to delay the Bin Laden raid by one day because the White House Correspondents Dinner might be disrupted, she said, “Screw the White House Correspondents Dinner.”

Disrupting White House Correspondents Dinner to kill someone would count as politics? Really?

Also like Vickers, Morell then lays out Trump’s lack of qualification for the job, both in terms of background and temperament.

But Morell’s gimmick — the brand that sets him apart on this quest to be CIA Director — is not an explicit call for escalation, but instead the specific gloss he puts on Trump’s soft spot for Putin. After portraying Trump’s careless claims as full endorsements of Putin, Morell claims Trump has been recruited by the old KGB officer, albeit unwittingly.

Mr. Putin is a great leader, Mr. Trump says, ignoring that he has killed and jailed journalists and political opponents, has invaded two of his neighbors and is driving his economy to ruin. Mr. Trump has also taken policy positions consistent with Russian, not American, interests — endorsing Russian espionage against the United States, supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and giving a green light to a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic States.

In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor in making political hay out of Trump’s call on Putin to hack Hillary, especially coming as it does from someone (unlike Jake Sullivan and Leon Panetta) without a known history of mishandling classified information.

But that line? “recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation”? That’s all about the clicks, and it has been serving splendidly. Just like “Slam Dunk” was a nifty line.

In a piece auditioning to be CIA Director, I’d prefer someone stick more rigorously to the truth. Trump is an apologist for Putin, undoubtedly, but there’s no more evidence Putin has recruited Trump (unwittingly) than there is, say, the Saudis have recruited Hillary. They’re all just picking the assholes they champion, with Hillary picking the assholes we’ve long championed.

Then again, this is not the first time Morell has stretched the truth a bit — up to and including on torture, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the tactic.

So there you have it: The Escalationist versus The Fabulist, your first two contestants on the Price is Right CIA nomination competition.

Sadly, we probably won’t see something quite so explicit from Brennan (though it would be amusing to see if a third endorsement hewed so closely to the same script as the other two), so we’ll just have to accept Lake’s “drone warrior” brand for him.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Eli Lake’s Portrayal of the CIA Director Campaign: Drones, Benghazi, and … ?

Eli Lake reports that John Brennan wants to stay on as CIA Director under President Hillary. That’s not surprising given that Brennan believes (as Lake notes) CIA Directors should get 10 year terms just like FBI Directors do.

I thought maybe Brennan wanted to stick around to make sure he gets credit for bettering Allen Dulles’ record for regime change (after all, it’s not clear how the regime change conducted while Brennan was at the White House gets counted in these things).

Apparently not. After laying out what he portrays as opposition from both the left and right (not that that stopped Brennan from being confirmed in 2013), Lake describes that Brennan might stay because he’s the architect of the drone war.

Brennan does have the benefit of understanding the intricacies of the U.S. drone war that expanded significantly under Obama. Indeed, he is one of the main authors of that policy, going back to his time at the White House during Obama’s first term.

There was a time when Obama endeavored to end that war by the time he left office. It’s now clear that Obama’s successor will inherit it. Brennan is hoping that if that successor is Clinton, she will also inherit the architect of the drone war that he and Obama can’t seem to end.

This, at a time when the Senate Intelligence Committee and Armed Services Committee still squabble over who should drive the drone war.

Lake describes Mike Morell’s case (someone Dianne Feinstein has lobbied against in the past) this way:

Morell in particular has been helpful to Clinton. In his memoir and in congressional testimony, he blamed the CIA and the White House for the talking points on the 2012 Benghazi attack that attributed an act of terror to a demonstration over an internet video. Clinton, of course, was secretary of state at the time, and Republicans have leveled most of their criticism of Benghazi at her.

Lake pretends that the stated role in Benghazi and unstated opposition from Feinstein based off Morell’s comments about the torture report wouldn’t sink his candidacy. Maybe that wouldn’t?

Which leaves Mike Vickers, about whom Lake only mentions Vickers’ history as “former CIA officer and undersecretary of defense for intelligence.” Thankfully, Vickers has made his own case, in a recent endorsement of Hillary. After Vickers recalls his own bipartisan history (largely running covert ops), he raises Hillary’s favorite alleged proof of her national security chops, when she advised Obama to launch the Osama bin Laden raid.

As a Green Beret, CIA operations officer and senior national security official, I have served under six presidents—four Republicans and two Democrats. The last was Barack Obama, and for four years in the White House Situation Room, I saw Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s sound strategic judgment first-hand—on the Afghanistan surge, the campaign to dismantle and defeat core al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal region, the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, and on lethal support for the moderate Syrian opposition. Secretary Clinton has the temperament, national security experience and strategic judgment to be an outstanding commander in chief. Donald Trump does not. I’m with her.

Vickers then ends his “endorsement” by confidently asserting we need to be more hawkish than we currently are.

To be sure, we will need more aggressive counterterrorism strategies, stronger support for the Syrian opposition as the only plausible counterweight to authoritarianism and extremism within Syria, more effective counters to Iranian and Russian expansion, and better strategies for deterring and competing with China over the long term. But just as we needed an experienced and steady hand to guide us safely through the early years of the Cold War, we need an experienced and steady hand to guide us through the current challenges to American leadership and world order. Only one candidate in this presidential race can supply that.

There you have the race to be CIA Director under Hillary (at least as viewed through a Neocon lens): the current drone architect, Mr. Benghazi, or the guy whose enthusiasm for covert ops matches Hillary’s own.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

On the Leak Crackdown: Donald Sachtleben Was a Convenient Scapegoat

I’m reading Charlie Savage’s Power Wars. While I disagree with some parts of it and have additional information that isn’t included in others (the book is already 700 pages, so it’s possible they were left out because of length), it is absolutely worth reading and provides a ton of insight about what Obama’s legal insiders were willing to share with Savage. Here’s a long interview with Glenn Greenwald about it.

As it happens, last year I wrote but never finalized a post on an area that is misleading in Savage’s chapter on the Obama Administration’s serial prosecution of leakers, about the prosecution of Donald Sachtleben, the retired FBI guy who, after being busted for kiddie porn, ultimately got prosecuted for being the leaker behind the AP’s UndieBomb 2.0 story. I’m tweaking it and posting it now. This post explains his bust.

Savage claims that Sachtleben never got IDed because he didn’t access any classified documents about the bomb and hadn’t signed the sign-in sheet of the room where it was being investigated — which is all stuff claimed in a Statement of Offense that is obviously designed to be misleading (though Sachtleben’s FBI badge did show him entering the examination space where the bomb was being examined; the Statement doesn’t say whether the specific room tracked badge entries). Savage states, Sachtleben “had visited the Quantico lab where the new underwear bomb was being examined on May 1, 2012, a few hours before Goldman and a colleague, Matt Apuzzo, first called government officials to say they knew the FBI had intercepted a new underwear bomb from Yemen” [that date of the call in the Statement is May 2]. That suggests (again, as the statement does) that Sachtleben was therefore the source for the things the AP told the government it knew on May 2.

As I’ve noted, Sacthleben contested this claim at his sentencing, which is actually consistent with what the text messages with him show: Goldman and Apuzzo were looking for confirmation of something they already knew.

“I was neither the sole nor the original source of information to ‘Reporter A’ about the suicide bomb,” Sachtleben said in a statement sent by his law firm. “The information I shared with Reporter A merely confirmed what he already believed to be true. Any implication that I was the direct source of a serious leak is an exaggeration.”

But in CIA Public Affairs emails obtained by FOIA by The Intercept last year, there’s further support for this. The emails reveal that by April 25, 2012 — 5 days before talking to Sachtleben — Goldman was already asking roughly the same questions about Ibrahim al-Asiri asked of Sachtleben. (PDF 548-9)

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 6.49.23 PM

“We’re hearing about aqap activity that has USG spun up and Ibrahim al-asiri is back on agency’s radar.” None of that’s surprising, of course, since AP sourced the initial story to numerous officials, and it’s unlikely two Pulitzer Prize winners would single source a story.

The Statement misleadingly suggests that the when Goldman and Apuzzo called the government on May 2, two and a half hours after speaking with Sachtleben (and a full week after Goldman’s email to the CIA Public Affairs office), they stated for the first time that “they believed, but had not confirmed, that the bomb was linked to AQAP’s premier bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri.” Except the government knew, but did not reveal in the Statement, that the AP reporters had already reached out via official government channels a week earlier with some of that information. Contrary to what Savage suggests, the call on May 2 was not the “first” that government officials learned the AP was working on the story, though it may have been the first time they claimed to have confirmed details about the bomb.

The emails also show the extent of AP’s efforts to provide CIA an opportunity to weigh in on the story.

After several exchanges the week before (including a “chat” between Deputy CIA Director Mike Morell and an AP editor in which the AP agreed to hold the story), CIA’s press office set up a meeting between Goldman, Apuzzo, and Morell at 9:30 on the morning they released their story, May 7. An Apuzzo email describes the purpose. “[T]his meeting is just the one the DDCIA [Morell] suggested, to offer some details to the story we agreed to hold for a few days.” (PDF 308)

This confirms a point the AP long insisted on — that they heeded an administration request for a few days before they published the story. And in response, Apuzzo’s email makes clear, Morell had offered to provide further details on the plot. That of course means that Mike Morell was himself a source for the story, probably including for the detail that CIA had just drone-killed Fahd al-Quso. Last I checked, Morell is not in prison for leaking to the AP (though of course his influence on the story would be considered official declassification and therefore cool).

Apuzzo followed up on the meeting and the story later that day. “I know that there were some strained conversations between our bosses this evening, but as far as Adam and I are concerned, I hope you found the story fair, accurate and responsible.” (PDF 308)

Of course, CIA had no reason to be pissed, given that the AP story celebrated their successful interception of a plot. Indeed, there is a very high likelihood that the CIA talked the AP reporters out of including more sensitive details — such as that the plot was really a sting run by a Saudi asset — that detail came out in other outlets, thanks in part to John Brennan and Peter King (the latter of whom was in turn blabbing about something the CIA had just briefed him), within a day. Or, something implied by the story but not stated directly, that the Administration had deployed a bunch of Air Marshals to Europe to protect against a threat that had never really been a threat and that they had already neutralized anyway. Those are the damning details of the story, but they weren’t in the AP’s version of it.

But the government came after them anyway. And, after members of Congress — including Peter King, who had served as a source for journalists!! — demanded a head, Donald Sachtleben served as a convenient one to offer up.

The story the government has told about Sachtleben — that they found he had a Secret CIA cable among his kiddie porn but didn’t pursue it any further until they exposed the sources of the entire AP newsroom — has never made sense. But as a guy who had already confessed to kiddie porn charges and had actually only served as the confirming source for some of the least sensitive information in the leak, he was convenient.

And while Savage appropriately lays into the Administration for the damage they did to journalism with their pursuit of leakers, the back story behind the scapegoating of Sachtleben suggests DOJ has been far more cynical about leaks and who gets prosecuted for them than suggested in Savage’s chapter.

Read more

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Mike Morell’s Performance of “Intelligence”

Given that Bill Harlow co-wrote George Tenet and Jose Rodriguez’ autobiographical novels, it’s fairly clear he continues to propagandize for the CIA years after he left the Agency as Public Affairs officer. Still, his past autobiographical novels were perhaps more convincing than the roll out of Mike Morell’s autobiographical novel, The Great War of Our Time, which Harlow also co-wrote. That’s pretty remarkable given that Morell had more retained credibility than either of the other two. This propaganda tour actually seems to be eroding Morell’s credibility.

Part of the problem is interviews like this, where Morell says both that we should be “all in” with Saudi Arabia (an asinine judgement, in my opinion, perhaps betraying CIA’s close ties to the Saudis) and that we should support secular Bashar al-Assad, which is totally inconsistent with his first stance.

And he makes those two claims in an interview where he also claims that numbers on collateral damage tied to drone strikes are “propaganda.”

“The other thing I’ll say is that this is the most precise weapon in the U.S. arsenal.  Collateral damage is not zero — and gosh, I wish it were zero, but it’s not — but it’s very close to zero.

“Number three, the numbers that you see about huge numbers of collateral damage just aren’t true.  They are put out there as propaganda by people who want this program to go away, and al-Qaida is one of those groups.”

It’s a great display of Morell’s approach to lying.

First, most people don’t claim there are huge numbers of collateral damage. TBIJ — which is both one of the more partisan voices against drone strikes but which also does some of the most meticulous work tracking drone killing over years — shows that civilians amount for around 14%  of those killed (a lower number than some more hawkish counts). The number itself is not, as Morell depicts it, “huge.” But it is, nevertheless, a relatively large amount, one what brings with it a lot of blowback. And the numbers — which again, are similar to those tracked my multiple independent sources — are much higher than CIA publicly claims.

It is CIA, and not drone killing trackers, engaged in propaganda here.

Yet by refuting something his opponents hadn’t asserted, Morell gets to claim to have debunked it.

While I have no idea what part of Sy Hersh’s story on Osama bin Laden are true, Morell’s use of the same method to debunk Hersh suggests he’s engaged — at least partly — in non-denial denial.

Jeff Stein deals with one problem with Morell’s debunking. CIA’s former Deputy Director claims that if we had tipped the Pakistanis (who are dealt with as a monolith in Morell’s story) they would have told Osama bin Laden. Wouldn’t that require knowledge of where he was, and some ongoing interest in protecting him? If so, that actually confirms a key premise of Hersh’s (and other reporters’) stories.

Then there’s Morell’s debunking of the walk-in story.

He claims that we learned of bin Laden’s location not from following the courier and from excellent intelligence analysis, but from a Pakistani intelligence officer who walked into the U.S. Embassy and gave us bin Laden’s whereabouts in exchange for “much of the $25 million reward offered by the U.S.” The truth is that while walk-ins have long been useful in providing intelligence to us world-wide, none of the information that led to finding the location where bin Laden was came from walk-ins.

NBC has already confirmed that there was a walk-in — just that he wasn’t key to identifying OBL’s location.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated since it was first published. The original version of this story said that a Pakistani asset told the U.S. where bin Laden was hiding. Sources say that while the asset provided information vital to the hunt for bin Laden, he was not the source of his whereabouts.

Morell’s statement is utterly consistent with NBC’s reporting.

Morell claims to debunk Hersh’s claim that CIA obtained DNA from OBL.

bin Laden was very ill, and that early on in his confinement at Abbottabad, the ISI had ordered Amir Aziz, a doctor and a major in the Pakistani army, to move nearby to provide treatment.

[snip]

The planners turned for help to Kayani and Pasha, who asked Aziz to obtain the specimens. Soon after the raid the press found out that Aziz had been living in a house near the bin Laden compound: local reporters discovered his name in Urdu on a plate on the door. Pakistani officials denied that Aziz had any connection to bin Laden, but the retired official told me that Aziz had been rewarded with a share of the $25 million reward the US had put up because the DNA sample had showed conclusively that it was bin Laden in Abbottabad.

But Morell focuses on obtaining DNA from the compound and from OBL’s children, not from OBL himself.

Mr. Hersh says we obtained DNA samples from people in the bin Laden compound before the assault was launched. Wrong again. We would have liked to have obtained samples from the children in the compound to confirm that they were bin Laden’s children, but we did not. [my emphasis]

And Morell claims Hersh’s claim that SEALs couldn’t have thrown OBL body parts out the helicopter over the Hindu Kush …

The remains, including his head, which had only a few bullet holes in it, were thrown into a body bag and, during the helicopter flight back to Jalalabad, some body parts were tossed out over the Hindu Kush mountains – or so the Seals claimed.

… Because he received a burial at sea.

Finally—and most absurdly perhaps—Mr. Hersh cites his sources as telling him that SEALs threw bin Laden body parts off their helicopter over the Hindu Kush and suggests that the burial at sea from the USS Carl Vinson never happened. Bin Laden’s body received a proper Muslim burial at sea. How do I know? I heard the president give the order, and I saw photographs and video of the burial at sea.

Now, to be fair, this is one claim from Hersh I’m most skeptical of (though I realize now the SEALs might have thrown some body parts out the helicopter to leave DNA evidence that OBL was killed there, which was the purported cover story). But Morell’s debunking is no such thing, because it is perfectly possible a shrouded corpse could be buried at sea even if it were missing some body parts. (I’ll also note that JSOC hid what I believe to be trophy photos after this story started breaking, which suggests the SEALs did something with the corpse that would cause problems if it were publicized, though I always assumed they just hammed it up.)

In other words, as Morell does for his drone propaganda, he usually doesn’t debunk what Hersh wrote, but instead something else.

Which is a suggestion that he’s engaged in another cover story.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Benghazi: A Poster Child for Covert Ops Blowback

You’ve no doubt heard that, last Friday (a pre-holiday Friday, as some people are already on their way to Thanksgiving), the Benghazi scandal ended with a fizzle.

The House Intelligence Committee released its report on the Benghazi attack, which basically says all the scandal mongering has been wrong, that Susan Rice’s talking points came from the CIA, that no one held up any rescue attempts, and so on and so on. This post will attempt to lay out why that might have happened. The short version, however, is that the report reveals (but does not dwell on) a number of failures on the part of the CIA that should raise real concerns about Syria.

Note that not all Republicans were as polite as the ultimate report. Mike Rogers, Jeff Miller, Jack Conaway, and Peter King released an additional views report, making precisely the points you’d expect them to — though it takes them until the 4th summary bullet to claim that Administration officials “perpetuated an inaccurate story that matched the Administration’s misguided view that the United States was nearing victory over al-Qa’ida.” Democrats released their own report noting that “there was no AQ mastermind” and that “extremists who were already well-armed and well-trained took advantage of regional violence” to launch the attack. Among the Republicans who presumably supported the middle ground were firebrands like Michele Bachmann and Mike Pompeo, as well as rising Chair Devin Nunes (as you’ll see, Nunes was a lot more interested in what the hell CIA was doing in Benghazi than Rogers). The day after the initial release Rogers released a second statement defending — and pointing to the limits of and Additional Views on — his report.

Now consider what this report is and is not.

The report boasts about the 1000s of hours of work and 1000s of pages of intelligence review, as well as 20 committee events, interviews with “senior intelligence officials” and 8 security personnel (whom elsewhere the report calls “the eight surviving U.S. personnel”) who were among the eyewitnesses in Benghazi. But the bulk of the report is sourced to 10 interviews (the 8 security guys, plus the Benghazi and Tripoli CIA Chiefs), and a November 15, 2012 presentation by James Clapper, Mike Morell, Matt Olsen, and Patrick Kennedy. (Here are  the slides from that briefing: part onepart two.) As I’ll show, this means some of the claims in this report are not sourced to the people who directly witnessed the events. And the reports sources almost nothing to David Petraeus, who was CIA Director at the time.

The FBI analyzed the intelligence better than CIA did

One of the best explanations for why this is such a tempered report may be that FBI performed better analysis of the cause of the attack than CIA did. This is somewhat clear from the summary (though buried as the 4th bullet):

There was no protest. The CIA only changed its initial assessment about a protest on September 24, 2012, when closed caption television footage became available on September 18, 2012 (two days after Ambassador Susan Rice spoke), and after the FBI began publishing its interviews with U.S. officials on the ground on September 22, 2012.

That is, one reason Susan Rice’s talking points said what they did is because CIA’s analytical reports still backed the claim there had been a protest outside State’s Temporary Mission Facility.

Moreover, in sustaining its judgment there had been a protest as long as it did, CIA was actually ignoring both a report from Tripoli dated September 14, and the assessment of the Chief of Station in Tripoli, who wrote the following to Mike Morell on September 15.

We lack any ground-truth information that protest actually occurred, specifically in the vicinity of the consulate and leading up to the attack. We therefore judge events unfolded in a much different manner than in Tunis, Cairo, Khartoum, and Sanaa, which appear to the the result of escalating mob violence.

In a statement for the record issued in April 2014, Mike Morell explained that Chiefs of Station “do not/not make analytic calls for the Agency.” But it’s not clear whether Morell explained why CIA appears to have ignored their own officer.

While the report doesn’t dwell on this fact, the implication is that the FBI was more successful at interviewing people on the ground — including CIA officers!! — to rebut a common assumption arising from public reporting. That’s a condemnation of CIA’s analytical process, not to mention a suggestion FBI is better at collecting information from humans than CIA is. But HPSCI doesn’t seem all that worried about these CIA failures in its core missions.

Or maybe CIA failed for some other reason. Read more

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Radical Idea: the Legislature Ends Smith v. Maryland

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with the NSA Review Group just finished. There was no earth-shattering news. Perhaps the best one-liner from the hearing came when former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell said that metadata is content (and I’m grateful he said it early in the hearing so it will make the evening news). Bizarrely, he claimed he just learned that while working on this report which is rather … unconvincing.

At the very end of the hearing, however, Senator Richard Blumenthal said something equally as important, which went something like,

Smith v. Maryland is about as outdated as any Supreme Court [sic] can be. Congress has an equal responsibility to protect the Constitution as the Supreme Court. There is no need to wait for the Supreme Court.

It’s a great idea, for the legislature to end Smith v. Maryland’s encroachment on the Constitution, and he’s right, Congress does have the authority to act.

But as far as I know, Blumenthal has yet to introduce a bill doing that.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Sucky Assessments of the Phone Dragnet Reveal How Much They’re Keeping “Secret”

The assessments of the phone dragnet suck.

I don’t mean the assessments of the phone dragnet show the program sucks, though that may well be the case. I mean the assessments of the phone dragnet I’ve seen do a very poor job of assessing the value of it. Which serves to show how much of the larger dragnet remains, if not secret, still largely undiscussed.

To see what I mean, consider this post, from Just Security’s Ryan Goodman.

Insiders disagree about the phone dragnet value with outsiders

The strongest part of his post compares the seemingly contradictory assessments of the phone dragnet by two different members of the NSA Review Group. University of Chicago Professor Geoffrey Stone and Deputy Director of CIA Mike Morell.

Stone, based on what he learned from public sources and from the briefings the Group received, believes the program did not prevent any terrorist attacks. Morell, whose former agency receives Tippers from the program and even had direct access to query results until 2009 just like the FBI does and did (though no one talks about that) insists it has helped prevent terrorist attacks.

Goodman also notes that the Gang of Four immediately defended the phone dragnet after the Review Group released its results (actually, they object to more than the phone dragnet recommendation but don’t say what other recommendations they object to), but doesn’t note the terms they use to do so:

However, a number of recommendations in the report should not be adopted by Congress, starting with those based on the misleading conclusion that the NSA’s metadata program is ‘not essential to preventing attacks.’ Intelligence programs do not operate in isolation and terrorist attacks are not disrupted by the work of any one person or program. The NSA’s metadata program is a valuable analytical tool that assists intelligence personnel in their efforts to efficiently ‘connect the dots’ on emerging or current terrorist threats directed against Americans in the United States. The necessity of this program cannot be measured merely by the number of terrorist attacks disrupted, but must also take into account the extent to which it contributes to the overall efforts of intelligence professionals to quickly respond to, and prevent, rapidly emerging terrorist threats. [my emphasis]

In other words, Goodman presents evidence that the Gang of Four and a former top CIA official believe there are other reasons the phone dragnet is valuable, while someone relying on limited briefings evaluates the program based on its failure to stop any attack.

That ought to make Goodman ask what Morell and Dianne Feinstein know (or think they know) that Stone does not. It ought to make him engage seriously with their claim that the phone dragnet is doing something else beyond providing the single clues to prevent terrorist attacks.

One they’re not willing to talk about explicitly.

Assessments and the terrorist attack thwarted metric

Instead, Goodman assesses the phone dragnet solely on the basis of the public excuse offered over and over and over since the Guardian first published the Verizon order in June: to see which Americans are in contact with (alleged) terrorist associates so as to prevent an attack.

Goodman lectures program critics that identifying funders or members of terrorist groups might help find terrorists, too, and “peace of mind” might help dedicate resources most productively.

The key objective of course is to stop terrorist attacks against the US homeland and vital US interests abroad. An important distinction, however, is whether the intelligence generated by the program is:

(a) “direct”: timely information to foil a specific attack; or

(b) “indirect”: information that enables the government to degrade a terrorist group or decrease the general likelihood of attacks

Examples of the latter might include information on individuals who have joined or are funding a terrorist organization. Intelligence could help to identify and successfully prosecute such individuals, and hence disable them and deter others. The important point is that both types of information aid the overall goal of stopping terrorist attacks. That point appears to have been lost on some critics of the program. When the government cites the latter information yields, critics often consider such situations irrelevant or little to do with stopping attacks.

But Goodman imagines only those affirmatively supporting terrorism would help the government prevent terrorism, which is not necessarily the case.

Does the NSA’s network analysis even pick the right calls?

One thing missing from such assessments are the failures. Why didn’t, for example, Faisal Shahzad’s planning with the Pakistani Taliban identify him and his hawala before the attack? There are plausible explanations: he used good enough operational security such that he had no communications that could have included in the dragnets, his TTP phone and Internet contacts were not among the services sucked up, the turmoil in the phone and (especially) Internet dragnet in 2009 and 2010 led to gaps in the collection. Then there’s a far more serious one: that the methods NSA use to identify numbers of interest may not work, and may instead only be identifying those whose doings with terror affiliates are relatively innocent, meaning they don’t use operational security (though note the US-based phone dragnets would use more sophisticated analysis only after data gets put in the corporate store, whereas data collected overseas might be immediately subject to it).

And for those who, like Goodman, place great stock in the dragnet’s “peace of mind” metric, they need to assess not just the privacy invasion that might result, but the resources required to investigate all possible leads — which could have been upwards of 36,000 people in the Boston Marathon case.

That is, unless we have evidence that NSA’s means of picking the interesting phone contacts from the uninteresting ones works (and given the numbers involved, we probably don’t have that), then the dragnet may be as much a time suck as it is a key tool.

What about the other purposes the Intelligence Community has (quietly) admitted?

The other problem with assessments of the phone dragnet is they don’t even take the IC at its word in its other, quieter admissions of how it uses the dragnet (notably, in none of Stone’s five posts on the dragnet does he mention any of these — one, two, three, four, five — raising questions whether he ever learned or considered them). These uses include:

  • Corporate store
  • “Data integrity” analysis
  • Informants
  • Index

Corporate store: As the minimization procedures and a few FISC documents make clear, once the NSA has run a query, the results of that query are placed in a “corporate store,” a database of all previous query results. Read more

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Sy Hersh Writing about Politicized Intelligence Again, Syria Edition

Sy Hersh has a long piece in the London Review of Books accusing the Obama Administration of cherry-picking intelligence to present its case that Bashar al-Assad launched the chemical weapons attack on August 21.

To be clear, Hersh does not say that Assad did not launch the attack. Nor does he say al-Nusra carried out the attack. Rather, he shows that:

  • At some unidentified time since the beginning of the Civil War, Assad had discovered and neutralized wiretaps on his inner circle, leaving US intelligence blind to discussions happening among his top aides
  • Sensors planted to detect any movement of Assad’s CW immediately had not been triggered by the August 21 attack
  • By June, some intelligence entity had concluded that an Iraqi member of al-Nusra had the capability to manufacture sarin in quantity

A lot of the story serves to establish that two days after the attack, the US had yet to respond to it, presumably because it did not have any intelligence Syria had launched the attack, in part because nothing had triggered the sensors that had worked in the past. To develop its intelligence on the attack days afterwards, the NSA performed key word searches on already-collected radio communications of lower level Syrian military figures.

‘There are literally thousands of tactical radio frequencies used by field units in Syria for mundane routine communications,’ he said, ‘and it would take a huge number of NSA cryptological technicians to listen in – and the useful return would be zilch.’ But the ‘chatter’ is routinely stored on computers. Once the scale of events on 21 August was understood, the NSA mounted a comprehensive effort to search for any links to the attack, sorting through the full archive of stored communications. A keyword or two would be selected and a filter would be employed to find relevant conversations. ‘What happened here is that the NSA intelligence weenies started with an event – the use of sarin – and reached to find chatter that might relate,’ the former official said. ‘This does not lead to a high confidence assessment, unless you start with high confidence that Bashar Assad ordered it, and began looking for anything that supports that belief.’ The cherry-picking was similar to the process used to justify the Iraq war.

Ultimately, according to one of Hersh’s sources, they used intelligence collected in response to last December’s Syrian exercise on CW as the basis for what the Syrians would have been doing in case of an attack.

The former senior intelligence official explained that the hunt for relevant chatter went back to the exercise detected the previous December, in which, as Obama later said to the public, the Syrian army mobilised chemical weapons personnel and distributed gas masks to its troops. The White House’s government assessment and Obama’s speech were not descriptions of the specific events leading up to the 21 August attack, but an account of the sequence the Syrian military would have followed for any chemical attack. ‘They put together a back story,’ the former official said, ‘and there are lots of different pieces and parts. The template they used was the template that goes back to December.’

The White House presented this cherry-picked intelligence 9 days after the attack to a group of uncritical journalists (Hersh notes Jonathan Landay was excluded).

That’s the damning part of Hersh’s story on the intelligence used to support the Syrian warmongering (it is largely consistent with observations made at the time).

Hersh also describes how the NYT ignored the conclusions of MIT professor Theodore Postol, who determined at least some of the shells used in the attack were locally manufactured and had a much shorter range than publicly described.

Ultimately, though, Hersh’s biggest piece of news describes how someone — he doesn’t say who, but this part of his story relies on a senior intelligence consultant of unidentified nationality — sent Deputy DIA Director David Shedd a report on June 20 concluding that a former Iraqi CW expert with the capability of manufacturing sarin was operating in Eastern Ghouta.

An intelligence document issued in mid-summer dealt extensively with Ziyaad Tariq Ahmed, a chemical weapons expert formerly of the Iraqi military, who was said to have moved into Syria and to be operating in Eastern Ghouta. Read more

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Obama’s James Clapper’s Committee To Make You Love the Dragnet Has a Kiddie Table'>Obama’s James Clapper’s Committee To Make You Love the Dragnet Has a Kiddie Table

Spencer Ackerman has a review of how the first two meetings of Obama’s Non-Tech Tech Review panel have gone. And while they went about as horribly as I suspected — certainly there was no talk of actually fixing obvious problems with the dragnet — there are a few details that show how “most exceptional” this effort is.

The White House, having taken pains to pretend James Clapper is not in charge of the Director of National Intelligence Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, referred comment to James Clapper.

The White House deferred comment to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which did not respond.

The Non-Tech Tech Review Panel comes with a kiddie table — or rather, a conference room almost two miles away from the White House, where the tech giants got to eat.

During its first round of meetings, the panel, known as the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, separated two groups of outside advisers. One group included civil libertarian organizations such as the ACLU and the Electronic Privacy Information Center. It met in a conference room on K and 20th Streets. Morrell and Clarke did not attend.

The other, which met in the White House Conference Center, included technology companies that have participated – sometimes uneasily and at court behest – in NSA surveillance. All five panel members participated.

I’m not surprised the CIA’s representative on the Committee to Make You Love the Dragnet refused to be seen at the kiddie table with civil libertarians. But Richard Clarke?

Finally, the tech companies appear not to have sent tech experts.

The meeting itself struck [New America Foundation VP Sascha] Meinrath as bizarre. Representatives from the technology firms were identified around the table not by their names, but by placards listing their employers. There was minimal technical discussion of surveillance mechanisms despite the presence of technology companies; Meinrath took the representatives to be lawyers, not technologists.

When it appeared like the meeting would discuss a surveillance issue in a sophisticated way, participants and commissioners suggested it be done in a classified meeting.

Apparently, Cass Sunstein didn’t even have to get caught proposing weird conspiracy theories to make this thing a laughingstock.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.