As the New York Times notes, the Taliban took steps over the weekend to remove some of the more provocative aspects of its office in Qatar from which representatives may enter into negotiations on the end of the war in Afghanistan. Specifically, they took down both the version of the Afghan flag which they used while they ruled the country and they removed the sign that could have been interpreted as a claim that they were still the legitimate government of the country:
In a possible easing of tensions that have held up an opening for peace talks by American, Afghan and Taliban officials in Qatar, the Afghan government confirmed the complete removal of an objectionable sign, flag and flagpole that had led the Afghan delegation to boycott negotiations.
“According to the timely and appropriate and precise position of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Taliban flag has been brought down from the office, the Islamic Emirate sign has been removed and the Qatari police removed the flagpole from the Taliban office,” said a statement released Sunday by the presidential palace, quoting Masoom Stanekzai, a senior member of the Afghan High Peace Council.
The statement referred to the signs and flag unveiled when the Taliban open their Doha office last week — their first public re-entry on to the international stage in almost 13 years. At the official opening of the office the Taliban had put up signs saying “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” which is the name they used for their government when they ran Afghanistan, and they raised their white flag with black writing.
Both gestures, along with their description of the office’s mandate of speaking to foreign governments, suggested that the Taliban were trying to present themselves as an alternative to the Afghan government.
It is possible that these symbolic moves came about through an ascendance of a more moderate wing within the Afghan Taliban. Significant support for such a view comes from a remarkable interview TOLOnews correspondent Mujahid Kakar conducted with Mutasim Agha Jan, who was Finance Minister of Afghanistan when the Taliban ruled. The interview can be seen in the two-hour-plus video embedded below (with English subtitles) or the English translation can be read as a 31 page pdf file here.
There are a couple of caveats that should be kept in mind when reviewing Jan’s statements. First, the interview took place in Turkey, where Jan has resided since about 2011, when he was injured in an attack in Karachi after falling out with Taliban leaders in 2010, so the fact that he is not in either Qatar or Afghanistan suggests that he and the moderate faction for which he appears to speak still don’t feel safe in either of those locations. Second, I of course have no idea whether the translations in the video or transcript are accurate.
With those caveats in mind, however, Jan makes a number of striking statements. Early in the interview, we get a description of the moderate and extremist groups within the Afghan Taliban: Read more
On Tuesday, I noted that, between the draft and the final, DOD’s Inspector General removed this language referring to Admiral William McRaven purging SOCOM’s network of pictures of Osama bin Laden after CIA exposed the members of SEAL Team 6.
This effort included purging these records to another Government Agency.
But there was also telling new language introduced in the final (which would have been introduced between late last year and last week). The draft included this sentence.
ADM McRaven also directed that the names and photographs associated with the raid not be released.
The final changed that language to read,
ADM McRaven also directed personnel to forego releasing names of operators and photographs associated with the raid.
The use of the word “personnel” is ambiguous, as it’s not clear whether it refers to the SEAL Team members mentioned earlier in the paragraph or to DOD staffers who handle SOCOM’s archives (or to CIA personnel who now purportedly have the photos).
But I find it telling, given another detail about Judicial Watch’s FOIA for these photos.
Recall that on February 15, 2013, DOJ informed Judicial Watch that CIA had found 7 more photos responsive to their FOIA. That happened just 4 days after Esquire published a splashy story about the guy who claimed to have been the SEAL who actually killed OBL. The current version includes this line.
In the compound, I thought about getting my camera, and I knew we needed to take pictures and ID him.
I had made the connection at the time, and I have a distinct suspicion the language was slightly different in the original (Esquire was making factual corrections along the way but the original is not on Internet Archive), making it clear that the Shooter and possibly others did take pictures, though perhaps not for operational purposes.
What kind of amped up warrior who had just helped kill the bogeyman could resist taking souvenir pictures? Could you blame them, if so?
In any case, I suspected at the time that the reason CIA “located” new photos was because they read about another set of photos in the possession in one of the guys who participated in the op, if not shot the lethal bullet. The ambiguity in the description of McRaven’s order seems to support that.
That is, what SOCOM and CIA appear to be protecting are — in significant part — the personal photos taken by the guys who did the operation.
The day before I got hopelessly buried in the rabbit warren of NSA leaks, I reported that the draft IG Report on the Obama Administration’s leaks to Zero Dark Thirty’s creators seemed to indicate that, on Admiral William McRaven’s orders, SOCOM had purged its networks of Osama bin Laden photos that were the subject of an active Judicial Watch FOIA.
According to ADM McRaven, the DoD provided the operators and their families an inordinate level of security. ADM McRaven held a meeting with the families to discuss force protection measures and tell the families that additional protective monitoring will be provided, and to call security personnel if they sensed anything. ADM McRaven also directed that the names and photographs associated with the raid not be released. This effort included purging these records to another Government Agency.
The other day the final report came out. And while I haven’t yet read the report in depth (short version: it clears the Obama Administration of all the improprieties laid out in the draft), I do notice this interesting edit.
According to ADM McRaven, DoD provided the operators and their families an inordinate level of security. ADM McRaven stated that he previously met with operators’ family members and discussed force protection measures. USSOCOM officials informed family members that protective monitoring will be initiated, and instructed them to call security personnel if security-related incidents arise. ADM McRaven also directed personnel to forego releasing names of operators and photographs associated with the raid.
They took out all mention of the “purge” of photos requested under FOIA.
To be fair, the use of the word “purge” in the original always seemed inapt, as it appears that McRaven ordered the photos on DOD servers to be moved — not destroyed — to CIA’s servers. So it’s not like McRaven ordered evidence be destroyed.
Still, as I’ll eventually get around to describing, it may have affected the outcome of the FOIA.
Which seems worthy of note. But apparently not to the people who protect top military leaders.
I wanted to point to one more detail from the DOD Inspector General’s report on Leon Panetta’s leaks to Zero Dark 30’s filmakers.
The very last page of the report describes how Admiral William McRaven responded after realizing the SEALs who had participated in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound had all hung around a Hollywood producer with their name badges exposed.
According to ADM McRaven, the DoD provided the operators and their families an inordinate level of security. ADM McRaven held a meeting with the families to discuss force protection measures and tell the families that additional protective monitoring will be provided, and to call security personnel if they sensed anything. ADM McRaven also directed that the names and photographs associated with the raid not be released. This effort included purging these records to another Government Agency. [my emphasis]
The report doesn’t reveal when SOCOM purged its records and handed the documents to, presumably though not definitely, CIA, though if McRaven directed it, it happened after he took command in August 2011. (Update: That’s probably not right, as he was in command of the operation in any case.)
But it’s a relevant question because Judicial Watch had FOIAed pictures of OBL on May 3, 2011, and sued 10 days later, so before all the leaking and presumably therefore the purging began. On June 26, 2011, just two days after Panetta’s leaky party, the government stalled on the suit, saying Judicial Watch had not exhausted its administrative remedies. By September 26, DOD claimed they had no pictures of OBL (though earlier this year there were reports 7 new photos had been found) and CIA claimed none of the 52 pictures they had could be released. Along with that filing, McRaven submitted a declaration explaining why these photos couldn’t be released, though the interesting parts remain redacted. John Bennett’s declaration for the CIA does not describe when the Agency searched its files for photographs, and therefore doesn’t indicate whether they searched before or after DOD purged its files.
Now, none of this timing would mitigate CIA’s claims about the extremely grave harm that would arise from releasing OBL death porn.
But it is, at the very least, very sketchy — and all that’s before having a really good sense of when the purging and the FOIA response occurred.
Update: I spoke to Judicial Watch’s lawyer for this FOIA, Michael Bekesha, and they have never been informed of this purge. Though it may explain some other details about the progress of the FOIA, including some funkiness with the classification of the photos.
Update: Here’s DOD’s declaration about their search from September 26, 2011.
It’s interesting for two reasons. First, they make claims about SOCOM files that is the exact opposite of what DOD said in the NYT/ACLU FOIA for Anwar al-Awlaki related OLC memos. Whereas in the drone FOIA, they claimed CENTCOM handled SOCOM’s FOIA responses, this one says,
The mission of USSOCOM is to provide Special Operations Forces to defend the United States and its interests. A priority of USSOCOM is to “Deter, Disrupt, and Defeat Terrorist Threats,” and a primary aspect of this priority is to plan and conduct special operations. When a special operation is conducted, the military service Components of USSOCOM (U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Navy Special Warfare Command, U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command, and Marine Corps Special Operations Command) provide Special Operations Forces (personnel and equipment) to the operation. Accordingly, it is DoD FOIA policy that documents created or maintained by these military service Components during or for a joint special operation come under the cognizance of USSOCOM and not the military services for purposes of the FOIA. Therefore, USSOCOM and not the military services, is responsible for the searches of records responsive to plaintiff’s FOIA request at those service components that may have participated in the subject operation.
And like CIA, they don’t date their search description at SOCOM, so don’t say whether it happened pre- or post-purge.
USSOCOM searched the Headquarters and relevant Components, and no records responsive to plaintiff’s request were located. The specific filing systems searched at the Headquarters USSOCOM offices and relevant Components were all hard copy and electronic records including all email records during the inclusive dates of May 1, 2011, through May 31, 2011.
There’s a funny passage from the DOD Inspector General on Leon Panetta’s blabbing about the Osama bin Laden raid that was leaked to POGO.
It describes CIA’s apparent helplessness from protecting CIA Headquarters from being breached by outsiders, even while many of our nation’s most elite warriors were present.
In a description of how a Hollywood Executive (possibly Kathryn Bigelow) managed to attend a celebration of the successful Osama bin Laden raid, the report explains,
On June 24, 2011, the CIA held an awards ceremony in a tent located on the grounds of the CIA headquarters. Two to four days prior to this awards ceremony, a CIA [Public Affairs Officer] contacted a DoD PAO to notify the DoD PAO that one of the Hollywood executives may attend the event. According to the DoD PAO, the CIA PAO attempted to prevent this from happening. The DoD PAO did not inform his Chain of Command or the special operators who were going to attend this ceremony about the possibility that a Hollywood executive might also attend. The DoD PAO said he did not forward this information because he hoped the CIA PaO would be able to ensure the Hollywood executive would be refused access. The DoD PAO’s current Deputy Commanding General told us he knew of those DoD PAO actions and did not fault the DoD PAO for not getting the information to the command group.
According to the DoD PAO, the day of the event, the CIA PAO contacted the DoD PAO to state that efforts failed and the “Chief of Staff” directed that the Hollywood executive be given access to the event.
It seems that Leon Panetta’s Chief of Staff, Jeremy Bash, and CIA’s Public Affairs Officer disputed who let the crafty Hollywood executive breach the nation’s premier spy agency. But breach Langley he or she did.
Mind you, all this went down a month before Pentagon Press Secretary George Little revealed that Panetta wanted Al Pacino to play him in Zero Dark 30.
Mr. Little: “I hope they get Pacino to play [Secretary Panetta]. That’s what he wants, no joke!”
Nevertheless, the lesson from this sordid tale appears to be that if terrorists want to breach CIA Headquarters, all they have to do is dangle the name of a famous actor who might play the part of the CIA Director, and they’ll walk into the middle of a highly classified party, even as Osama bin Laden’s killers prowl the site.
This must be what Obama means when he claims to run the most Transparent Administration Ever™.
POGO has a story that adds a new twist to an old story.
The old story is Leon Panetta, leaking classified info, in this case, leaking info on the Osama bin Laden raid to a Zero Dark Thirty executive.
In June 2011, when he was director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Panetta discussed the information at a CIA headquarters event honoring participants in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, according to an unreleased report drafted by the Inspector General’s office and obtained by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).
“During this awards ceremony, Director Panetta specifically recognized the unit that conducted the raid and identified the ground commander by name,” the draft report says. “According to the DoD Office of Security Review, the individual’s name is protected from public release” under federal law, the report says.
“Director Panetta also provided DoD information, identified by relevant Original Classification Authorities as TOP SECRET//SI//REL TO USA, AUS, CAN, GBR, NZL, as well as, SECRET/ACCM,” the report says.
This is the investigation Peter King requested in 2011.
The new, but predictable, twist, is that when DOD’s Inspector General tried to investigate this, it apparently got no cooperation from Panetta himself, who had subsequently moved over to head DOD itself. More importantly, the IG stalled the report, apparently until Panetta retired.
The unknown fate of the IG report was the subject of a December 2012 email exchange—obtained by POGO—between a congressional staff member and an employee in the IG’s office. The congressional aide mentions having heard that someone in the IG’s office was “sitting on it until Secretary Panetta retires” and asks the IG employee for any information about it.
The IG employee replies: “That effort . . . has been controlled and manipulated since inception by the IG Front Office.” The employee adds: “There is a version ready to hit the street, been long time ready to hit the street…but we will see if that happens anytime soon. Highly unusual tight controls and tactical involvement from senior leadership on this project.”
The employee says the matter reflects broader problems within the IG’s office.
“I have grave concerns that the message and findings are now controlled and subject to undue influence across the board at DoD IG. I have never experienced or seen so much influence or involvement by outsiders now in developing and issuing oversight reports.”
The IG employee invokes whistleblower status.
“I consider this protected communications on alleged wrong-doings within the Government.”
While it doesn’t say so directly, POGO suggests the Obama Administration may have pulled this off by withholding the nomination for the Acting Inspector General to become its permanent IG.
The Defense Department IG’s job has been vacant since December 2011, and the office has been headed on a temporary basis by Lynne M. Halbrooks, who is now the principal deputy inspector general. She has sought support to be named permanent inspector general, a presidential appointment that traditionally involves the approval of the secretary.
In short, Panetta exposed a classified identity to a movie maker, as well as SIGINT pertaining to the Osama bin Laden raid (perhaps reports on the intercepts the government used to identify the courier?). But rather than being treated like John Kiriakou, for example, Panetta got moved into a position to prevent any release of this information.
The term “sheep dip” has been adopted to refer to the practice of having Special Forces operate under CIA guise, as they did on this OBL raid, to operate under CIA’s covert authorities. It turns out the institutional shell game with the OBL raid served not to keep secrets, nor even to sustain deniability from the Pakistanis (particularly after Panetta identified Shakeel Afridi), but rather to allow the Administration to treat this covert operation just like they do covert operations like drones (Joby Warrick’s book, The Triple Agent, includes a lot on drones that obviously comes from Panetta’s office too), to make them selectively public.
A lot of people are pointing to this Bob Schieffer interview of AP President Gary Pruitt because, later in the interview, Pruitt claims seizing the AP’s records without narrowing the scope or notifying the AP is “unconstitutional.” While that might make an interesting — though probably unsuccessful — argument if the AP takes this to court (note, Schieffer also asked whether the White House was trying to intimidate the AP, which seems the only basis for making a claim about constitutionality), I actually wanted to point to how Pruitt described the leak.
He emphasizes something that I pointed to here: the AP believed (or now says it believed) this was newsworthy because the White House had repeatedly said the government knew of no credible threat tied to the anniversary.
Pruitt: It was a very big story. And while the Justice Department hasn’t told us this is the case, we know there’s an announced public investigation to leaks in this case the focus was on this story. It was a story that only AP had. AP obtained knowledge that the US had thwarted an al Qaeda plot to place a bomb on an airliner bound for the United States. And it was round about the one, the year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Schieffer: So this was good news?
Pruitt: This was very good news. But strangely, at the same time, the Administration, through the Press Secretary and the Department of Homeland Security were telling the American public that there was no credible evidence of a terrorist plot related to the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. So that was misleading to the American public. We felt the American public needed to know this story.
Schieffer: You got this story, at first the people that gave it to you asked you to hold it for a certain time.
Pruitt: Yeah, so what happened was we got this story, we went to the government — the White House, intelligence agencies. They said, “there’s a national security risk if you run this, if you go with this story at this time.” We respected that. We acted responsibly. Withheld the story. We held it for five days. On the fifth day, we heard from high officials in two parts of the government that the national security issues had passed. And at that point we released the story.
Schieffer: Am I correct in saying that when you decided finally to release it then you got word that the White House did not want it released because they wanted to announce it themselves?
Pruitt: The White House wanted to, wanted us to hold it another day because they wanted to announce this successful foiling of the plot.
Schieffer: So they didn’t want to get scooped?
Pruitt: I guess! They didn’t tell us their motive, but that certainly seemed that way to us. We didn’t think that was a legitimate reason for holding the story. The national security issues had passed, we released this story.
Schieffer: And if memory serves the top counterterrorism official at the White House went on television the next morning and told the story.
Pruitt: Yes. The Administration was very aggressive in telling the story. [my emphasis]
What Pruitt is referring to, in part, is that Jay Carney introduced his April 26, 2012 press briefing by offering up the information that there were not threats tied to the OBL anniversary.
On a second matter, I just wanted to let you know that as part of his regular briefings on homeland security and counterterrorism, the President met today with members of his national security team to review the threat picture as we head into the anniversary of the bin Laden takedown.
At this time, we have no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda, are plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the anniversary of bin Laden’s death. However, we asses that AQ’s affiliates and allies remain intent on conducting attacks in the homeland, possibly to avenge the death of bin Laden, but not necessarily tied to the anniversary.
The President thanked his team and directed them to continue taking all necessary measures to protect the American people. [my emphasis]
Note the timing: this announcement came 2 days after Robert Mueller had an unscheduled 45-minute meeting in Yemen, where I suspect he picked up the UndieBomb that had been turned over several days earlier. So when Carney said this, UndieBomb 2.0 (to the extent it was a real plot in the first place) had already been rolled up.
And conflicting claims about threats must be what the AP told the White House was newsworthy, because — even though it played a fairly minor part of the original AP story — it is what John Brennan emphasized when explaining why he had to have a conference call that would lead to Richard Clarke figuring out the plot was actually a sting.
I said there was never a threat to the American public as we had said so publicly, because we had inside control of the plot and the device was never a threat to the American public.
I — I — what I’m saying is that we were explaining to the American public why that IED was not in fact a threat at the time that it was in the control of individuals. When — when we say positive control, inside control, that means that we (inaudible) that operation either environmentally or any number of ways. It did not in any way reveal any type of classified information. And I told those individuals and there are, you know, transcripts that are available of that conversation, “I cannot talk to you about the operational details of this whatsoever.”
I’m still not entirely why this was so sensitive to the White House. As I’ve noted, there were several possible ways for Brennan to explain the discrepancy away that wouldn’t have outed their insider.
I think there are several possibilities, which I’ll lay out in a follow-up post. But one detail seems clear: the question of whether and why the Administration was sending mixed signals about the anniversary threat is the bone of contention here.
At his confirmation hearing yesterday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, who has been nominated by President Obama to be the next Secretary of State, engaged in nearly ten minutes of discussion with Senator Rand Paul (R-KY). Paul managed to come off as not nearly as batshit insane as he sounds while campaigning (although Kerry did have to say “let me finish” several times), and actually came very close to making a good and substantial point. While discussing the issue of providing arms to Egypt, Paul mentioned the long history of the US supporting and providing arms to a series of groups including the mujahideen and even Osama bin Laden. I say Paul came close to making a good point because this part of his commentary was framed around these groups coming back to pose a threat to Israel. Paul could have made a very important point had he framed the discussion as part of the bigger issue of the blowback when these groups, especially bin Laden, set their
sites sights on the US after being funded by us as “the enemy of my enemy”. Kerry did a fine job of ending this part of the exchange, by stating that answer to the issue of arming various parties is to “make peace”.
In the final third of the video above, Paul moves to the question of relations with Pakistan. I didn’t get to watch the hearing live and haven’t yet found a transcript, but at least in the questions Paul had about Pakistan, I find myself wishing different questions had been asked. Regarding Pakistan, I would have asked Kerry if his idea of diplomacy is represented by his actions in the Raymond Davis affair, when Kerry went to Pakistan to lobby for Davis’ release and smuggled out of Pakistan the driver of the diplomatic vehicle that struck and killed a Pakistani civilian while attempting to rescue Davis from the site where he had shot and killed two Pakistanis. I also would have asked Kerry what steps he had taken personally to follow up on his pledge to Pakistan that Davis would be subject to a criminal investigation for the killings in Lahore.
Instead, Paul asked Kerry whether he would condition financial aid to Pakistan on the release of Dr. Shakeel Afridi. Neither Paul nor Kerry mentioned or condemned the vaccination ruse in which the CIA employed Afridi or the damage that ruse has done in terms of reduced polio vaccination rates and murdered health workers who were administering the polio vaccine. Instead, both lamented that someone who had helped the US to find bin Laden would find himself in jail. Kerry, however, stated that withholding aid would be the wrong approach. From the New York Times:
On Pakistan, Mr. Kerry said he had talked to Pakistani leaders about the Pakistani doctor who has been imprisoned for assisting the C.I.A.’s effort to track Osama bin Laden.
“That bothers every American,” said Mr. Kerry, who said that he was nonetheless opposed to cutting aid. “We need to build our relationship with the Pakistanis, not diminish it,” he said.
Dawn went into more detail on the exchange:
It was Senator Rand Paul, a new Republican face in the committee, who suggested cutting US aid to Pakistan “if they do not release Dr Shakil Afridi” who, he said, was imprisoned for helping the CIA in locating Osama bin Laden. The Al Qaeda leader was killed in a US military raid on his compound in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011.
Mr Kerry informed the senator that he had discussed this issue directly with President Asif Ali Zardari and Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and like most Americans found it “incomprehensible if not repugnant, that somebody who helped us find Osama bin Laden is in jail in Pakistan”.
And “that bothers every American,” he added.
The senior US lawmaker, who stayed engaged with both Pakistan and Afghanistan as President Obama’s informal emissary during his first term, urged Senator Paul to also look at what the Pakistanis say.
“Pakistanis make the argument Dr Afridi did not know what he was doing, who he was specifically targeting … it was like a business for him,” he said, adding that this was no excuse for keeping the physician in jail.
But he said that he would stay engaged with Pakistan rather than resorting to “a pretty dramatic, draconian, sledge-hammer” approach of cutting US aid to the country Senator Paul had suggested.
This discussion by Paul and Kerry of Afridi is the first time in several weeks that Afridi’s name has resurfaced. I still think it likely that Afridi will disappear from the jail where he is now held. The only question is whether he will reappear in the US (where people like Rand Paul and Dana Rohrabacher will certainly want to take him on tour with them in a victory lap) or just disappear entirely.
The NYT has chosen to have someone who presented an outdated picture of drone targeting that covered up changes implemented under John Brennan report on John Brennan’s nomination to be CIA Director. The story is predictably imbalanced.
Take this claim, for example:
It is uncertain whether the torture issue will now cause any problems for Mr. Brennan. But he is a far more well-known figure than in 2009, having made many public appearances in the wake of terrorist plots and to explain the legal and policy arguments behind drone strikes.
It’s fair, as far as it goes. I do doubt that Obama will care that his CIA Director has protected the CIA’s torturers. I do think Brennan has seduced enough beltway journalists so as to withstand criticism for his views.
But Scott Shane suggests Brennan’s many public statements on drones were 1) accurate and 2) consisted of actual explanations for drone strikes.
This, coming from a guy who has noted Brennan getting caught lying about there being no civilian casualties from drones in the past.
And from a guy who knows well that Brennan’s drone targeting speech fails to explain signature strikes (which Brennan approved in Yemen).
Sadly, Shane didn’t note those past lies.
Then there’s this claim.
He has spoken out repeatedly about the need for strong oversight and review of counterterrorism actions.
It would be useful for Shane to note that Brennan’s plans to establish rules for drones faltered after Mitt Romney lost the election. It would also be useful to note that his idea of “strong oversight” consists of him–John Brennan–centralizing all decision making under himself, then operating within the oversight free National Security Council. All at the same time the Administration refuses to exercise real transparency (and doesn’t even share the “kill list” with the Gang of Four).
That is, it would be nice if Shane had distinguished the myth he has helped to create from the reality.
But it seems the real role of Shane’s article is to point this out.
During Mr. Brennan’s tenure as Mr. Obama’s top adviser on counterterrorism, Al Qaeda’s leadership has been devastated and Mr. Bin Laden been killed.
That, I suppose, is the plan to get Brennan confirmed: paper over the serial lies and instead repeat Osama bin Laden over and over again.
Well done, Scott Shane!