Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
President Donald Trump, who is noted for his frequent exaggerations, just might have been right about the Obama administration’s attempts to derail his campaign. CNN, a hostile news source that had previously denounced Trump’s claims that he had been wiretapped at Trump Tower, reported late on Monday that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was in fact tapped by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Depending on the political inclinations of the journalists covering the story, the tale has either been framed as a vindication of Trump’s generally derided claims about the Obama administration or yet another bit of evidence demonstrating that Team Trump colluded with the Russians in an effort to influence the results of the 2016 presidential election.
Despite the lack of information provided by the government, the narrative surrounding Manafort appears to go something like this: Manafort is a long time political consultant. Beginning in 2004 and continuing for a decade, Manafort served as a top adviser to former pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, and worked together with a number of other Washington based consultants. His involvement somehow came to the attention of the FBI in 2014, possibly due to allegations that Yanukovich had stolen millions of dollars and hidden it somewhere, perhaps with the help of foreign associates. As a consequence, a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant was sought by the Bureau which was then issued to permit tel-tapping and other forms of investigation to determine if U.S. foreign lobbying and money laundering laws had been broken. The initial inquiry was eventually allowed to lapse “for lack of evidence.”
According to apparently new information obtained by the Bureau, a second warrant was obtained in the summer of 2016, presumably when Manafort was Trump’s campaign manager. However, the timeline is not completely clear. Manafort was wiretapped, presumably to include his residence in Trump Tower, and the eavesdropping continued until early 2017, even after Trump was inaugurated. Manafort reportedly spoke with Trump throughout that period, although it has not been revealed whether Trump—as president-elect or president—was personally recorded as a result.
Investigation into the so-called Russiagate has sped up since the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel in May, with some of the ongoing investigation focused on Manafort, and whether his relationship with Ukraine violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) of 1938. It is suspected that Manafort may have been acting on behalf of the government in Kiev, requiring registration, or was somehow possibly involved in money laundering or tax irregularities. The principal focus, however, has been on the possibility that Manafort actively colluded with the Russian government to influence the U.S. election. To that end, Manafort has been questioned by a grand jury, and his home in Alexandria was raided by FBI agents in the early morning of July 26 as he and his family were sleeping. The lock on the door to his house was picked to enable entry. His computer drives were copied, hard files were taken, and even his suits were photographed to provide evidence that his attire was “expensive.” Prosecutors subsequently told Manafort that they were planning to indict him.
Based on what has been reported as well as on scanty available evidence, one can pick through the various media accounts and eventually select the “meaning” of the Manafort affair. Either Trump is vindicated or he and his election team colluded with the Russians. Those who are more cautious might be inclined to hedge their bets, positing that both interpretations are partially correct. Trump Tower might not have been the target of wiretapping, and Manafort might have behaved indiscreetly and in violation of FARA—but he would never have attempted to interfere with the election. So everyone could be somewhat wrong and somewhat right and the investigation continues.
Sifting through what might have happened is interesting, but we will never know the truth until the federal government releases more evidence regarding what prompted the two FBI inquiries in the first place. And the analysis at this point is lacking some important considerations. First of all, someone in the Obama administration had to make the extremely politically sensitive decision to secretly investigate the campaign manager of the Republican Party’s nominee when the surveillance was renewed in summer 2016. Obama has denied that he did any such thing and a Justice Department investigation has asserted that there was no evidence of any Trump Tower surveillance. But put aside the lawyerly language, and it becomes clear that while Obama might not have personally approved the eavesdropping, someone in his White House surely did. And as for the Justice Department, evidence can easily be destroyed or erased or never recorded in the first place.
It has also been claimed that FISA warrants are only issued when there is significant probable cause that a crime has been committed, meaning that Manafort “must have done something,” but the fact is that nearly all FISA requests are approved and few of them result in actual prosecution. FISA warrants are also top secret and exposing them is a felony. The fact that the details of FISA involvement with Manafort vis-à-vis Ukraine leaked to the media shortly after the investigation was reopened in 2016 is suggestive. It eventually forced Manafort to resign, embarrassing Trump. And the fact that stories damaging to Trump based on classified information are continuing to appear in the media is yet another indication that the war of the leaks against the current administration is continuing. Since the leakers and other government officials cited in the media coverage are anonymous, allegations of guilt or innocence should be considered with some skepticism.
Finally, and possibly most important, the Manafort case from start to finish demonstrates once again that the unitary executive concept that has prevailed in the White House since 2001 is alive and well. A White House team dedicated to getting its candidate elected can and will use all the mechanisms of power that are at hand to achieve that goal, including surveilling and digging up dirt on a political opponent. The possible misuse of the FBI and the FISA court is in some ways even worse that Richard Nixon’s Watergate, since Nixon mostly used non-government resources to corrupt the process while the Manafort investigation has taken corruption up a notch, employing federal agencies acting in secret during a hotly contested electoral campaign.
The corruption of the American political process is obvious if assumptions about a White House role in wiretapping Manafort turn out to be true. Will anyone who runs for higher office in the future want to be confronted by executive power acting secretly through the law enforcement and intelligence services to discredit him or her, as well as a large and widening group of family and associates? It is a hostile winnowing process that many potentially good candidates would not want to endure. It is also manifestly an abuse of power. Some believe that Mueller is conducting something a witch hunt that is at its heart politically motivated. If true, it will eventually become clear. Meanwhile Manafort, who has fully cooperated with the investigations into his involvement in Russiagate, is innocent until proven guilty.
In the Summer of 2007 I traveled to China to speak at a conference concerning security preparations for the Olympic Games, which were to be held in Beijing the following year. While transiting Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport I noticed something odd. The internet sites that I checked every day would not open, to include The American Conservative and Antiwar.com. When I finally reached China, the same sites continued to be inaccessible and I also noted that writing emails had become problematic either at the airports in Hong Kong or Beijing or at the Sheraton Hotel in Shenyang. Some words would not type at all while other words that were clearly considered to be offensive would be altered without any input from me. Words like “damn” and “hell” appeared as “d**n” and “h**l” and the same alterations took place with more obviously scatological and reproductive expressions.
When I returned to the United States, I learned that there was commercially available software that enabled internet service providers to selectively censor online content. That was apparently what was being used by the French in the airport and more so in China. Since 2007, I have learned that many governments and their agencies employ such software to limit access to what they hold to be objectionable content and to control certain aspects of messaging going out of the country.
The internet was originally promoted as a completely free and uncensored mechanism for people everywhere to exchange views and communicate, but that is not really true anymore. Both governments and the service providers have developed a taste for controlling the product, with President Barack Obama once considering a “kill switch” that would turn the internet off completely in the event of a “national emergency.” President Trump has also had a lot to say about fake news and is reported to be supporting limiting protections relating to the internet.
Social networking sites have voluntarily employed technical fixes that restrict some content and have also hired “reviewers” who look for objectionable material and remove it. European legislation, meanwhile, might require internet search engines to eliminate access to many old posts. YouTube has already been engaged in deleting existing old material, and is working with by no means impartial “partners” like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to set up guidelines to restrict future content. Users of Facebook will have already undoubtedly noted that some contacts have been blocked temporarily (or even permanently) and denied access to the site.
Google now automatically disables or limits searches for material that it deems to be undesirable. If Google does not approve of something it will not appear in search results. And what does come up will likely favor content that derives from those who pay Google to promote their products or services. Information that originates with competitors will either be very low in the search results or even blocked. Google is hardly an unbiased source of information.
My most recent encounter with social media censorship occurred on Facebook, which announced in May that it would be hiring 3,000 new censors. I had posted an article that I had written for Unz.com entitled “Charlottesville Requiem.” At the end of the first day, Ron Unz noticed that while the article had clearly attracted a substantial readership, the “likes” for the piece were not showing up on the screen counter, i.e. were not being tabulated. It was also impossible to share the piece on Facebook as the button to do so had been removed.
The “likes” on sites like Facebook, Yahoo news comments, YouTube, and Google are important because they automatically determine how the piece is distributed throughout the site. If there are a lot of likes the piece goes to the top when a search is made or when someone opens the page. Articles similarly can be sent to Coventry if they receive a lot of dislikes or negative marks, so the approvals or disapprovals can be very important in determining what kind of audience is reached or what a search will reveal.
In my case, after one day my page reverted to normal, the “likes” reappeared, and readers were again able to share the article. But it was clear that someone had been managing what I had posted, apparently because there had been disapproval of my content based on what must have been a political judgment. A couple of days later, I learned of another example of a similar incident. The Ron Paul Institute (RPI) website posts much of its material on YouTube (owned by Google) on a site where there had been advertising that kicked back to RPI a small percentage of the money earned. Suddenly, without explanation, both the ads and rebate were eliminated after a “manual review” determined the content to be “unsuitable for all advertisers.” This was a judgment rendered apparently due to disapproval of what the Institute does and says. The ability to comment on and link from the pieces was also turned off.
So unelected, unnamed censors are operating all around the internet to control the content, which I suppose should surprise no one. Which, curiously enough, leads again to “Russiagate”. Given the attempts to manage content and comments on the internet, many of those who attempt to exploit the anonymity of the medium have resorted to various ploys to get around those restraints. Among my Facebook friends I have five contacts whom I know in true name but who operate on the site in alias. In several cases it is done to protect their ability to express out-of-the-mainstream views and also keep those views at some distance from their employers, who might object or even fire them.
Earlier this month, the New York Times had a featured front page investigative piece entitled in its print edition “To Sway Vote, Russia Used Army of Fake Americans – Flooding Twitter and Facebook, Impostors Helped Fuel Anger in Polarized U.S.” As the title suggests, the newspaper expressed its dismay over how many supporters of Russia online appear to be alias personae, again suggesting that Moscow is an “unprecedented foreign intervention in American democracy.” The “legion of Russian-controlled imposters” were blamed for propagating an “anti-Clinton message,” and, to do so, they had unleashed a “cyberarmy of counterfeit Facebook and Twitter accounts.”
The Times concluded that the alleged Russian activity had turned social media “into engines of deception and propaganda.” In one sense, it was astonishing that the Times had taken so long to cotton onto something that has been taking place for years, mostly engineered by the United States. The Pentagon and State Department have long had personnel roving the internet using fake names, engaged in what is referred to as “perception management.” They infiltrate radical sites and even engage in debate through the comments sections. It is to be presumed that the CIA is similarly active. There have been credible claims that Washington interfered heavily via internet and other mechanisms in voting in Ukraine as well as in recent Venezuelan elections.
Israel’s government has also more-or-less admitted being engaged in perception management on a large scale. The Israeli Foreign Ministry even sent a letter out to a number of pro-Israel organizations emphasizing the “importance of the internet as the new battleground for Israel’s image.” Haaretz reported in 2013 how Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office collaborated with the National Union of Israeli Students to establish “covert units” at the seven national universities to be structured in a “semi-military” fashion and organized in situation rooms. Students are paid as much as $2,000 monthly to use aliases to work the online targets.
The Times article described how the fake accounts could be activated serially by command to bombard social media with similar messages intended to confuse the electorate and “fuel a fire of anger and suspicion in a polarized country.” Some fake Facebook account holders allegedly also bought political advertising totaling $100,000 that appeared on the site. But the Times is, not surprisingly, heavily editorializing in an investigative piece and is also both framing and inflating an apparent problem to suit its own biases. It produces nothing that would equate to actual evidence that Russia was involved in the wholesale deception and does not seriously examine what other interested foreign and domestic parties might also have been willing to engage in subterfuge to cook the social media content.
Anything that appeared in the Times survey that was either anti-American or anti-Clinton was attributed by the Times to the Russian intelligence services, while the word “suspected” appears frequently in the article. And the fake personae might have amounted to little in terms of the overall content on sites like Facebook, which concedes that there was some fraud, but that faux accounts involved in potential “civic content” deception amounted to less than one tenth of one percent of all traffic volume.
The Times’ assertions regarding the social media invasion by Moscow are reminiscent of Obama Administration claims about Russian hacking in that they are largely evidence free. One anti-Clinton site called DCLeaks is connected by the Times to the Russian military-intelligence service the GRU without any proof whatsoever to confirm that linkage. And there is, of course, nothing to suggest that the alleged Russian meddling in any way convinced the American public of anything, or changed any votes. Even if it existed on the scale that the Times is maintaining, it was demonstrably unsuccessful. It did not determine the outcome of the election.
Anyone who is paying attention would be unlikely to deny that there is an astonishing amount of fraud, disinformation, and covert manipulation floating around the internet at any given time. That is a by-product of its relative freedom and accessibility. But most people are not completely gullible and manage to filter out the frivolous and implausible. Far more dangerous than speculation about what the Russians might have done (or what the U.S. government is doing) is the self-censorship being engaged in by the actual service providers and related media sites representing large and wealthy American corporations, some of which have near monopolistic power. They are well placed to shape what the public knows and what it is able to discover. Erasing old content and restricting searches is not so much different than George Orwell’s Winston Smith watching the evidence for no longer politically-acceptable events being dropped down the memory hole. If the censorship and limitation of the product is allowed to continue, the information revolution promised by the internet might well turn out to be a bad bargain.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
Scott Horton, Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan, The Libertarian Institute, 318 pages.
I was one of the first American officials to arrive in Kabul at the end of 2001. The war that seemed to be ending back then is currently in its 16th year with no end in sight, and for those of us who were there at the beginning it now sometimes seems like it was a lifetime ago. President Barack Obama not so long ago referred to Afghanistan as the “necessary war.” But now it might be more appropriate to refer to it as a “forgotten war,” as President Donald Trump has sent a few thousand more soldiers to Kabul—while also stating emphatically that he will not be discussing strategy or entertaining any questions regarding what might be coming next.
Scott Horton’s new book, Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan, is a masterful account of America’s prolonged Afghan engagement. It reminds us that what began in 2001 was only the most recent phase of a decades-long struggle that began in 1979 when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, and Washington responded by arming and funding the mujahideen guerrillas, who effectively pushed back against Soviet control of their country but later morphed into al-Qaeda. Like the CIA’s ill-fated replacement of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, the meddling in Afghanistan has borne bitter fruit, a prime example of what has been referred to as “blowback.”
Scott does not claim to be an expert on Afghanistan in any traditional sense. He has never visited the country, does not speak any of the native languages, and has never been called upon by any university or DC-based think tank to discuss what has been unfolding in the country. He has, however, been asking some necessary questions about the American role in Afghanistan since that country was invaded by the U.S. military as a consequence of 9/11. In his capacity as the long-time host of Antiwar radio and the Scott Horton Show, he has conducted 4,500 interviews with politicians, soldiers, intelligence officers, journalists, and scholars, hundreds of which were focused on Afghanistan.
Scott is both a good questioner and a good listener and his programs provide alternative insights into what has been taking place in the United States and abroad since 2001. By virtue of always pushing hard on his guests, his interviews are learning experiences for participants and listeners alike. Through the process, Scott has himself grown more knowledgeable and confident, becoming well-known as a skeptic regarding military intervention, the responsibility to protect doctrine, nation building, and the global war on terror. And he has become extremely knowledgeable about Afghanistan, where the American imperium has seemingly been stalled for 16 years.
I approached Fool’s Errand with some reservations. The title itself telegraphs the book’s message—that the United States would best be served by ending the Afghan adventure tout suite—a viewpoint that is not exactly unique to Horton. So I expected to be revisiting a lot of things that I already knew or understood, but I was pleasantly surprised that the author dug deep and did his homework. The entire text is meticulously footnoted with the notes appearing on the same page as the text, something that is very welcome and not seen as often as it should be. There is also a considerable amount of unique content derived from interviews conducted by Horton since 2001.
Horton begins his tale with a thorough discussion of the origins and motives of the al-Qaeda brand of Islamic radicalism, stopping along the way to discuss various aspects of Islam itself. He then takes the reader all the way back to the origins of the conflict starting with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. He provides a fascinating detail about how the Russian intervention in Afghanistan actually started, of which I was unaware: In July 1979, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski convinced the president to sign off on a finding that authorized the agency to begin arming and training the Afghan mujahideen to destabilize the pro-Russian government of Hafizullah Amin in Kabul and provoke the Soviet invasion of the country. Whether the Soviets really needed much pushing is debatable, but there was a clear perception in Washington that the Russians had taken the bait. Shortly after the Red Army invaded Afghanistan in December, Brzezinski sent a memo to his boss gloating over how “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war,” meaning an endless quagmire that would bloody and weaken the Soviets, thereby “containing” the spread of communism.
Little did Brzezinski, an Eastern Europe-obsessed Cold Warrior, appreciate the different dynamics of a war in the middle of Asia fueled by religion and a tribal culture that would turn what was envisioned as a straightforward conflict using proxies into something quite different—though he did get the quagmire part right. And he was also prescient in terms of its impact on the Soviet Union. The Red Army retreated from Afghanistan in 1989, the war having contributed to Moscow’s virtual bankruptcy. The Soviet Union itself came apart two years later.
And there was also a significant downside for the United States. The mujahideen, also funded and otherwise supported by feckless allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, were at best difficult to control, evolved into al-Qaeda, and eventually produced the Taliban. It is quite reasonable to suggest that the fire that Brzezinski ignited has burned continuously since that “opportunistic” intervention back in 1979.
Fool’s Errand is at its best when it carefully follows developments subsequent to the 2001 U.S. invasion of the country. Scott describes all the missteps in some detail, with full notes that enable the reader to consider the validity of his judgements. He discusses the failure of the United States and its allies to comprehend the type of society and culture they were dealing with and the tendency to be taken in by Afghan leaders who were canny enough to pretend to be advocates of western-style democracy in order to keep the money and political support flowing. He describes the inability of a series of generals who had made their reputations in Iraq, often based more on hype than on achievements, to comprehend the different conditions in Afghanistan. To his credit, he explains counterinsurgency doctrine in such a way as to make it comprehensible to the non-specialist reader. And he also explains why it failed.
Scott concludes that:
After more than a decade and a half, the results are in. The U.S. government has been unable to achieve its goals in Afghanistan. Even worse, what state it has been able to establish there is completely unsustainable and is certain to fall apart when the occupation is finally called off, and America does come home. The politicians, generals and intelligence officers behind this unending catastrophe, who always promise they can fix these problems with just a little bit more time, money and military force, have lost all credibility. The truth is America’s Afghan war is an irredeemable disaster. It was meant to be a trap in the first place. America is not only failing to defeat its enemies, but is destroying itself, just as Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda always intended.
I don’t know to what extent the American involvement in Afghanistan, our country’s longest war and still running, is even taught in universities in international relations courses. If it is part of the syllabus, it should properly be a “lesson learned” in what can go wrong when one wants to combat a global adversary like the Soviet Union by creating a potentially worse threat through the expedient of arming and training Islamic militants. It occurred to me that if there is such a course, it would be well served by using Scott Horton’s Fool’s Errand as a textbook. It tells the whole story of Afghanistan and is full of information that will serve to educate the uninformed reader about the Afghan war and its background. Yet it also including some surprising and unique insights derived from his hundreds of interviews that will keep the more advanced student turning pages. It is highly recommended.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
The United States, uniquely among nations, believes that its writ runs all over the world—and that it has a right to use its courts of law to seek retributive justice even in situations that did not involve American citizens and occurred in a foreign land. No other country sends its marshals overseas to forcibly detain fugitives from “justice.” If the United States is truly exceptional, it is no doubt due to its hubris in declaring itself to be the final arbiter of what goes on all around the globe.
It seems that nearly every week Congress outdoes itself in passing bills that are intended to pummel one foreign adversary or another. Russia and Iran have become particular favorites with nary a dissenting voice when new sanctions are put in place, together with mechanisms to ensure that a puissant chief executive shall have no ability to mitigate the punishment. And sometimes stealth is employed, inserting a nugget in an otherwise innocuous bit of legislation that will provide authority to go after yet another potential enemy of the state.
The latest Senate Intelligence Authorization Act (SB 1761), which was released by the committee on August 18 when few senators were in town, is in the nature of a routine document. It notably calls for “more” in terms of both probing and revealing Russian spying and alleged aggression, but that was to be expected due to the current panic over Moscow and its intentions. It will nevertheless almost certainly become law even though few members of congress will actually bother to read any part of it. The bill has already been approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee and will likely go immediately to a vote in the full Senate when that body reconvenes after the August recess. It will almost certainly be approved unanimously.
That anyone in the alternative media is paying any attention at all to what the bill says is due to the last section in the document, numbered 623. It reads “SENSE OF CONGRESS ON WIKILEAKS: It is the sense of Congress that WikiLeaks and the senior leadership of WikiLeaks resemble a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors and should be treated as such a service by the United States.”
Senator Ron Wyden was the only committee member who opposed the draft but even he opined that “the damage done by WikiLeaks to the United States is clear.” His concerns were that Section 623, if acted upon, could damage freedom of the press. He explained that “…the use of the novel phrase ‘non-state hostile intelligence service’ may have legal, constitutional, and policy implications, particularly should it be applied to journalists inquiring about secrets… The language in the bill suggesting that the U.S. government has some unstated course of action against ‘non-state hostile intelligence services’ is equally troubling.”
Indeed, the language suggests that Section 623 is intended to justify taking direct action against WikiLeaks. And it might also establish a precedent which would potentially empower federal law enforcement agencies to go after legitimate media outlets that obtain and publish classified information regarded as critical or even damaging to government policies. As the mainstream media has long believed that it has a legitimate role in exposing malfeasance by government, Section 623 could easily set up a clash between press and law enforcement over what kind of information is usable and what is not.
It would be interesting to know who exactly inserted Section 623 in the intelligence authorization bill, but that information is unlikely to surface anytime soon. The sentence makes some very specific claims about WikiLeaks and its activities, namely that it operates as a hostile intelligence service, that its leadership constitutes enemy agents who are targeting the United States, and that it operates under the direction of a foreign intelligence agency that is unfriendly to Washington. It concludes that WikiLeaks should be “treated as such,” i.e. confronted as one would an enemy.
In reality, the conflation of WikiLeaks with an actual intelligence service is absurd. It does not recruit agents who obtain information for it and instead relies on volunteers, many of whom are apparently whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, to provide it with material. It operates in standard journalistic fashion by publishing the material that it considers to be relevant to illegal or inappropriate activity by the U.S. and other governments, corporations, and even individuals. Critics claim that it is reckless in so doing, but WikiLeaks sees itself as an activist purveyor of global transparency and accountability.
And the assertion that WikiLeaks is acting as the agent of an unfriendly foreign government is also unproven, even though some in the U.S. government have insisted that is the case and an occasional investigative journalist has sought to connect the dots. Clearly the drafter of the sentence in SB 1761 is implying a Russian relationship, but there is no indisputable evidence that that is true and no hint that anything that WikiLeaks has revealed is propaganda. WikiLeaks derived information is unedited and authentic. It has been played and replayed by mainstream media in the U.S. and worldwide without any hesitation. WikiLeaks might not be your standard media outlet, but it is more like journalism than not, particularly if one accepts that alternative internet sources have become legitimate in their own right.
Most of the attention on Section 623 has focused on potential damage to the First Amendment to the Constitution, which established freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but I also see something more sinister in the language used. The sentence is nearly identical to a statement made by CIA Director Mike Pompeo on April 13 in which WikiLeaks was described as a “non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.”
It is no coincidence that the language is similar and it suggests that WikiLeaks and its senior leadership will be targeted by the United States government acting through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the National Security Agency (NSA), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The Daily Beast reports a comment by one former Senate committee staffer who notes that “It would allow the intelligence community to collect against them the same way they collect against al-Qaeda. If you think you’re helping WikiLeaks to aid a transparency organization, the U.S. government fundamentally disagrees with you and you could find yourself on the other end of NSA scrutiny.”
It has previously been reported how the Justice Department has had problems in making a case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. He is an Australian citizen who resides in London in asylum status in the Ecuadorean Embassy and WikiLeaks has no evident physical presence in the United States. Nevertheless, the Attorney General’s office has been hard at work preparing criminal charges, presumably relying on the Espionage Act of 1918, which can be construed as criminalizing the receipt of any classified material by an unauthorized party. Given the clearly expressed desire to punish Assange, he would quite likely be arrested and extradited to the U.S. by the British if he should ever attempt to leave the shelter of the Ecuadorean Embassy.
Some journalists are particularly concerned that henceforth any classified information made public by WikiLeaks and used by an American news outlet might also lead to criminal charges for the recipient, again under the Espionage Act. And Washington might even believe that it can to a certain extent enforce its ban on using WikiLeaks material globally by pressuring other governments and by tying up media outlets with lawsuits.
There are already plenty of laws that criminalize the mishandling or theft of classified information, but the government has proven singularly incapable of catching the leakers, so now it will go after the recipients. I would suspect that employees and managers of WikiLeaks, insofar as they can be identified, will be surveilled, harassed, and even arrested. They will have to be especially careful when they travel. WikiLeaks servers and systems will be disrupted through insertion of viruses and intensified hacking. Potential whistleblowers will undoubtedly take note and become reluctant to share information with a resource that is under siege. In short, WikiLeaks will be the enemy just like the old KGB once was, with all the gloves off, and the only difference is that WikiLeaks is “non-state.” By all normal standards, Section 623 is a declaration of war that has important consequences for those who believe that the appropriate media role is to challenge the government and other institutions.
To unleash the CIA on WikiLeaks the White House will likely have to come up with a “finding” to authorize special action. President Donald Trump will no doubt sign such a document and follow up with a tweet. It is particularly ironic that Trump once was a self-professed great fan of WikiLeaks, stating how he “loved it” while on the campaign trail in October 2016 after Hillary Clinton’s emails were made public. A lot has changed.
Given the intense media coverage over Charlottesville, a recent small headline largely escaped notice, but it could have a major impact on how Americans come to terms with the excesses that developed from the “global war on terror.” For the first time, several individuals closely associated with the CIA torture program were about to become answerable in a court of law for “legally aiding and abetting and/or factually aiding and abetting torture,” forcing the government to intervene and come to a settlement of the case.
It is surprising that it has taken this long to reach this point, where one might obtain minimal legal redress for pain and suffering. There should be no question about the legality of torture. It has been universally condemned and banned by both the Geneva and United Nations Conventions for good reasons. It is also illegal under U.S. law and its variations, which have been euphemistically described as “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EIT), have been explicitly banned by the military in its training manuals.
It is widely recognized that torture is a line that should not be crossed, that it starts out with sleep deprivation or exposure to cold and heat before including simulated drowning and winding up with torn out fingernails and even death. On a practical level, it only is really good at producing confessions to stop the pain, many of which turn out to be false. Information produced by torture has frequently been found to be obtainable by other means and many government interrogators believe that better results are obtained by treating prisoners well. Torture debases and turns sadistic those who carry it out and those who order it. It is a black mark on the government that condones it and it opens the door for other countries and groups to engage in the same or similar practices on American citizens.
The case against the alleged torturers was argued in a federal court in Spokane, Washington, and docketed to go on to a jury trial on September 5. The suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against two CIA psychologists on behalf of three men who were tortured in the agency’s secret prisons between 2002 and 2008. The two psychologists are James Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen, who together in 2001 formed a company called Mitchell, Jessen & Associates that served as the principal CIA contractor for the torture program. The men were tasked with using their professional skills to devise “enhanced interrogation techniques” that would break prisoners and compel them to reveal information on terrorist cells and anticipated operations. The company reportedly also provided interrogators and security for the CIA secret prison “black sites,” and appears to have been involved in the Agency’s rendition program in which suspects were abducted and flown to countries for potential torture.
According to the ACLU, Mitchell and Jessen, former military psychologists, actually devised the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that were later employed in the secret prisons. Their approach was based on reversing the training program that they had developed to help American soldiers taken prisoner survive and resist brutal interrogation by hostile forces. They offered their program to the CIA and, using the behavior models they had developed, convinced senior agency managers that the techniques were practical and would produce significant intelligence. The George W. Bush Department of Justice agreed (in its notorious Yoo memoranda) that the techniques did not constitute torture as they did not necessarily result in organ failure. The two doctors were reportedly paid over $80 million for their services.
Mitchell and Jessen’s defense team argued that the men should be granted the same blanket immunity that is enjoyed by all government officials, since it was a CIA operation and the agency was responsible for selecting subjects for intense interrogation. The defendants observed that while they provided the tools used by the agency in interrogations, they had no influence over how the “enhanced interrogation techniques” would be applied. They also claimed that the procedures used were not intended to cause severe pain or do permanent damage, so they were not technically torture at all.
The ACLU suit was brought under the terms of the Alien Tort Statute which allows foreigners to apply to American courts for justice in those instances where there is illegal activity as defined by international law or treaties that have been entered into by the United States, which have the force of law. In this case, the United Nations Convention Against Torture was cited.
The three former prisoners who were tortured were Mohamed Ben Soud, Suleiman Salim, and Gul Rahman. Ben Soud and Salim survived the experience but Gul Rahman died, frozen to death as part of the interrogation in a black site prison. His surviving family was one of the three plaintiffs. According to testimony, the three men were subjected to sleep deprivation, slamming into walls, confinement in coffins, exposure to extreme temperatures, water boarding, starving, and being chained or hung from the ceiling in stress positions.
A CIA autopsy of Gul Rahman, a married Afghan refugee with four daughters who resided in Pakistan, revealed that he had died after being chained naked to a bare concrete floor in sub-freezing conditions. He also was dehydrated and starving. Salim, a Tanzanian fisherman, was held for five years before being released and given a letter acknowledging that he posed no threat to the U.S. Ben Soud, a Libyan living in Pakistan, was tortured in secret prisons for two years before being released.
The only actual contact that either of the doctors had with any of the plaintiffs occurred when Jessen supervised the interrogation of Gul Rahman. Jessen claimed that he asked the interrogators to provide blankets and clothing for Rahman but was ignored. Rahman, of course, died.
In pre-trial depositions Mitchell and Jessen revealed that one of their earliest applications of EIT was on Abu Zubaydah in a secret prison in Thailand. They traveled to the black site and proceeded to waterboard the prisoner 83 times. When it was clear that the treatment was producing nothing, the team at the prison asked Langley if it could stop, but Jose Rodriguez, who headed the Counterterrorism Center at the time, told them to continue, arguing that if they did not do so a terrorist nuclear bomb would be exploding somewhere in the United States. Mitchell recalled that CIA staff officers referred to the doctors as “pussies” when they expressed reluctance to continue the procedure. Rodriguez later ordered video recordings that were made of the interrogations to be destroyed.
The government acted to settle the case to prevent it from going to trial, where testimony would have made public the extent to which the CIA had engaged in what are generally considered to be war crimes. The actual terms of the settlement were not revealed, but the two doctors will not be directly affected as they were not required to plead guilty. The U.S. government, acting for the CIA, indemnified them and paid for their legal expenses, the plaintiffs’ lawyers, and punitive and compensatory damages.
It is by no means clear whether the current case will serve as a precedent for more lawsuits seeking redress for illegal U.S. government activity during the war on terror. As there was no suggestion that the courts will lift government employees’ immunity from prosecution for actions carried out while on duty, there is little chance that any senior CIA managers will be hauled into court. But it just might be that a door has opened a bit, and the public will find out more about the torture program and those who were directly affected by it. The agency employed many contractors to run the black sites as well as its rendition program, and identifying them might be possible if more sections of the 6,500-page Senate report on torture are ever declassified.
For what it’s worth, Jessen is believed to be somewhat ambivalent about the EIT program that he helped develop. But Mitchell is reported to be proud of his service to the United States. He boasts about the interrogation program and describes himself as the “primary interrogator from its inception.” He is registered with a speakers’ bureau, charges between $15,000 and $25,000 for his services, and offers to provide his insights into “the minds of those trying to destroy America.”
Congress and Special Counsel Robert Mueller are looking into whether there was Donald Trump campaign collusion with the Russian government to “influence” the results of the 2016 presidential election. Stupidity and naivete will probably be revealed in abundance, but collusion to alter the outcome of an election—and thereby damage American democracy—is unlikely to be demonstrated.
The mantra in Washington, both within the media and the inside-the-beltway establishment, is that Russia actively “interfered” in the election and may have changed the outcome, but that is largely speculative. Since the line between possibly influencing or favoring a certain outcome and interfering has been rather difficult to discern, Russiagate has evolved into a seemingly never-ending inquiry that will likely produce nothing in terms of indictable criminality among the Trumpsters. The Russians for their part will likely be seen to have engaged important individuals in a foreign country to advance their own interests—something governments worldwide do.
Indeed, the process itself seems to be backwards. Unlikely to be revealed is how the whole affair became a national-security issue in the first place. Who exactly stole the files from the DNC server and the emails from John Podesta? It would seem to me that appreciating how the theft of the documents took place is crucial to understanding what has come to be called Russiagate. Demonstrate exactly what occurred and many of the other pieces will inevitably fall into place.
At this point, all that is clearly known after more than a year of huffing and puffing is that last summer files and emails pertaining to the election were copied and then made their way to WikiLeaks, which published some of them at a time that was damaging to the Clinton campaign. Those who are blaming Russia believe that there was a hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) server and also of John Podesta’s emails that was carried out by a Russian surrogate or directly by Moscow’s military intelligence arm. They base their conclusion on a statement issued by the Department of Homeland Security on October 7, 2016, and on a longer assessment prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on January 6.
Both government appraisals implied that there was a U.S. government intelligence agency consensus that there was a Russian hack, though they provided little in the way of actual evidence that that was the case and, in particular, failed to demonstrate how the information was obtained and what the chain of custody was as it moved from that point to the office of WikiLeaks. The January report was particularly criticized as unconvincing, rightly so, because the most important one of its three key contributors, the National Security Agency, had only moderate confidence in its conclusions, suggesting that whatever evidence existed was far from solid.
Leaked reporting in the mainstream media subsequently provided some clues regarding what was behind the alleged intelligence community judgement. A hacker identified as Guccifer 2 might have broken into the system on behalf of Russia and there were reportedly traces of electronic fingerprints in the alleged intrusion that were characteristic of Russian intelligence hacks. Both of those assertions have been separately challenged and it has been observed that they are somewhat speculative. There are also reports that intercepted Kremlin phone conversations involving high level officials expressed considerable joy at the Trump victory, suggesting that Moscow was closely monitoring and possibly playing some role in the electoral process.
An alternative view that has been circulating for months suggests that it was not a hack at all, that it was a deliberate whistleblower-style leak of information carried out by as yet unknown parties that may have been provided to WikiLeaks for possible political reasons, perhaps to express disgust with the DNC manipulation of the nominating process to favor Hillary Clinton.
There are, of course, still other equally non-mainstream explanations for how the bundle of information got from point A to point B, including that the intrusion into the DNC server was carried out by the CIA, which then made it look like it had been the Russians as perpetrators. That explanation has some plausibility due to the fact that the agency does indeed have cyber-capability to do just that when it goes around the globe and invades foreign information systems. It could also have easily come up with a credible role player who might have pretended that the information came from a dissident Democrat for passage to Assange.
And then there is the hybrid point of view, which is essentially that the Russians or a surrogate did indeed intrude into the DNC computers but it was all part of normal intelligence agency probing and did not lead to anything. Meanwhile and independently, someone else who had access to the server was downloading the information, which in some fashion made its way from there to WikiLeaks.
Both the hack vs. leak viewpoints have marshalled considerable technical analysis in the media to bolster their arguments. The hack school of thought has stressed that Russia had both the ability and motive to interfere in the election by exposing the stolen material while the leakers have recently asserted that the sheer volume of material downloaded indicates that something like a higher speed thumb drive was used, meaning that it had to be done by someone with actual physical direct access to the DNC system.
What the many commentators on the DNC server issue choose to conclude is frequently shaped by their own broader political views, producing a result that favors one approach over another depending on how one feels about Trump or Clinton. Perhaps it would be clarifying to regard the information obtained and transferred as a theft rather than either a hack or a leak, since the two expressions have taken on a political meaning of their own in the context of Russiagate. I am not qualified to judge the technical analyses that have been done on the theft, but I would like to suggest that the bottom line is that we (the American people and government) have no idea who actually stole the material in question.
If Congress were seriously interested in determining who did what to whom, it would have started with the theft of the information. The inquiry should have begun with the DNC server or servers where the information that was stolen was stored, but, oddly, the FBI was not allowed access. So whatever forensic insights that might have been obtained from the actual computers has never been collected or developed by federal law enforcement, which perforce relied instead on an assessment made by a DNC contractor, CrowdStrike, whose co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch is a prominent critic of the Russian government. CrowdStrike ran its own investigation and inevitably blamed the Russians.
If the FBI had moved quickly to do a forensic examination on the computers, information retained in the system presumably could have told investigators exactly who logged in and at what times. With that in hand, questioning of the individuals identified could have begun. Also, a thorough investigation would include obtaining a list of all those individuals who theoretically had access to the information that was stolen under the assumption that someone might have been using an associate’s password. Yet there is no indication that any questioning of those with access to the DNC system has occurred or is even being contemplated.
A good investigation would also examine possible motive. Back in July there was little doubt that Hillary Clinton would win the election and it is far-fetched to think that the Russians would in even their wildest imaginings think that they could change the result. But that is not to say that they would not have been interested in weakening the Clinton presidency by surfacing evidence of a scandal. Nor is there any motive for then CIA Director John Brennan to do a hack and blame it on Moscow since he would have known that the information being released would damage his candidate, Hillary Clinton—but he might have thought that promoting the Russian connection would do even worse damage to Trump. It seems to me that likely motive also includes two other plausible possibilities: that someone took the information to sell it to a party who has not yet been identified, or that someone stole the information to get even either with the Democratic establishment or with individuals running the primaries and the convention.
As there would have been only a limited market for the Clinton papers and their sale would be tricky and require developing contacts desirous of obtaining such information, revenge would seem to be the more likely explanation. But even there we know nothing as no names have surfaced as part of whatever has been passing for an investigation. DNC staffer Seth Rich, who was killed in a still unexplained “robbery attempt” in Washington on July 10, 2016, has been identified as a potential suspect by conservative media, but that possibility has been strenuously rejected by his family and others, and it does not appear that there has been any FBI follow-up on his case.
I honestly believe that we the public will never know who stole the Clinton and Podesta emails unless Julian Assange of WikiLeaks chooses to come clean on the issue, which is unlikely. In fact, Assange, who has denied that it was the Russians, might not know whom he was dealing with. If a sophisticated intelligence agency was somehow involved it could have used its own recruited assets as interlocutors, pretending to be who they were not. A well-constructed cover story could have easily fooled Assange. A capable spy agency would also have run its operation replete with red herrings while using cut-outs to break the transmission belt of the information so the theft could not plausibly be traced back to it, or to its sponsoring government.
The fact that more than a year of inquiry has gone by without anyone inside the DNC IT system being investigated suggests that whatever happened has been buried so deep that it will never surface. Even now, it might pay some dividends for the FBI to examine the DNC server, but there is virtually no pressure from anyone to make that happen. Certainly the FBI has given no indication that it has a clue about what took place and is content with attributing it to the Russians, particularly since that seems to be the conventional wisdom. Blaming the theft and what happened subsequently on Moscow is both convenient and comforting because no American constituency gets offended and it means you don’t really have to annoy anyone but Vladimir Putin.
A congressman once admitted to me that he and his colleagues know a lot of things, generally speaking, but their knowledge only “extends about one inch deep.” In other words, the briefings provided by staffers and in committees is intended to touch only on what is important to know to look well informed in front of the C-SPAN cameras without any unnecessary depth that would only create confusion. And the information provided must generally conform to what the congressmen already believe to be true and want to hear so no one will be embarrassed.
That such ignorance would be particularly notable in the realm of foreign policy should surprise no one because congressmen as a group are no longer very well educated. Few speak foreign languages and no one any longer studies the history or culture of any country but the United States, and sometimes not even that.
Some Congressmen nevertheless boast about all the countries they have visited to “fact find.” They fail to recognize how they travel in a bubble, whisked to foreign lands via military aircraft on the virtually worthless congressional delegations known as CODELS. On these trips, spouses go shopping while American legislators are briefed by the ambassador’s staff and the CIA station, both of which, for budget reasons, are more interested in demonstrating what a wonderful job they are doing rather than explaining the complexity of the local situation. And that is followed by the obligatory visit to listen to the local head of state lie about how everything is going just fine in his country. Given the reality of garbage in, garbage out, it is no wonder that buffoons like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are lauded as foreign-policy experts in the Republican Party. It’s called setting the bar really low.
For a Congress intent on appearing to be doing something while doing nothing, one of the worst time wasters is the committee hearing, where the senators and congressmen call in “experts” to explain to them why a certain policy is either worthwhile or useless. Of course, it usually doesn’t exactly play out that way, as the committee generally wants to hear testimony that supports its preconceptions about whatever is being discussed, so it only invites those to the party who will say what it wants to hear.
To cite only one of many examples of Congress’s unwillingness to listen to any opinion that might challenge the establishment view, a February 16 hearing by the House Foreign Affairs Committee entitled “Iran on Notice” featured four “experts,” all of whom were hostile to Iran and advocates of “solutions” ranging from actively encouraging regime change to using military force. No one knowledgeable enough to explain Iran’s behavior and/or offer non-confrontational approaches was invited or asked to participate.
I have been closely following some recent hearings that relate to Russia, most particularly the Senate Judiciary session that was supposed to look into the issue of registry under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 for Russian agents. The hearing, which started on July 26, and was extended to the following day, was entitled “Oversight of the Foreign Agents Registration Act and Attempts to Influence U.S. Elections: Lessons Learned from Current and Prior Administrations.” The first day’s session included statements by three Justice Department and FBI officials regarding how the FARA legislation is enforced and how presumed violations of it are investigated. There were some specific comments and questions from individual senators regarding Russian and Saudi government attempts to influence opinion in the United States, but little in the way of drama.
The second day was for additional “expert testimony.” It consisted of billionaire hedge-fund director William Browder, who read a prepared statement and then responded to questions. (Video of the statement and the following discussion are available here, with Browder beginning at minute 24.) Browder, who clearly has his own agenda to debunk a film made last year attacking him and a narrative about a former employee Sergei Magnitsky that he has been promoting, was embraced by the senators, who should have known better. Veteran award-winning journalist Robert Parry describes what took place: “…last week, Senate Judiciary Committee members sat in rapt attention as hedge-fund operator William Browder wowed them with a reprise of his Magnitsky tale and suggested that people who have challenged the narrative and those who dared air the documentary one time at Washington’s Newseum last year should be prosecuted for violating the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).”
Not even one senator challenged William Browder’s sometimes extraordinary claims about Russia’s government in general and its President Vladimir Putin in particular, including that Putin is the richest man in the world due to all the money that he has stolen. As Browder appears to be seeking to use FARA to punish those who have criticized him or even watched a movie about him based on the assumption that they must be Russian agents, he might well be regarded as not exactly a disinterested source providing objective information about Russia and its government.
American-born British citizen Browder has been the principal promoter of a narrative about Russian government malfeasance relating to his former employee Sergei Magnitsky, who, Browder claims, was a courageous whistleblower who was falsely arrested after exposing corruption and eventually died in a Moscow prison after being tortured. Browder’s energetic promotion of the Magnitsky story has poisoned relations with Moscow and led to the passage of the Magnitsky Act by Congress in 2012. Russia rightly has seen the legislation, which includes sanctions on some officials, as unwarranted interference in the operation of its judicial system.
Browder astutely portrays himself as a human-rights campaigner dedicated to promoting the legacy of Magnitsky, but his own biography is inevitably much more complicated than that. The grandson of Earl Browder, the former general secretary of the American Communist Party, William Browder studied economics at the University of Chicago, and obtained an MBA from Stanford.
From the beginning, Browder concentrated on Eastern Europe, which was beginning to open up to the west. In 1989 he took a position at highly respected Boston Consulting Group dealing with reviving failing Polish socialist enterprises. He then worked as an Eastern Europe analyst for Robert Maxwell, the unsavory British press magnate and Mossad spy, before joining the Russia team at Wall Street’s Salomon Brothers in 1992.
He left Salomon in 1996 and partnered with Edmond Safra, the controversial Lebanese-Brazilian-Jewish banker who died under mysterious circumstances in a fire in 1999, to set up Hermitage Capital Management Fund.
[Editor’s Note: After this article was published the family of Edmond Safra contacted TAC an asked that the following statement be included for the record: The tragic death of Edmond J. Safra in 1999 was caused by criminal arson. The crime of setting the fire was legally established in Monaco court in 2002 after Mr. Safra’s nurse, Ted Maher, admitted to setting the fire. He was found guilty and was sentenced to ten years in prison.]
Hermitage is registered in tax havens Guernsey and the Cayman Islands. It is a hedge fund that was focused on “investing” in Russia, taking advantage initially of the loans-for-shares scheme under Boris Yeltsin, and then continuing to profit greatly during the early years of Vladimir Putin’s ascendancy. By 2005 Hermitage was the largest foreign investor in Russia.
Browder had renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1997 and became a British citizen apparently to avoid American taxes, which are levied on worldwide income. In his book, Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight for Justice, he depicts himself as an honest and honorable Western businessman attempting to function in a corrupt Russian business world. That may or may not be true, but the loans-for-shares scheme that made him his initial fortune has been correctly characterized as the epitome of corruption, an arrangement whereby foreign “investors” worked with local oligarchs to strip the former Soviet economy of its assets paying pennies on each dollar of value. Along the way, Browder was reportedly involved in making false representations on official documents and bribery.
As a consequence of what came to be known as the Magnitsky scandal, Browder was eventually charged by the Russian authorities for fraud and tax evasion. He was banned from reentering Russia in 2005, even before Magnitsky died, and began to withdraw his assets from the country. Three companies controlled by Hermitage were eventually seized by the authorities, though it is not clear if any of their assets remained in Russia. Browder himself was convicted of tax evasion in absentia in 2013 and sentenced to nine years in prison.
Browder has assiduously, and mostly successfully, made his case that he and Magnitsky have been the victims of Russian corruption both during and since that time, though there have been credible skeptics, including Israel Shamir, who have dissected the sordid side to his rise to power and wealth. Browder has reportedly used political contributions and threats of lawsuits filed by his battery of lawyers to popularize and sell his tale to leading American politicians like Senators John McCain and Ben Cardin, ex-Senator Joe Lieberman, as well as to a number of European parliamentarians and media outlets.
But there is, inevitably, another side to the story, something quite different, which documentary filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, presented to the viewer in his film The Magnitsky Act: Behind the Scenes. The film has only been shown publicly once, at the Newseum in Washington on June 13, 2016—a viewing that I attended, and that proceeded in spite of threats from Browder and attempted disruption by his supporters. Browder has characteristically used lawsuits and threats of still more legal action to intimidate numerous television stations in Europe and prevent additional showings.
Nekrasov discovered what he believed to be holes in the narrative about Magnitsky that had been carefully constructed and nurtured by Browder. He provides documents and also an interview with Magnitsky’s mother maintaining that there is no clear evidence that he was beaten or tortured and that he died instead due to the failure to provide him with medicine while in prison or treatment shortly after he had a heart attack. A subsequent investigation ordered by then Russian President Dimitri Medvedev in 2011 confirmed that Magnitsky had not received medical treatment, contributing to this death, but could not demonstrate that he had been beaten even though there was suspicion that that might have been the case.
Nekrasov also claimed that much of the case against the Russian authorities is derived from English language translations of relevant documents provided by Browder himself. The actual documents sometimes say something quite different, including that Magnitsky is consistently referred to as an accountant, which he was, not as a lawyer, which he wasn’t. Browder calls him a lawyer because it better fits into his preferred narrative. Magnitsky the accountant appears in the document of his deposition which was apparently part of a criminal investigation of possible tax fraud, meaning that he was no whistleblower and was instead a suspected criminal.
Other discrepancies are cited by Nekrasov, who concludes that there was indeed a huge fraud related to Russian taxes but that it was not carried out by corrupt officials. Instead, it was deliberately ordered and engineered by Browder with Magnitsky, the accountant, personally developing and implementing the scheme used to carry out the deception.
To be sure, Browder and his international legal team have presented documents in the case that contradict much of what Nekrasov has presented in his film. It might be that Browder and Magnitsky have been the victims of a corrupt and venal state, but it just might be the other way around. Having a highly politicized Congress and a vengeful Browder lining up against a conveniently unpopular Russian government just might suggest that one is hearing a narrative that peddles lies as much as it tells the truth.
The Senate just might consider looking more deeply into Browder’s business activities while in Russia before jumping to conclusions and bringing him in as an “expert” on anything. He should not be given a free pass because he is saying things about Russia and Putin that fit neatly into a Washington establishment profile and make Senators smile and nod their heads. As soon as folks named McCain, Cardin and Lieberman jump on a cause, it should be time to step back a bit and reflect on what the consequences of proposed action might be.
One might also ask why anyone who has a great deal to gain by having a certain narrative accepted should be completely and unquestionably trusted, the venerable Cui bono? standard. And then there is a certain evasiveness on the part of Browder, who notably makes outrageous claims about the Russians but does not do so under oath, where he might be subject to legal consequences for perjury. The film shows him huffing and puffing to explain himself at times and he has avoided being served with subpoenas on allegations connected to the Magnitsky fraud that are making their way through American courts. In one case, he can be seen on YouTube running away from a server, somewhat unusual behavior if he has nothing to hide.
So, if you wonder why the United States Congress makes such bad decisions, it just might be due to the kind of information that it gets when it travels the world and holds hearings. Inviting a man who has renounced his U.S. citizenship to avoid paying taxes, who likely engaged in questionable business practices, and who very definitely has his own agenda, which includes vilifying the Kremlin, is hardly the way to go if one truly wants to understand Russia, particularly as no one participated in the hearing to rebut his claims. And if fining American citizens or forcing them to register as enemy agents because they may have supported or gone to see a movie is reflective of that gentleman’s mindset, there is even more good reason to reject the snake oil that he might be selling.
On July 25, Pakistani-American IT specialist Imran Awan was arrested at Dulles Airport for bank fraud while he was allegedly fleeing to Pakistan. The reports predictably produced some press coverage before the story died. Yet the speed at which the news vanished has prompted some observers to suggest that there might actually be something more to the disappearance than the operation of the normal media-reporting cycle. A number of conservative websites, including Breitbart, have been sounding the alarm over a possible cover-up that just might even be linked to what we are now calling Russiagate.
To be sure, the tale is a strange one with plenty of unsavory links. Thirty-seven-year-old Awan, as well as his wife and two brothers Abid and Jamal, worked as IT administrators for nearly 30 congressmen, all Democrats, including former Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. They did not have security clearances and it is not even certain that they were in any way checked out before being hired. At one point, they brought into the House as a colleague one Rao Abbas, someone to whom they owed money and who might have had no qualifications at all to work IT. Abbas wound up working in the office of Rep. Patrick Murphy, who was at the time a member of the House Intelligence Committee, as well as for Rep. Theo Deutch. He was paid $250,000.
The process of granting security clearances to Congressional staff is not exactly transparent, but it is not unlike clearances for other government agencies. The office seeking the clearance for a staff member must put in a request, some kind of investigation follows, and the applicant must sign a non-disclosure agreement before the authorization is granted. Sometimes Congress pushes the process by demanding that its staff have access above and beyond the normal “need to know.” In March 2016, for example, eight Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee requested that their staffs be given access to top-secret sensitive compartmented information (SCI). It is not known if the Awans, who were working for several committee members, would have been involved, but Buzzfeed, in its initial reporting on the investigation of the Awans family, repeated the concerns of a congressman that the suspects might have “had access to the House of Representatives’ entire computer network.”
The Awans billed Congress for more than $4 million between 2004 and 2016, a sum that has been reported to be three or four times higher than the norm for government contractor IT specialists performing similar work. The considerable level of overbilling has not been explained by the congressmen involved. In spite of all that income, Imran Awan declared bankruptcy in 2010, claiming losses of $1 million on a car business that he owned in Falls Church, Va. The business was named Cars International A, abbreviated on its business cards as CIA.
As of February 2016, the Awans came under suspicion for having set up an operation to steal and resell government-owned computer equipment. It was also believed that they had somehow obtained access to House of Representatives’ computer databases as well as to other information in the internal computer system that they were not normally authorized to work on as part of their duties. The Capitol Hill Police began an investigation and quietly alerted the congressmen involved that there might be a problem. Most stopped employing the Awan family, but Wasserman-Schultz kept Imran on the payroll until the day after he was actually arrested.
Some of those defending the Awans, to include Wasserman-Schultz and the family lawyer, have insisted that he and his family were the victims of “an anti-Muslim, right-wing smear job,” though there is no actual evidence to suggest that is the case. They also claim that the bank fraud, in which he obtained a home equity loan for $165,000 from the Congressional Federal Credit Union based on a house that he owned and claimed to live in in Lorton, Va., was largely a misunderstanding; it was described by his lawyer Chris Gowen, a Clinton family confidant, as something that was “extremely minor.” It turned out that there was a tenant in the house, an ex-Marine and his Naval officer wife, who were very suspicious about a large quantity of what appeared to be government-sourced computer equipment and supplies, all material that had been left behind by the Awans. They contacted the FBI, which discovered hard drives that appeared to have been deliberately destroyed.
The FBI is certainly interested in the theft of government computers. But it is also looking into the possibility that the Awans were using their ability to access and possibly exploit sensitive information stored in the House of Representatives’ computer network, as well as through Wasserman-Schultz’s iPad, which Imran had access to and connected to the Democratic National Committee server. As Imran Awan was also a dual-national, born in Pakistan, the possibility of espionage also had to be considered. The charge that Awan was actually arrested on, bank fraud, was an easy way to hold him, as that aspect of his activities was well documented. It allows the other more serious investigations to continue, so the argument that Imran Awan is only being held over a minor matter is not necessarily correct.
Awans wired the credit union money to Pakistan, as part of a $283,000 transfer that was made in January. His wife Hina Alvi also left the U.S. two months later. She was searched by Customs officers and it was determined that she was carrying $12,000 in cash. She also had with her their three children, and numerous boxes containing household goods and clothing. It was clear that she did not intend to come back, but there has been no explanation why she was even allowed to leave, since carrying more than $10,000 out of the country without reporting it is a felony.
As Imran Awan reportedly had access to Wasserman-Schultz’s iPad, he presumably also had access to the incriminating Hillary Clinton emails. He also used a laptop in her office that was, according to investigators, concealed in an “unused crevice” in the Rayburn House Office Building. It is being examined by police but Wasserman-Schultz tried strenuously to recover it before it could be looked at. She pressured the Chief of the Capitol Police Matthew Verderosa to return it, threatening him by saying “you should expect that there will be consequences.”
There is another odd connection of Imran Awan that goes back to the circle around prominent neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz during the Iraq War. In late 2002 and early 2003, Wolfowitz regularly met secretly with a group of Iraqi expatriates who resided in the Washington area and were opponents of the Saddam Hussein regime. The Iraqis had not been in their country of birth for many years but they claimed to have regular contact with well-informed family members and political allies. The Iraqi advisers provided Wolfowitz with a now-familiar refrain, i.e. that the Iraqi people would rise up to support invading Americans and overthrow the hated Saddam. They would greet their liberators with bouquets of flowers and shouts of joy.
The Iraqis were headed by one Dr. Ali A. al-Attar, born in Baghdad to Iranian parents in 1963, a 1989 graduate of the American University of Beirut Faculty of Medicine. He subsequently emigrated to the United States and set up a practice in internal medicine in Greenbelt, Md., a suburb of Washington D.C. Al-Attar eventually expanded his business to include nine practices that he wholly or partly owned in Virginia and Maryland but he eventually lost his license due to “questionable billing practices” as well as “unprofessional conduct” due to having sex with patients.
Al-Attar was investigated by the FBI and eventually indicted for large scale health care fraud in 2008-09. This included charging insurance companies more than $2.3 million for services their patients did not actually receive, with many of the false claims using names of diplomats and employees enrolled in a group plan at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington. In one case, the doctors claimed an embassy employee visited three of their clinics every 26 days between May 2007 and August 2008 to have the same testing done each time. The insurance company paid the doctors $55,000 for more than 400 nonexistent procedures for the one patient alone.
Al-Attar fled the United States after the indictment to avoid arrest and imprisonment and is now considered a fugitive from justice. Late in 2012 he was observed in Beirut, Lebanon, conversing with a Hezbollah official. Al-Attar is of interest in this case because he appears to have been a friend of Imran Awan and also loaned him $100,000, which was never repaid. The FBI is currently looking into any possible espionage involving the two men as Awan and his associates clearly had access to classified information while working in the House of Representatives.
The Imran Awan case is certainly of considerable interest not only for what the investigation eventually turns up but also for what it reveals about how things work in Congress. One might well ask how foreign-born IT specialists are selected and vetted prior to being significantly overpaid and allowed to work on computers in congressional offices. And the ability of those same individuals to keep working even after the relevant congressmen have been warned that their employee was under investigation has to be explained beyond Wasserman-Schultz’s comment that Awan had not committed any crime. And how does “bankrupt” Imran Awan wind up with a high-priced lawyer to defend him who is associated with the Clintons? Finally, there are the lingering concerns about the unfortunately well-established Russiagate narrative. Did the Russians really hack into the DNC, or was it some kind of inside job carried out by someone actually working for Debbie Wasserman-Schultz for reasons that have yet to be determined, possibly to include espionage? There are many questions—and so far, few answers.
Last week the Senate Judiciary Committee postponed a meeting ostensibly convened to discuss the failure to enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA). Originally rescheduled for this week, the postponed meeting would have featured Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort testifying about their controversial Trump Tower meeting, but their subpoenas were canceled at the last minute after they arranged to turn over documents. The June 2016 meeting under investigation included Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, publicist Rob Goldstone, businessman Ike Kaveladze, and translator Anatoli Samochornov. Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner was also in attendance, apparently only briefly.
The Judiciary Committee hearing was originally set up to look at the possible Russian links of former journalist and head of the research firm Fusion GPS Glenn Simpson, who was behind the infamous Trump dossier that appeared in January. Yet in reality it is part of the broader effort to determine whether Moscow interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of the Donald Trump campaign.
FARA was created in the lead up to World War II to help monitor the activity of Italian, German and Japanese agent-lobbyists who were believed to be working hard in the U.S. to influence opinion as well as congressional votes in favor of their respective sponsoring nations. The intention was to force the “foreign agents” to register with the Department of the Treasury so they would have to identify their government sponsors and be required to reveal their sources of income.
FARA is not very rigorously enforced, which was one of the points that the Judiciary Committee was prepared to address in regards to Russia, but there can be consequences for those who ignore it. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was recently compelled to register as an agent of Turkey after he received $530,000 in payments to support Ankara’s view regarding those it believed to be behind last year’s coup.
Ironically, the most powerful and effective foreign-government lobby in Washington is so dominant that it has been able to avoid registering for the past 55 years. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was last confronted by FARA when its predecessor organization the American Zionist Council was pressured by John F. Kennedy’s Justice Department in 1962 and 1963. Kennedy’s death stopped that effort—and ended White House attempts to hold Israel accountable for the development of its secret nuclear weapons program (which depended on nuclear material removed illegally from the United States with the connivance of a company located in Pennsylvania called NUMEC).
AIPAC’s website declares that it is “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby,” so by its own admission it functions pretty clearly as Israel’s proxy. It spent $102 million in 2015, had 396 employees in 2013, and claims to have 100,000 members, many of whom are organized into state and city chapters. It also benefits from being a tax exempt 501(c)4 organization classified as promoting “international understanding.” Its annual Summit in Washington attracts more than 15,000 participants, including scores of congressmen and other senior government officials. It blankets Capitol Hill with its lobbyists and is a prolific source of position papers explaining Israel’s perception of what is taking place in the Middle East. Its easy access to the media and also to politicians in Washington is so widely accepted on Capitol Hill that it reportedly frequently drafts bills that Congress then goes on to propose.
No Washington lobby is benign. Lobbies exist to subvert the public interest. They promote particular agendas and are not intended to enhance the general well-being of the American public. Lobbyists would argue that they are in the information business, that they make lawmakers aware of facts that impact on pending legislation, but the reality is that every lobby is nevertheless driven by self-interest.
The power of the Israel Lobby and of AIPAC is not cost free for the American public. The current $3 billion plus that Israel, with a thriving first world economy, receives in military assistance is on top of the $130 billion that it has received since 1949. Protecting Israel in international organizations like the United Nations has sometimes marginalized the U.S. in such bodies and the lobby’s influence over American foreign policy has often been noted. In 2010 General David Petraeus stated that Israeli policies were putting American military personnel in the Middle East in danger. He quickly recanted, however.
Once upon a time AIPAC’s Steven Rosen boasted to an interviewer, “You see this napkin? In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin.” He meant that congressmen would sign on to anything if they thought it would please Israel. Recently the U.S. Congress has been working on bills that would criminalize individuals or groups that support a boycott of Israel. It would not be the first such legislation. The 2015 omnibus trade agreement with Europe included an amendment mandating that nations engaging in anti-Israel boycotts, to include “Israeli controlled territories,” should be subject to retaliatory action by the U.S.
There are currently two bills constituting the Israel Anti-Boycott Act of 2017 (S.720 and H.R. 1697) being considered by the Senate and House that outdo any previous deference to Israeli interests. The Senate bill was introduced by Senator Ben Cardin, who also had a hand in the trade-legislation amendments protecting Israel. According to the Jewish Telegraph Agency, the bill was drafted with the assistance of AIPAC. The legislation, which would almost certainly be overturned as unconstitutional if it ever does in fact become law, is particularly dangerous, and goes well beyond any previous pro-Israeli legislation, essentially denying free speech when the subject is Israel.
The two versions of the bill that are moving through Congress have 238 sponsors and cosponsors in the House and 46 in the Senate. If you do your math, you will realize that those numbers already constitute a majority in the House and are only five short of one in the Senate, so passage of the bills is virtually assured. The bill’s sponsors include many congressmen who have in the past frequently spoken out in defense of free speech, with Senator Ted Cruz having said in 2014, for example, that “The First Amendment was enacted to protect unreasonable speech. I, for one, certainly don’t want our speech limited to speech that elected politicians in Washington think is reasonable.”
The movement that is particularly targeted by the bills is referred to as BDS, or Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. It is a non-violen t reaction to the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian land on the West Bank and the continued building of Jewish-only settlements. BDS has been targeted both by the Israeli government and by AIPAC. The AIPAC website, which describes the group’s lobbying agenda, includes the promotion of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act as a top priority.
The Israeli government and its American supporters particularly fear BDS because it has become quite popular, particularly on university campuses, where administrative steps have frequently been taken to suppress it. The denial of free speech on campus when it relates to Israel has sometimes been referred to as the “Palestinian exception.” Nevertheless, the message continues to resonate, due both to its non-violence its and human rights appeal. It challenges Israel’s arbitrary military rule over 3 million Palestinians on the West Bank who have onerous restrictions placed on nearly every aspect of their daily lives. And its underlying message is that Israel is a rogue state engaging in actions that are widely considered to be both illegal and immoral, which the Israeli government rightly sees as potentially delegitimizing.
Twenty-one state legislatures have already passed various laws confronting BDS, in many cases initiating economic penalties on organizations that boycott Israel or denying state funds to colleges and universities that allow BDS advocates to operate freely on campus. The pending federal legislation would go one step further by criminalizing any U.S. citizen “engaged in interstate or foreign commerce” who supports a boycott of Israel or who even goes about “requesting the furnishing of information” regarding it, with penalties enforced through amendments of two existing laws, the Export Administration Act of 1979 and the Export-Import Act of 1945, that include potential fines of between $250,000 and $1 million and up to 20 years in prison.
Interestingly, a number of churches, to include the Presbyterians, Mennonites, and United Church of Christ, have divested from companies participating in the occupation of the West Bank and could be subject to the punitive steps authorized by the legislation. And it also is interesting to note that the bills would not punish anyone who does not have a business relationship with Israel for reasons other than politics. The punishment comes solely when one states that he or she is not engaging in business with Israel due to objections regarding what Israel is doing to the Palestinians.
Daniel Larison has observed that even if one assumes that the legislation will face judicial hurdles and will never be enacted, it is nevertheless discouraging to consider that a clear majority of congressmen thinks it is perfectly acceptable to deny all Americans the right to free political expression in order to defend an internationally-acknowledged illegal occupation being carried out by a foreign country. That the occupation is illegal has even been acknowledged repeatedly by Washington, which contradicts its own policy with this legislation.
Those co-sponsoring the bills include Democrats, Republicans, progressives, and conservatives. Deference to Israeli interests is bipartisan and crosses ideological lines. Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Grim, writing at The Intercept, observe that “…the very mention of the word ‘Israel’ causes most members of both parties to quickly snap into line in a show of unanimity that would make the regime of North Korea blush with envy.”
Finally, the seemingly unrelenting pressure to make criticism of Israel illegal is particularly dangerous as it is international. Indeed, it is a global phenomenon. Wherever one goes—Western Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States—there is a well-organized and funded lobby ready, willing, and able to go to war to protect Israel. In France it is illegal to wear a t-shirt supporting BDS or to demonstrate in favor of it. Britain has introduced laws that include defining criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism. In Canada, support of BDS has been regarded as a hate crime.
Will FARA registration of AIPAC as a foreign lobby fix all that? Of course not, but it would be a good first step. AIPAC would have to publicly acknowledge that it is acting on behalf of a foreign government and its sources of income would be subject to review. While the Congress is busy searching for Russian agents under FARA it just might spend some time also examining the pernicious influence of the unregistered and unrestrained Israel Lobby.
Once upon a time one applied for a government position that required a clearance with the expectation that in three or four months the process would be completed and the authorization would or would not be issued. I experienced the drill on three occasions for top-secret clearances, once for the Department of Defense (DOD) and twice for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Each government agency then managed its own security, and largely does today, in spite of last year’s creation of the National Background Investigation Board. A subsidiary of the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management, the board was intended to coordinate and resolve a massive backlog of clearances. Currently the processing delay in issuing more than 70,000 pending top-secret clearances is approaching one year and there is also a large backlog of existing clearances that are up for reauthorization and under review.
Back in my time there were major differences in how the various national-security components ran their background investigations. The DOD clearance was largely document driven, relying on police reports and public records from the various jurisdictions that I had lived in supplemented by a brief personal interview with the chief of police in the town in New Jersey where I had spent the most time. That pretty much was it and the check did not even include confirmation of the university degree that I claimed to have, as no one asked for my approval to obtain that information. The investigator clearly was looking for illegal activity and did not appear to be particularly interested in confirming that I was who I said I was.
One particular sticking point with the military was the concern over my father rather than me. He was a naturalized citizen and the investigation absolutely required production of the original document confirming that fact, which we were eventually able to produce. It struck me as odd that one part of the government could not have asked another part to confirm the information, but that was the case back then and apparently is still the case now. There is little reciprocity between agencies and information is not routinely shared.
One of the reasons why is that each agency has a different perspective on what is important and what isn’t. CIA clearances were quite different than those carried out by the Army. They required a polygraph examination at an early stage and the background checks were very thorough, including interviews with bosses from summer jobs while I was in college as well as of people I knew while I was at school. There were a number of questions about possible homosexuality both directed at friends and as part of the poly, which, of course, would not be allowed today. Public records were, of course, reviewed, as were credit reports. FBI clearances went through a similar vetting, though the polygraph exam was not mandatory in all cases. For CIA there were also follow-up reviews every five years or thereabouts, though they generally consisted of another polygraph exam with particular attention paid to concealed foreign contacts and relationships, both amorous and espionage related.
A big difference between background checks back then and now was that the investigations were initially conducted by the office of security of the actual component that one was intending to work for. Today the investigations are nearly all conducted by contractors, who are themselves hungry for a piece of what has become a multi-billion dollar business. These companies are developing highly sophisticated security software to constantly update government files on its employees.
There are nearly five million United States government employees with clearances. Since Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, there has been considerable demand from Congress to reduce that number. But the national security industry is, if anything, slated to grow under President Donald Trump. The White House has added its own concerns over politically motivated leakers of classified information and would like to see mechanisms in place that continuously monitor activity by clearance holders to reveal who might have engaged in unauthorized exposure of the sensitive information that has wound up in the Washington Post and New York Times.
But instead of limiting the access to classified information, there has been instead a push for increased and even continuous monitoring of those who have clearances to avoid what are described as “insider threats.” Software fixes are already in place at some agencies to scour public records and also in some cases redline users who have repeated access to certain types of files that are not directly germane to their work. As we have seen in the recent case of claimed whistleblower Reality Winner, printers connected to classified computers have features that enable identification of the actual user when there is a leak.
Using computers to continuously monitor cleared employees generally employs a variation on software that has already been developed for commercial users, including air carriers, where there is high risk and major liability if an employee is responsible for a violent incident. The special software constantly reviews criminal and civil files, such as divorce filings, bankruptcies, traffic violations, unreported foreign travel, and credit reports, to identify red flags that might result in unacceptable or even aberrant behavior on the part of the employee or prospective employee. Spies are notoriously motivated by money (Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen) and careful review of their credit reports might have revealed that they were financially stressed before they took the step of selling secrets to the Soviet Union. Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis, who killed 12 people in September 2013, reportedly was the subject of a Rhode Island police report that revealed that he had been “hearing voices” shortly before he went on his rampage.
Monitoring one’s civil and criminal record is not particularly easy to do, as much of the information is only available at state or even county and local levels and not all of it is online. Even though most of the information that is being screened by the government computers is public record and therefore fair game, there is concern that while something like a bankruptcy or a foreign trip is verifiable fact, other information might be either uninterpretable or completely lacking context. Even public databases frequently contain inaccurate information, including what is referred to as false negatives and false positives—and yet if they appear to cross an employer red line, they become part of the personnel file. Some of it is certainly information that once upon a time would have been regarded as both private and sensitive, such as a credit report, even though applicants for security clearances customarily waive any right to privacy when they are being background investigated.
And there is also increasing pressure coming from government managers to begin screening social media to determine if individuals are becoming disgruntled or otherwise developing hostile attitudes towards their employer. To complain about one’s job or express unpopular opinions would not exactly be criminalized but it would inevitably become an element in consideration of one’s ability to move upward in the organization, even if that is not the intention.
The bottom line is that no one has yet made the case that the continuous monitoring of five million security clearance holders would actually reduce espionage and “insider threats.” It is clear, however, that it would be enormously expensive and is therefore being pushed hard—both by prospective contractors offering their services and also hardliners in government who seek to have such a weapon in their arsenal to catch spies, leakers, and malcontents. Critics observe that while aggressive monitoring quite possibly might discover an individual instance where someone could appear to be in one of those “at risk” categories, most individuals who are moving in that direction do not necessarily allow their inner thoughts or hidden activities to become either part of the public record or an entry on Facebook.
And the greatest danger of all is over the horizon. Once the government discovers a new technology to intrude on the lives of ordinary citizens, a pretext will no doubt be developed after the next terrorist incident or insider attack to use it in ever widening circles as new threats are allegedly discovered. When that happens, we can confidently expect Patriot Act III, with a provision allowing continuous surveillance of any and all possible suspects. And there is actually a precedent. Back in 2003, the Pentagon under George W. Bush was already tinkering with what if referred to as Total Information Awareness to examine predictive behavior, described at the time as the “biggest surveillance program in the history of the United States.”
Total Information Awareness was briefly implemented before being abandoned 14 years ago. Today the technical resources available are much more impressive, with the ability to have a fully automated process that can monitor, store, and recover billions of pieces of data in real time. It means that achieving continuous monitoring for everyone who resides in or travels to the United States is now a reality. Every American will become a potential victim and part of an Orwellian nightmare as a substantially mythical national security narrative trumps privacy concerns and constitutional rights. And the government, to quell any concerns, will continue to insist that what it is doing is only done to make you safer.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA offier, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
Not so long ago my wife and I, in a heated moment, canceled our subscriptions to the Washington Post and the New York Times on the same day. We stopped short of burning recent copies of both publications on a bonfire in our front yard, but were elated at ending our connection to America’s leading sources of government propaganda and outrageously fake news. We toasted our liberation with a nice glass of Oregon State pinot noir.
We had become increasingly annoyed over the constant defamation of Donald Trump as candidate and president-elect even before he was inaugurated and had a chance to do anything wrong. But the real reason for our removal of America’s self-styled papers of record was the horrible coverage of Russia in general and what was going on in Syria in particular. That both papers kept repeating how Moscow had interfered in the election and that Syria was using chemical weapons without providing any evidence in either case had proven to be our own red line in terms of what we would allow into our house.
Not having the papers readily available has meant that we have avoided a lot of sensational journalism explaining in some detail why the United States has both a right and an obligation to be interfering militarily in every corner of the world simultaneously, and we also missed some really crazy stuff. A Washington Post opinion piece that I completely missed when it first appeared on June 23, but which I have recently discovered, was entitled “This is what foreign spies see when they read President Trump’s tweets.”
As presumably few Americans can appreciate that Donald Trump’s tweets are actually classified documents and I was once upon a time a spy, I found the title intriguing, so I put on my tin hat and dove in. First of all, I took note of the author. She is Nada Bakos, self-described as a former “CIA analyst and targeting officer.” I didn’t know what a targeting officer was, but the article went on to explain it.
Per a page advertising her forthcoming book at Amazon, Nada worked as an “analyst on the team charged with analyzing the relationship between Iraq, al Qaida, and 9/11.” Redundancy aside, as there was no actual evidence linking together Iraq, al-Qaeda and 9/11, one wonders how Bakos reacted when CIA Director George Tenet and Vice President Dick Cheney came pounding on her door insisting that there had to be a relationship to justify war. Reportedly some CIA analysts refused to endorse the lie that Iraq was cooperating with al-Qaeda to bring about 9/11, so hopefully Bakos got it right and stood her ground.
Bakos subsequently became the chief “targeter” working on al-Qaeda notable Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who rose to the rank of First Emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq before he died in a “targeted” killing by U.S. forces in 2006. Bakos’s book’s subtitle is “My life in the CIA, on the Hunt for the Godfather of ISIS,” which refers to her role in locating and killing al-Zarqawi. I would note in passing that al-Zarqawi was a genuine monster and richly deserved what he got.
In any event, the Amazon blurb goes on to note that “after 20 years in the intelligence field and corporate world, Ms. Bakos is currently focused on national security issues and regional stability around the world.” One might note in passing that “regional stability” is a feelgood U.S. government buzzword that means the same thing as “humanitarian intervention” or “responsibility to protect,” both of which are sound principles that are presumably enshrined somewhere in the U.S. Constitution. Or maybe not.
So what does Nada Bakos have to say about Trump’s tweets? Well, intelligence agencies around the world are apparently busy trying to analyze them because “they’re trying to determine what vulnerabilities the president of the United States might have. And he’s giving them a lot to work with. Trump’s Twitter feed is a gold mine for every foreign intelligence agency.”
Bakos twists herself into a pretzel in trying to emphasize the importance of an intelligence agency learning everything there is to know about a foreign head of state. She draws on her own experience, recounting how “At the CIA, I tracked and analyzed terrorists and other U.S. enemies, including North Korea. But we never had such a rich source of raw intelligence about a world leader, and we certainly never had the opportunity that our adversaries (and our allies) have now—to get a real-time glimpse of a major world leader’s preoccupations, personality quirks and habits of mind. If we had, it would have given us significant advantages in our dealings with them.”
That’s where I began to lose it. I would first of all note that learning what one might about habits and attitudes of terrorist leaders in order to anticipate where they will go or what they would do so you can kill them is much different than assessing what the head of a legitimate government might say or do based on his or her personality. I seriously doubt that there are teams of intelligence analysts, as Bakos claims, sitting around worrying about the deeper meaning of Donald Trump’s tweets. There might be no deeper meaning at all, and it would seem to me that Trump is relatively transparent. Narcissistic, quick to take offense, impulsive, unwilling to consider “details”—he is a walking id. So what is there to figure out beyond that?
I suspect this article was written both to sell a book and to diminish Donald Trump from a new angle, one that might reasonably be described as bizarre. Whatever kernel of truth it might contain is overwhelmed by hyperbole. Bakos cites how the Saudi Arabians may have exploited their intelligence-derived assessment of Trump to publish favorable newspaper stories about him and line the highway from the airport with billboards praising the new American president. But, as flattery will get you everywhere, such activity is not necessarily a brilliant insight into how to win over the new sheriff in town. It would not have taken a genius to figure out that Trump likes to be celebrated, and it is likely that the Saudis would have made a similar effort for any American president.
And I might add that judging from Bakos’s brief bio, she likely did her “analysis” and “targeting” from the comfort of an office at CIA headquarters. I wonder how much time she spent actually analyzing foreign leaders up close and personal. I know from my own experience that no one in Langley in my era would have wasted much time or effort on personality profiles. That was done at headquarters by guys and gals who holed up in the basement and went methodically through newspaper clippings. As a CIA case officer who lived overseas in four countries, my recollection is that no one ever had the least bit of interest in the quirks of foreign leaders. They were part of the background noise of operating overseas. While we would have been delighted to recruit a deputy prime minister both as a source of information and as an agent of influence, it was a very low priority to step back and worry about his personal foibles.
As I recall very clearly, the Department of State generally had the “leader profile” bases well covered both in terms of foreign-government intentions and the proclivities of the key players in the host governments. U.S. Foreign Service officers actually met with senior government officials, attended their receptions, had lunch with them, and went to their parties. The FSOs were very well trained in making assessments and writing them up for policymakers in Washington. It was their job and they were quite good at it.
So, no, I am not buying that Donald Trump’s twittering makes the United States more vulnerable from a national security point of view, with teams of hostile intelligence officers somehow and somewhere using computers to perform “content analysis on the president’s tweets in the aggregate,” as Bakos puts it. I do believe, however, that there is a major covert industry nationwide that is seeking to do whatever it can to delegitimize Trump and Bakos’ silly article is just one more example of what is being purveyed in the mainstream media to that end. The jury should still be out on what kind of president we actually have, and Trump is certainly not helping his case through his unwillingness to play the game and act presidential. But the assertion that his use of Twitter is somehow making the country less safe is complete nonsense.
I went to a meeting the other night with some Donald Trump supporters who, like me, had voted for him based on expectations of a more rational foreign policy. They were suggesting that the president’s attempts to move in that direction had been sabotaged by officials inside the administration who want to maintain the current warfare state. Remove those officials and Trump might just keep his pledge to leave Bashar al-Assad alone while improving relations with Russia. I was somewhat skeptical, noting that the White House had unilaterally initiated the April 7 cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase as well as the more recent warning against an alleged “planned” chemical attack, hardly moves that might lead to better relations with Damascus and Moscow. But there are indeed some administration figures who clearly are fomenting endless conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere.
One might reasonably start with Generals James Mattis and H.R. McMaster, both of whom are hardliners on Afghanistan and Iran, but with a significant caveat. Generals are trained and indoctrinated to fight and win wars, not to figure out what comes next. General officers like George Marshall or even Dwight Eisenhower who had a broader vision are extremely rare, so much so that expecting a Mattis or McMaster to do what falls outside their purview is perhaps a bit too much. They might be bad choices for the jobs they hold, but at least they employ some kind of rational process, based on how they perceive national interests, to make judgements. If properly reined in by a thoughtful civilian leadership, which does not exist at the moment, they have the potential to be effective contributors to the national-security discussion.
But several other notable figures in the administration deserve to be fired if there is to be any hope of turning Trump’s foreign policy around. In Arthur Sullivan’s and W. S. Gilbert’s The Mikado, the Lord High Executioner sings about the “little list” he is preparing of people who “never will be missed” when he finally gets around to fulfilling the requirements of his office. He includes “apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind,” indicating that the American frustration with the incompetence of its government is not unique, nor is it a recent phenomenon.
My own little list of “society’s offenders” consists largely of the self-described gaggle of neoconservative foreign-policy “experts.” Unfortunately, the neocons have proven to be particularly resilient in spite of repeated claims that their end was nigh, most recently after the election of Donald Trump last November. Yet as most of the policies the neocons have historically espoused are indistinguishable from what the White House is currently trying to sell, one might well wake up one morning and imagine that it is 2003 and George W. Bush is still president. Still, hope springs eternal, and now that the United States has celebrated its 241st birthday, it would be nice to think that in the new year our nation might be purged of some of the malignancies that have prevailed since 9/11.
Number one on my little list is Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who is particularly dangerous as she is holding a position where she can do bad things. Haley has been shooting from the lip since she assumed office and, it has become clear, much of what she says goes without any vetting by the Trump administration. It is never clear whether she is speaking for herself or for the White House. That issue has reportedly been dealt with by having the State Department clear in advance her comments on hot button issues, but, if that is indeed the case, the change has been difficult to discern in practice.
Haley is firmly in the neocon camp, receiving praise from Senators like South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and from the Murdoch media as well as in the opinion pages of National Review and The Weekly Standard. Her speechwriter is Jessica Gavora, who is the wife of the leading neoconservative journalist Jonah Goldberg. Haley sees the United Nations as corrupt and bloated, in itself not an unreasonable conclusion, but she has tied herself closely to a number of other, more debatable issues.
As governor of South Carolina, Haley became identified as an unquestioning supporter of Israel. She signed into law a bill to restrict the activities of the nonviolent pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the first legislation of its kind on a state level. Haley has also stated that “nowhere has the UN’s failure been more consistent and more outrageous than in its bias against our close ally Israel.” On a recent visit to Israel, she was applauded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stating “You know, all I’ve done is to tell the truth, and it’s kind of overwhelming at the reaction…if there’s anything I have no patience for, it’s bullies, and the UN was being such a bully to Israel, because they could.”
But Haley sometimes goes far beyond trying to “tell the truth.” In February, she blocked the appointment of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to a diplomatic position at the United Nations because he is a Palestinian. In a congressional hearing this past week, she was asked about the decision: “Is it this administration’s position that support for Israel and support for the appointment of a well-qualified individual of Palestinian nationality to an appointment at the UN are mutually exclusive?” Haley responded yes, that the administration is “supporting Israel” by blocking any Palestinian from any senior UN position because Palestine is not recognized by Washington as an independent state.
At various UN meetings Haley has repeatedly and uncritically complained of institutional bias towards Israel, asserting that the “days of Israel bashing are over,” without ever addressing the issue that Israeli treatment of the Palestinians might in part be responsible for the criticism leveled against it. Her description of Israel as an “ally” is hyperbolic and she tends to be oblivious to actual American interests in the region when Israel is involved. She has never challenged the Israeli occupation of the West Bank as well as the recent large expansion of settlements, which are at least nominally opposed by the State Department and White House.
Haley is inevitably a hardliner on Syria, reflecting the Israeli bias, and consistently hostile to Russia. She has said that regime change in Damascus is a Trump administration priority. Her most recent foray involves the White House warning that it had “identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime.” Haley elaborated in a tweet, “…further attacks will be blamed on Assad but also on Russia and Iran who support him killing his own people.” Earlier, on April 12, after Russia blocked a draft UN resolution intended to condemn the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack, Haley said, “We need to see Russia choose to side with the civilized world over an Assad government that brutally terrorizes its own people.”
Haley’s analysis of who is doing what to whom in Syria is certainly questionable at a minimum. And her language is hardly supportive of possible administration diplomatic attempts to mend fences with the Russians and can also be seen as quite dangerous as they increase the likelihood of an “accidental encounter” over the skies of Syria as both sides harden their positions and seek to expand the areas they control. She has also said that, “We’re calling [Russia] out [and] I don’t think anything is off the table at this point. I think what you’re going to see is strong leadership. You’re going to continue to see the United States act when we need to act.” Regarding Moscow’s role on the UN Security Council, she complained that, “All they’ve done is seven times veto against Syria every time they do something to hurt their own people. And so Russia absolutely has not done what they’re supposed to do.”
Regarding Ukraine, Haley has taken an extreme position that guarantees Russian hostility. In February, she addressed the UN Security Council regarding the Crimean conflict, which she appears not to understand very well. She warned that sanctions against Russia would not be lifted until Moscow returned control over the peninsula to Kiev. On June 4, she doubled down, insisting that the United States would retain “sanctions strong and tough when it comes to the issue in Ukraine.”
Haley is also increasingly highly critical of Iran, which she sees as the instigator of much of the unrest in the Middle East, again reflecting the Israeli viewpoint. She claimed on April 20, during her first session as president of the UN Security Council, that Iran and Hezbollah had “conducted terrorist acts” for decades within the Middle East, ignoring the more serious terrorism support engaged in by U.S. regional allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar. She stated last week that the Security Council’s praise of the Iran Nuclear Agreement honored a state that has engaged in “illicit missile launches,” “support for terrorist groups,” and “arms smuggling,” while “stok[ing] regional conflicts and mak[ing] them harder to solve.” All are perspectives that might easily be challenged.
Haley is also much given to rhetoric reminiscent of George W. Bush during his first term. Regarding North Korea, on May 16 she told reporters that, “We have to turn around and tell the entire international community: You either support North Korea or you support us,” echoing George W. Bush’s sentiment that, “There’s a new sheriff in town and you’re either with us or against us.”
So Haley very much comes across as the neoconservatives’ dream ambassador to the United Nations–full of aggression, a staunch supporter of Israel, and assertive of Washington’s preemptive right to set standards for the rest of the world. That does not necessarily make her very good for the rest of us, who will have to bear the burdens of imperial hubris. Nor is her tendency to overstate her case a plus for the Trump administration itself, which is clearly seeking to work its way through Russiagate–and just might be considering how to establish some kind of modus vivendi with Vladimir Putin.
If Donald Trump really wants to drain the Washington swamp and reduce interference in other nations, he might well continue that program by firing Nikki Haley. He could then appoint someone as UN ambassador who actually believes that the United States has to deal with other countries respectfully, not by constant bullying and threats. In the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan, she’s on my list and “she will never be missed.”
Something peculiar happens to American presidents after they take office on January 20.
Campaign promises to right the easily perceived misdirections in foreign policy are abandoned, and the new program for dealing with the rest of the world winds up looking very much like the old one. Bill Clinton was an anti-Vietnam War draft dodger who preached the moral high ground for going to war before he turned around and got involved in the Balkans while also bombing Sudan and Afghanistan. George W. Bush promised non-interference and no nation-building overseas, but 9/11 converted him into an exemplar of how to do everything wrong as he sank into the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Barack Obama’s margin of victory in 2008 was likely due to the perception that he was the peace candidate, particularly in contrast to his opponent Senator John McCain, but he wound up deeper in Afghanistan, out of, and then back into Iraq, interfering in Syria, and bringing about disastrous regime change in Libya while also allowing relations with Moscow to deteriorate. Donald Trump has surrounded himself with generals after promising no deeper involvement in foreign wars and the generals are telling him that winning wars only requires more soldiers on the ground and just a little more time and effort to stabilize things, all of which are self-serving formulae for policies that have already failed.
And then there are the perennial enemies, with Iran at the top of the list while Russia and China play supporting roles. Some would blame the foreign policy orientation on the Deep State, which certainly is suggestive, but I rather suspect that the flip-flops of recent presidents are also based on some other elements. First, none of them has been a veteran who experienced active duty, which makes war an abstraction observed second hand on PowerPoint in a briefing room rather than a reality. And second, the shaping of their views can be directly attributed to the pervasiveness of the establishment view on the appropriate role for the United States in the world.
Sometimes referred to as America’s “civil religion,” one can also call it “American exceptionalism” or the “leadership of the free world” or even “responsibility to protect” but the reality is that a broad consensus has developed in the United States that enables serial interventionism with hardly a squeak of protest coming from the American people.
Donald Trump has been in office for five months and it would appear that at least some of the outlines of his foreign policy are beginning to take shape, though that may be exaggeration as no one seems to be in charge. The “America First” slogan seemingly does not apply to what is developing, as actual U.S. interests do not appear to be driving what takes place, and there does not seem to be any overriding principle that shapes the responses to the many challenges confronting Washington worldwide.
The two most important observations that one might make are both quite negative. First, lamentably, the promised détente with Russia has actually gone into reverse, with the relationship between the two countries at the lowest point since the time of the late, lamented Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State. Second, we are already at war with Syria even though the media and Congress seem blissfully unaware of that fact. We are also making aggressive moves intended to create a casus belli for going to war with Iran, and are doubling down in Afghanistan with more troops on the way, so Donald Trump’s pledge to avoid pointless wars and nation-building were apparently little more than glib talking points intended to make Barack Obama look bad.
The situation with Russia can be repaired as Vladimir Putin is a realist head of state of a country that is vulnerable and willing to work with Washington, but it will require an end to the constant vituperation being directed against Moscow by the media and the Democratic Party. That process could easily spin out for another year with all parties now agreeing that Russia intervened in our election even though no one has yet presented any evidence that Russia did anything at all.
Syria is more complicated. Senators Tim Kaine and Rand Paul have raised the alarm over American involvement in that country, declaring the U.S. military intervention to be illegal. Indeed it is, as it is a violation of the United Nations Charter and the American Constitution. No one has argued that Syria in any way threatens the United States, and the current policy is also an affront to common sense: like it or not Syria is a sovereign country in which we Americans have set up military bases and are supporting “rebels” (including jihadis and terrorists) who are seeking to overthrow the legitimate government. We have also established a so-called “de-confliction” zone in the southeast of the country to protect our proxies without the consent of the government in Damascus. All of that adds up to what is unambiguously unprovoked aggression, an act of war.
The war began in earnest when the Obama administration began building bases and sending Special Ops into Syria in the late summer of 2015, after the White House announced that it would “allow airstrikes to defend Syrian rebels trained by the U.S. military from any attackers, even if the enemies hail from forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”
That policy guaranteed escalation and direct American involvement in the conflict. In the last month, for the first time since the civil war in Syria began in 2011, the United States has directly attacked Syrian government forces or proxies four times, including two air attacks against Iranian militiamen allied to Damascus. Those moves were preceded by the April U.S. Navy launch of 59 cruise missiles in an attack directed against a Syrian air base. The recent escalation has produced a response from Russia, which decried in the strongest terms the latest of these incidents, in which a U.S. F-18 Hornet shot down a Syrian SU-22 fighter-bomber.
Moscow has now threatened to act against any U.S.-led coalition aircraft flying over western Syria, a step that could in short order lead to a Russian-U.S. war in the Middle East.
Syria is currently under attack from the air forces of sixteen nations operating within its airspace loosely affiliated with the U.S. effort to bring about regime change. When Syria resists, it is routinely accused of using “forbidden” weapons by the mouthpieces of the terrorist groups operating inside the country under the American umbrella. Currently, the White House is warning that it has “identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime.” UN Ambassador Nikki Haley elaborated in a tweet, “…further attacks will be blamed on Assad but also on Russia and Iran who support him…”
Syria will “pay a very heavy price” if a chemical attack takes place, according to the White House statement. The U.S. warning will inevitably motivate the so-called rebels to stage an attack themselves and blame it on Damascus, as they have done in the past. It also dangerously escalates the conflict by directly targeting both Russia and Iran as Syrian “accomplices” in war crimes. It is a very dangerous move by the Trump Administration and one that apparently was not coordinated with the Defense and State Departments, which were caught flat footed by the White House announcement. The nature and credibility of the information implicating Syria has not been revealed and is being regarded as an “intelligence matter.”
Much of this acting against actual U.S. interests has come about due to the “worthless ally” syndrome which has been prevalent in Washington for several decades. In the Middle East, where many of the problems begin, there is no coherent policy that has evolved beyond unconditional support for local “allies” Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Israel. This has meant in practical terms that the U.S. defers to Riyadh, Ankara, Cairo, and Tel Aviv in nearly all regional matters while it is also the guarantor of a feckless Afghan government.
So in spite of pledges to disengage from the cycle of warfare in the Middle East, the United States seems to be on course for direct involvement in a series of local conflicts with no clear “victory” and exit policy in place. Remove al-Assad and what comes next? What will the Russians do? Will America’s so-called allies Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia be satisfied with dismemberment of the Syrian state or will they insist on pushing on to Tehran? Who would fill that vacuum?
There are certainly other foreign policy black holes, to include the awful decision to rollback normalization with Cuba and the hot-then-cold moves against North Korea. Venezuela, a major U.S. oil supplier, is about to implode and it is not clear if the State Department has any contingency plan in place to deal with the crisis. But Russia and Syria are in a class by themselves as they have the potential to turn into Class A disasters, like Iraq or possibly even worse. And then there is Iran lurking, apparently hated by all the talking heads in Washington and inextricably linked to what is happening in Syria. It is more than capable of becoming the next catastrophe for a White House that is apparently staggering from crisis to crisis. What will Trump do? I am afraid that the lesson learned from the cruise missile attack on a Syrian base in April was that using force is popular, repeat as necessary. That would be a major mistake, but there is every sign that some of the people around Trump have their eyes on escalating and “doing something” in Syria and also against Iran for starters, and if Russia gets in the way we can deal with them too.
The recent series of terrorist incidents in Europe has produced the inevitable finger pointing regarding the ability of the security services to respond and has also reopened the debate over what might be done to prevent the attacks in the first place.
Similar discussions have been going on in the United States for some time, to include consideration of the Violent Radicalism and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007 by the House of Representatives. The bill, sponsored by then congresswoman Jane Harman, was fairly toothless, seeking to establish a national commission and study center, but it was strongly criticized for many of its assumptions and definitions, with some critics noting how it might be exploited to enable the prosecution of “thought crimes.” It was passed in the House by a 404 to 6 vote but, fortunately, later died in the Senate.
More recently, congressman Peter King has held hearings on radicalization of Muslim Americans that ran intermittently for nearly two years between 2010 and 2012. As terrorist incidents actually declined in number during that period, there was little desire on the part of Congress to initiate any draconian new legislation in response to the often conflicting “evidence” compiled by King’s House Homeland Security Committee.
It should surprise no one that the Europeans are much more advanced in their creation of anti-terror legislation than is the United States, if only because they have been more often on the receiving end of ideologically motivated violence. Assuming that America might well be arriving tomorrow where Europe is today in counter-terror, it is instructive to look at one of the proactive frameworks currently in place to analyze both its effectiveness and legality.
Britain has experienced three terrorist attacks in three months. The government response has been defined by the British Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015, popularly referred to by the acronym “Contest.” Contest consists of four so-called “workstreams”: “Pursue” to physically interdict terrorist attacks; “Protect” to establish physical barriers against terrorist tactics and weapons; “Prepare” to minimize the after-the-fact impact of a terror attack; and “Prevent,” which is a highly aggressive and controversial program to prevent radicalization.
Prevent is the program that has received the most attention. It relies on the so-called conveyor belt theory which postulates that someone who is either alienated or critical of the status quo will inevitably graduate to even more extreme views and eventually cross the line from nonviolence to violence. Those who are identified as vulnerable by Prevent are sometimes entered into a government funded but privately managed counseling program referred to as “Channel,” which has worked with 8,000 mostly young Muslim men in an effort to avoid radicalization.
The problem with evaluating Prevent’s effectiveness is that it is the government doing the assessing. It equates success with the numbers going through the program and it ignores the many critics who note that it has so alienated the Muslim community that it actually creates more new potential militants than it succeeds in deradicalizing. The fundamental issue is that there is no actual model or profile of a terrorist that one can focus on in an effort to prevent radicalization, so the definition of who might be a threat has been continuously broadened lest anyone escape the net. Nearly all of the recent terrorist attacks in Britain were carried out by young men born in Britain who were at least nominally Muslim, but beyond that they had very little in common in terms of education, family and social background or even religiosity. Their belief in a violent solution to what troubled them certainly sets them apart but it is unlikely that the security services would be able to discern that in any event, so their names frequently join the 23,000 others on the British “subjects of interest” potential terrorism database. From a policing point of view, those 23,000 are joined by thousands more names submitted by ordinary Britons as part of the Prevent program, each one of which has to be investigated and either cleared or added to the database.
The British security agencies have inevitably been overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of terror suspects. Surveillance of a suspect is extremely labor intensive, even when assisted by Britain’s extensive CCTV system, which covers large parts of the country’s cities and towns as well as the roads connecting them, so it is safe to assume that very few dangerous individuals are actually being watched at any given time. This asymmetry makes the odds very much in the terrorist’s favor as he can strike anywhere with any kind of weapon while the police must try to protect everywhere.
Due to the public outcry over the recent attacks, the British government is currently undertaking a sweeping security review on terrorism. It will likely expand the Prevent program in spite of uncertainty at all levels over whether it is actually working or not. In addition to encouraging citizens to report suspicious behavior, the legislation actually compels institutions that are in any was connected to the government to actively seek out and identify those exhibiting potential terrorist sympathies. That includes, schools, universities, libraries and any government office that deals with the public. The establishing legislation for Prevent defines early warning signs of terrorist sympathies as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”
A recent article in the London Review of Books entitled “Don’t go to the doctor,” explores how Prevent sometimes works in practice in an educational environment. Universities and other schools are required to aggressively seek out radicalized students. They have to submit regular reports demonstrating that they are complying with the law to include specific information regarding individual cases and follow-up action to make sure that they are diligently seeking out radicals. In one case cited, an instructor at Oxford, in dealing with a Muslim university student who was struggling with her course work, learned that the woman had gone to see her doctor regarding depression. Due to Prevent, she felt obligated to ask the student whether she was being radicalized.
Similarly, a librarian at a major university was asked by another college to provide a professional reference for a colleague. One of the questions was “Are you completely satisfied that the applicant is not involved in extremism?” Other universities in Britain have stopped allowing Muslim students to use college rooms for gatherings out of fear that the meetings will be used for radicalization. Guest lists for many university sponsored meetings that are open to students must now be provided 48 hours prior to the event for security screening. College authorities are allowed to search the rooms of Muslim students “on suspicion.”
Some might regard Prevent as a relatively innocuous but necessary measure to combat radicalization. I do not agree as any program that focuses on a particular minority while compelling ordinary citizens to report on other ordinary citizens opens the door to many types of abuse. In any event, the U.S. Constitution would seem to make the type of legislation that established Prevent in Britain unimaginable on this side of the Atlantic, but one should not relax too soon as this is the home of the Patriot and the Military Commissions Acts.
Prevent operates on the principle that individuals who are maladjusted will eventually become pathologically so if they are not counseled and convinced to abandon their wicked ways. It neither addresses nor in any way concedes that many of the disaffected that it targets are actually angry for reasons that are at least comprehensible, including what the British government continues to do to fellow Muslims overseas, which is sometimes referred to as “blowback.” End the bombing of Syrians and Iraqis and much of the motivation to bomb in Birmingham just might disappear. Oddly enough, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn raised that very issue in the recent British electoral campaign, saying that terrorism was often a response to the policies that the government was carrying out in the Middle East. His comment was largely ignored by the British media, but the Labour Party went on to win many more votes than anticipated and Corbyn nearly became Prime Minister. Perhaps the real message on what actually causes terrorism is beginning to get through to the public. Let us hope so.
Yes, I voted for Donald Trump. When people confront me and ask me why, I sort of shuffle off, head down, while muttering something about how “he wasn’t the war candidate.”
I even stuck with Trump until he launched cruise missiles at an airbase in Syria and overnight became the establishment favorite, with all the media and most politicians singing his praises for attacking a country with which the United States was not at war over an alleged atrocity that did not involve Americans—and could easily have been attributed to the terrorists that Damascus has been fighting. And then he did it again, using fighter bomber aircraft to attack a column of Syrian government-affiliated militiamen who were allegedly approaching and thereby threatening a position inside Syria where U.S.-supported “good” insurgents, accompanied by American advisers, were apparently hunkered down.
Someone should take out a map and show Trump where Syria is and outline its borders while explaining what “sovereign territory” is supposed to mean. If he could grasp the concept, possibly by relating it to Mexico, it just might suggest to him that we Yanks could actually be foreign invaders who have crossed a national border and are killing local people in gross violation of international law.
And then there is the foreign-policy finesse exhibited on his recent World Tour. It began with his predictable slobbering all over the Saudis and Israelis before stiffing the Palestinians. But then he elevated his game by angering the Pope, whining to the Germans because there are no Chevys on the streets of Berlin, pushing his way past the Montenegran Prime Minister and, finally, insisting on riding in a golf cart and arriving late to the photo-op ending the G7 meeting in Sicily while everyone else walked the 700 yards. His boorishness manifests itself as a nearly complete unwillingness to make even the smallest gesture that would ease the relations with other countries and leaders who are important U.S. partners. I guess he sees doing so as a sign of weakness. Class act all the way, Donald!
But then again, when I am really down on Trump and what he is doing or not doing, I think of Hillary Rodham Clinton. A good friend of mine Joe Lauria, formerly a Wall Street Journal correspondent, has recently introduced, edited, and provided extensive commentary for a book entitled How I Lost By Hillary Clinton. It is an indictment of the Clinton campaign “in her own words” and includes a foreword by Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, who discusses the leaks of Democratic National Committee (DNC) and John Podesta emails that together provide much of the material included in the text.
Lauria uses the source material to describe the Clinton campaign using her own speeches as well as the leaked emails of her close associates, and it really is refreshing to revisit what made the “inevitable” Hillary so unappealing, particularly as she is now trying to rebrand herself without assuming any serious blame for her shortcomings as a candidate. Along the way, documents reveal the road to Russiagate and Clinton’s plans for more regime change, as well as expose corruption within the nominally “neutral” DNC, the latter of which led to the deliberate sabotage of the campaign of Bernie Sanders and the de facto anointment of Clinton as president-apparent.
The book is organized around two central themes, Hillary as an elitist and Hillary as a hawk. In his introduction, Lauria describes Clinton as “an economic and political elitist and a foreign-policy hawk divorced from the serious concerns of ordinary Americans—the very people she needed to vote for her.” It is a fair assessment and in his introduction Joe also takes aim at Russiagate among other targets, asking why, after more than a year of investigation and assessment, there has been no National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the alleged interference by Moscow in the U.S. election. NIEs are meticulously prepared to provide detailed analysis of an issue, to include sourcing and reliability assessments. They are carefully crafted products of the entire intelligence community and they include dissenting opinions. That there has been no NIE on Russiagate is unfathomable, unless of course such a report would reveal that Russiagate is itself a complete fabrication.
Lauria particularly assails Clinton foreign policy, describing her as a neoliberal interventionist who was the principal driving force behind a series of U.S.-led actions that turned Libya into a failed state while she was also urging tough action against Russia and yet another regime change in Syria. Joe notes that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were arming terrorists in Syria on her watch, which she was aware of from DIA reporting, while also contributing generously to the Clinton Foundation, which notoriously intermingled its ostensibly humanitarian programs together with the political activities of Hillary and Bill. And the Foundation also rewarded the Clintons directly through generous salaries and substantial perks for the whole family, to include foundation-funded travel on executive jets, which totaled $12 million in 2011 alone.
The Clinton sense of entitlement knew no limits, with Bill once accepting a $1 million birthday present from Qatar, the principal funder of al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra. Citing email evidence, the book documents how major foreign donors to the foundation were able to enjoy special access to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Hillary’s closest associate Huma Abedin was point person for much of the activity and was paid a $105,000 salary by the State Department, plus an undisclosed amount by a consulting firm linked to the foundation, a double dip arrangement of questionable legality.
Between April 2013 and March 2015, Hillary Clinton gave 91 speeches and earned over $21 million. The three speeches for Goldman-Sachs that she made during that time, for which she was paid $675,000, are the best known, mostly because soon-to-be candidate Clinton refused to release the transcripts. But she also spoke to just about any group who would pay her upwards of a $200,000 fee plus expenses. This included several public universities. In her speeches, she sometimes complained about how awful it was that many Americans had begun to look down on those who have a lot of money, including a comment to Goldman Sachs that “there is such a bias against people who have led successful and/or complicated lives.” She was referring to herself and Bill.
It was rare that Hillary’s mask would drop and she would say what she really thought, though it did happen sometimes. A speech at an LGBT fundraiser in New York included the now infamous line: “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it…they are irredeemable but thankfully they are not America.” Or at least not an America that she would recognize.
Hillary’s speeches and the emails of Podesta and her staff are quoted in extenso in the text and appendices. The most enduring impression is how boring most of what she said really was. Her political experience enabled her to say what her audience wanted to hear—no more, no less. She rarely spoke of actual policy in concrete terms and, for example, when speaking to Goldman Sachs, she was instead full of platitudes and generic praise for the “American way” of democracy promotion combined with good, solid, liberal, and free-market values. She included how the financial-services industry is in the forefront of all the positive changes taking place worldwide. There was nary a critical word about the role of the largely unregulated and predatory big banks in the great crash of 2008, and when she spoke of the suffering caused by that disaster, she was referring to the disruptions experienced by those in financial services and government who were made uncomfortable by being forced to respond to the crisis.
As Joe Lauria observes, Clinton’s failure was clearly her inability to comprehend what many mostly white working-class people in the United States were experiencing. Her failure to see or understand inevitably became an inability to empathize with such audiences verbally in a way that would appear to be sincere. She came across as leaden and scripted. Her speeches increasingly became sustained attacks on Trump the man and his admittedly flawed personality, combined with appeals to women to vote for her purely because of her own gender. Her campaign was singularly lacking in any formula for addressing the real problems experienced by many in the country.
Speaking to bankers and other elitists from the Washington-New York axis and Hollywood was a lot easier for Hillary because she was, after all, one of them. She avoided campaign visits to working-class constituencies. And she compounded that with a bellicose world view that considered Washington’s ambition to become some kind of benign but resolute global hegemon as both quite practical from a resources point of view and also the right thing to do, something that most Americans failed to relate to as a high priority.
So Hillary portrayed largely in her own words is well worth a read. Unfortunately for our country, there are a lot of Hillary clones still out there who have not learned the lesson of her defeat. Fortunately for conservatives, quite a few of them are still in charge of the Democratic Party.
The most recent Russiagate expose comes from The Intercept, which was founded by Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill. The site has been the source of a number of stories that rely on stolen or leaked government documents, including material from Edward Snowden. It has also produced some exemplary investigative reporting on U.S. government high crimes and misdemeanors of various kinds, including its account of the Obama Administration assassination program and, more recently, the misrepresentation by the White House of the military action in Yemen that killed an American Navy Seal.
The article appeared yesterday and is entitled “Top-Secret NSA Report Details Russian Hacking Effort Days Before the 2016 Election.” The report mentioned is dated May 5. The leaker, an NSA contractor named Reality Leigh Winner, working out of Georgia, came to the attention of the authorities after The Intercept contacted the NSA and asked for comments before it ran the article. It was asked not to run the piece, but was willing to redact some material at the request of the government. Winner was identified by microdot keys on the paper that led to the copier she had used. She has been arrested and charged under the Espionage Act and is the first Trump-era leaker to be prosecuted.
The article has inevitably caused quite a stir among those like myself, who believe passionately that Russiagate is mostly a politically-motivated fraud, and those on the other side of the fence, who think that Moscow did interfere in the recent presidential election with the intention of helping Donald Trump win.
At risk of oversimplifying, I would summarize the article and the NSA document it is based on as follows: The report described two cyberattacks that its NSA authors attribute to Russia’s military intelligence unit, the GRU. The first attack “evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions” was on August 24, 2016, directed against a company that markets voter registration software. The second occurred about a week before the election, directed against 122 local election officials, presumably in the eight states where the company operated. The attacks employed spear phishing, which is using spoof emails to deceive users into accessing links or attachments that install malware on the computer of the user. The spoof emails were reportedly sent from two email providers, Google’s Gmail and Microsoft’s Outlook.com, so they would look benign to a United States user.
According to the NSA report, the first attack on the American company, subsequently revealed to be VR Systems of Florida, was likely successful and the information obtained was used to create emails that would look authentic to the recipients for the second wave of attacks, which began on October 31 and November 1. The report describes the second series of attacks as a “voter registration themed spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations.”
VR Systems’ products are used by electoral commissions in California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.
In its article, The Intercept opines that “the report indicates that Russian hacking may have penetrated further into U.S. voting systems than was previously understood.” If everything related in the report is true, indeed it does, and it somewhat challenges Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent emphatic claim that his country had not interfered in the U.S. election.
The Intercept article cites an unnamed intelligence official who “cautioned against drawing too big a conclusion from the document because a single analysis is not necessarily definitive.” To that I would add, “even if it is all true as described.” And I would also make some additional observations about what the report and Intercept article are suggesting. First and foremost would be the questions of scale and timing. There is no evidence that the Russians, or whoever carried out the probes, were able to tamper with either the actual voting process or the tabulation of votes. Indeed, the NSA report dismisses any such possibility. Second, corrupting an election in a country as large as the United States with an electoral system that is largely decentralized would require much more than a probe of 122 local officials starting a week before the balloting. So there was clearly no intention to disrupt the election or to tilt it in a certain direction based on the evidence provided by the NSA report.
I would also note that there is no proof provided in the report to support the assertion that the GRU, Russian military-intelligence service, carried out the probes. Would a highly-sophisticated intelligence service behave so transparently in an operation that would certainly be regarded as highly sensitive? I think not. Cut-outs would have been used to misdirect anyone looking to determine the hand behind the hacks.
All of which is not to say the Russian government didn’t do it or order it done, but it seems to me that the revelations provided in the NSA report do not go very far beyond the kind of random probings that are part and parcel of foreign-intelligence operations as carried out by any sophisticated service. Did someone in Moscow think it might be useful to have some kind of idea of how to meddle with U.S. election technology if that type of info might prove useful down the road? Quite possibly. It should be noted that the U.S. National Security Agency illegally collects vast quantities of information on ordinary Americans but that does not necessarily imply intent to use it in a malicious way. It is a desirable capability and intelligence agencies are always working to expand their reach.
So was Russian intelligence probing U.S. electoral systems? Quite plausibly yes, and it should be a matter of concern for every American as it suggests a vulnerability in the electronics behind how we vote. But did Russia actually interfere with the election or seek to use the probing to elect a particular candidate? The answer is clearly no. The article and the document it is based on should serve as a wake-up call to those who are complacent about the security of our technologies. But on a political level, we are back to square one, with often hysterical allegations surfaced as part of the media and political storm we now refer to as Russiagate.
The Central Intelligence Agency, established through the National Security Act of 1947, was primarily intended to be a centralized clearinghouse for information to prevent another Pearl Harbor-style attack on the United States. Be that as it may, the initiation of what would eventually be termed the Cold War soon after led to the rapid expansion of the Agency’s role, to include running actual spies and engaging in classic covert actions. The CIA took the lead in the U.S. pushback against Moscow and developed tactically into the principal offensive weapon in America’s conduct of the Cold War. Russia and its allies responded in kind. Indeed, the Cold War against the Soviet Union and its allies might well be termed the war of the spies.
Espionage employing human agents, as opposed to technical intrusions, is a high-risk and morally questionable business. It was justified after World War II because the United States was confronted by a cluster of enemies who were militarily powerful and fully capable of hitting the American homeland with nuclear weapon-tipped ballistic missiles. Given that level of confrontation, the most important secrets were those relating to the intentions of the leadership of countries like Russia and China—and it is only possible to obtain that kind of information from an actual spy who penetrates the inner councils of the hostile regimes. That is precisely why so much time and effort has been put into recruiting, training, and supporting spies overseas.
On May 20, the New York Times reported that “Killing CIA Informants, China Crippled U.S. Spying Operations”. The article described how an entire network of American spies in China had been identified by the counterintelligence services of that country and rolled up between 2010 and 2012, “crippl[ing] U.S. spying operations…for years afterwards.” Some of the “eighteen to twenty” sources, including high level government officials, were executed while others were imprisoned. It is to be presumed that all who were not shot outright were tortured. The Times report stated that a thorough damage assessment has been conducted but it had proven impossible to identify the actual cause of the disaster, so it remains unknown whether there was a mole or some tradecraft or communications failure that had brought about the death and imprisonment of so many American agents.
In reality, the rolling up of entire American espionage networks is not exactly that unusual because of the way intelligence agencies operate even when their actions have not been betrayed from within. Sweeping arrests of American spies have occurred not only in Russia and China, but also in Cuba, Iran, India and France. In theory, every single high-level spy in what is referred to as a “denied area” with a hostile and capable counterintelligence service is compartmented off from any other spies operating in that country, but the reality is that agents are often recruited and handled in such a way that the exposure of one individual puts all the others at risk.
To be sure, the mole explanation is attractive because it is more convenient to blame an individual than it is to critique an entire system. But as the presumed mole has not been discovered, it also leads to the presumption that he or she might still be active. CIA and FBI moles have been devastating. Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, and Edward Howard provided the Soviet Union with information that led to the betrayal of numerous agents and the virtual destruction of espionage networks that took years to develop. In this case, investigators identified several possible moles, one of whom had quit the Agency and moved to an unnamed Asian country, but a solid case to proceed with an arrest could not be developed.
And then there is the tradecraft angle. Tradecraft is the term used to describe how an American case officer identifies, develops, recruits and then runs a spy. The Times account reveals that highly-sensitive Chinese agents were routinely met by their handlers in Beijing. There were encounters in restaurants where the local counterintelligence service employed the waiters and had microphones implanted on all of the tables. I must admit that I find it unimaginable that even a Chinese-American case officer would risk meeting a Chinese official in the high-security environment that Beijing represents, but that is apparently what the FBI investigation determined. It would be a piece of cake for local surveillance to pick up the agent, interrogate him, and develop a clear picture of the CIA modus operandi in the city. Once you have one spy you have the key to identifying all of them.
The other two notable vulnerabilities are how and where foreign spies are recruited and what they use to communicate. How would you recruit a Chinese official or scientist who would have information that Washington wanted? You would approach him when he is outside China on business, vacation, or studying. But the problem is that those places where American intelligence can operate freely are relatively easily identifiable and are also well known to the counterintelligence service in Beijing. So a Chinese physicist recruited by U.S. intelligence while doing postgraduate studies at an American university would intensify interest in others who also attended that university, some of whom might also be spies.
Back in my time in the Agency, a number of hostile intelligence services identified vacation and business destinations in the Middle East where their officials were being spotted by CIA, approached, and sometimes recruited. Knowing this, they could focus on recent travelers to those areas and were able to turn several of the agents while also identifying a number of others. The Chinese counterintelligence service could certainly have done the same in assessing its travelers that it considered sensitive from either a political or occupational point of view.
Knowing how the opponent is approaching and recruiting spies from among your countrymen also provides an opportunity to run a dangle operation, which can be used to enter, identify, and disrupt an intelligence network. A dangle is essentially a double agent who will pretend to work for the Americans while really working for his own country. U.S. intelligence polygraphs new agents but “swirl” examiners confess that lie detectors work best on Americans, who find it hard to lie when confronted by a machine that they believe can tell what is the truth. Asians and Arabs are regarded as particularly difficult to examine effectively because their cultures make it possible to mentally compartmentalize their responses. Guilt-ridden Catholics are easy.
And then there are the communications, seen by many as the most vulnerable element in agent handling. No one writes letters anymore, so secret or invisible writing is passé, but electronic communication using satellites is very much in. Messages from spies are encrypted, but anything encrypted can be unencrypted if enough time and effort are committed to the project. One should assume that the counterintelligence services in Moscow and Beijing are very good at what they do and quite willing to work hard. American intelligence services probably used the same technical system to stay in touch with all their spies in China, so when you catch one of them and analyze his procedures and equipment you are probably well on your way to catching all of them. And when you uncover a “nest of spies” you inflict serious collateral damage on whoever recruited them. In this case, prospective Chinese agents willing to trade secrets for money will come to the logical conclusion that the United States government is unable to protect them.
The best way to avoid the pain and embarrassment of having one’s human sources exposed is to cut back on spying in most places most of the time because running agents will inevitably mean occasionally getting caught. It is perhaps more important to consider why one spies in the first place. Unique information that protects a vital national interest is certainly desirable, but unleashing thousands of numbers-driven case officers worldwide to collect information that is either of passing interest or no interest at all is both a waste of resources and an invitation for international humiliation when something goes wrong. With that in mind, one has to wonder how many of the Chinese who paid the ultimate price were actually providing information that was essential to policymakers in Washington. Perhaps none of them were.
The media story about Jared Kushner’s approach to Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak to create a back channel is breaking two ways and along predictable political lines. Kushner’s supporters in the administration are stating that Donald Trump’s son-in-law did nothing wrong, arguing that establishing an alternative channel to foreign governments and other interested parties is not that unusual. In fact, such connections can prove useful in establishing common ground on some issues.
Democrats and most of the media are arguing otherwise, some based on the somewhat unsustainable view that anything that is not completely transparent having to do with the Russian “enemy” is intrinsically wrong. Others have also been noting that part of the arrangement proposed by Kushner apparently involved using Russian diplomatic communications channels to exchange information and views. If true, this is a bizarre twist to the tale, as it would permit Moscow to control the narrative and its pace to suit its own interests.
If Kushner actually suggested Russian communications to avoid using U.S. government or commercially available resources, he will have considerable explaining to do. And certainly some of the onus regarding what took place must fall on General Michael Flynn, who was reportedly at the meeting with Kislyak and should have known better than to accept using a foreign country’s communications system.
There have inevitably been suggestions that Kushner at a minimum should lose his security clearance immediately and therefore his access to classified information. But that view fails to appreciate that the clearances are a presidential prerogative and can be changed or reinstated by President Trump as he sees fit. One source observes that “In fact, the security clearance system itself is an expression of presidential authority. Its scope and operation are defined in an executive order (EO 12968), and its terms can be modified by the President at will.”
So it is likely that the Kushner story will become just another part of the endless special counsel investigation into the Trump administration’s alleged Russian links. Yet the real story should be the “leak” that revealed the details of the Kushner proposal. The leaker, whoever he was, provided highly classified and very restricted access information to the media; it indicated that the Kushner discussions with the Russians took place in Trump Tower and that a report on the proposal was then relayed back to Moscow using Russian diplomatic communications, which were intercepted, decrypted, and retained by the National Security Agency (NSA).
It is generally believed, correctly, that the NSA intercepts nearly all diplomatic communications originating from embassies in Washington, which is not to say that it is always successful at decrypting them. Decryption requires an enormous expenditure of time, money, and effort. It is almost always limited to communications of countries that are considered to be adversaries—which these days would include Russia, China, and Iran—or potential sources of information on transnational issues like terrorism or drug trafficking. And even when there is a major effort, the attempt to crack the encryption sometimes fails, particularly when one is dealing with a sophisticated opponent.
It is clear from the Kushner leaker’s tale that the Russians were confident that their diplomatic communications were secure. But the NSA had actually broken them and was reading their messages. Now that the Russians know that their communications are not secure, they will take necessary steps to tighten up their procedures and protocols, which means that the United States government will no longer be able to read their message traffic and will start all over with having to break into the new system. This reality will be enormously costly both to Russia and the U.S., and it will mean that a major intelligence advantage that Washington possessed will no longer be viable.
However one feels about the paranoid and reactionary post-9/11 level of global spying carried out by the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies, being able to read an adversary’s mail provides a huge advantage if one wants to avoid surprises and mitigate factors that could result in unnecessary conflict. And, to be completely fair, it also gives one an advantage if you are planning on mischief yourself and want to know how an opponent will react. Either way, that ability would have been one of the crown jewels of the intelligence community—and losing that advantage over Russia is an enormous, self-inflicted intelligence failure. Yet the media has chosen to ignore that real disaster because they want the story to be Kushner and Trump, not the leaker who has done tremendous damage to the nation’s intelligence collection capability.
Back in my time in the CIA, there were two places in the headquarters building one could go that were free speech zones—places where it was safe to vent about senior management without necessarily being admonished or even reported. They were the Historical Intelligence Collection room off the library, where no one ever went to look at the books, and the office supplies storage room in the basement. The supplies room had a lot of dark corners and concealing shelves where it was possible to be anonymous and it was completely unsupervised in the belief that true-blue CIA officers would never stoop to taking even a single pencil more than was actually needed to get the job done.
I don’t know if those rooms still exist, but I sometimes think of them when the subject of government conspiracies come up. I have this vision of two or three conspirators huddled in the corner behind the staplers back in 1975 discussing how one would go about eliminating the likes of Senator Frank Church, who at that time was heading a major congressional investigation into CIA improprieties.
If there had been such a gathering, I would imagine that the Washington Post would have found out about it on the next day as intelligence officers are gregarious and like to talk. This has been my principal problem with the debate in some quarters about the 9/11 Commission. Their report did indeed miss many important angles in order to protect certain governmental interests, but if there had been a genuine conspiracy involving what must have been hundreds of people to demolish the Twin Towers with explosives, it surely would have leaked long ago.
Two months ago, I would have dismissed as fantasy any thoughts of a conspiracy based in America’s national security agencies to bring down Donald Trump. But now I am not so sure. Many of my friends who are former intelligence officers are increasingly asking questions. It is worth pointing out that none of us are fans of what the White House has been doing and saying—quite the contrary. Still, alerting the country to concerns over what might be a developing soft coup orchestrated by the intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to nullify the results of a national election in no way equates to trying to protect Donald Trump and his uncouth and ill-informed behavior. It is rather a defense of the Constitution.
Donald Trump said on Wednesday that “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” He might be right. He was referring to Deputy Attorney General Rob Rosenstein’s appointment of the highly-respected Robert Mueller as independent counsel to investigate “any links and/or coordination between Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump, and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
Trump’s bombast puts everyone but his most tone-deaf supporters on edge, but there are two points that he has been making repeatedly that are essential to any understanding of what is going on. First, the investigation into Russia and the Trumpsters has been a high priority at FBI and also in Congress for nearly a year. Yet so far no one has produced evidence that anyone broke any law or even that someone did something wrong. Second, and more importantly, the vilification of Trump and Russia has been driven by a series of leaks that come from the very top of the national security apparatus, leaks that appear not to have been seriously investigated.
This involvement of FBI and CIA in the campaign, whether inadvertently or by design, was particularly evident in the various reports that surfaced and were leaked to the press during the campaign and right up to the inauguration. The leaks of that type of information, to include technical intelligence and Special Access Program “codeword” material, require top-level access as well as the ability to arrange clandestine contacts with major players in the media, something far beyond the reach of most employees at CIA or the FBI.
Similar leaks have been appearing since that time. I confess to finding Monday’s detailed account of what President Trump discussed with Russian Ambassador Sergey Lavrov, which included corroborating material that likely did more damage than the information that was actually shared, highly suggestive of the possibility that something like a conspiracy is, in fact, functioning. Given the really tight-security control of that transcript after it was determined that it contained sensitive information, one might reasonably assume that the leaks to the media came directly out of Donald Trump’s own National Security Council or from the highest levels of the office of the DNI, CIA, or FBI.
Yesterday, the anonymous sources struck again, revealing that “Michael Flynn and other advisers to Donald Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race.” That sort of information had to come from the top level of the FBI and would have been accessible to only a few, but even though the leaks of what constitutes highly-classified information have been recurring for many months, no one has been fired or arrested.
The emphasis on Russia derives from the government and media consensus that Moscow was behind the hacking of Democratic National Committee (DNC) computers that led to the exposure of what the DNC was doing to destroy the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. There is also a related consensus that the Russian hacking was intended to damage American democracy and also to help the Trump campaign, a narrative that the president has described as a “made-up thing,” a view that I share. All of these assertions are regarded as unquestionably true as measured by inside-the-beltway groupthink, with even the White House now conceding that there was Russian interference in the election.
Sometimes the hysteria over Russia produces over-the-top stories in the mainstream media, including last week’s completely speculative piece wondering whether the entourage of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had sought to sneak a recording device into the White House during his White House visit. It was the type of tale that might have been inspired by a leak from someone in the National Security Council who personally observed the context of the meeting and was able to provide corroborating details.
Nevertheless, in spite of the overwhelming groupthink, it has been repeated ad nauseam by people like myself that no actual evidence has been produced to support any of the claims being made about Russia and Trump. There is more evidence that the White House was penetrated by Ankara—through the good services of Michael Flynn—than by Moscow, but Congress has not called for an investigation into Turkey’s lobbying. Ray McGovern, a former senior CIA analyst, is even speculating that the Agency might have been the actual hacker into the DNC, leaving a trail behind that would have suggested that it was done by the Russians. His concern arises from the recent WikiLeaks revelation that the CIA had developed cyberwarfare capabilities to do just that.
McGovern, like myself, is also asking why former CIA Director John Brennan has not been summoned by the Senate Committee looking into Russia-gate. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has testified twice, while former FBI Director James Comey, current NSA Director Mike Rogers, and former Justice Department senior official Sally Yates have all appeared once. Brennan’s absence is conspicuous as he was the senior national security official most closely tied to the Obama Administration, may have had the tools at hand to fake the Russian connection, and has also been plausibly linked to “encouraging” British Intelligence to provide damaging information on Michael Flynn.
I now suspect that there is indeed a group at the top of the U.S. national security system that wants to remove Donald Trump and has wanted to do so for quite some time. If that is true, I believe that they have been operating with that goal in mind for at least the past year. It is not a traditional conspiracy or cabal in that it does not meet and conspire together, but I suspect the members know what they are doing in a general sense and are intervening whenever they can to keep Trump off balance. Their program is simple: convince the nation that the president and his team colluded with the Russians to rig the 2016 election in his favor, which, if demonstrable even if not necessarily true, would provide grounds for impeachment. They are motivated by the belief that removing Trump must be done “for the good of the country” and they are willing to do what they consider correcting a mistake made by the American voters. They are assisted in their effort by the mainstream media, which agrees with both the methods employed and the overall objective and is completely on board with the process.
Saving the country from Trump is certainly an attractive notion. I suspect the Comeys, Clappers, and Brennans, together with a host of former senior officers who appear regularly on television, if they were involved, see themselves as great patriots. But they must understand that the blunt instrument they are using is far more dangerous than the current occupant of the White House. A soft coup engineered by the national security and intelligence agencies would be far more threatening to our democracy than anything Donald Trump or even the Russians can do.
Intelligence agencies and senior government officials tend to use a lot of jargon. Laced with acronyms, this language sometimes does not translate very well into journalese when it hits the media.
For example, I experienced a sense of disorientation two weeks ago over the word “sensitive” as used by several senators, Sally Yates, and James Clapper during committee testimony into Russiagate. “Sensitive” has, of course, a number of meanings. But what astonished me was how quickly the media interpreted its use in the hearings to mean that the conversations and emails that apparently were recorded or intercepted involving Trump associates and assorted Russians as “sensitive contacts” meant that they were necessarily inappropriate, dangerous, or even illegal.
When Yates and Clapper were using “sensitive” thirteen times in the 86 page transcript of the Senate hearings, they were referring to the medium rather than the message. They were both acknowledging that the sources of the information were intelligence related, sometimes referred to as “sensitive” by intelligence professionals and government insiders as a shorthand way to describe that they are “need to know” material derived from either classified “methods” or foreign-liaison partners. That does not mean that the information contained is either good or bad or even true or false, but merely a way of expressing that the information must be protected because of where it came from or how it was developed, hence the “sensitivity.”
The word also popped up this week in a Washington Post exclusive report alleging that the president had, in his recent meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, gone too far while also suggesting that the source of a highly classified government program might be inferred from the context of what was actually revealed. The Post describes how
The information Trump relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said. The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia, and officials said that Trump’s decision to do so risks cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State.
The Post is unfortunately also providing ISIS with more information than it “needs to know” to make its story more dramatic, further compromising the source. Furthermore, it should be understood that the paper is extremely hostile to Trump, the story is as always based on anonymous sources, and the revelation comes on top of another unverifiable Post article claiming that the Russians might have sought to sneak a recording device into the White House during the visit.
No one is denying that the president discussed ISIS in some detail with Lavrov, but National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, both of whom were present at the meeting, have denied that any sources or methods were revealed while reviewing with the Russians available intelligence. McMaster described the report as “false” and informed the Post that “The president and the foreign minister reviewed common threats from terrorist organizations to include threats to aviation. At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly.” Tillerson commented that “the nature of specific threats were (sic) discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods, or military operations.”
So the question becomes to what extent can an intelligence mechanism be identified from the information that it produces. That is, to a certain extent, a judgement call. The president is able on his own authority to declassify anything, so the legality of his sharing information with Russia cannot be challenged. What is at question is the decision-making by an inexperienced president who may have been showing off to an important foreign visitor by revealing details of intelligence that should have remained secret. The media will no doubt be seeking to magnify the potential damage done while the White House goes into damage control mode.
The media is claiming that the specific discussion with Lavrov that is causing particular concern is related to a so-called Special Access Program, or SAP, sometimes referred to as “code word information.” An SAP is an operation that generates intelligence that requires special protection because of where or how it is produced. In this case, the intelligence shared with Lavrov appears to be related to specific ISIS threats, which may include planned operations against civilian aircraft, judging from Trump’s characteristically after-hours tweets defending his behavior, as well as other reporting.
There have also been reports that the White House followed up on its Lavrov meeting with a routine review of what had taken place. Several National Security Council members observed that some of the information shared with the Russians was far too sensitive to disseminate within the U.S. intelligence community. This led to the placing of urgent calls to NSA and CIA to brief them on what had been said.
Based on the recipients of the calls alone, one might surmise that the source of the information would appear to be either a foreign-intelligence service or a technical collection operation, or even both combined. The Post claims that the originator of the intelligence did not clear its sharing with the Russians and raises the possibility that no more information of that type will be provided at all in light of the White House’s apparent carelessness in its use. The New York Times, in its own reporting of the story, initially stated that the information on ISIS did not come from an NSA or CIA operation, and later reported that the source was Israel.
The Times is also reporting that Trump provided to Lavrov “granular” information on the city in Syria where the information was collected that will possibly enable the Russians or ISIS to identify the actual source, with devastating consequences. That projection may be overreach, but the fact is that the latest gaffe from the White House could well damage an important intelligence liaison relationship in the Middle East while reinforcing the widely held impression that Washington does not know how to keep a secret. It will also create the impression that Donald Trump, out of ignorance or hubris, exhibits a certain recklessness in his dealing with classified information, a failing that he once attributed to his presidential opponent Hillary Clinton.
And President Trump has one more thing to think about. No matter what damage comes out of the Lavrov discussion, he has a bigger problem. There are apparently multiple leakers on his National Security Council.
This article has been updated to reflect news developments.