June 12, 2013

Changes at the CIA

Deputy CIA Director Mike Morrell -- who was briefly acting director -- is out -- Avril Haines, deputy assistant to the president and legal adviser to the National Security Council -- is in.

Morrell -- who cited the lure of spending more time with his family --will be retiring after 33 years with the agency.

"Whenever someone involved in the rough and tumble of Washington decides to move on, there is speculation in various quarters about the 'real reason,' " he said. "But when I say that it is time for my family, nothing could be more real than that."

CIA Director John Brennan said Morrell will be succeeded by Haines, whom he noted he and Morrell had worked closely with over the past several years.

Obama had nominated Haines as the Department of State's legal adviser just two months ago.

Brennan said Haines had "participated in virtually every deputies and principals committee meeting over the past two years and chairs the lawyers' Group that reviews the agency's most sensitive programs. In every instance, Avril's command of substance, sense of mission, good judgment, and keen insights have been outstanding."

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June 11, 2013

Boehner on Snowden: "He's a traitor"

House Speaker John Boehner Tuesday declared Edward Snowden, who leaked top secret domestic spy data to the media, a "traitor."

Boehner, R-Ohio, spoke to ABC's "Good Morning America."

"He's a traitor," the speaker said. "The president outlined last week that these were important national security programs to help keep Americans safe, and give us tools to fight the terrorist threat  that we face."

Boehner supported the program. "The president also outlined that there are appropriate safeguards in place  to make sure that there's no snooping, if you will on Americans here at home."

What troubled the speaker was "the disclosure of this information puts Americans at risk.  It shows our adversaries what our capabilities are.  And it's a giant violation of the law."

Read the entire interview here.

April 11, 2013

White House, CIA decline comment on drone documents

The White House declined Thursday to comment on classified U.S. intelligence reports that show that drone strikes in Pakistan over a four-year period didn't adhere to the standards President Obama claims.

The administration has said its drone strikes are aimed at senior operational leaders of al-Qaeda and associated forces involved in plotting attacks against the U.S., but the documents reviewed by McClatchy list killings of alleged lower level Afghan and Pakistani insurgents whose organization wasn't on the U.S. list of terrorist groups at the time of the 9/11 strikes, as well as unidentified individuals described as "other militants" and "foreign fighters."

Press Secretary Jay Carney said he wouldn't talk about classified documents that the newspapers had obtained.

"Our strategy in dealing with counterterrorism is to utilize the tools available to us," Carney said. "When it comes to the means with which we do that, the president has addressed it. And we have been, as an administration, very transparent through a series of speeches by John Brennan, the attorney general, and by others, as well as comments by the president about the approach that we take in that effort."

Asked about the reports that also show the U.S. working with Pakistan's intelligence agency on strikes that killed Pakistani insurgent leaders, Carney again refused comment.

But CNN aired an interview Thursday with Pakistan's former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf who, for the first time, acknowledged Pakistan had secretly coordinated drone strikes with the U.S. Musharraf, who ruled until 2008 but is back in Pakistan looking to run for parliment, said it happened "only on a very few occassions, where the target was absolutely isolated and had no chance of collateral damage.

"It was discussed at the military level, at the intelligence level to strike," Musharraf said. "And that was very, very ... two or three times only. The answer used to be that it was a fleeting target and we couldn't delay action."

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January 29, 2013

Guantanamo commissions: Whatever the CIA wants you to see

Over the past few years, after Obama failed to close Guantanamo, there's been a push to present the military commissions process there as reformed -- nothing like the extra-legal prosecution efforts of the Bush era, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the effort unconstitutional because Congress had not set it up. So the Obama administration and Congress came up with an improved regime, one more in keeping with what Americans would recognize as a court.

Today, we learned another way in which military commissions are different from any court the United States has seen before: Turns out the CIA has the ability to cut off the public's view of the proceedings without consulting with the judge, or anyone else.

That's apparently what happened Monday, to the shock of the judge, who apparently was unaware that anyone other than the court's security officer had the authority to censor courtroom exchanges. You can read The Miami Herald's Carol Rosenberg's account on what took place here.

Today, we learn who that someone is: the OCA or the Original Classification Authority -- in this case, the CIA. (You can see Rosenberg's account of today's commission testimony at her Twitter account here.)

Certainly, the Obama administration and Congress never publicly explained that this was how the commissions would work when they mandated in the Military Commission Act that the proceedings must be held in public. Obviously, it had not been explained to Judge Pohl or the defense attorneys, though the prosecution seemed to know.

What to do now? Rosenberg, after consulting with counsel, challenged the refusal to explain who had the authority to cut off the public's access to the courtroom. Here's what she filed with the commissions clerk:

To the Clerk of Military Commissions:

I am writing to you pursuant to Regulation 19-3 governing public access to commission proceedings, to object to the closure yesterday, January 28, 2013, of proceedings in United States v. Mohammad, et al.

Public access was denied to a portion of the proceedings by the termination of the video and audio feed, and this closure of the courtroom was imposed without any findings by the military judge authorizing it, as required by M.C.A. 949d(c) and R.M.C. 806.  As a reporter covering these proceedings, I object to this unauthorized denial of access and request a public explanation of the basis for the closure, a statement of the legal authority for the denial of public access, and an identification of the individual or organization that
closed the proceedings to the public.

I hereby request that you forward this objection to all counsel of record in the proceeding.    


  Will it make a difference? That remains to be seen. The Obama administration likes to say it's made the military commissions process transparent. But hiding the fact that all proceedings are overseen by an unnamed entity that can move outside the authority of the judge to censor the public's view of what's taking place is hardly transparent. It's difficult even to imagine that any entity has that authority in what passes for a quasi-judicial  proceeding, where the judge runs the courtroom.

January 07, 2013

Obama's CIA pick draws protest

The activist group CodePink will protest President Obama's selection of John Brennan to head the CIA, outside the White House today.

The group says some protesters will be in orange jumpsuits "representing U.S. policy of torturing prisoners," others will carry a large model drone.

Protestors blame Brennan -- now Obama's counterterrorism advisor -- for the administration's drone strike program, which they say "has killed so many innocent people and unleashed such fierce anti-American sentiment around the world.

"We condemn President Obama for making this nomination and call on the Senate to reject it," said CodePink cofounder Medea Benjamin.

December 18, 2012

White House mum on Osama bin Laden film leaks

Pentagon investigators concluded that a senior Defense Department official who’s been mentioned as a possible candidate to be the next CIA director leaked restricted information to the makers of an acclaimed film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and referred the case to the Justice Department, according to knowledgeable U.S. officials.

The White House declined Tuesday to address the matter, with Press Secretary Jay Carney saying he'd seen the news reports, but could "only refer you to the Pentagon. I don't have anything on it from here."

March 18, 2010

Guantanamo detainees: No dissent on who should be held

That's the message Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and Attorney General Eric Holder delivered to Congress this week in response to questions about how decisions were made about who among the Guantanamo detainees should be released, who should be tried and who should be held indfinitely without trial.

Depending on how you feel about the current regime of detentions, including the conclusion that "about 50" should be held indefinitely, the letter is either reassuring or frightening.

The bottom line: if any of the agencies involved in the review disagreed with the others' conclusion that someone should be released, then the individual was not put on the release list. That means the veto power on release was held by the agency that most wanted to keep detainees indefinitely.

"The Review Panel made disposition determinations only by unanimous agreement," Blair and Holder wrote the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees in a letter dated March 17. "[N]o determinations were made over the objection of any of the six agencies," who were identified in the letter as the departments of Justice, State, Defense and Homeland Security, plus the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Those who participated in the deliberations came from the CIA, the National Counter Terrorism Center, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the FBI. There were federal prosecutors, State Department analysts, military officers and military prosecutors. One hundred federal employees served on the task force over its lifetime. Decisions were made by senior officials and when there was a disagreement, it went to the principals, meaning the secretaries of the departments and the heads of the agencies, for a decison.

The Director of National Intelligence agreed with the recommended disposition of each of the 240 detainees subject to the review, including the more than half of the detainees the group concluded ought to be released or transferred to other countries.

Sounds like a very thorough process. Until you remember that the Justice Department and the Defense Department, relying on evidence gathered in part by the Intelligence Community, have fought to keep at least 33 detainees at Guantanamo in instances where federal court judges later found there was no evidence to hold them. The case of Fouad al Rabia, the 50-year-old fat Kuwaiti Airlines employee who was held for years even though his own interrogators didn't believe his tortured confession, should give pause to anyone willing to rely on evidence gleaned from intelligence sources. It's worth reading District Judge Collen Kollar Kotelly's opinion in the case to see one arbiter's opinion of the quality of the evidence in one case.

For a look at Holder and Blair's letter, click here.

February 10, 2010

Here's what the U.S. wanted the British to keep secret

Back last year, as you may recall, there was a dustup between the British and the United States over the release of classified documents on the treatment of former Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed, a 31-year-old Ethiopian, who grew up in Britain and ended up in Guantanamo.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, told Parliament at the time that the U.S. had threatened to break off intelligence sharing with Great Britain if the British revealed details about how Mohamed had been treated. The British promised to keep the secrets, in the face of court rulings that ordered their release.

That ended Wednesday, when, bowing to a ruling from Britain's Court of Appeal, he Foreign Office posted on its Web site the seven paragraphs on how Mohamed had been treated during his time in U.S. custody.

If you've followed the rulings of U.S. federal judges in the Guantanamo habeas cases, the description won't come as any surprise. There's a growing body of court rulings that pretty much find that U.S. authorities at Guantanamo and elsewhere brutalized more than just high value detainees. But the U.S., even under the Obama administration, would just as soon keep that quiet.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued this disapproving statement:

The protection of confidential information is essential to strong, effective security and intelligence cooperation among allies. The decision by a United Kingdom court to release classified information provided by the United States is not helpful, and we deeply regret it.

The United States and the United Kingdom have a long history of close cooperation that relies on mutual respect for the handling of classified information. This court decision creates additional challenges, but our two countries will remain united in our efforts to fight against violent extremist groups.

Here's what the British found about Mohamed:

[It was reported that a new series of interviews was conducted by the United States authorities prior to 17 May 2001 as part of a new strategy designed by an expert interviewer.

v) It was reported that at some stage during that further interview process by the United States authorities, BM had been intentionally subjected to continuous sleep deprivation. The effects of the sleep deprivation were carefully observed.

vi) It was reported that combined with the sleep deprivation, threats and inducements were made to him. His fears of being removed from United States custody and “disappearing” were played upon.

vii) It was reported that the stress brought about by these deliberate tactics was increased by him being shackled in his interviews

viii) It was clear not only from the reports of the content of the interviews but also from the report that he was being kept under self-harm observation, that the interviews were having a marked effect upon him and causing him significant mental stress and suffering.

ix) We regret to have to conclude that the reports provide to the SyS made clear to anyone reading them that BM was being subjected to the treatment that we have described and the effect upon him of that intentional treatment.

x) The treatment reported, if had been administered on behalf of the United Kingdom, would clearly have been in breach of the undertakings given by the United Kingdom in 1972. Although it is not necessary for us to categorise the treatment reported, it could readily be contended to be at the very least cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the United States authorities]"

An Associated Press version of the story can be found here.

The British Foreign Office statement can be found here.

February 05, 2010

A secure reminder at the CIA's gift shop

Mike Madden of Salon.com was the pool reporter this morning for President Obama's trip to CIA headquarters for a memorial service for the seven CIA employees who were killed Dec. 30 in a suicide bombing at FOB Chapman outside Khost, Afghanistan.

Madden reports in his pool report that he wasn't allowed into the service, but was allowed to go to the gift shop, after some negotiations between the Secret Service and CIA police.

Next to the cash register, he reports, is this helpful reminder: "Don't forget! If you are undercover, you cannot charge! It will blow your cover."

February 03, 2010

Blair's threat assessment: Not just about al Qaida

Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair traveled to Capitol Hill this week to deliver the U.S. Intelligence Community's annual threat assessment.

Most of the resulting news coverage focused on what the assessment had to say about al Qaida. Not so surprising, they still want to attack inside the United States.

The assessment, however, covers much more than that, from cybersecurity to nuclear proliferation to concerns about global warming. Here's Blair's unclassified testimony prepared for today's appearance before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Some of the more interesting observations:

Cyber Threat

"[A]cting independently, neither the US government nor the private sector can fully control or protect the country's information infrastructure . . . [T]he existing balance in network technology favors malicious actors and is likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future."

Economic Recovery

"Exit strategy missteps could set back the recovery, particularly if inflation or political pressures to consolidate budgets emerge before household consumption and private investment have begun to play a larger role in the recovery. From a geographic perspective, this risk is greatest in Europe, where the recovery is anemic, and some governments are likely to begin consoldiating their budgets despite weak economic conditions." Other problem countries: Pakistan, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. (Blair didn't mention what the threat level for inopportune budget cuts might be in the United States. See today's story on Obama's talk to Democrats).

Oil Prices

"Sufficient OPEC spare production capacity exists . . . to meet oil demand growth in 2010. . . . [M]ost market observers expect the combination of high inventory levels and excess production capacity will limit upward movements in oil prices for the next year."

Terrorist Threats

AL QAIDA -- "The most recent [disrupted] plot for which we knew the target was the London-based aviation plot in 2006 . . .The ongoing investigation into the case of Najibullah Zazi has not yet revealed the intended target(s) of this alleged plot."

BIN LADEN -- "We assess that at least until Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri are dead or captured, al Qaida will retain its resolute intent to strike the Homeland."

AL QAIDA AFFILIATES -- "We are concerned that [al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] will continue to try [to attack inside the United States] but we do not know to what extent they are willing to direct core cadre to that effort given the group's prior focus on regional operation. . . . We judge most al Shabaab [Somalia] and East Africa-based al Qaida members will remain focused on regional objectives in the near term."

DOMESTIC THREATS -- "The tragic violence at Fort Hood underscores our concerns about the damage an individual or small number of homegrown extremists can do . . . It is clear, however, that a sophisticated, organized threat from radicalized individuals and groups in the United States . . . has not emerged. Indeed, the elements most conducive to the development of an entrenched terrorist presence -- leadership, a secure operating environment, trained operatives and well developed support base -- have been lacking to date in the United States or, where they have been nascent, have been interrupted by law enforcement authorities."

HEZBOLLAH -- "Hezbollah, which has not directly attacked US interests overseas over the past 13 years, is not now actively plotting to strike the Homeland."


"We do not know of any state deliberately providing CBRN assistance to terrorist groups. Although terrorist groups and individuals have sought out scientists with applicable expertise, we have no corroborated reporting that indicates such experts have advanced terrorist CBRN capability with the permission of any government."


The Korean People's Army's "capabilities are limited by an aging weapons inventory, low production of military combat systems, deteriorating physical condition of soldiers, reduced training, and increasing diversion of the military to infrasutrcutre support. . . Because the conventional military capabilities gap between North and South Korea has become so overwhelmingly great and prospects for reversal of this gap so remote, [North Korea] relies on its nuclear program to deter external attacks . . . Although there are other reasons for the North to pursue its nuclear program, redressing conventional weaknesses is a major factor . . . that Kim and his likely successor will not easily dismiss."


"High wheat prices and low opium prices during the planting season in the fall of 2008 encouraged farmers to grow more wheat at the expense of poppy. . . . Recent price trends may lead to a larger poppy crop this year. Wheat prices have dropped by half . . . in response to an abundant Afghan wheat harvest last year and global price declines, reducing the profitability of wheat and probably making the crop less desirable than poppy to farmers."


"According to the United Nations Development program, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have homicide rates five to seven times higher than the world average of nine per 100,000 people. El Salvador last year had a homcide rate of 71 per 100,000, the highest rate in Latin America."


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's "regional influence may have peaked, but he is likely to continue to support likeminded political allies and movements . . . and seek to undermine pro-U.S. governments. . . .He has developed a close personal relationship with Iranian President Ahmadinejad and they have signed numerous agreements. . . . Following Chavez's lead, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua have increased their ties to Iran."


"The mass killing of civilians -- defined as the deliberate killing of at least 1000 unarmed civilians of a particualr political identity by state or state-sponsored actors in a single event or over a sustained period -- is a persistent feature of the global landscape . . . Looking ahead over the next five years, a number of countries in Africa and Asia are at significant risk for a new outbreak of mass killing. . . . Among these countries, a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan."


"Planet Washington" covers politics and government. It is written by journalists in McClatchy's Washington Bureau.

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