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The intelligence community needs a house-cleaning
John Brennan and the CIA claim lives will be endangered if their work is declassified. That excuse only works so many times
It’s been a tired pop-cliché meme for ages. Way back in 2000, when Adam Garcia tried to lay it on Piper Perabo in Coyote Ugly, she groaned, “That’s original.”
It drew eye rolls in Top Gun in 1986. Going back at least that far, we’ve known it’s usually bullshit when someone says they’re keeping a tantalizing secret from you for your own good.
Former CIA director John Brennan is pulling this stunt now, and the press is again taking him seriously, despite his proven unreliability.
Brennan has an elaborate history of lying to the public, most infamously about the CIA monitoring computers Senate staff were using to prepare a report on torture. When asked if it were true the CIA spied on congress as it was doing oversight of that agency, Brennan all but covered his heart. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he told Andrea Mitchell in a panel discussion, shaking his head. “We wouldn’t do that!”
Brennan has always had stones. In the Senate computer case, he didn’t limit himself to making staunch verbal denials. His CIA also later produced a report clearing itself of said “potential unauthorized access” to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Brennan also once said there had not been a “single collateral death” in the drone assassination program; claimed (inaccurately, it seems) that Osama bin Laden used his wife as a human shield in his encounter with Navy Seals; and provided inaccurate information to congress about the efficacy of CIA enhanced interrogation programs.
He has also been questioned at least twice in leak investigations. One involved a story from 2012. That year, a week or so before the May 2 anniversary of bin Laden’s death, White House spokesman Jay Carney said:
We have no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda, are plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the anniversary of bin Laden's death.
Why the administration made this pointless claim is not clear. On May 8th, the AP came out with a blockbuster story refuting it. The report said the U.S. had just thwarted a terror attack timed to the bin Laden anniversary, a second version of the so-called “underwear plot.”
To spin that discrepancy, Brennan briefed a group of talking heads to blab on TV. Former Clinton counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke was one of many reportedly told by Brennan the U.S. was never in danger, because it had “inside control” of the situation.
Clarke ended up saying on TV:
The U.S. government is saying it never came close because they had insider information, insider control, which implies that they had somebody on the inside who wasn’t going to let it happen.
This led to a spate of articles suggesting that the United States had an uber-valuable human source inside al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Reuters said British officials played a role in the operation and were “deeply distressed” by the leaks.
That tale, of a valuable human source being revealed to the media for purely political reasons, resulting in objections by foreign partners about our indiscretion, should sound familiar in recent weeks.
Brennan went on MSNBC last Friday to tell Chris Hayes that any effort to declassify information about the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation would place valuable sources at risk and imperil our precious bodily fluids:
The concern is that very, very precious source and methods of the United States intelligence community as well as our partners and allies abroad — those who share this sensitive information with us.
Brennan’s warning echoed other current and former intel officials.
Former acting CIA chief Michael Morell said the plan was “potentially dangerous,” saying only the Director of National Intelligence was qualified to judge damage to “sources and methods.” Politico added this on-script warning (emphasis mine):
“There’s nothing CIA or NSA, for example, guards more jealously than sources and methods,” said Larry Pfeiffer, a 32-year intelligence veteran who served as the chief of staff to CIA Director Michael Hayden. “It is not hyperbole to say that lives are at stake.”
Back on MSNBC, Hayes offered a dutiful intro to the interview with his fellow MSNBC (reporters no longer flinch at sharing airtime or column space with intelligence officials, now normal presences in the media landscape). In it, he described the move by Trump to declassify investigatory materials as “anti deep-state propaganda efforts.”
Trying to declassify this information was, Hayes said, a “a huge deal in the world of intelligence agencies.” He insisted the only reason Trump is giving Bill Barr permission to rummage around in the CIA’s treasure trove of secrets was “basically to give Sean Hannity material for his television show.”
This may sound counter-intuitive to blue-state audiences, but the fact that an inquiry might end up being politically beneficial to Donald Trump doesn’t automatically make it illegitimate, particularly when the investigatory targets include the intelligence agencies.
In the same way, handing over “underlying evidence” from the Mueller probe to congress wouldn’t be illegitimate just because Democrats would immediately put it on AC360 or Last Word. Cui bono isn’t part of the newsworthiness equation.
I’m in favor of any Russiagate-related information coming out, or at least being disclosed to congress. That includes any redacted parts of the Mueller probe, along with underlying investigative materials.
But transparency has to cut all ways for this three-year national fiasco to be resolved in any way that makes sense. We need all the information about the origins of the investigation as well, and it’s simply not true that opening that vault would mean a “plot to dirty up the intelligence community” that must “compromise agents.”
There’s a story buried in Russiagate that seems not even really to be about Trump. It involves routine over-aggressive use of War on Terror-era investigatory tools, especially the reliance upon counterintelligence infrastructure to conduct domestic investigations.
Russiagate seems to have turned into an Our Man in Havana style absurdist drama, where intelligence officials chasing a real tale of real Russian cyber-incursion went barreling down multiple blind alleys, superimposing complex espionage plots on a Trump campaign that was actually more like a random, hormone-fueled publicity stunt than a Manchurian Candidate story.
Confirmation bias was rampant and got worse when Trump actually won, in defiance of any expectation (at least, any expectation of DC-bound CIA officials out of touch with the fact that much of America would vote for Ron Jeremy, or Hologram Saddam Hussein, over Hillary Clinton).
Determined to root out the plot, intelligence officials did what they apparently do too often, i.e. abuse the awesome surveillance tools we’ve allowed them to enjoy in an almost completely supervision-free environment. The bureaucratic battle over misuse of these tools pre-dates Russiagate.
Add this to graphic warnings in recent years that security agencies regularly ignore legal constraints – like senior CIA officials admitting to reading congressional emails pertaining to intelligence agency whistleblowers – and there’s a larger story about the growing impunity of the intelligence community, especially as concerns its use of new surveillance procedures. This issue predates Trump and there have been complaints from members of both parties over the years.
In the Trump era this has all been recast as a desperate partisan battle, where worry over improper spying is just a pretext concern for Republicans, who are just out to score political points on Fox. That may in fact be the motivation of people like Trump and Barr. But it doesn’t mean the investigations into Trump-Russia won’t find real systemic problems.
It’s against this backdrop that the latest cries about concern for “sources and methods” and “lives” must be understood.
Since the Russiagate probe began, we’ve repeatedly been told disclosures about the origins of the investigation would imperil national security. These statements have often proven to be not just false, but ridiculous provocations.
CIA director Gina Haspel crowed to the Washington Post a year ago that disclosing the name of informant Stefan Halper “could risk lives.” It turned out Halper had been outed as a spook in the pages of the New York Times back in 1983, and openly traded on his intelligence past as a professor in England. Where were lives at risk, in the Cambridge University Botanical Garden?
We also saw reports that revealing the name of former British spy Christopher Steele would imperil his life. When the Wall Street Journal outed him in January of 2017, Steele responded by telling British media that he was “terrified for his safety.” He added he was going into hiding because he feared a “potentially dangerous backlash against him from Moscow.”
We later found out Steele had more media contacts than the Kardashian family, meeting with (at minimum) the Times, Post, Yahoo!, The New Yorker, CNN and Mother Jones in the space of about seven weeks in September-October 2016.
In the years since his report became public, Steele fought through his terror to keep commiserating with the media. He invited a sprawling, laudatory 2018 profile in The New Yorker that described him answering “one of his two phones” in Farnham, a Surrey town with a “beautiful Georgian high street,” where he and his four children live on “nearly an acre of land.”
He’s given depositions, negotiated to testify before congress, and been a primary source in several bestselling books. Thanks to such elaborate precautions, he’s managed somehow to avoid assassination since 2016.
The same theatrical warnings about blowing “sources and methods” came in response to early questions about the FISA warrants used in the Trump-Russia probe.
When Trump ordered the declassification of parts of the FISA warrant on former aide Carter Page in 2017, the reaction was exactly the same as the one we’re hearing now, in many cases from the same people.
David Kris, former head of the national security division of the Justice Department said the release of the FISAs was “off the charts” and “unprecedented” because said FISAs had “already undergone declassification review.”
Former federal prosecutor Joyce Vance said the order about the FISAs “compromises national security.” Former FBI agent Frank Montoya said “the FISA process is secret for a reason: to protect sources and methods.”
The release of the Page warrant turned out to not to compromise anything but the reputation of the FBI and other agencies. The major revelation was the FBI had indeed used Steele, a “compensated” FBI informant as well as a private oppo researcher, as a source despite having “suspended its relationship” with him in October 2016, ostensibly over failure to disclose media contacts.
House Intel committee ranking member Adam Schiff knew this information when he conducted his “bombshell” hearing” on March 20, 2017. That was the one in which he and other members questioned not-yet-fired FBI chief James Comey and Rogers, and read out information from the Steele report as if it were factual, not giving any hint that there might be issues with it.
Schiff was gung-ho to declassify “as much as possible about Russia hacking our elections” back in the summer of 2016, but now describes attempts to declassify information about the reasons for the probe as an attempt to “weaponize law enforcement.”
The hemming and hawing about “sources and methods” is really a pre-emptive ass-covering campaign. A bunch of these people are about to be highlighted in the upcoming review by Justice IG Michael Horowitz, as well as the larger probe led by former Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham.
This is why we’ve seen stories that essentially show James Comey and Brennan pointing fingers and blaming the other for using the Steele material. Former intelligence chiefs selling each other out is hilarious and predictable, and further reason not to take them seriously when they ask to be shielded from oversight on national security grounds.
This is especially true since officials had no issue telling reporters all sorts of fascinating things about our intelligence capabilities when it suited their PR purposes.
Take a June, 2017 Washington Post exclusive, in which it was revealed the CIA delivered a “bombshell” report to Barack Obama in August of 2016. The CIA reportedly told Obama that Vladimir Putin not only directed an election interference campaign, but did so specifically with the intention to “help elect… Donald Trump.”
That Post piece began with a literary scene-setter:
Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides….
The material, the Post said, was “so sensitive that CIA Director John O. Brennan kept it out of the President’s Daily Brief, concerned that even that restricted report’s distribution was too broad.” They added: “The CIA package came with instructions that it be returned immediately after it was read.”
The Post went on to explain this information had been withheld in an October 7th, 2016 public statement issued by the Obama government. According to the Post’s June 23 expose (emphasis mine):
Early drafts accused Putin by name, but the reference was removed out of concern that it might endanger intelligence sources and methods.
In the kind of LeCarre-esque mythical-toned newspaper treatment secret service chiefs tend to approve of, “John O. Brennan” is shown here so concerned about protecting his access to Putin that he asked for the envelope with his intel to be returned immediately (we’re in Burn After Reading spy-cliché territory now).
Then, to provide additional protection, it was decided even a reference to Putin’s personal involvement must be removed from a public statement by the government in October of 2016, lest those clever Russians figure out they had a leak.
Yet eight months later, the Post suddenly had a parade of officials not just blabbing about the secret Kremlin information, but sharing the whole backstory of how this magical intel came to be used and delivered to the president.
The Post article added, in a passage one can imagine Brennan penning himself: “The intelligence on Putin was extraordinary on multiple levels, including as a feat of espionage.”
In the space of a year, the CIA went from shielding prize intel with all but four people in the White House, to telling the entire world about it in the Washington Post. By mid-2017, “officials” were even throwing in additional super-sensitive info to Post reporters as a bonus, like a free set of radials (“The Washington Post is withholding some details at the request of the U.S. government,” was the paper’s solemn boast).
Now that Trump has announced he’s giving the hated Barr wide latitude to declassify intelligence community information about the origins of the Trump-Russia probe, suddenly more tales of this top-secret source are appearing.
The New York Times ran a piece called “Potential Clash Over Secrets Looms Between Justice Department and CIA,” which all but announced in neon signage, WE HAVE A HUMAN SOURCE RIGHT NEXT TO PUTIN!
Citing “some officials,” the paper wrote, “The most prominent of the C.I.A.’s sources of intelligence on Russia’s election interference was a person close to Mr. Putin,” adding this “person” was “long nurtured by the C.I.A.” and “rose to a position that enabled the informant to provide key information.”
Then it added this paragraph:
John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director under Mr. Obama, would bring reports from the source directly to the White House, keeping them out of the president’s daily intelligence briefing for fear that the briefing document was too widely disseminated, according to the officials. Instead, he would place them in an envelope for Mr. Obama and a tiny circle of aides to read.
Apparently that novelistic Post lede about Brennan’s sizzling-hot intel being sent “by courier” with instructions that it be “returned immediately” was, in fact, a novel, i.e. fiction. That is, unless Brennan himself was the courier and he was immediately returning the prized information to himself.
Alternatively, this new Times story could be wrong. Either way, the story is preposterous. If this source exists, what possible purpose could be served in telling the New York Times so many details about this “person”? Who complains about a threat to “sources and methods” by revealing “sources and methods”?
The intelligence community – after two solid decades of PR disasters, from 9/11 to Iraq to Abu Ghriab to Gitmo – has rebounded in the public’s eye since 2016, cleverly re-packaging itself as serving on the front lines of the anti-Trump resistance.
It’s even managed to turn the invention of the term “deep state” to its advantage, having media pals use it to make any accusation of investigatory overreach, leaking, and/or meddling in domestic politics sound like Trumpian conspiracy theory.
But these people are not saviors of democracy. They’re the same scoundrels we rightfully learned to despise in the Bush and Obama years for lying about everything from torture to rendition to drone assassination to warrantless surveillance.
They haven’t suffered a public ass-whipping since the Church-Pike hearings in the seventies (which also revealed illegal domestic surveillance), and appear to have grown overconfident since, genuinely believing they don’t owe congress or the White House, much less the public, any explanations for their behavior. In the Trump years, they’ve gone beyond becoming accustomed to reverential treatment from reporters. They now also expect upon retirement to be handsomely compensated to promote their self-serving bullshit as news, with their own platforms as network contributors.
Russiagate has always been two stories. One is about foreign cyber-incursion. The other is a shaggy dog tale about half-smart intelligence goons who spent years whispering to reporters about their heroic efforts to stop a conspiracy that apparently was never there.
This overheated story did tremendous political damage, undermining confidence around the world in a range of American institutions, from the press to law enforcement. Just as the Mueller probe was necessary, we need to get to the bottom of how that second thing happened, and protecting “sources and methods” just doesn’t cut it as an excuse not to anymore. You can only cry wolf so many times.
Image by Gage Skidmor
Earlier in Untitledgate: