Obama refers to Khorasan threat for the first time

ABC News reports: Today is the first time President Obama has uttered the word “Khorasan” in public.

Indeed, we can find no example of any White House official ever mentioning this al Qaeda cell by name in public. The group has never even been mentioned in any of the White House background briefings on the terrorist threat emanating from Syria (and there have been several such briefings).

It’s quite extraordinary to see military action against a group the White House has never talked about.

There is one official outside the White House who did talk about Khorasan, briefly, last week. James Clapper had this to say Thursday at an intelligence conference in Washington: “In terms of threat to the homeland, Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as the Islamic State.”

Clapper, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, may have revealed more than the administration wanted to reveal. The White House was trying to keep this quiet to avoid tipping the group off that it might be targeted.

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Visiting the ODNI: A day of speaking truth to power

Quinn Norton: “It’s called ‘the crackpot realism of the present’” someone said to me, and handed me a note. I folded up the note, and stuffed it in my purse. This was a phrase used to explain, much more clearly than I was doing at the time, the bias of thinking that now is right, forgetting that the future will look back on our ideas with the same curious and horrified amusement we watch the human past with. It’s believing, without any good reason, that right now makes sense.

The present I was in right then didn’t make a lot of sense.

I was sitting in a cleared facility near Tyson’s Corner in Virginia, the beating heart of the industrial-military-intelligence-policing complex, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. I was there to help the government. Of the places I did not expect to ever go, at least not of my free will, the ODNI would be up there.

A few weeks ago, a friend from the Institute for the Future [IFTF] asked me if I would fly to DC for a one day workshop on the future of identity with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “What?” I sputtered, “Did they google me?” and then, mentally: Duh. The ODNI can do a lot more than google me.

I knew IFTF had intel clients, with whom I have occasionally chatted at events in the past. My policy when confronted with spooks asking questions about how the world works is to give them as much information as I can — one of my biggest problems with how security services work is their lack of wisdom. If I can reach people in positions of power and persuade them to critically examine that power, I consider that a win. I also consider it a long shot.

An invite from the ODNI is a strange thing. I’ve been publicly critical of them, sometimes viciously so. A few days earlier I tweeted that their director should be publicly tried for lying to Congress. I’ve written about the toxicity of the NSA spying (under ODNI direction), the corrupt fictions of Anonymous staged by the FBI (FBI/NSB is within ODNI’s area) and spoken out countless times in the last eight years against warrantless spying. I have even less love for the FBI and DOJ.

I turned the offer over in my head. I was influenced by a few things –yes it was paid, but not well paid. It was what I normally get from IFTF for a day of my time, and given the travel commitment, a bit low. I weighed the official imprimatur of involvement, and that was a factor. I am afraid of being pursued and harassed by my government. This has never happened to me in relation to my work, though I have been turned down for housing by people who feared I might bring police attention. It has to my friends, sources and associates. I know what it feels like, what they do when you’re a target, because I have been subject to terrorizing tactics and harassment because of whom I chose to love. I have publicly acknowledged that I self-censor because of this fear. I have a child to raise, and you can’t do that while you fight for your life and freedom in court. Raising my profile with the government as an expert probably makes me harder to harass.

I told my IFTF contact I don’t sign NDAs (which he already knew) and that I’d have to be public about my attendance and write about it. He told me they were publicly publishing their work for the ODNI too. “Huh,” I said to my screen. The organizers were on board with all of it. They wanted me in particular.

Finally, I thought about the hell I would get from the internet — like government harassment, internet harassment is part of the difficult and hated process of self-censorship for me.

In the end, I said yes, because you only get so far talking to your friends. [Continue reading...]

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National security journalists say it’s only getting harder to report on intelligence agencies

Cora Currier writes: This spring, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued new policies requiring that all public writings and remarks — even by former employees — be checked beforehand for sensitive information, and circumscribing how employees can talk about classified material that’s already out in the public sphere.

Long-time intelligence reporters say it’s too soon to say whether the directives — in effect since April, and first reported earlier this month — are specifically causing sources to clam up. But the policies contribute to a climate where government sources are increasingly twitchy about talking with reporters, even on unclassified matters. In March, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) expressly forbid unauthorized contact with the media for all current employees of the 17 government spy agencies it oversees.

“Clearly this is part of the post-Snowden scramble to try to control the message and control information,” said Mark Mazzetti, a New York Times national security reporter and author of a recent book on the CIA. It’s been almost a year since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden began leaking documents on government surveillance, Mazzetti said, “and they’re still wrestling with this.”

Steven Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News blog, argues that the ODNI’s new policies are a step up in government control, in that they extend beyond only regulating classified information to include “sensitive” matters. The ODNI says that the new directives just reflect a consolidation of existing practices, and they’re not as inflexible as they may seem on paper. “It is understood that there are times that former employees may receive calls for comment from the media, and there simply is not time to follow the pre-publication review process,” the ODNI wrote in a statement after the policies came to light.

“You rely on people who get out of government to give a more candid assessment of what’s going on inside it,” said Mazzetti. “We’ll have to see how it’s enforced and whether people listen to it. There will be people who will bristle at this attempt to control what they can say.”

At least so far, Jeff Stein, who covers intelligence matters for Newsweek, said that “during meetings with intelligence sources last week the order was having no apparent effect whatsoever.”

But Mazzetti noted that already, “leak investigations and revelations about surveillance capabilities are making people think twice about having any type of communication with reporters. These directives can’t help.” [Continue reading...]

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The slippery slope of secrecy

A New York Times editorial says: “If you want to keep a secret,” George Orwell advised in “1984,” “you must also hide it from yourself.” So the latest stricture seems to demand from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the federal uber-agency of all things secret. The office, which oversees 16 government intelligence agencies, issued a new policy in April that will seriously constrain the existing practice by which officials comment informally to the press and public when obvious issues are stirred by leaked information and unauthorized disclosures.

We consider this process an unavoidable but decidedly healthy way of life in Washington. But the updated policy sternly requires that an informed official who’s been regulating his own give-and-take in this important area now submit for advance approval an outline of the topics expected to arise in “unstructured or free-form discussions.” Otherwise, the policy memo states with a certain alarm, an official’s utterances could be construed as a validation of leaked information and “cause further harm to national security.”

The new prepublication review policy provides that the office’s current and former employees and contractors may not cite news reports based on leaks in their speeches, opinion articles, books, term papers or other unofficial writing, according to a report by Charlie Savage of The Times. Semaphore seems to have been overlooked as a medium, but we get the point.

The reassuring fact is that all manner of officials, from the president on down, occasionally speak authoritatively about an issue that might be informed by some bit of leaked information. It’s the mother’s milk of capital conversation. But don’t tell that to the director of national intelligence, James Clapper Jr., whose passion for keeping secrets at any cost — even his own reputation for honesty — has become legendary. It was Mr. Clapper who was asked at a Senate hearing last year whether the National Security Agency collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.”

“No, sir,” responded Mr. Clapper, adding, “Not wittingly.” Soon came the disclosures — leaks by the torrent — about the N.S.A.’s vast data-mining program.

The new crackdown policy caused enough confusion and derision that the national security office subsequently denied there was anything new about it; just a reminder of past policy. But anyone could see this wasn’t so — once the new policy memo was leaked, of course.

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The U.S. Intelligence Community doesn’t understand the world in which we live

Josh Kerbel writes: In 2012, the once-mighty Eastman-Kodak company declared bankruptcy. It was an event that should have reverberated strongly with the United States Intelligence Community (IC) — and not just due to the obvious connection between imaging and spying. Rather, it should have resonated because in Kodak the IC could have glimpsed a reflection of itself: an organization so captivated by its past that it was too slow in changing along with its environment.

To understand the IC’s similar captivation and lethargy — to remain focused on classified collection in an era of increasingly ubiquitous, useful and unclassified data — one must first understand the type of problem around which the modern IC business model remains designed: the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was fundamentally a collection problem. That is to say, it was a closed system (i.e., a discrete entity) with clear edges and a hierarchical governance structure. Given that nature, knowing what was happening in the Soviet Union required the use of classified means of collection — most of which the IC alone possessed.

Today, however, the IC no longer has the luxury of watching a single discrete entity that demands classified collection in order to obtain relevant data. There is a much more expansive range of interconnected and complex challenges. These challenges — economic contagion, viral political and social instability, resource competition, migration, climate change, transnational organized crime, pandemics, proliferation, cyber security, terrorism, etc. — are interdependent phenomena, not discrete ”things.” As such, they are less collection issues than cognitive ones. To put it differently: relevant data about all these issues is widely available—the real challenge is to make sense of it.

This, of course, is a very different world for the IC, one in which it has little experience. Consequently, the IC — unfortunately, but not surprisingly — does what it knows; it grafts its own legacy experience and expertise — classified collection — onto the new challenges that loom. Accordingly, terrorism (a broad phenomenon that needs to be thought about contextually) becomes — mistakenly — about terrorists (distinct things that need to be targeted for collection). Indeed, the whole slew of complex issues mentioned above get artificially and erroneously reduced to discrete chunks. Not only is this dangerously simplistic, it effectively puts the IC on a divergent path from the increasingly complex world it is tasked to understand. [Continue reading...]

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ODNI issues misleading statement on policy changes

Steve Aftergood writes: “Recent media reports have misconstrued ODNI’s policy for pre-publication of information to be publicly released,” according to a May 9 statement that was issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The ODNI policy had been described in articles published in Secrecy News (ODNI Requires Pre-Publication Review of All Public Information, May 8) and in the New York Times (Intelligence Policy Bans Citation of Leaked Material by Charlie Savage, May 8).

ODNI said that the new pre-publication review policy was basically a consolidation of two previous policies (ODNI Instruction 80.14/2007-6, July 25, 2007, and ODNI Instruction 80.04, August 5, 2009) and that it represented nothing very new.

“The revised policy is not significantly different from the two previous policies,” the new ODNI statement asserted.

But that assertion is hard to understand, since the text of the revised policy appears significantly different from its predecessors in several respects.

First and foremost, the previous policies focused on protection of classified information, while the revised policy casts a much broader net. [Continue reading...]

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The increasing isolation of the American national security state

Jack Shafer writes: The nation’s top spy has prohibited all of his spies from talking with reporters about “intelligence-related information” unless officially authorized to speak. Intelligence Community Directive 119, signed by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper last month and made public Monday in a report by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, threatens to reduce the flow of information from the national security establishment to the press — and hence the public.

As Aftergood notes, Directive 119 does not merely bar intelligence community employees from sharing classified intelligence information with reporters. It also bars the discussion with the media of unclassified intelligence information “related” to intelligence. Under Directive 119, any and all conversations between spooks and reporters not explicitly authorized by top officials will be criminalized at the worst or potentially put intelligence employees out of a job at the least. The same discussion of unclassified matters between an intelligence community employee and a non-reporter would be allowed, Aftergood further notes.

Directive 119 increases the insularity of the national security state, making the public less safe, not more. Until this directive was issued, intelligence community employees could provide subtext and context for the stories produced by the national security press without breaking the law. Starting now, every news story about the national security establishment that rates disfavor with the national security establishment — no matter how innocuous — will rate a full-bore investigation of sources by authorities. [Continue reading...]

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James Clapper: Director of National Fear

o13-iconMichael Cohen writes: James Clapper is very worried. It’s not the first time.

Last week the man who serves as America’s Director of National Intelligence trudged up to Capitol Hill to tell the assembled members of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee (pdf) that the annual worldwide threat assessment, put together by the intelligence community, has filled him with dread. He told the room:

Looking back over my more than half a century in intelligence, I have not experienced a time when we have been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.

That is some scary stuff.

However, if you think you’ve heard this before from Clapper … well you have.

Last year he appeared before Congress for a similar purpose and, lo and behold, he was very, very concerned then too (pdf):

I will say that my almost 50 years in intelligence, I do not recall a period in which we confront a more diverse array of threats, crises and challenges around the world. This year’s threat assessment illustrates how dramatically the world and our threat environment are changing.

And here he was in 2012 testifying (pdf) on that year’s threat assessment report, “Never has there been, in my almost 49-year career in intelligence, a more complex and interdependent array of challenges than that we face today.”

Of course, one must consider the possibility that over the past five decades the world has never been as dangerous, complex and challenging as it’s been over the past three years (putting aside for a moment that whole “threat of nuclear holocaust” that defined much of the 60s, 70s and 80s.) If, however, you’re skeptical about this, well you have good reason because Clapper’s alarmist tone is hardly matched by the threats he cites. [Continue reading...]

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NSA scrambles to defend itself

Having intelligence community leaders like Director of the National Security Agency Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper as front-line defenders for the NSA turned out to be an ineffective strategy when both were exposed as liars. So, the NSA must now communicate indirectly, relying on journalists who are willing to function as mouthpieces for the agency.

Following the latest revelations about eavesdropping on the private communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other foreign leaders, the Associated Press’s intelligence writer, Kimberly Dozier, offers explanations on how and why the NSA spies on U.S. allies. It’s unlikely that the answers she offers are a summation of her own deep knowledge of the way the NSA works. Much more likely, this is simply the summation of an NSA background briefing. Read this as a paraphrase of the NSA speaking for itself.

First off comes this claim: that “intercepting foreign diplomats’ or leaders’ communications, like the alleged eavesdropping on Merkel, as well as on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and former Mexican President Felipe Calderon” is spying that the NSA “is authorized to do”. The intended takeaway from that statement is: we didn’t break U.S. law. The question which this statement fudges, however, is whether the NSA was directed to carry out such surveillance.

Then we come to the basic question:

Q: Why bug the phone of an ally?

A: Even a close ally like Merkel doesn’t share everything with the Americans, but decisions she makes can have a major impact on U.S. foreign, defense and economic policy overseas. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic party just won an election, and she is in the process of wooing other German political parties to form a coalition government. The party she chooses could pull her political policies in a different direction, in terms of counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S., for instance, or perhaps the new coalition might chill Merkel’s support of the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Say what?! The NSA needs to bug Merkel’s phone so that the U.S. can receive advance notice of the political makeup of the coalition she is forming? It can’t simply rely on conventional diplomatic and political channels of communication? That’s ridiculous — unless it’s meant to imply that the U.S. wants to covertly exercise some influence on the outcome of that political process.

I don’t actually believe that’s the implication because I don’t think anyone in Washington or at the NSA is crazy enough to imagine that the U.S. could successfully interfere in the domestic politics of its allies in this way.

There is a much simpler answer to this question and it’s offered by a career American official with long experience in Europe who spoke to the New York Times. Why bug the phone of an ally? Because you can.

The report notes: “Administration officials say the National Security Agency, in its push to build a global data-gathering network that can reach into any country, has rarely weighed the long-term political costs of some of its operations.”

By all appearances, the NSA is now in cry-baby mode and instead of acknowledging that it is suffering the effects of self-inflicted wounds, it wants to cast itself as victim. The Washington Post provides emotional support:

U.S. officials are alerting some foreign intelligence services that documents detailing their secret cooperation with the United States have been obtained by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, according to government officials.

Snowden, U.S. officials said, took tens of thousands of documents, some of which contain sensitive material about collection programs against adversaries such as Iran, Russia and China. Some refer to operations that in some cases involve countries not publicly allied with the United States.

The process of informing officials in capital after capital about the risk of disclosure is delicate. In some cases, one part of the cooperating government may know about the collaboration while others — such as the foreign ministry — may not, the officials said. The documents, if disclosed, could compromise operations, officials said.

The notifications come as the Obama administration is scrambling to placate allies after allegations that the NSA has spied on foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The reports have forced the administration to downplay operations targeting friends while also attempting to preserve other programs that depend on provisional partners. In either case, trust in the United States may be compromised.

“It is certainly a concern, just as much as the U.S. collection [against European allies] being put in the news, if not more, because not only does it mean we have the potential of losing collection, but also of harming relationships,” a congressional aide said.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is handling the job of informing the other intelligence services, the officials said. ODNI declined to comment.

In one case, for instance, the files contain information about a program run from a NATO country against Russia that provides valuable intelligence for the U.S. Air Force and Navy, said one U.S. official, who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing criminal investigation. Snowden faces theft and espionage charges.

The narrative thrust here is that while the NSA is dealing with damage control, the cause of the damage was not the agency’s operations; it was Snowden’s revelations.

Instead of facing reality, the intelligence community would apparently now rather engage in a farcical exercise: present itself as victim of what it regards as the mischievous actions as a single man. The problem with this narrative (apart from the fact that it clearly misrepresents Edward Snowden’s actions) is that it actually underlines the inherent weakness of the bloated post 9/11 intelligence edifice: that is, that its weakness derives in large part from its sheer size.

As much as the actions of the NSA should be viewed in geopolitical terms, they should also be seen as the result of the beguiling power of technology. That is to say, when something is presented as being technically feasible — such as recording all the metadata associated with global communications — then that possibility becomes so alluring, that more fundamental questions get shunted to one side.

An obsession with accumulating more and more information turns into a maniacal desire. The expansion of the intelligence gathering process becomes a self-justifying, blindly funded enterprise which loses sight of basic questions about the value of the data, the means through which it can be productively analyzed, and the social and political implications of sanctioning perpetually expanding mass surveillance along with highly ill-advised targeted surveillance.

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The Post covers spy town

At the Atlantic, the independent investigative reporter, Tim Shorrock, slams the Washington Post‘s Top Secret America series:

Priest and Arkin offer an incredibly simplistic explanation for how the contracting bandwagon took off under President Bush, who they say manipulated “the federal budget process” to make it easier for agencies to hire contractors. Is that why Blackwater suddenly appeared on the scene in Afghanistan days after 9/11, signed up by counterterrorism official named Cofer Black who later joined the company? Is that how CACI International, a favorite of Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, got the interrogation work at Abu Ghraib prison through an “IT” contract outsourced to the Interior Department? The Post also completely ignored the huge growth of contracting during the Clinton administration, which “reinvented” government by downsizing and outsourcing the federal workforce — including spies and surveillance teams in places like Bosnia. Many of the companies that are big wheels today got some of their first contracts during the late 1990s.

Worse, there is virtually nothing in the series about the deeper political questions raised by privatization, including the obvious issue of the revolving door. Unbelievably, Priest and Arkin don’t even mention that President Bush’s DNI, Mike McConnell, and President Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, were both prominent contractors before taking their jobs. Why is that relevant? Well, McConnell came directly from Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the IC’s top contractors and an adviser to the NSA (and he’s back at Booz now). Brennan was an executive at The Analysis Corporation, which built a key terrorist database for the National Counterterrorism Center (which Brennan used to run).

There was not even a hint that Lt. Gen. James Clapper (ret.), who appeared before the Senate for his DNI confirmation hearing on the second day of the series, once had close ties to major contractors. Clapper once directed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which has extensive contracts with a satellite firm contracted by the government. Nor was there mention of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, the largest association for NSA and CIA contractors, for which McConnell, Brennan, and Clapper have all served as chairman. That’s not part of the story? Could Clapper’s experience have influenced his strong defense of contractors during his testimony? Or would mentioning such ties hurt the Post’s access to the ODNI and the White House?

Despite Arkin’s much-vaunted reputation in collecting data, not even the charts are very good. The Post’s enormous database of contractors will be a useful tool for researchers and journalists, and certainly reveals the incredible scope of the industry (nothing new there though). But it does little to inform the public about what private corporations such as Lockheed Martin, SAIC, and Northrop Grumman actually do for the CIA and the dozens of intelligence units within the Pentagon. That’s partly because — as the authors admit in a note to readers — they removed certain “data points” at the suggestion of intelligence officials.

Therefore, you can look up a company like Booz Allen and see which agencies it holds contracts with and what kind of counter-terrorism, intelligence, or homeland security work it does; but you can’t learn what special tasks it carries out for specific agencies. Now some may applaud the Post for the omission, but I just see a failure to disclose.

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EDITORIAL: Syria’s nuclear reactor

The Al Kibar nuclear reactor in Syria

As someone who voiced great skepticism about the initial claims that Israel destroyed a nuclear facility in the Syrian desert on September 6, 2007, I’ll be the first to admit that the evidence provided in the DNI background briefing presents proof that Syria was in fact close to completing the construction of a Calder-Hall type of nuclear reactor producing plutonium. The evidence of North Korean involvement is not quite as compelling but there doesn’t seem much reason to doubt it. (Nearly all the information that follows comes courtesy of Arms Control Wonk.)

Here’s the video:

All in all, in terms of intelligence, this looks like an open and shut case — with one noteworthy exception: In the intelligence briefing a senior intelligence officer when asked about evidence of a Syrian nuclear weapons development program said this:

To go with the question you’re asking – weapons – we said, we believe it. There’s no other reason for it. But our confidence level that it’s weapons is low at this point. We believe it, but it’s low based on the physical evidence.

In other words, the physical evidence gathered indicated that Syria had built a nuclear reactor that, once operational, would have been capable of producing plutonium. There was no evidence that the reactor had been built to produce electricity and neither was it deemed suitable to be a research facility. The production of plutonium for use in nuclear weapons was thus inferred in the absence of any other plausible explanation.

The next point worth noting is that the decision to bomb the facility was Israel’s:

Q: Would the U.S. have considered any kind of activity had the Israelis not?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We obviously were looking very closely at options, and we had looked at some approaches that involved a mix of diplomacy and the threat of military force with the goal of trying to ensure that the reactor was either dismantled or permanently disabled, and therefore never became operational.

We looked at those options. There were, as I mentioned to you, conversations with the Israelis. Israel felt that this reactor posed such an existential threat that a different approach was required. And as a sovereign country, Israel had to make its own evaluation of the threat and the immediacy of the threat, and what actions it should take. And it did so.

The unanswered questions at this point nearly all seem to be political. Such as:

1. Why did the US government back Israel in a military action that totally undermines the authority and value of the IAEA?

2. Why has the intelligence been released now?

3. What impact should this have on any agreement reached with North Korea?

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FEATURE: Can Mike McConnell fix America’s intelligence community?

The spymaster [PDF]

I asked how he [Mike McConnell, the US Director of National Intelligence,] defined torture.

“There’s a history of people making claims that it’s not torture if you don’t force the failure of a major organ,” McConnell said, referring to the infamous 2002 memo by John Yoo, a Justice Department lawyer, who argued that an interrogation technique was torture only when it was as painful as organ failure or death. “My view is, that’s kind of absurd. It’s pretty simple. Is it excruciatingly painful to the point of forcing someone to say something because of the pain?” McConnell leaned forward confidentially. “Now, how descriptive do I want to be with you? I don’t want to tell you everything, and why is that? Look, these guys talk because, among other things, they’re scared.”

McConnell asserted that it was not difficult to evaluate the truthfulness of a confession, even a coerced one. “And as soon as they start to talk we can tell in minutes if they are lying,” he said. “One, you know a lot. And you know when someone is giving you information that is not connecting up to what you know. You also know when to use a polygraph.”

McConnell refused to specify what new methods had been approved for the C.I.A. “There are techniques to get the information, and when they get the information it has saved lives,” he said vaguely. “We have people walking around in this country that are alive today because this process happened.”

Couldn’t the information be obtained through other means?

“No,” McConnell said. “You can say that absolutely.” He again cited the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. “He would not have talked to us in a hundred years. Tough guy. Absolutely committed. He had this mental image of himself as a warrior and a martyr. No way he would talk to us.” Among the things that Mohammed confessed to was the murder of Daniel Pearl. And yet few people involved in the investigation of Pearl’s death believe that Mohammed had anything to do with the crime; another man, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, was convicted of killing Pearl. I mentioned McConnell’s hero, General Powell, whose disastrous speech to the United Nations, in February, 2003, made the case to the world for invading Iraq—a case founded on faulty intelligence. Part of Powell’s presentation was based on the testimony of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, an Al Qaeda operative who was captured by Pakistani forces in December, 2001. The Pakistanis turned him over to the Americans. According to Jack Cloonan, a former F.B.I. agent involved in the interrogation, Libi was providing useful and accurate intelligence until the C.I.A. took custody of him and placed him inside a plywood box for transport. He was reportedly sent to Egypt and tortured. (An agency spokesman said, “The C.I.A. does not transport individuals anywhere to be tortured.”) Libi allegedly told his interrogators that the Iraqi military had trained two Al Qaeda associates in chemical and biological warfare. This was the essence of Colin Powell’s claim: Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was working with Al Qaeda. Neither assertion was true. How could we ever trust information obtained under torture when such methods had already led us into a catastrophic war?

“Now, wait a minute,” McConnell said. “You allege torture. I don’t know. Maybe it was. I don’t know.” He wasn’t in office at the time.

I asked what personal experiences informed his views.

McConnell recalled that before going to Vietnam he had participated in the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program. “You had to go through jungle training, get slapped around, knocked down, put in a box, physically abused,” he said. “That’s to prepare you for what the enemy might do to you.” McConnell was thrown into a covered pit with a snake. There was no room to stand or move around. “They would open up the thing and whack you a few times and close it down,” he said. “They beat us up reasonably well.” However, he knew that he was not going to die.

Waterboarding was not a part of the training when McConnell went through SERE, although it sometimes has been. “You know what waterboarding is?” he asked. “You lay somebody on this table, or put them in an inclined position, and put a washcloth over their face, and you just drip water right here”—he pointed to his nostrils. “Try it! What happens is, water will go up your nose. And so you will get the sensation of potentially drowning. That’s all waterboarding is.”

I asked if he considered that torture.

McConnell refused to answer directly, but he said, “My own definition of torture is something that would cause excruciating pain.”

Did waterboarding fit that description?

Referring to his teen-age days as a lifeguard, he said, “I know one thing. I’m a water-safety instructor, but I cannot swim without covering my nose. I don’t know if it’s some deviated septum or mucus membrane, but water just rushes in.” For him, he said, “waterboarding would be excruciating. If I had water draining into my nose, oh God, I just can’t imagine how painful! Whether it’s torture by anybody else’s definition, for me it would be torture.”

I queried McConnell again, later, about his views on waterboarding, since this exchange seemed to suggest that he personally condemned it. He rejected that interpretation. “You can do waterboarding lots of different ways,” he said. “I assume you can get to the point that a person is actually drowning.” That would certainly be torture, he said. The definition didn’t seem very different from John Yoo’s. The reason that he couldn’t be more specific, McConnell said, is that “if it ever is determined to be torture, there will be a huge penalty to be paid for anyone engaging in it.” [complete article - PDF]

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FEATURE: Intelligence reform

Nine little words in the NIE

Intelligence stories rarely get more complicated than this one. But this much is clear: Bush is the nation’s chief classification officer; he can make and unmake secrets at will. The White House says the president was briefed on the findings in the nearly 140-page report on Nov. 29, but the chief subject of that meeting was probably the question of declassification — whether to send the secret National Intelligence Estimate with its explosive first sentence to Congress and let it emerge in a slow agony of leaks over a matter of days or weeks, or to cauterize the wound and declassify the key judgments at the outset, hoping the argument would quickly burn itself out?

One of the basic laws of intelligence is that no big secret can be kept that can be written on the back of an envelope. No matter who first suggested declassification, it was the president who ultimately decided to release the nine words that reversed the conclusion of a previous intelligence assessment on Iran’s bomb program in 2005, and he did it because it was going to come out anyway.

One thing we know, from the document and from the fact of its declassification, is that reform of the intelligence community has apparently worked. The creation of Mike McConnell’s job as director of national intelligence has successfully insulated the CIA from pressure by the White House of the sort that played such a big role in the Iraq WMD fiasco. To call the new NIE “inconvenient” is simply another way of saying that it is not politicized. It is free from influence by policymakers. It represents the honest conclusion of the analysts given the job of deciding whether Tehran was trying to build a bomb. The fact that the NIE says what it says, and its release, both show that the White House has lost control over American intelligence. This good news probably needs a lot of hedging and qualification, but it is good all the same. [complete article]

Revisiting intelligence reform

As the Bush administration winds up nearly seven years of intelligence fiascos, a quiet revolution has been going on at the Pentagon, which controls more than 80% of America’s $60 billion intelligence budget. Since taking over from Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense in winter 2006, Robert Gates has greatly scaled down the Pentagon’s footprint on national security policy and intelligence. Working closely with Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Michael McConnell, he has slowly begun to assert civilian control over the key spy agencies funded by the defense budget and halted the Pentagon’s efforts to create its own intelligence apparatus independent of the CIA. The recent intelligence assessment of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, in contradicting early administration assertions, is perhaps the most significant sign of this newly won independence.

Those are significant actions. Under Rumsfeld, the Pentagon had become the dominant force in U.S. intelligence, with vast new powers in human intelligence and counterterrorism, both at home and abroad. By 2005, it was deploying secret commando units on clandestine missions in countries as far afield as the Philippines and Ecuador, sometimes without consulting with the local U.S. ambassadors and CIA station chiefs. At some point, President George W. Bush and his national security team apparently decided that the genie had to be put in the bottle, and sent Gates – a former CIA director who had worked closely with Vice President Dick Cheney during the first Bush administration – to put the kibosh on Rumsfeld’s private intelligence army.

But these efforts by Gates and McConnell to demilitarize U.S. Intelligence will never succeed until Congress, with the support of the next administration, removes the three national collection agencies – the National Security Agency (NSA), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) – from the Pentagon’s command-and-control system and places them directly, like the CIA, under the control of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). [complete article]

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