Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Spies: What to do?

DiFi vs. the Agency. First and foremost, Diane Feinstein is not usually considered a friend to critics of the intelligence community. She has been obscenely deferential to the spooks since, like, forever. So why is she the one to "go nuclear" on the latest CIA scandal?

(Which, by the way, isn't really that much of a scandal. Compared to something like the assassination of president, this current brouhaha is nothing.)

If I understand all of this aright, the scandal has to do with congressional staffers investigating the Agency's infamous torture program. These staffers somehow gained access to a document with incriminating information -- a document that the Agency tried to keep from them. In retaliation, the CIA tried to sic the Justice Department on those investigators -- as though they were the ones who had committed sin. In fact, they work for the people who supposedly work for us.

Feinstein, normally so docile in her dealings with Spookworld, is raising a ruckus. But what can she really do? What can any congressperson do? Marcy Wheeler paints a dispiriting picture of the options available to DiFi...
Feinstein can only “drag top spies” before Congress if she is able to wield subpoena power. Not only won’t her counterpart, Saxby Chambliss (who generally sides with the CIA in this dispute) go along with that, but recent legal battles have largely gutted Congress’ subpoena power.
Feinstein could launch a broader investigation into the CIA’s relations with Congress. But that would again require either subpoenas (and the willingness of DOJ to enforce them, which is not at all clear she’d have) or cooperation.

Or Feinstein could cut CIA’s funding. But on Appropriations, she’ll need Barb Mikulski’s cooperation, and Mikulski has been one of the more lukewarm Democrats on this issue. (And all that’s assuming you’re only targeting CIA; as soon as you target Mikulski’s constituent agency, NSA, Maryland’s Senator would likely ditch Feinstein in a second.)
This brings us to a question that has been haunting me the past couple of days. Obviously, our current system of congressional oversight is a joke -- a bad joke. And the joke has been going on for decades.
If we study history, we’ll find rather quickly that the CIA has repeatedly, systematically, misled Congress.

Miles Copeland, one of the founding fathers of the CIA, talked of the use of “Byzantine intrigues” designed to keep Congress off its back.

Tom Braden noted that CIA Director Allen Dulles and CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton used to discuss each morning, in the guise of fishing talk, the “take” from the night before, i.e., intelligence gathered on prominent denizens of Capitol Hill from CIA taps sprinkled throughout the community.

(Braden, who died recently, is famously cited for writing an article titled “Why I’m Glad the CIA is Immoral.” Few commentators note that, in a later article, penned in the wake of disclosures about the Agency’s wrongdoings, Braden advocated the abolition of the CIA.)

Angleton said at one point that if the CIA couldn’t find out its own future from tapping the Hill, it had no business being in intelligence.

It should go without saying that “gossip” could easily become blackmail material, especially where illicit sexual liaisons were involved.
Even more eye-opening is this old interview with the famed (and now-deceased) CIA operative Miles Copeland. Asked by journalist Robert Eringer to list the finest Directors of the Agency, Copeland first pointed to George Bush the elder and then to Richard Helms.
ERINGER: Helms lied to a congressional committee.

COPELAND: That's one of his better traits, that he's willing to lie to a congressional committee. William Colby didn't have the guts to do this. Lacking patriotism, he did not lie to a committee.

ERINGER: Wait a minute--lacking patriotism?

COPELAND: Absolutely. Why should he tell a group things he knew would leak to the newspapers? He should lied to them. If he were really a patriotic American, he wouldn't have thought of telling them the truth.

ERINGER: And Helms gets high marks for perjury?

COPELAND: With me and with everyone who has ever been a career officer in the government. Absolutely.
You may recall the evidence that came out earlier that the NSA has been spying on members of Congress. Russell Tice:
Okay. They went after–and I know this because I had my hands literally on the paperwork for these sort of things–they went after high-ranking military officers; they went after members of Congress, both Senate and the House, especially on the intelligence committees and on the armed services committees and some of the–and judicial.
You may not know that the first such accusation occurred during the Vietnam War era.

I could go on and on. The point is that we've known for a long time that the intelligence community has exercised a great deal of control over the Senate and House committees tasked with oversight. One senator who went after the Agency with gusto was Frank Church; the CIA retaliated by funneling aid to his opponent in the next election.

They have other means of retaliation. Let's take another look at that interview with Miles Copeland...
COPELAND: You can kill a man by putting certain substance on a letter you send him which gets into his system simply through holding the letter in his fingers. You can make him allergic to almost anything--alcohol, Aspirin, even coffee or tea--that if he takes even a small quantity he will drop over dead. You can program a pair of dogs--even his own dogs--to savage him to death upon a given signal. But you don't have to kill him. You can make a fool out of him.

ERINGER: For example?

COPELAND: You can slip an LSD pill into his lemonade as he is about to make a speech or have an electric fan blow 'distress gas' onto him, oryou can doctor his notes so that simply by holding them in his hands he will absorb enough hallucinatory materials to make him think he is God.
Now you know why pieces like this one by David Corn kind of piss me off. Corn writes as though this kind of crisis represents something new, when the only novelty I can see here is the sight of the normally complacent DiFi daring to speak up.

Let's address a basic question: If the current system does not work, what kind of oversight would work?

Yes, I know -- asking this question is akin to playing "bell the cat." It's easy for the mice to propose putting a bell around the cat's neck, but very difficult for the mice to think of a way to accomplish that goal. Similarly, it's easy to propose ways to make intellignce oversight stronger, but very difficult to get an improved oversight system in place.

Beyond that is a more fundamental problem: The CIA is whole 'nother breed of feline, and I'm not sure that any bell would make this beast less dangerous.

Nevertheless, I'm going to toss out a few preliminary ideas.

I would suggest a non-congressional oversight body -- and if this body constitutes a fourth branch of government, so be it. It would have to be a large committee, one which represents the entire citizenry. I suggest one member from each state. These members would be either chosen by the state's governor or elected directly by the people. For various reasons, I would suggest a single ten-year term of office.

Each board member would be granted full and unconditional access to all documents and records of any intelligence service. The means of access would be determined by the committee members, not by the spooks. The CIA should no longer be allowed to dictate the circumstances under which items may be viewed or discussed.

Each member would be allowed to declassify any piece of information as he or she sees fit. Conscience (and the laws against treason) would be his or her only guide.

Any intelligence officer who attempted to deceive an overseer in any way would be subject to grave legal penalties. Any intelligence officer who knew of someone else's attempt to deceive the overseers would be required by law to disclose said knowledge immediately, or be considered a co-conspirator.

Do you think that such a system would work? Should oversight be even stronger?

I'm not going to ask you how to implement this system. This particular cat may be un-bellable.
Comments:
There comes a point when the cancer has metastasized to the point where the patient can no longer be saved. I think the reality in this country is just that.
 
I can think of a better security oversight system: abolish the CIA and the rest altogether. Make the government properly transparent. In this country we have MI5, who, as Adam Curtis recently pointed out, are tasked with catching spies and have failed to catch even one over their entire history. Spies are just a club of rich criminals, not a legitimate national asset.

MI5 are forbidden from spying on MPs. a couple of years ago there was a scandal when they accidentally bugged an MP. It wasn't in his capacity as an MP, you see, they were listening in on a "terror suspect" talking to his lawyer, and the lawyer happened to be an MP. No-one seemed all that bothered about the breech of confidentiality regarding comnunications with lawyers.

The reporter who broke that story was harrassed and prosecuted for it. They claimed she bribed a policeman.

 
This may sound ridiculously extreme, but I'm quite serious. There needs to be an Executive Order for the CIA to disband, and if they are discovered to continue working together in any other guise (i.e., having faked the disbandment, like the OSS did at the end of WW2), they should be convicted of treason and executed.
 
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