Brennan apologizes after internal report finds CIA spied on Congress

John Brennan and Dianne FeinsteinBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency has apologized to Congress members after an internal inquiry found that the Agency spied on Congressional staff investigating its use of torture in interrogations. The investigation, conducted by the CIA’s Office of the Inspector-General, was prompted by the very public spat back in March between the Agency and the Senate Intelligence Committee. The latter is tasked, along with its sister body in the House of Representatives, with exercising legislative oversight of the Intelligence Community. Many members of the Committee, which has just concluded a probe over the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation against terrorism detainees, believe that, not only was the CIA’s use of torture methods illegal, but that it also failed to generate useful intelligence. The CIA, however, has denied this all along, and has been quite possessive of documents relating to the subject, which the Committee believed had a right to access. When the Committee accused the CIA of illegally searching the computers used by staffers to carry out their research into CIA files, the Agency responded by asking the Federal Bureau of Investigation to look into whether Congressional staffers illegally removed classified documents from the CIA’s archives that were beyond the scope of the Committee’s investigation. But the CIA’s own report appears to have completely vindicated Congress, having found that CIA officers created a fake online identity in order to surreptitiously access a number of computers used by Congressional staffers. The report’s findings prompted a private meeting earlier this week between CIA Director John Brennan and two senior members of the Committee, Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga), during which Brennan reportedly apologized. Feinstein, however, who was very vocal in denouncing the CIA’s shenanigans back in March, allegedly took Brennan to task about his staunch defense of his employees last spring. Read more of this post

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White House confirms CIA Director visited Ukraine

John BrennanBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
White House officials has confirmed that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency visited Ukraine over the weekend, following reports in the Russian media. On Sunday, Moscow urged Washington to respond to allegations in the Russian press that CIA Director John Brennan had made an incognito visit to Ukrainian capital Kiev. The reports alleged that Brennan, who assumed the directorship of the CIA a year ago, traveled to Ukraine on official business under a false identity in order to avoid attention. Russian media further alleged that the CIA head met with a host of Ukrainian intelligence and security officials and advised them on how to respond to the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine. Initially, Washington denied comment on the allegations. But early on Monday White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that Brennan had indeed traveled to Ukraine over the weekend. He said that the White House normally declines comment on the whereabouts of the CIA Director. However, “given the extraordinary circumstances” in the case of Ukraine, he said he was willing to confirm that Brennan was in Kiev over the weekend “as part of a trip to Europe”. He went on to state that he hoped the official confirmation of Brennan’s trip by the White House would suffice to discredit the “false claims being leveled by the Russians at the CIA”. Carney added that there was nothing inherently suspicious about a CIA Director’s trip to a foreign country. He argued that “senior-level visits of intelligence officials [abroad] are a standard means of fostering mutually beneficial security cooperation” and that such visits —some of which have been to Russia— go back “to the beginnings of the post-Cold War era”. Read more of this post

Obama comments on Senate-CIA dispute, fails to mention Feinstein

Chuck Hagel, Barack Obama, John BrennanBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Yesterday in a radio interview I opined that I would not be surprised if the White House stepped in to mediate the ongoing dispute between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Today, President Barack Obama broke his silence “with respect to the issues that are going back and forth between the Senate committee and the CIA”, as he said. But he refused to take sides —or did he? On Wednesday afternoon, the President responded to a question on the matter by a White House pool correspondent. The question related to the increasingly heated public spat between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee. The latter is tasked, along with its sister body in the House of Representatives, with exercising legislative oversight of the Intelligence Community. Many members of the Committee, which is currently investigating the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation against terrorism detainees, believe that, not only was the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation methods illegal, but that it also failed to generate useful intelligence. The CIA, however, denies this, and has been quite possessive of documents relating to the issue, which the Committee believes has a right to access. The Agency has now asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to look into whether Congressional staffers illegally removed classified documents from the CIA’s archives that were beyond the scope of the Committee’s investigation. The Committee has in turn asked the Bureau to investigate whether the CIA illegally searched the computers used by staffers to carry out their research into CIA files.

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Comment: The significance of the spat between Congress and the CIA

John Brennan and Dianne FeinsteinBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, had gone out of her way in recent days to avoid commenting on the ongoing quarrel between her Committee and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). That ended yesterday, when she gave a press conference accusing the CIA of illegally spying on her Committee’s Congressional staffers. Her stunning announcement came shortly after her tense meeting with the Director of the CIA, a bad-tempered John Brennan. She told the media that at the meeting she requested from Brennan an apology and acknowledgement that the alleged CIA spying was “inappropriate”. By her own account, she failed to get either, so she decided to go public. In an interview I gave yesterday to Michigan’s WILS 1230 AM’s Capital City Recap, I argued that the quarrel between the two government bodies is not in itself important. What is important, I told radio host Mike Cohen, is that the dispute has entered the public arena. A routine ‘push and shove’ mêlée has turned into an all-out fistfight in full view of the media. One Republican Senator, Lindsay Graham, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that the time had come for “the legislative branch [to] declare war on the CIA”. In response to the Committee’s accusations, the CIA has apparently instructed the Department of Justice to investigate the alleged removal by Congressional staffers of classified documents that were “protected by executive privilege [and were] beyond the scope of the Committee’s investigation”.

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US intelligence agencies urge ‘cautious approach’ on Ukraine

Chuck Hagel, Barack Obama, John BrennanBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
American intelligence agencies see Russia’s control of the Crimean Peninsula as near-complete and urge Washington to take cautious steps on Ukraine, as Moscow appears prepared “to take military action” in defense of its strategic goals. The Los Angeles Times reported on Monday that some American intelligence analysts believe Moscow is genuinely convinced that its military action in Ukraine is justified under the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. The agreement was signed in 1994 by the United States, United Kingdom, and the Russian Federation. The three nuclear powers guaranteed that they would refrain from actions that would subvert the territorial integrity and political autonomy of Ukraine. Western officials have accused Moscow of violating the agreement by dispatching Russian troops to southeastern Ukraine without the consent of the Ukrainian government. But some American intelligence analysts believe the Russian Foreign Ministry is convinced that Russian forces are acting within the scope of the 1994 agreement. The latter is interpreted by Russian officials as permitting Moscow to unilaterally dispatch up to 25,000 troops to the Crimea. This may even be the predominant view at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), judging by a briefing given last week by the Director of the CIA, John Brennan, to an unnamed “senior lawmaker”. The Times cited “US officials who declined to be named” as saying that Brennan suggested that Russian officials genuinely believe that the number of Russian troops in Ukraine “remains well below the threshold” specified in the Budapest Memorandum. Brennan added that, although he did not personally agree with Moscow’s interpretation of the Memorandum, it would be wise for Washington to tread cautiously on the subject, given the fact that Russian policy on Crimea remains unpredictable. Read more of this post

CIA officer who purged torture evidence is rewarded with promotion

Chuck Hagel, Barack Obama, John BrennanBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
A United States Central Intelligence Agency officer who was personally involved in the illegal controversial destruction of videotapes showing CIA personnel torturing detainees, is now leading the Agency’s operations division. At the center of the affair are nearly 100 recordings of interrogation sessions of al-Qaeda suspects Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The videotapes were made in 2002 at a CIA black site in Thailand and kept inside a safe at the Agency’s station in the Asian country. The CIA decided to destroy the videotapes soon after May of 2005, when the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate demanded access to them. In 2007, after The New York Times revealed the destruction of the videotapes, the US Department of Justice ordered two separate investigations into the incident. However, under pressure from the administration of President Barack Obama, no criminal charges were ever pressed. The videotape affair is bound to resurface in the headlines, however, after The Washington Post revealed on Wednesday that a female CIA officer, who personally ordered the destruction of the videotapes, even though she knew that Congress had asked for them, was recently promoted to one of the CIA’s most senior posts. The officer, whose name cannot legally be revealed, because she remains undercover within the Agency, is currently in charge of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service (NCS), which is responsible for conducting covert action and espionage around the world. Many consider the NCS as the ‘heart and soul’ of the CIA, and it is the first time in the history of the CIA that a woman has led that secretive division. Citing “current and former intelligence officials”, The Post alleged that the officer entered the position in an acting capacity a few weeks ago, following the retirement of her boss. Read more of this post

Secret report warns US spy mission distorted by ‘war on terror’

CIA headquartersBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
America’s concentration on the ‘war on terrorism’ has distorted the mission and scope of its Intelligence Community, according to a secret report commissioned by the White House. The classified report was compiled by the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, which counsels Barack Obama on intelligence matters. It cautions the President that the intelligence output of organizations such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency has been disabled by tunnel vision and operational fatigue in the pursuit of al-Qaeda. The study also states that the overwhelming focus on Islamic militancy has distracted US intelligence from focusing on state actors such as China, and has hampered the success American intelligence operations outside Muslim regions of the world. The Washington Post, which disclosed the existence of the report on Thursday, said the team of 14 advisers that produced the report was led by “influential figures” on Capitol Hill, such as Chuck Hagel, Obama’s new Secretary of Defense. The paper added that, based on comments made by senior Obama Administration officials in recent months, it appears that the classified study, which was authored last year, has been adopted by the Obama White House as a major policy directive. The Post suggested that the report prompted comments earlier this year by John O. Brennan, the CIA’s new Director, that he planned to reevaluate the Agency’s “allocation of mission” as a matter of priority. However, countering the operational fatigue caused by the nearly 15-year long ‘war on terrorism’ will take time, and it remains unclear whether agencies like the CIA can ever shed the paramilitary role they acquired under the Administration of US President George W. Bush. Read more of this post

Obama’s National Security Nominations: Nothing to See Here

Chuck Hagel, Barack Obama, John BrennanBy I. ALLEN and J. FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
The deluge of reports that are flooding the news media about the national security nominations of United States President Barack Obama is both natural and understandable. The Departments of State and Defense, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency, are among the critical components of the American government, especially in matters of foreign policy. Yet much of the commentary on the nominations of John Kerry for State, Chuck Hagel for the Pentagon, and John Brennan for the CIA, is unduly over-dramatizing what is essentially a routine story. To begin with, it is clear that, in selecting Kerry, Hagel and Brennan for the nominations, the President’s priority was to surround himself with people he knows and trusts. Knowledgeable observers point out that all three nominees come from Obama’s most trusted circle of friends and —if appointed— will allow the President to stay well “within his comfort zone” as he begins his second term in office. In this sense, Obama selected the three candidates, not with some major policy shift in mind, but in order to ensure continuity and permanence in his foreign policy.

Take John Brennan, for instance: an Arabic-speaking career officer in the CIA, who has served the Agency in various positions for over 25 years. It is undeniable that, since 2008, Brennan has been instrumental in shaping the thinking behind the Obama administration’s targeted killings program using unmanned drones. According to some analysts, he has been the White House’s “most important adviser for shaping the campaign of drone strikes”. As intelNews explained recently, Washington’s unmanned drone program will continue and most likely expand, but this has little to do with Brennan. As an excellent analysis of Brennan’s nomination (by the Council on Foreign Relations’ Micah Zenko) points out, the CIA’s targeted killing program “has become institutionalized” with a momentum of its own, which ensures its sustainability, “making it far bigger than any one person —even John Brennan”.

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Controversy over head of Obama’s terrorism watch-list review

John Brennan

John Brennan

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
A veteran CIA official appointed to review the US government’s defective terrorism watch-list system, was actually involved in designing it, and later helped sustain it through a lucrative private-sector contract. John O. Brennan was appointed by President Barack Obama on Sunday to head a “comprehensive interagency review” of travel security measures, after it was revealed that the father of Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, the Christmas Day airline bomb plot suspect, had notified the CIA about his son’s activities. It turns out, however, that not only was Brennan part of the US National Counterterrorism Center team that designed the terrorism watch-list system, but he also helped sustain it while heading the Analysis Corporation, a scandal-prone private contractor charged with overseeing the watch-list system. Politico’s Carol Lee and Laura Rozen are among the very few reporters who have connected the dots on Brennan. Read more of this post

Obama to restructure White House oversight of domestic security

Brennan

Brennan

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Almost immediately following the 9/11 attacks, President George Bush reorganized the White House supervision of domestic security issues by appointing a new Homeland Security Advisor to the President. Shortly afterwards he issued a directive creating a Homeland Security Council operating inside the White House, and tasked it with overseeing domestic security efforts. The main idea behind the reorganization was to allow the National Security Council (NSC) to concentrate on international security issues by transferring responsibility for domestic security to the new Homeland Security Council. Bush’s plan has been criticized as reflecting a simplistic and artificial separation of domestic versus international security. It now appears that US President Elect Barack Obama is intent on scrapping the majority of Bush’s 2001 reorganization, by eliminating the Homeland Security Council and reassigning the task of domestic security to the National Security Council. Furthermore, under Obama’s plan, the Homeland Security Advisor will be replaced by a new National Security Advisor who will be reporting to the President on domestic security issues, as instructed by the NSC.  Read more of this post

Comment: Obama may retain current CIA leadership

In early November, US President-Elect Barack Obama appeared to be determined to install John Brennan, former head of the National Counterterrorism Center and supporter of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques”, to the post of Director of the CIA. The stir caused by Brennan’s support of torture techniques soon caused him to resign from the candidacy. The New York Times described Brennan’s resignation as “the biggest glitch so far in what has been an otherwise smooth transition for Mr. Obama”. On December 3, the paper warned that Obama’s decision to exclude Brennan from the CIA has “created anxiety in the ranks of the agency’s clandestine service”. It also quoted an unnamed intelligence official who cautioned the Obama transition team that Obama “may have difficulty finding a candidate who can be embraced by both veteran officials at the agency and the left flank of the Democratic Party”. In other words, the Clandestine Service does not intend to co-operate with a progressive attempt to restructure the CIA along essentially democratic lines. The threat appears to have been received. US News and World Report has cited the usual anonymous “intelligence sources” in speculating that “it is possible that [the President-Elect] might ask CIA Director Mike Hayden to stay on for a while”. Read more of this post

CIA will not embrace “left Democrat” Director, article warns

On November 16, 2008, we reported that John Brennan, former head of the National Counterterrorism Center and supporter of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques”, was  said to be “a potential candidate for a top intelligence post” (the CIA) under Barack Obama. Brennan’s support for torture during interrogations proved too controversial for the Obama transition team. On November 25, Brennan sent Obama a letter [pdf] essentially resigning from the candidacy of Director of the CIA. Now The New York Times has published a report describing the Brennan resignation as “the biggest glitch so far in what has been an otherwise smooth transition for Mr. Obama” and warning that Obama’s decision to exclude Brennan from the CIA has “created anxiety in the ranks of the agency’s clandestine service”. Mark Lowenthal, who left the CIA in 2005, is quoted as stating that the President-Elect’s decision to axe Brennan’s name from the directorship candidacy list has been perceived by the agency to mean that “if you worked in the CIA during the war on terror, you are now tainted”. The problem, however, appears to be somewhat deeper than just Brennan’s name, and seems to be related to politics more than anything else. Essentially, “CIA veterans suggest that the president-elect may have difficulty finding a candidate who can be embraced by both veteran officials at the agency and the left flank of the Democratic Party”. [IA]

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Brennan withdraws from intelligence post consideration

On November 16, 2008, we reported that John Brennan, former head of the National Counterterrorism Center and supporter of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques”, was  said to be “a potential candidate for a top intelligence post” (the CIA) under Barack Obama. On November 22, a group of 200 psychology professionals issued an open letter to the US President-Elect, expressing strong concerns about the possibility of Brennan heading the CIA. Three days later, Brennan sent Obama a letter [pdf] requesting that his “name be withdrawn from consideration for a position within the Intelligence Community”. An Obama spokesman has confirmed that the President-Elect has accepted Brennan’s request. An ABC News commentator has correctly pointed out that “Brennan [...] continues to work on the Obama Transition Team and though he removed his name from consideration for an Intelligence job, there’s nothing to say he won’t land a spot in the Obama administration”. [IA]

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Obama’s intelligence policy

While Barack Obama’s progressive supporters are busy celebrating, government insiders are cautioning against any premature ideas that the new President-elect is likely to implement any meaningful change in policy. Intelligence is no exception. A recent report in the Wall Street Journal states that “Obama is unlikely to radically overhaul controversial Bush administration intelligence policies”. 

Moreover, Obama’s intelligence transition team is said to be composed largely of what observers call “pragmatists”, i.e. mostly officials “who have supported Republicans, and centrist former officials in the Clinton administration”. These “centrist pragmatists” include John Brennan, former head of the National Counterterrorism Center and supporter of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Another member of the team is no other than Jami Miscik, “the fastest-rising woman in the history of the CIA”, who later left the Agency to join Lehman Brothers. Prior to leaving the CIA, Miscik became known for defending the CIA’s politicized (and suspiciously inaccurate) report titled “Iraq and al-Qaida: Assessing a Murky Relationship”, which helped the Bush Administration put forward the fictitious connection between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaeda.

 

Notably, Brennan once publicly defended the practice of extraordinary rendition (i.e. the transfer of prisoners held by the CIA to countries that routinely practice torture during interrogation) as an “absolutely vital tool” with which he had “been intimately familiar [...] over the past decade”. He is now said to be “a potential candidate for a top intelligence post” under Barack Obama.

 

Administration appointments aside, it is interesting to see what passes for “centrist pragmatism” in today’s US intelligence environment. If career officials who support extraordinary rendition and the extralegal use of torture are described as moderate “centrist pragmatists”, then what are hardliners like? [IA]

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