A bevy of the Intelligence Community's heavies showed up in Texas last month. This was the third such high-powered visit within the past year. Nobody quite knows why the Alamo state was so honored. There are a few speculations flitting around the Chisholm Trail camp fires. One is that John Brennan, an UT alum, was desperate to boost the Longhorns before they join the state Democrats on the Endangered Species list. Another is that they spy a rare opportunity to do some hands-on recruiting of agents at the border in anticipation of a forthcoming "pivot to Patagonia." Also in circulation is the story that the public events are cover for intensive briefing of George P. Bush (Commissioner of the Texas Land Office) as next in line of succession.
Whatever the reason for the Austin visit, what was said and done is noteworthy.
CIA chief John Brennan was in Austin last week. He spoke to the Robert Strauss Center at the University of Texas. The Center has become one of the Intelligence Community's strong-points as it gins up its reenergized "strategic communications" campaign which targets a domestic as well as an external audience. The aim is to still anxieties about surveillance and related activities while bolstering support for an aggressive use of American intelligence capabilities. Over the past year, high powered teams from the DIA, NSA and Office of National Intelligence have held large public meetings under University sponsorship. Now that Admiral (ret) William McRaven has been appointed chancellor of the entire UT system, those links can be expected to strengthen.
The nominal purpose for Brennan's visit to his alma mater was to publicize the unprecedented release of Presidential Briefings dating back to the Kennedy-Johnson era. The ceremonial self-congratulation failed to make mention of the inconvenient fact that the Intelligence Community has been fighting tooth-and-nail to keep them secret until finally the Agency lost a years-long court battle. Brennan was accompanied by an impressive coterie (past and present) from the intelligence world: General James Clapper, Bobby Inman, Porter Goss, and John Helgerson. The high point of the festivities, which lasted two days, was a formal address by Brennan wherein he eloquently extolled the virtues of the Agency, of accountable government and - above all - transparency. He received a sustained standing ovation from the audience of 400 Texans with only three unnoticed exceptions.1
The sole awkward moment occurred when one of those seditious exceptions called attention to himself by posing the following question:
"Director Brennan recently has testified that the CIA had been alert to the emergence of ISIL, and had correctly assessed its capabilities, from 2012 onwards. Yet, President Obama publicly belittled it as late as February 2014 (a few months after ISIL's seizure of Falluja and parts of Ramadi) - calling it "a junior varsity of al-Qaeda." Logically, there are three possible explanations for the discrepancy One, the President did not absorb his briefing or the Agency assessment; two, he was not fully briefed on it; or, the assessment in fact was never made. Could you please enlighten us as to which explanation is the correct one"
The question was declared out-of-order by the chair because the discussion was restricted to the history of Presidential Briefings. By that time, Mr. Brennan had left the stage. I'm sure that if he had been there, he would have insisted on answering the question - in the interest of transparency.
The Intelligence Community as a whole has been engaged in a vigorous campaign to win back the hearts and minds of Americans (numerous outside of Texas) in the wake of several exposes as to its methods and failures. This is a calculated counter-attack against all those in the media, the Congress and civil liberties community who have tarnished its reputation for probity and integrity. The IC see the damage as considerable; to the country's safety and security (public explanation), and to their bloated organizations, prerogatives, policy influence - and careers (sotto voce explanation). Brennan has been point man for this operation. (The fairy-tale Zero Dark Thirty, scripted and underwritten by the CIA, is the outstanding example of the Agency's public education project).
John Brennan is an odd character. A feisty nature is matched by a flushed visage that always appears to foreshadow a tirade or tantrum - even when he is speaking calmly and deliberately. This vehemence is hardly what one associates with the master spy who heads the ultra-secret Central Intelligence Agency. Brennan made his bones in the Agency's operational wing rather than on its analytical side. The latter, always looked down upon as the CIA's lower caste, has been further diminished in the GWOT by the agency's politicization and stress on telegenic heroics. Brennan was Chief of Staff to George Tenet in the years immediately preceding 9/11.
Brennan, having risen to be Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (and then became CEO of The Analysis Corporation,2 a security consulting business) was hand-picked by the newly elected Barack Obama to be his in-house director of counter terrorism and all-purpose adviser on homeland security. It was an historic occasion - for the ambitious Brennan and for
American foreign policy. For Obama quickly fell into thrall to Brennan's tough-guy reading of the manifold dangers menacing the United States and the imperative to pull out all stops in order to counter them. He has spoken publicly of how he helped "school" an untutored President in the harsh realities of international life. Soon, John Brennan - George Tenet's loyal lieutenant, latterly head of an Intelligence industry beneficiary of public funds, and congenital liar -had the President of the United States eating out of his hand for the past six and a half years.
The President habitually comes under the sway of willful, assertive personalities - unable to resist them or their message. That holds for Robert Gates, David Petraeus, Robert Rubin, Jaime Dimon, Bibi Netanyahu - and John Brennan. Obama, a novice who was instinctively obedient to the instruction of the experienced 'pros' who really knew how the world works, became a devout adherent to the "let's hit them before they hit us" doctrine. That turnaround was soon evident.
Obama the candidate had vowed to filibuster the proposed legislative renewal and revision of the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act (FSIA) which extended the NSA's powers of electronic surveillance - among other dubious powers. By December, even before the inauguration, he pronounced himself an unqualified backer. That step presaged a series of decisions whereby the White House reversed itself on the closure of Guantanamo, launched an unbridled drone campaign in Afghanistan/Pakistani which quickly was extended across the Middle East, tightened to the point of strangulation the already restrictive policies on the classification of government information and the persecution of anyone deemed to violate it, the expansion of electronic surveillance at home andabroad, devising a scheme that empowers the President to assassinate American citizens abroad on nothing more than his own volition, the signing of Republican sponsored legislation that requires the President to imprison without due process or public notification anyone deemed a terrorist threat to the United States - a de facto abrogation of the Constitutional protection of habeus corpus; and the denial to Congressional
oversight committees the access to documents they required to perform their legally stipulated functions. The campaign culminated in Obama's collaboration with the CIA, by then under the direction of John Brennan, to stifle the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on surveillance abuses.
The Obama-Brennan partnership has been the shaping influence on the United States' conduct of the GWOT and its domestic intelligence activities over the past six years. It has been a classic partnership: Obama's velvet glove masking Brennan's iron fist. The inter-personal dynamics are fascinating and indecipherable: mixing the super-cool Obama with the simmering Brennan. Moreover, the President cultivates the image of the straight-shooter - the honest to the bone truth-teller. By contrast, Brennan is a master of deception. There is nothing of the subtle dissembler or shifty con man about him. Brennan is a belligerent liar who seemingly dares you to call him out. The guy sitting at the end of the bar who growls: "Putin was behind the 9/11 attack" - glaring at anyone who might object.
This is the man who boldly testified to a Congressional Committee that not a single civilian had been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan. This is the man who told the press, the morning after Osama bin-Laden's assassination was announced, that OBL had shot it out with the SEALS while holding his youngest wife as a shield - all a total fabrication. This is the man who tells Americans that there is no blanket electronic surveillance of their communications. This is the man who denied ordering the hacking of the Senate Intelligence Committee's computers. When refuted, this is the man who claims that the Agency was simply retrieving its property "stolen" by the Committee's staffers. The same man who this July drafts a letter of apology to Senator
Feinstein but who, on reflection, decides not to send it.** This is Barack Obama's bosom buddy - who did Obama's bidding on the Senate Intelligence Committee caper.
Lying, of course, has become a staple of our public officials' address to their constituents these days. It is especially pronounced in the Intelligence Community. Yes, it is endemic to every Intelligence establishment. However, it is one thing to lie in order to protect vital national interests; it is something else to lie in order to protect careers, organizational interests, or illicit activities. Lying as part of a propaganda campaign directed at the American public is a category of its own.
General (ret) William Hayden, former Director of NSA and of National Intelligence, packages his lies in a well-modulated, authoritative voice - as when instructing a university audience that the Fourth Amendment says nothing about "unreasonable searches and seizures." Just last week, he reiterated the bald assertion that the CIA's brutal "enhancement interrogation" techniques did not come close to qualifying as torture - despite efforts of the Senate Intelligence Committee to make it appear that the Agency performed heinous acts equivalent to nailing Jesus to the cross.3 Committee Chair Diane Feinstein coolly responded that "There are more than 6.3 million pages of records that .....show Hayden provided substantial amounts of inaccurate information to the Committee on the (torture) program," The CIA itself has acknowledged that in a report prepared by the Agency's Inspector General back in 2004 - a report that has been under wraps.4
General James Clapper's style is dry and bureaucratic. He is the dour keeper of the state's secrets, the grave responsibility to which he is devoted like the cowled abbot who secrets the sacred writings away from the prying eyes of the impressionable novices. That sense of duty impelled him to perjure himself before the Senate Intelligence Community in making the
unequivocal declaration that the NSA does not tap into the private conversations of American citizens. A lie that he later characterized as the least untruthful way of safeguarding national security - an act for which he is accountable only to a Higher Authority who has a Top Secret security clearance.
The suave, elite educated Mr. Obama slips past his listeners the canards that: no American military personnel are engaged in combat in Afghanistan as news reports describe Special Forces assaults on Taliban positions, widespread airstrikes in close support of Afghan National Army missions, and General John Campbell's acting as Kabul's de facto Commander-in-Chief who micro-manages their operations. This is the same smooth talker who pledges that the United States will not act as the air force for Baghdad even as we fly thousands of combat missions - however ineffectively.
Barack Obama's singular contribution to the repertoire of official lying is so blurring the line between truth and untruth that they become indistinguishable - even to himself. One method for doing this is to speak at all times with conviction - but with the understanding that such conviction may change tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. And, on no account, acknowledge the change. For example: "all American combat operations in Afghanistan will cease at the end of 2014....All American combat operations in Afghanistan will cease at the end of 2015....All American combat operations in Afghanistan will cease at the end of 2o16." No explanation, or even notation, that the previous date has been invalidated at each iteration. So it was re. air strikes against ISIL in Iraq. So it was with 'red lines' in Syria.
Brennan, in contrast, inclines to being "in-your-face" blunt and abrasive.
To focus on John Brennan runs the risk of personalizing a phenomenon that extends throughout the Intelligence Community - and throughout the Executive Branch, including the White House. The terror/intelligence/industry complex is a juggernaught that sops up enormous resources, erodes civil liberties, and warps American foreign relations while delivering little if anything in the way of enhancing national well-being.
Now, it is mobilized for an all-out assault on its critics which aims to recover lost political ground while reinforcing its hold on the minds of the American people. A few weeks ago, the Intelligence Community organized something called the Intelligence & National Security Summit, a large conference sponsored by industry groups whose participants included academics, journalists, contractors of various stripes and a large contingent of Washington officials. As one IC chief stated it: the goal is to stop "the poisoning of the public debate
around their missions, and especially around the issue of encryption, by unreasonable haters."This theme was amplifiedbythe "Big Six" of US Intelligence--Comey, Brennan, NSA Director Michael Rogers, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Vincent Stewart, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) Director Robert Cardillo, and National Reconnaissance Office Director Betty Sapp--who all spoke in a panel discussion that concluded the summit.
Comey, in his opening address, declared bluntly: ""I have something on my mind that affects all the work we do as an intelligence community.....I think that citizens should be skeptical of government power. But I fear it's bled over to venom and cynicism. It is something that is getting in the way of reasoned discussion, and I'm very concerned about how to change that
trend of cynicism." Encryption was the obsessive issue as the IC dreads the prospect of having to fight its way through electronic barriers when trying to pierce citizens' communications. Rodgers joined in the breast-beating: "In the end, we serve the citizens of the nation... all the revelations [a reference to Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks] have made life more difficult for us." (Ars Technical July 9, 2015)
Fittingly, it was John Brennan who summed up the IC viewpoint by opining that that negative public opinion and "misunderstanding" about the US intelligence community is in part "because of people who are trying to undermine" the mission of the NSA, CIA, FBI and other agencies. These people "may be fueled by our adversaries." This irrational hostility needs to be dealt with.
What is of greatest importance in these remarks by directors of our security-intelligence apparatus is what they convey in the way of attitude rather than any specific plans they may have for more intrusive surveillance. As for the latter, these men are so obviously mediocre in talent and ambition that they are capable of only modest damage. Moreover, neither they nor the organizations they head have demonstrated much in the way of sheer competence at their trade.
Yet, the arrogance and contempt for the citizenry, for the law, and for the Constitution (as well as implicitly for the President) are breathtaking. Even J. Edgar Hoover in his heyday would never dare say in public the things these men do so cavalierly. They are setting a tone, they are redefining in drastic ways the limits of the acceptable, and they are conjuring a fictive world of threat that could conceivably pave the way for far more dangerous people. The world has seen this progression before.
The readiness of these public servants to take complete liberty (license) to pronounce and condemn in vituperative language is facilitated, in part at least, by the abdication of responsibility by the President. All he has done for the past six years encourages this arrogant attitude and lifts inhibitions. By all reports, John Brennan was the agent who first "schooled" Barack Obama and who since has exercised a powerful influence on him.
1. Brennan was escorted by the usual Secret Service detail. Some were noticeable; others sought deep cover by costuming themselves in the manner of the native: boots, jeans. hats.
2. Analysis The Corporation, based in McLean, is a "new age" Beltway Bandit that has thrived in the terrorism age by garnering lucrative government contracts to provide "intelligence and law enforcement support for terrorist screening, watchlist development and operations; intelligence analysis; systems integration and software development; multilingual name search and pattern matching."
"In early 2008 TAC found itself in the midst of a scandal when a State Department spokesman revealed that a TAC contractor gained unauthorized access on March 14 to the passport records for Barack Obama and John McCain. The TAC employee, who has not been named, is the only individual to have accessed both Obama's and McCain's passport information without proper authorization, a State Department spokesman said." Wikipedia
3. Hayden's statement appears in his contribution to the newly published book written by former CIA heavies in a vain attempt to dispute the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Encompassing essays by Hayden, George Tenet, Jose Rodriguez, Porter Goss, and William Hayden - among others, it is replete with errors and outright lies as several reviewers have pointed out.
4. It was written by CIA's own Inspector General, John Helgerson - an honest civil servant, in 2004. Helgerson's report, "Counterterrorism Detention and Interrogation Activities (September 2001-October 2003)," was published on May 7, 2004, and classified Top Secret. That report is damning of the CIA leadership.