Showing posts with label intelligence work. Show all posts
Showing posts with label intelligence work. Show all posts

22 August 2018

Losing It

David Edgerley Gates

Trump's recent revocation of former DCI John Brennan's security clearance has generated a lot of heat and not much light. Let's see if we can read the entrails.

To begin with, access to confidential information is authorized on a Need-to-Know basis. You need to know this stuff to do your job. Moving into the upper atmosphere, information gets classified at higher levels, Sensitive and Compartmentalized. In my own case, as an analyst working with intercepted military communications, my clearance level was Top Secret/Crypto [CODEWORD Material] Handle Via COMINT Channels Only. The primary purpose, here, was to protect sources and methods. As the intelligence was passed on to consumers, those specific sources and methods were edited out, and only referenced to indicate provenance and reliability - even then, in sanitized euphemisms.

At policy level, the upper reaches of the chain of command, the National Security Council, say, the inner circle, CIA and NSA, State, the Pentagon, these people are breathing thinner air. Compartmentalization isn't an issue, access is across the board. Still, the habit of secrecy, the gnostic power, that Special Knowledge, held in trust by the initiate, is a drug. It's the crystal meth of statecraft. Losing the privilege, going cold turkey, is being cast into the outer darkness, with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I remember being processed out of Berlin. They terminated my clearance, and red-badged me. I was redundant. It was both exhilarating and depressing. Release is second cousin to exile. But at the same time, it was clearly explained that I was to take their secrets to the grave with me, and the alternative was Leavenworth. There was also a two-year travel restriction. I was prohibited from going to Eastern Europe, for example - which made perfect sense, since our resources targeted Group Soviet Forces and the Warsaw Pact. They might have liked to pick my brain.

More to the point, if you spend a significant period in your life locked into a mission, you can't shift gears as easily as you change your socks. We were on the edge of the Cold War. It's not an exaggeration to suggest we played some small part in preventing it from turning hot. And almost everybody I know from back then kept their hand in. How not? You read between the lines, you hear an echo where other people hear empty air. You miss the high.

It's long-standing convention, going back to Eisenhower, that senior figures keep their secure access through successive administrations. The tradition of the Wise Men, somehow above the fray. Think of Dean Acheson, or Clark Clifford, or James Baker. You can call on these guys in a crisis. And they, of course, are all too ready. What, you think Henry Kissinger's shy?

In the case of Brennan, specifically, I'm hearing that a fair number of people in the intelligence community, both former and currently serving, don't care for the guy. They regard him as self-serving, and his version of his own bio leaves out the unwary he's thrown under the bus. Be that as it may. It's all the more interesting, then, that seven former DCI's and six former Deputy Directors, along with two former Directors of National Intelligence, have put their names to a letter supporting Brennan and challenging Trump. Not challenging Trump's authority to refuse Brennan access to secure materials, but the grounds for it.

Brennan is clearly being punished for shooting his mouth off. He's made no secret of his disdain for Trump, and Trump has seemingly conflated Brennan's animosity with the Mueller investigation. (This is just one of those odd distortions that appear at random in the Trump alternate ecosystem.) What the signatories to the protest letter take issue with is the chilling effect. It's probably safe to say they don't all agree with Brennan, and if they do, they think it's better to keep it to themselves. Gen. Michael Hayden has not, he's been extremely critical of Trump, but Hayden has an honorable track record, in my opinion - a lot better than Brennan's. Bob Gates, Porter Goss, and Leon Panetta. They've kept their own counsel, and I think they must feel duty-bound to speak up. Tenet and Petraeus, on the other hand? Tenet went in the bag for WMD's. Petraeus, damn it, put Little Elvis at the wheel. 

It's naive, or willful ignorance, to think intelligence isn't politicized. We have only to go back as far as the late 1960's, when it was pretty widely known in certain closed circles that the field reporting out of Viet Nam was being massaged as it went up the food chain, to present an acceptable wisdom. But by and large, intelligence professionals try to present a realistic approximation of a shifting and ambiguous world. The run-up to Iraq is in fact a pretty good example. Feith and Wolfowitz tried to use their weasel shop at the Pentagon to discredit the CIA reporting, and Nigerian yellowcake made it into the State of the Union, but the Agency kept pushing the least dishonest assessments they could, even though Tenet was afraid he'd lose both the argument and the confidence of the only client who mattered. This is of course the actual bottom line. You want the president's ear, and his trust. If he stops listening, you've lost the fight. You still do your best to give good weight.

What we're seeing here isn't disloyalty, or a mutiny by the palace eunuchs. It's not the Deep State, either, although you might call it the deep bench. I don't imagine these guys have any hope of changing Trump. Maybe this is no more than a symbolic gesture, a decent respect. I have to wonder if they're not looking past public opinion, which seems pretty rigid, either way, and the bluster and cowardice of Congress, and speaking to their still-serving peers. It's not about the man, whether Brennan or Trump. That's small potatoes. It's about the mission. It's about something larger than parochial self-interest.

Trump already has an adversarial relationship with his national security staff. He's got the attention span of a fruit-fly, for one, which means his briefers have learned to use block lettering and bright colors. Secondly, he refuses to admit Russian disinformation efforts in the election, and the possible benefit to him. And of course third, he uses every opportunity to malign the integrity of his own agencies, particularly CIA and the Feebs.

You have to wonder how this plays as a team-building effort and management message. Obviously, the personnel still in place aren't sharing. But in the 48 hours after the big guns went public, another sixty former CIA senior staff added their names, and now an additional seventy-five have signed on. That's a fair amount of disgruntlement, and we're not talking about a bunch of starry-eyed innocents, either. These are career intelligence officers. They know where the bodies are buried. They've buried a few.

I can only hazard a guess, but this appears to be an engaged support group. Professional courtesy. Commitment. I think it's a show of hands.  

28 August 2013

Soldier Boy

by David Edgerley Gates

Those of you who follow my posts on SleuthSayers know I have a low opinion of Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, but you may be surprised that my take on Bradley Manning is quite different. (Two other high-profile courts-martial rendered verdicts this past week, but the three cases have little to do with each other.)

The first question is what Manning did. Essentially, he delivered a core dump of classified materials to WikiLeaks. Two questions follow on the first. 1) Did he compromise sources and methods? Without a doubt. 2) Did he put the lives of soldiers in combat at risk? The answer appears to be more or less no, but it's a hedged bet.

The most serious offense he was charged with was Aiding the Enemy, but the trial judge acquitted. He was found guilty of violating the Espionage Act, and drew a thirty-five-year sentence, convicted on twenty counts, in all.

People unfamiliar with the UCMJ---the Universal Code of Military Justice---don't realize how inflexible it is, by design. Its obvious purpose is to enforce discipline in the ranks, both officers and enlisted. But it guarantees equal treatment, and protects the rights of the accused. In other words, the UCMJ is meant to guard against the imposition of arbitrary punishment. You can no longer be flogged for minor infractions, on the word of your captain alone, as was the rule during the Age of Sail. The power of the officers over you is structured, and not a matter of their personal whim. This is known formally as Chain of Command. Are there abuses of the system? Of course. The military is a hierarchal organization, with the strengths and weaknesses that entails, and highly formal. Duty is an obligation, freely chosen, but not a bargaining chip.

My own experience of the UCMJ was an Article 15, for Failure to Repair, and it cost me a loss in rank I had to claw back. To explain the vocabulary: an Article 15 is non-judicial punishment, administered by your commanding officer; Failure to Repair means not reporting to a required formation, which is a slap on the wrist compared to Dereliction of Duty; and, for the record, I admitted my guilt. In cases like this, the commanding officer has a certain amount of latitude, and can impose a fine, or reduction in rank, and even revoke your security clearance, but you won't go to jail. That takes a court-martial.

What does this have to do with Manning? For one thing, my job was much the same as his, battlefield analysis, even if my war was cold (the Russians and the Warsaw Pact) and his was hot. We worked under similar restrictions, and had access to secure documents and databases. Both of us, presumably, understood the consequences of the unauthorized release of restricted materials. In fact, it remains an article of faith among almost everybody I know who's worked in the spook trade that your lips are forever sealed.

Much has been made of Manning's unsuitability for the military, generally, and more specifically for his job description, handling sensitive stuff. Given his behavior patterns, he should have had his clearance pulled, and been relieved. Why didn't this happen? Because they needed warm bodies, and as manifestly unfit for duty as Manning so obviously was, they kept him at this station. The kid was desperately out of his element. His gender-identity issues have surfaced since, but even at the time, he was trapped in a hostile workplace environment, and almost certainly bullied. He was queer in the old-fashioned sense, meaning the odd guy out, an easy target for ridicule. The larger point is, that he tried going through channels. He made his unhappiness known, and although his First Sergeant did try to help him find his feet, nobody bit the bullet and recommended his immediate discharge, not only for Manning's own good, but for the success of the overall mission.

This isn't to excuse, in any way, Manning's criminal acts. He violated basic military discipline, and he broke the cardinal rule of the intelligence world. (The question of whether his airing those secrets on the Internet serves some greater good is moot, or at least not the purpose of this post. In the event, I don't buy that defense.) My real disappointment isn't with Manning, anyway. What's instructive about this whole, sorry enterprise is that the chain of command failed a soldier. Square peg in a round hole, Manning was still one of their own, and they betrayed his trust. There's more than enough guilt to go around.