Saturday, June 15, 2013

Clapper Good To Go

Slate's Fred Kaplan believes Director of National Intelligence James Clapper should be fired. Sitting on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Clapper in March  had this entertaining exchange:

Wyden: "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" 

Clapper: "No, sir."

Wyden: "It does not."

Clapper: "Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly."

Wyden: "All right. Thank you. I'll have additional questions to give you in writing on that point, but I thank you for the answer."

Later queried by NBC's Andrea Mitchell, Clapper rationalized "I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked [a] ‘when are you going to … stop beating your wife’ kind of question, which is … not answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no. So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner by saying, ‘No.’"   How this is a "when are you going to stop beating your wife" question was not explained.

Clapper exacerbated his quarrel with objective reality when he told Mitchell “To me.collection of U.S. persons’ data would mean taking the book off the shelf and opening it up and reading it." But Kaplan explains

Neither in everyday speech nor in tech-intelligence jargon does “collect” mean anything other than what it obviously means: to gather, to sweep up, to bring together. No one says, “I’m going to collect The Great Gatsby from my bookshelf and read it.” Nor does anyone say, “I’m going to collect this phone conversation from my archive and listen to it.”

Clapper's deficiency is not an inability to think on his feet, to deliver extemporaneously an answer which would protect national security while falling short of an actual lie.  Wyden later noted "So that he would be prepared to answer, I sent the question to Director Clapper’s office a day in advance. After the hearing was over, my staff and I gave his office a chance to amend his answer."

Kaplan argues "we as a nation are being asked to let the National Security Agency continue doing the intrusive things it's been doing on the premise that congressional oversight will rein in abuses. But it's hard to have meaningful oversight when an official in charge of the program lies so blatantly in one of the rare open hearings on the subject."   Because Clapper "lied about what he thinks 'collect' means, he will lie about a lot of things.  If he really thinks the English language is this flexible, it is unwise to assume that any statement he makes means what it appears to mean."   He concludes "if President Obama really welcomes an open debate on the subject"- which he has urged- "James Clapper has disqualified himself from participation in it. He has to go."

The leak which has so exorcised Washington was put into perspective by Reuters' Jack Shafer when he explained

Snowden’s leak has more in common with the standard Washington leak than should make the likes of Brooks, Simon and Cohen comfortable. Without defending Snowden for breaking his vow to safeguard secrets, he’s only done in the macro what the national security establishment does in the micro every day of the week to manage, manipulate and influence ongoing policy debates. Keeping the policy leak separate from the heretic leak is crucial to understanding how these stories play out in the press.

Secrets are sacrosanct in Washington until officials find political expediency in either declassifying them or leaking them selectively. It doesn’t really matter which modern presidential administration you decide to scrutinize for this behavior, as all of them are guilty. For instance, President George W. Bush’s administration declassified or leaked whole barrels of intelligence, raw and otherwise, to convince the public and Congress making war on Iraq was a good idea. Bush himself ordered the release of classified prewar intelligence about Iraq through Vice President Dick Cheney and Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby to New York Times reporter Judith Miller in July 2003.

Sometimes the index finger of government has no idea of what the thumb is up to. In 2007, Vice President Cheney went directly to Bush with his complaint about what he considered to be a damaging national security leak in a column by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. “Whoever is leaking information like this to the press is doing a real disservice, Mr. President,” Cheney said. Later, Bush’s national security adviser paid a visit to Cheney to explain that Bush, um, had authorized him to make the leak to Ignatius.

But in January, 2009 The New York Times had reported

In the clearest indication so far of his thinking on the issue, Mr. Obama said on the ABC News program “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” that there should be prosecutions if “somebody has blatantly broken the law” but that his legal team was still evaluating interrogation and detention issues and would examine “past practices.”

Mr. Obama added that he also had “a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”

Well, of course not, because it appears that in the matter of leaking sensitive, even classified, national security information, this Administration will not be outdone.   Shafer wrote also

In 2010, NBC News reporter Michael Isikoff detailed similar secrecy machinations by the Obama administration, which leaked to Bob Woodward “a wealth of eye-popping details from a highly classified briefing” to President-elect Barack Obama two days after the November 2008 election. Among the disclosures to appear in Woodward’s book “Obama’s Wars” were, Isikoff wrote, “the code names of previously unknown NSA programs, the existence of a clandestine paramilitary army run by the CIA in Afghanistan, and details of a secret Chinese cyberpenetration of Obama and John McCain campaign computers.”

The secrets shared with Woodward were so delicate Obama transition chief John Podesta was barred from attendance at the briefing, which was conducted inside a windowless, secure room known as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or “SCIF.”

Isikoff asked, quite logically, how the Obama administration could pursue a double standard in which it prosecuted mid-level bureaucrats and military officers for their leaks to the press but allowed administration officials to dispense bigger secrets to Woodward. The best answer Isikoff could find came from John Rizzo, a former CIA general counsel, who surmised that prosecuting leaks to Woodward would be damn-near impossible to prosecute if the president or the CIA director authorized them.

In June 2012, in the wake of stories published in the New York Times about a "kill list," the drone program, the bin Laden raid, and cyberattacks against Iran, Senator John McCain accused administration officials of leaking information about the "secret program to expand the use of drones for sensitive counterterrorism missions in Yemen and the Horn of Africa" and the "classified counterterrorism 'kill list.'" He maintained they had "the effect of making the President look strong and decisive on national security in the middle of his re-election campaign" and were made with "a deeper political motivation."

When President Obama decided the Administration would look "forward," not "backwards," it was assumed he was acting out of a fullness of spirit by transcending partisan divides, from a reluctance to offend, or perhaps simply acknowledging reality, that what's done is done. But it is becoming increasingly clear thathis motivation is less altruistic.  It would have been awkward-  if not hypocritical- to prosecute Bush Administration officials for policies which he expected to continue, even expand.

The Attorney General's office reportedly is intent on the extradition, and prosecution, of Edward Snowden. His widespread condemnation by the political class, obscuring debate on issues his actions have raised, paradoxically dovetails neatly with a practice of leaking sensitive information either for electoral gain or for ginning up support for presidential policies. James Clapper will not be fired because he has violated no norms of the Administration, but instead is dedicated to the National Secrecy State begun by George W. Bush and expanded by Barack Obama.

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