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February 08, 2013

Secrecy Confronted at Brennan’s CIA Confirmation Hearing

Posted in: Drones,Secrecy,Torture

A confirmation hearing for President Barack Obama’s national counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, who Obama nominated to head the CIA, took place yesterday and lasted for more than three hours. Senators on the Select Committee for Intelligence questioned him about targeted killings and the use of drones, the CIA’s interrogation program under President George W. Bush and national security leaks.

As covered in the news prior to the hearing, senators successfully had forced the administration to provide copies of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel memos on the legal basis for targeted killings—or so the public was led to believe.

Sen. Ron Wyden, who was at the forefront of the effort to push the administration to give senators access to secret legal opinions, suggested twice during the hearing that it had not received what the president had committed the Justice Department to providing.

“Eleven United States Senators asked to see any and all legal opinions, but when I went to read the opinions this morning, it is not clear that that is what was provided,” Wyden stated. He added, “The committee has been just stonewalled on several other requests, particularly with respect to secret law.” Later in the hearing he said, “We’ve got to see any and all legal opinions” before there is a vote on Brennan’s confirmation.

However, something official was shared and committee chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein appeared to maintain the legal opinions had been made accessible to senators as promised. She was frustrated her staff was prohibited from looking over the OLC memos and expressed this frustration to Brennan, but she did not suggest they had not all been shared with the committee as promised.

Sen. Susan Collins read something official because it prompted her to ask Brennan about whether it was proper to have released the Bush administration torture memos while at the same time refusing to provide targeted killing memos to senators. Brennan answered those OLC memos were released because “the program was terminated. It was no longer in existence.” The targeted killing memos deal with “ongoing activities” so they are a “different animal.” (Remarkably, this was the point Jon Stewart made when he mocked the secrecy of the administration on “The Daily Show” in an episode that aired the night before the hearing.)

Declassifying the Senate Report on the CIA’s Use of Torture

The Senate intelligence committee’s nearly 6,000-page report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program was raised multiple times. Sen. Mark Udall strongly advocated for the declassification of the report so the public could read it.

….I don’t think it has to be difficult, that is the declassification, for these reasons: The identities of the most important detainees have already been declassified. The interrogation techniques themselves have been declassified. The application of the interrogation techniques to detainees has been declassified to some extent with the partial declassification of the Inspector General report. And the intelligence was declassified to a significant extent when the Bush administration described plots it claimed were thwarted as a result of the program. So long as the report does not identify any undercover officers or perhaps the names of certain countries, can you think of any reason why the report couldn’t be declassified with the appropriate number of redactions?

Brennan’s answer was the declassification request would be taken “under serious consideration,” and there were “very weighty considerations” that need to be made when deciding to declassify the report.

Senator Martin Heinrich raised the question of declassifying this report again after Udall. Brennan provided more details on what would go into deciding to declassify the report.

I would give such a request for declassification every bit of consideration. There is a lot of information, material in those volumes with a lot of potential consequences as far as its public release. At the same time we have a public commitment to transparency, we also though have a tremendous commitment to making sure that we keep this country safe by protecting its secrets. There are a lot of equities as fall as liaison partners, other types of things, operational activities, maybe sources and methods. So it has to be looked at very, very carefully.

When Udall asked Brennan this question, he was not just asking for Brennan’s opinion because he wanted to reveal secrets. Particularly, Udall addressed the issue of how “inaccurate information” has been shared widely on the CIA’s use of torture techniques by former and current CIA officials while “accurate information” has remained classified. “Inaccurate information” was provided by the CIA to the Justice Department, White House, Congress and the public. He wanted Brennan’s assurance that, as CIA chief, he would correct “any incorrect information.” (For what it’s worth, Brennan said yes, he would.)

Sen. Carl Levin holds up censored Atta cable shared with committee

The Atta Cable 

Sen. Carl Levin sought to get Brennan to state unequivocally that he thought waterboarding was torture. He would not say it was torture, even though he maintained he was opposed to ever using the technique in interrogations ever again.

Following a line of questioning about torture and statements by former CIA officials on intelligence obtained through the use of torture techniques, Levin held up a copy of a cable he called the Atta cable. It was all blacked out.

Levin told Brennan the cable purportedly showed a meeting in Prague between Mohammed Atta, one of the people who attacked the World Trade Center, and Iraqi intelligence. He wanted to know if the cable could be declassified. He added the unclassified report of the “intelligence committee, which was not classified or redacted by the CIA, made at least four references to the Czech intelligence service providing the CIA with reporting based on a single source, which never took place.”

The senator continued, “[Vice President Dick Cheney] made reference that there was a report of a meeting between these two.” It is “very significant for the historical record here. We went to war based on allegations that there were connections between Iraq and the attackers, the 9/11 attackers. It’s very important that this cable be declassified. The only reason to keep it redacted and classified, frankly, is to protect an administration, not to protect sources methods.” Though there may be concerns about sources or methods, Levin contended the Czechs would say they had no objection to releasing the cable.

Brennan acknowledged there was reason to be concerned about information that had been withheld.

Frequently Working with Journalists or Reporters

Senator Richard Burr and Senator Dan Coats, both Republicans, pressed Brennan on leaks during their questioning. Brennan told Burr it would never be appropriate to “improperly disclose classified information to anybody, who does not have legitimate access to it and has the clearances for it.” That would include details on covert programs.

Brennan further stated:

I would never provide classified information to reporters. I engaged in discussions with reporters about classified issues that they might have had access to because of unfortunate leaks of classified information and I frequently work with reporters if not editors of newspapers to keep out of the public domain some of this country’s most important secrets…

That remark is quite striking, given the recent news surrounding the New York Times and Washington Post having arrangements with the government to not publish a story on a secret drone base in Saudi Arabia. Brennan essentially admitted he had pressured media organizations to not publish stories on so-called sensitive matters involving national security. It is well-known that major news organizations have complied and served the interests of government by helping officials maintain secrecy.

Burr challenged Brennan on the fact that he told media commentators the United States had “inside control” or “inside information” on an Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) bomb plot in May of last year, which was later found to be a sting operation involving a double agent.

I think what you’re referring to, Senator, is when I had a teleconference with some individuals, former government officials from previous administrations who were going to be out on talk shows on the night, that an IED was intercepted and, so, I discussed with them the — some of the aspects of that because I was going on the news network shows the following day. I wanted to make sure they understood the nature of the threat and what it was and what it wasn’t. And, so, what I said at the time — because I said I couldn’t talk about any operational details and this was shortly after the anniversary of the bin Laden takedown.

I said it was never a threat to the American public, as we had said so publicly, because we had inside control of the plot and the device was never a threat to the American public.

Burr also asked him if he ever leaked information that included details on the raid of Bin Laden’s compound. Brennan said he did not. Burr followed up, “Then do you know who disclosed information that prompted the secretary of defense, Robert Gates, to advise the White House to tell people to shut up?” Brennan said Burr would have to ask Gates what he was referring to at the time.

Burr wanted to know if the reports on the counterterrorism “playbook” for drones had contained “authorized disclosures.” Incredibly, Brennan stated:

…I don’t know which piece you’re talking about. There’s been a lot of discussion out there in the media and in the newspapers about this. I don’t know specifically about any classified information.  The fact that the administration may be going through a process to try to institutionalize, codify and make as rigorous as possible are processes and procedures in and of itself are not a classified issue. I don’t know if any classified details came out in any of those reports…

For individuals or organizations that have pursued Freedom of Information Act lawsuits to get details on the targeted killing program, such as the legal basis or simple background information, this must have been flabbergasting to hear. The Obama administration has maintained all aspects of the program are classified. White House press secretary Jay Carney will barely answer any questions on the program with words from the English language when asked to explain what the Executive Branch is doing with drones. This posture has worked to prevent Americans from knowing the true nature of the government’s program of state-sanctioned murder.

An exchange between Coats and Brennan further highlighted how national security officials work with the press. Coats asked him how often he brings reporters together for conference calls to mitigate any damage from “leaks.”

Brennan told Coats that in the case of “the underwear bomber” or a “disruptive IED” he had engaged with the press or engaged “individuals, who are experienced counterterrorism experts, who will go out and talk to the American public.” They will do so in a way “that we are able to maintain control over classified material,” which sounded very similar to how the Pentagon cultivated “military analysts” to respond to criticisms of the Bush administration during wartime; in other words, how the Pentagon had a cadre of people tasked with disseminating officially-approved propaganda.


Questions asked about classified information or declassified information, secrecy or transparency, pointed to how Brennan could play a role as CIA director, where he actively shielded what the agency had done during the Bush administration. He mentioned the CIA is putting together a response to the Senate report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, and he would be more capable of considering declassification after it was provided to him. However, he could oppose making it public or he could see to it that the report is redacted in such a manner that it is mostly pages of black ink with most of the information kept concealed.

While there certainly needs to be some attention paid to how Brennan intends to continue the CIA’s drone program and how it plans to be involved in the detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists, what is even more critical is how he plans to cover up current and past illegal activity by the agency. (I’ll note that nothing was apparently asked about the practice of rendition, which the Open Society Justice Initiative highlighted in a recent report.)

The CIA’s history is one replete with covert operations that simply aimed to destabilize countries, target left-wing groups, support death squads to preserve America’s agenda, arm rebel groups and/or engage in the torture and rendition of people possibly suspected of terrorism. The worst acts committed by the United States have typically been found to involve the CIA. That is why Code Pink had protesters there to interrupt the proceedings when they began.

The intelligence agency is an agency that gives men who manage it tremendous power to conduct covert operations in the shadows without the public knowing what is being done and free from the constraints of law or politics. This is why any and all efforts by senators to declassify documents or call attention to the inner workings of the CIA should be supported.

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