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March 28, 2013

US Press Cover for CIA Again by Withholding Name of Controversial Acting Clandestine Service Chief

Posted in: Press Freedom,Secrecy,War on Terrorism

Creative Commons-licensed photo posted to Flickr by dionhinchcliffe

The acting head of the CIA’s clandestine service—the first woman to ever hold the position for any period of time—is being considered for the position. But, as reported, her professional history in the agency includes signing off on the destruction of torture tapes with former CIA Counterterrorism Center head, Jose Rodriguez.

Establishment media organizations covering this story are aware of the name of this officer yet, at the CIA’s request, they declined to publish her name. It would have been in the public interest to include her name in the story instead of keeping it secret in service to the CIA.

The Washington Post reported the female officer served in a senior position at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center after the September 11th attacks. She was in the chain of command for the Rendition, Detention and Interrogation program (RDI). When Rodriguez was promoted to head the clandestine service in 2004, she became his chief of staff.

At a black site prison in Thailand, brutal interrogations of high-profile detainees, including Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, were recorded. Footage included video of Zubaydah vomiting and screaming as he was being waterboarded.

Rodriguez and his chief of staff grew nervous that the ninety-two tapes recorded might become public and officers involved would face trouble.”The two repeatedly sought permission to have the tapes destroyed but were denied,” according to the Post. “In 2005, instructions to get rid of the recordings went out anyway. Former officials said the order carried just two names: Rodriguez and his chief of staff.”

The New York Times covered the story as well. “Several former CIA officers said she was a strong advocate for getting rid of the tapes, which had been sitting for years inside a safe in the agency’s station in Bangkok.” And, one former senior CIA officer told the Times, “She and Jose were the two main drivers for years for getting the tapes destroyed.”

And, the Los Angeles Times did a write-up on the story noting, “Rodriguez later was reprimanded by the CIA for ordering the tapes destroyed, despite his claim that he was trying to protect the identities of CIA interrogators.” In his book, Hard Measures, he wrote his chief of staff “endured intense scrutiny from federal agents and the special prosecutor because of her close working relationship with me.”

The Post chose not to publish her name because, as the newspaper’s national security editor Doug Frantz said to Huffington Post, “The CIA asked that we not name her because she is still undercover.” Frantz said it was customary for someone in her position to be identified but “that’s not a choice we make.”

Similarly, it was noted in the Times‘ report, “Because the officer remains undercover, The New York Times is not disclosing her identity.” But, the Huffington Post quoted an intelligence reporter anonymously who claimed, “Most people who cover the beat probably know her name.” It mentioned that other outlets have her name but are not reporting it.

The first question the press should have asked when making this decision is the following: Is it routine for the person in this position to not have his or her name made public? Do individuals who hold the position of chief of the clandestine service operate undercover?

The previous chief, John D. Bennett, was publicly announced by then-CIA director Leon Panetta. A press release was posted on the CIA’s website. “John has impeccable credentials at the very core of intelligence operations—espionage, covert action, and liaison,” Panetta declared . “He has been at the forefront of the fight against al-Qa’ida and its violent allies.”

Michael J. Sulick, the clandestine service chief before Bennett, was also publicly announced. A press release shows then-CIA director Michael Hayden wrote up a statement on Sulick. He was a former intelligence officer with a twenty-five year history, who worked in the private sector for a few years before taking the job as head of the clandestine service.

All of which leads one to wonder if the reason we do not know the woman’s name is because she is the acting head right now and not the chief yet.

Both the Post and the Times neglected to mention that previous chiefs have been publicly known and this is not a position where agents work undercover. If the CIA does not promote her, she might want to take another undercover position and then it makes a bit more sense why her name is being withheld, but this possible reason for the CIA requesting her name not be made public is not indicated in the stories. This makes it seem like the CIA is asking the press coverup the name of a person who was involved in a torture scandal so she can remain in the agency. (Note: From comments to the Huffington Post, it is clear the Post’s national security editor was aware of this fact.)

The unnamed officer took the position on February 28, according to the Post. Another valuable question is, why is it being reported about a month later? Why did it become known to the Post that this person was being considered for the position?

To use the terms of Stephen Hess, author of The Government/Press Connection, is this an ”ego leak” meant to satisfy someone’s “sense of self-importnace”? Is it a “policy leak” meant to help, hurt or alter some plan or policy? Is it an “animus leak” intended to settle a grudge or embarrass someone ? Or, is this is a “trial balloon leak,” a test to see how constituencies, members of Congress or the public responds? (Of course, it could be a combination of some or all of the above.)

A lower-level officer would not want to be caught providing this kind of information to the press—not if he or she knew former CIA officer John Kiriakou is in jail for thirty months after being convicted of providing a name of a covert officer to a reporter who claimed to be writing a book. It is possible a senior officer could be in the middle of an internal battle over the Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) program and harbor personal or professional opposition to the woman because of her past involvement in the destruction of the tapes.

Either way, this all seems similar to the withholding of the location of a secret CIA drone base in Saudi Arabia. US media organizations, particularly  the Post, the Times and the Associated Press, did not publish details on where the base was located at the request of the CIA until February of this year. Times managing editor Dean Baquet said the paper did not publish because they were receptive to the claim that national security would be “jeopardized” if the US lost the drone base. The London Times, however, showed no deference to the CIA and published the location of the base on July 26, 2011.

“We don’t make a habit of calling the CIA because 99.9 percent of the time they say ‘we can’t comment on it,’” London Times foreign editor Richard Beeston said to The Huffington Post. “It’s a reasonably futile exercise.” He added, “If drones are being used to attack targets in Yemen and we can flesh it out, and the Saudis are implicit in it, it’s pretty important, and also stated he was “surprised The New York Times and the Post agreed to not report it, given the American press’ record in Vietnam.”

The Obama administration, according to the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone, was concerned that the location would appear in the front page section of the Times or the Post and the story would receive wide attention after being reported in two prominent US newspapers. (When it was reported by the Times and Post, ahead of John Brennan’s confirmation as CIA director, it received this kind of attention.)

Also, as noted by Calderone:

…in 2011, The New York Times, Washington Post and AP withheld the news that Raymond Davis, an American arrested for shooting two men in Pakistan, was working for the CIA. But then The Guardian, a British newspaper, reported Davis’ link to the CIA. Ian Katz, deputy editor of The Guardian, said at the time that the paper declined the U.S. government’s request because the Pakistani media already widely reported his connection to U.S. intelligence.

Davis was suspected of murdering people, a clear crime, and that he was working for the CIA should not have been withheld.

The same case could be made here: this woman being considered for a key position by Brennan was involved in the destruction of evidence of torture. The fact that the Justice Department declined to prosecute her should not factor into the decision by media to serve the interests of the CIA and protect the future of her professional career. She participated in a criminal act that many would consider obstruction of justice. Especially if she has been involved in other recent CIA scandals, her name would have meaningfully contributed to public debate had it been published. Including it in a report would not have been unlawful.

Now, the story has been reported in compliance with the CIA, and it has received what mainstream attention it will receive from being featured in the pages of newspapers. The ability of the CIA to protect one of their own has been preserved. Unless critical information on her role in the destruction of torture tapes or the RDI program in general is provided or uncovered by reporters, it would at this moment be inappropriate to publish her name alone.


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