02 Sep

When the Senate returns, it has a few things to say to the CIA

Unlike his close ally in pursuing intelligence abuses, Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, Ron Wyden has not yet called for CIA Director John Brennan to quit or be fired. But speaking about the agency in Oregon this month, Ron Wyden used the D.C. magic words:

Special prosecutor.

Whoever is monitoring the Senate for the agency – and this summer, there’s reason to think the agency monitors the Senate very closely – might want to notice that.

Of course, they may have already.

One week before Congress returns for its September session, the Senate – and Wyden in particular – is having not one but two arguments with the CIA, and each one is making the other disagreement worse.

Sometime soon – and it was expected to happen already – Americans are supposed to see the report from the Senate intelligence committee, where Wyden is the second-ranking Democrat, about CIA interrogation techniques. In a Washington that leaks like an uninsulated basement, nobody expects that the CIA should be planning a victory lap.

Reportedly, the report not only describes interrogation techniques considerably more, um, “enhanced” than what we’ve heard before – as President Obama recently said in his homey way, “We tortured some folks” – but also seriously questions whether the tactics brought real intelligence benefit.

“When the American people see this,” says Wyden, “I suspect they’re going to find the contents profoundly disturbing.”

The key word in that sentence may be “when.” The CIA has been reviewing – and redacting, or editing – the report for “national security” interests, and seems to be in no hurry whatsoever to make anything public.

“This is all about the CIA playing stall ball,” says Wyden. “When we get back in September, you’re going to see a full-court press to get this out.”

(Even on issues of serious national security, Sen. Wyden is very attached to basketball analogies.)

Then there’s the question of just what will be released. By all reports, the CIA has been using a very
broad red pencil on the report, and what it’s willing to release may be very different from what the Senate intelligence committee wrote. Last week, Americans learned that one of the officials involved in the editing previously worked as a defense attorney representing CIA staff members on the issue.

“I’ve had eyeballs on the redactions. They are way over the line,” reports Wyden. “You redact stuff for reasons of national security, not political security.”

So the struggle for the American people to find out just what the CIA, and the American government, did in the name of the American people continues. But it turns out the intelligence committee has a whole different fight with the CIA before even getting to that issue.

In March, committee chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Cal., accused the agency of hacking into the committee’s computer system, allegedly to remove documents that the CIA thought the committee shouldn’t have. CIA director John Brennan was indignant at the accusation.

“As far as the allegations of CIA hacking into Senate computers – nothing could be further from the truth,” responded Brennan. “We wouldn’t do that. I mean that’s, that’s, that’s just beyond the scope of reason.”

Then this summer, guess what?

At the end of last month, Brennan announced that a review by the CIA inspector general had found that CIA officials had indeed hacked into the committee’s system. As often happens in Washington, it turned out the scope of reason was a little beyond what people had imagined.

That’s when Udall and some others demanded Brennan’s resignation, and in a rare moment, senators were bipartisanly furious.

“We’re the only people watching these organizations,” complained Sen. Angus King, I-Me., “and if we can’t rely on the information that we’re given as being accurate, then it makes a mockery of the entire oversight function.”

This is pretty much what Wyden has been saying – sometimes largely by himself – ever since he joined the intelligence committee soon after 9/11.

The committee has a unique responsibility for oversight of intelligence operations, which can lead members into a sealed room where they can bring no staff and take no notes. But it’s hard to oversee what you’re not allowed to look at, and hard to report when you can’t say what you’ve seen.

If the hacking charge were true, threatened Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in March, “The legislative branch should declare war on the CIA.”

Wyden would never talk about going to war.

But in Washington, D.C., a special prosecutor can be war by other means.

NOTE: This commentary appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 8/31/14

02 Sep

Paying ransoms is an investment in savagery, and in more kidnappings

This is what we know about business, and about life: When you put money into something, you get more of it.

So when you start paying ransoms, you get more kidnappings.

We were reminded of this a long time ago, in Lebanon. Paying kidnappers for American diplomats, businessmen and journalists just caused more of them to be kidnapped.

The same principle holds for kidnappings by the Islamic State, or ISIS.

We also know that money that goes to ISIS kills other people. It pays for guns and ammunition to expand the ISIS zone of control and kill civilians, and maybe soon to kill Americans.

Prisoner exchanges can be different. Israel, which will never pay a ransom, will exchange prisoners for prisoners, often at an exorbitant rate. It’s one thing to prize your citizens; that’s different from financing the next attack on them.

Obviously, if someone I loved were taken prisoner, I would want everything possible done, including writing large checks to terrorists. But if I were president of the United States, and had to think not about one life but about many, it would be a different decision.

In the murder of James Foley, Barack Obama’s choice was not to pay a ransom.

It was to get the people who did it.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 8/30/14