Monday, July 13, 2009

Something so far off the charts . . .

digby: Which Americans?
I felt from the get that the story about Cheney's secret program was a little too good to be true. He was just going to send in some brave and handsome commandos to kill the Al Qaeda boogeyman with prejudice:

Speculation abounds about the nature of the secret program Dick Cheney asked the CIA to keep from the Congressional oversight committees. The most sensational reports suggest it was plan to find and kill top Al Qaeda leaders – like the covert Israeli campaign to take out the perpetrators of the Munich killings.

But two former ranking CIA officials have told TIME that there's another equally plausible possibility: The program could have required the Agency to spy on Americans. Domestic surveillance is outside the CIA's purview -– it's usually the FBI's job – and it's easy to see why Cheney would have wanted to keep it from Congress.

Both officials say they were never told what was in the program, and that they're only making calculated guesses. But their theory gibes with other reports, quoting ex-CIA officials, that say the program had to do with intelligence collection, not assassinations.

“People may want this to be about hit squads bumping off shady Saudis in Geneva, but that's very unlikely,” says one official. “More likely, it was a plan to spy on some suspicious American citizens or organizations, without telling the FBI.”

A third CIA official who is familiar with details of the program says it was deemed unworkable and cancelled in 2004. It is not clear when or why the program was revived as a possibility, but it never got very far from the drawing board, as Republican Congressmen who received a confidential briefing about it by CIA Director Leon Panetta.
Please. This is something so far off the charts that even the wingnuttiest wingnuts distanced themselves from it:
Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House intelligence committee, said last week that he believed Congress would have approved of the program only in the angry and panicky days after 9/11, on 9/12, he said, but not later, after fears and tempers had begun to cool.
Does that sound like something about killing Al Qaeda or spying on Muslims in America? They did that anyway. This is something else.

Over the weekend, we learned that the CIA, following direct orders from Dick Cheney, "withheld information about a secret counterterrorism program from Congress for eight years." CIA Director Leon Panetta has scrapped the program, but the decision to hide it from Congress has raised a lot of questions among lawmakers.

It's raised some questions for the rest of us, too. Most notably, what was this program all about? The initial reports indicated that the "unidentified program did not involve the C.I.A. interrogation program and did not involve domestic intelligence activities." That removes two of the more significant areas of interest, but it doesn't answer the question.

The Wall Street Journal moves the ball forward today, at least a little, with an interesting front-page piece.

A secret Central Intelligence Agency initiative terminated by Director Leon Panetta was an attempt to carry out a 2001 presidential authorization to capture or kill al Qaeda operatives, according to former intelligence officials familiar with the matter.

The precise nature of the highly classified effort isn't clear, and the CIA won't comment on its substance.

According to current and former government officials, the agency spent money on planning and possibly some training. It was acting on a 2001 presidential legal pronouncement, known as a finding, which authorized the CIA to pursue such efforts. The initiative hadn't become fully operational at the time Mr. Panetta ended it.

In 2001, the CIA also examined the subject of targeted assassinations of al Qaeda leaders, according to three former intelligence officials. It appears that those discussions tapered off within six months. It isn't clear whether they were an early part of the CIA initiative that Mr. Panetta stopped.

There obviously has to be more to the operational details -- we've been trying to capture or kill al Qaeda operatives for quite a while now, outside of this specific program -- but at least the general nature of the matter at hand had to do with targeted assassinations.

Amid the high alert following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a small CIA unit examined the potential for targeted assassinations of al Qaeda operatives, according to the three former officials. The Ford administration had banned assassinations in the response to investigations into intelligence abuses in the 1970s. Some officials who advocated the approach were seeking to build teams of CIA and military Special Forces commandos to emulate what the Israelis did after the Munich Olympics terrorist attacks, said another former intelligence official.

"It was straight out of the movies," one of the former intelligence officials said. "It was like: Let's kill them all."

This story also helps shed some light on why Bush administration allies spent much of yesterday arguing that the counterterrorism program was "off and on," and didn't really go anywhere.

Why Cheney would direct the CIA not to brief Congress on the efforts is still unclear.

hilzoy: Barack Obama: Surprise The World Again

From the NYT:

"President Obama is facing new pressure to reverse himself and to ramp up investigations into the Bush-era security programs, despite the political risks.

Leading Democrats on Sunday demanded investigations of how a highly classified counterterrorism program was kept secret from the Congressional leadership on the orders of Vice President Dick Cheney.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, who is the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on Fox News Sunday called it a "big problem." Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, on "This Week" on ABC, agreed that the secrecy "could be illegal" and demanded an inquiry.

Mr. Obama said this weekend that he had asked his staff members to review the mass killing of prisoners in Afghanistan by local forces allied with the United States as it toppled the Taliban regime there. The New York Times reported Saturday that the Bush administration had blocked investigations of the matter.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is also close to assigning a prosecutor to look into whether prisoners in the campaign against terrorism were tortured, officials disclosed on Saturday.

And after a report from five inspectors general about the National Security Agency's domestic eavesdropping said on Friday that there had been a number of undisclosed surveillance programs during the Bush years, Democrats sought more information."

Let me add my own little millibar to that pressure. All of these things deserve to be investigated. This is not a matter of focussing on the past at the expense of the future. We will not have the future we want if government officials can break the law with impunity, safe in the knowledge that no future administration will be willing to take the political heat and investigate them.

Since anyone who is reading this probably knows what I think about these questions, I'd like to focus instead on this:

"Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said on "Meet the Press" on NBC that despite his dismay at the Central Intelligence Agency's past interrogation methods, including waterboarding, he opposed a criminal inquiry into torture, which he said would "harm our image throughout the world.""

I think that is exactly wrong. People around the world are not under any illusions about whether or not we tortured people. They know that we did, and that fact has already, and rightly, done enormous damage to our image.

What they don't know is whether we are prepared to do anything about it. Do we just lecture other people about their shortcomings, or are we ready to face up to our own? Most of the people I've met abroad assume that we will do nothing. They don't think this because of any particular dislike of the United States; they just assume that that is the way things work. If we do not hold anyone to account for any of the crimes that were committed under the last administration, they will not be surprised.

If we do hold people to account, on the other hand, that will make an impression.

In thinking about this, I am reminded of conversations I had when I was in Pakistan. My first trip there was in 2007, when the campaigns were just kicking into gear. People asked who I supported; I said Obama. They asked: but can he possibly win? I said that while I was reluctant to judge, I thought that he could.

The most common reaction -- not uniform, but common -- was a combination of several things. On the one hand, I was American and they were not, so the people I talked to naturally assumed that I probably had a better grasp of US politics than they did. Besides, I was their guest, and they were wonderfully polite. On the other hand, however, they found the idea that Barack Obama -- an African-American who did not come from a privileged background, whose father was from a Kenyan village -- could possibly be elected President literally unbelievable.

It was fascinating to watch them trying to reconcile these conflicting impulses: I was talking about a country I lived in, which most of them had never been to, and I was not obviously insane, but I was saying something that could not possibly be true. And, as best I could tell, there were two reasons why it couldn't be true: first, whoever the Pakistani analog of Barack Obama might be, that person would never be elected President in Pakistan, and second, they had been disappointed in America's track record in living up to its ideals, and so were not inclined to believe that it would do so this time.

The last time I went, Barack Obama had secured the nomination. People in Pakistan were astonished, but they were also really inspired. And I don't think that this was mainly about Obama's policies. It was about us living up to our ideals: about the idea that in America, anyone really can grow up to be President, and about the idea that enough of us had managed to look past our long history of slavery and discrimination and bigotry that we might elect Barack Obama President.

It gave people hope: the hope that cynics are not always right, and that the fix is not always in.

If we're interested in our image abroad, we could do a lot worse than simply deciding to live up to our ideals: for instance, the rule of law. It's the right thing to do, but it's also the smart thing.

Sudbay: Even Dianne Feinstein thinks the Bush admin. might have broken law

We're not fans of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). She's one of those Democrats who is way too willing to side with the GOP. And, she did that many times during the Bush administration era. So, when Feinstein says the Bush administration might have violated the law, well, there must be very strong evidence. It's so obviously bad that Congress can't ignore it -- and so bad that the Obama administration shouldn't ignore it:

Regarding the 8-year-old counterterrorism program, Feinstein said the Bush administration's failure to notify Congress "is a big problem, because the law is very clear."

Congress should investigate the secrecy because "it could be illegal," Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said.

According to Feinstein, Panetta told Congress late last month that "he had just learned about the program, described it to us, indicated that he had canceled it and ... did tell us that he was told that the vice president had ordered that the program not be briefed to the Congress."

"We were kept in the dark. That's something that should never, ever happen again," said Feinstein.
It something that should never have happened in the first place.
TPMtv: Sunday Show Roundup: Can't Gloss Over It

The New York Times reported over the weekend that following the 9/11 attacks then Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the CIA to withhold from Congress information about a top-secret intelligence program. Should Congress investigate the matter or let this one slide? We look for answers in today's Sunday Show Roundup ...

Full-size video at

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