To infinity and beyond
17 March 2018 20:24 (South Africa)

Revealed and withheld: Washington's furious fights over secrecy

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World
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Newly released documents reveal that George W Bush’s administration was well aware of the threat al-Qaeda posed. It’s just that Bush didn’t think it that important. And he was on leave – for a month. By J BROOKS SPECTOR

On 19 June, the National Security Archive - a private non-profit research group dedicated to the maximum release of government secrets as the best counterweight to government’s power - released over 100 declassified CIA documents about 9/11, Osama bin Laden and US government counter-terrorism efforts. 

The documents show the CIA actually had Bin Laden well in its sights, but the George W Bush administration failed to provide sufficient support to track him down and kill or capture him. This directly counters claims by Bush administration figures that no one could have predicted the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks. Meanwhile, the Barack Obama administration is facing its own firestorm over information leaks Republicans charge were made to polish Obama’s reputation as tough on terror. 

Unlike Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks website that had ambushed the US government in 2011 with its releases of thousands of documents and video files, the National Security Archive (NSA) is terrier-like in its efforts to gain the declassification of government documents to provide the fullest possible narrative about important, contentious foreign policy issues. 

The NSA was established in 1985 by journalists and scholars to combat rising government secrecy by making thorough use of America’s Freedom of Information Act. It is an independent entity but housed within the George Washington University in Washington, DC. The NSA’s website says: “The National Security Archive combines a unique range of functions: investigative journalism centre, research institute on international affairs, library and archive of declassified US documents (‘the world's largest nongovernmental collection’ according to the Los Angeles Times), leading non-profit user of the US Freedom of Information Act, public interest law firm defending and expanding public access to government information, global advocate of open government, and indexer and publisher of former secrets.” 

True to its fearsome reputation, earlier this week the NSA released a collection of more than 100 documents from the period before and just after the 9/11 attacks. The NSA identified the documents by carefully studying the dense thicket of footnotes and references in the US government’s 9/11 Commission report. The NSA then filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the government for each of these items to obtain the documents it had identified. 

This now-public material offers a wealth of new information about the hunt - pre- and post-9/11 – for Osama bin Laden, the development of the drone aircraft campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as al-Qaeda’s tangled relationship with Pakistan. Among this newly released material is astonishing information that the CIA had actually had Bin Laden in its cross-hairs a full year before 9/11 — but then it failed to gain sufficient budgetary support from the new Bush administration to track him down – or even continue to monitor him closely. 

These documents directly contradict statements by former Bush administration officials that the government had been aggressively pursuing al-Qaeda before 9/11, but that nobody could have predicted the attacks. Commenting on these revelations, Barbara Elias-Sanborn, the NSA researcher who had edited the materials, notes dryly: “I don’t think the Bush administration would want to see these released, because they paint a picture of the CIA knowing something would happen before 9/11, but they didn’t get the institutional support they needed.” 

An important thread in the documentation explores the 2000-01 period when the CIA started using Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Afghanistan. A 2004 document summarises the events, explaining: “The idea of using UAVs originated in April 2000 as a result of a request from the NSC’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism to the CIA and the Department of Defence to come up with new ideas to go after the terrorists in Afghanistan.” 

Concurrently, however, the CIA declared its budgetary woes were forcing it to shift its Counterterrorism Center/Osama bin Laden Unit from an “offensive” posture to a “defensive” one. What this meant was that the CIA had to shift from trying to get Afghan tribal leaders and the Northern Alliance to kill or capture Bin Laden to a position where, as Elias-Sanborn explains: “It was forced to be less of a kinetic operation. It had to be only for surveillance, which was not what they considered an offensive posture.” As a memo from 5 April 2000 adds: “Due to budgetary constraints….CTC/UBL (Counterterrorism Centre/Osama bin Laden Unit) will move from offensive to defensive posture.”

This squabble also included the kind of backstabbing bureaucratic budget spats that happen when funds get tight. One document explains that the Air Force told the CIA that if the Agency lost one of its expensive, precious drones, the CIA would have to pay the Air Force for the missing ordnance. Unsurprisingly, this made the spooks reluctant to use them lest they get billed by one of the green-eye-shaded accountants working for the Air Force.

Nevertheless, the CIA did begin to use them anyway and one such craft actually monitored an individual “most likely to have been Bin Laden.” But because the agency could only use the craft for intelligence gathering, the paper trail says it had no way to act on its findings. The CIA then submitted a proposal to the National Security Council staff in December 2000 to expand the programme, but “It was too late for the departing Clinton Administration to take action on this strategic request.”

Though it wasn’t too late for the Bush administration to take action when it came into office a month later, it just never did get around to it. That narrative is a rather different tale than the one told by Bush advisors, such as former national security advisor Condoleezza Rice. Rice has previously taken credit for the drone programme, the very same one the Bush administration actually ignored. “Nobody organised this country or the international community to fight the terrorist threat that was upon us until 9/11,” then-secretary of state Rice told The New York Post in 2006 (presumably with her fingers crossed behind her back). 

Many of the other documents make clear what was alluded to in the 9/11 Commission report – that the White House had actually received a remarkable number of warnings that al-Qaeda was attempting attacks on the United States. Between June and September 2001, seven different CIA senior intelligence briefs detailed their belief that attacks were imminent. One June report, “Bin-Laden and Associates Making Near-Term Threats”, said that “(redacted) expects Usama Bin Laden to launch multiple attacks over the coming days.” 

The now infamous August brief, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike the US” has also been included in this selection of documents. That report stated, “Al-Qaeda members, including some US citizens, have resided in or travelled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure here”. 

However, during the entire month of August, Bush was on vacation in Texas. About this period, CIA director George Tenet has said publicly that he never spoke with Bush during that entire month and that the president had been “on leave.” Or out to lunch, perhaps. Moreover, Bush did not hold a Principals’ (the group of senior defence and security officials) meeting on terrorism until September 4, 2001, after downgrading such meetings to a deputies’ meeting. Then-counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke has repeatedly said that this downgrading slowed down anti-Bin Laden efforts “enormously, by months.”

For all the information the documents contain, one matter is conspicuously absent: the possibility that torture may have been used to elicit information. There are nearly 50 CIA documents relating to interrogations of 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the intelligence that may have been gained from those interrogations, but “none of them were declassified at all,” As Elias-Sanborn notes: “Certainly, the CIA has a stake in revealing what they did.” Many of the items that were released have been heavily blacked out (though not as badly as the Sanral contracts). The released documents comprise about 25% of the CIA items cited in the 9/11 Commission Report. 

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has lately run into its very own information problem. Stories published in the New York Times about US involvement in cyber attacks against Iran and a White House secret “Kill List,” have generated some very sharp scrutiny by Republicans - and allegations that the Obama administration had leaked classified information for political gain – presumably to burnish the administration’s reputation for toughness.

Concurrently, Republican legislators had been seeking access to information about a botched “Fast and Furious” sting operation that was intended to track how Mexican drug cartels have been sourcing firearms from the US. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted on straight party lines 23-17 (Republicans vs Democrats) to hold Attorney General Holder in contempt over the "Fast and Furious" issue and withholding of documents. This represents a significant escalation in the tussle between congressional Republicans and President Obama over executive secrecy.

Holder had advised the president to exert executive privilege, because sharing internal departmental documents with Congress could, he wrote, “have significant, damaging consequences…[that] would inhibit candor of such Executive Branch deliberations in the future and significantly impair the Executive Branch’s ability to respond independently and effectively to congressional oversight.” Claims of executive privilege have been a point of contention between presidents and Congress since the beginning.

Over the weekend, Senator John McCain (Obama’s opponent in the 2008 election) had repeated his call for a special prosecutor to take charge of investigations about these leaks of classified information related to the national security efforts, although David Sanger, the journalist who had written one of the stories, said he didn’t believe politically motivated leaks were involved. Sanger is the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, and he in turn was on CNN defending his reporting on US involvement in deploying the Stuxnet computer virus against Iranian nuclear installations.

Sanger said during his year and a half of working on his book, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, he got his information from the ground up. Sanger said: “Did I talk to a lot of people in the administration? Of course, just as a reporter should do when he is writing a book about national security.” Sanger went on to assert that it’s important for the media to report on such things, despite the secrecy associated with national security issues. 

McCain responded: “This information had to have come from the administration. It couldn’t have come from anywhere else. The president may not have done it himself, but he’s certainly responsible as commander-in-chief.” McCain then dismissed the Obama administration’s Holder’s appointment of two federal prosecutors to oversee the investigation. McCain also went on CNN and said: “Mr Holder’s credibility with Congress, there is none. We continue to have this problem with him withholding information on ‘Fast and Furious’, which resulted in the killing of a border patrol agent in Arizona. He is close to being held in contempt.”

With the NSA’s release of declassified documents, the effect of a dogged effort to reveal what had been classified for a decade, this has heaped even more opprobrium on to history’s verdict of the Bush administration. But leaks of information – planned or totally accidental though they may be – may also be damaging Obama’s administration’s reputation as it heads somewhat unsteadily into the summer months of the 2012 election. DM

Read more: 

  • New NSA docs contradict 9/11 claims at Salon
  • New 9/11 Documents Reveals Underfunded CIA, Explicit Warnings Of Plane Hijackings at Think’s website
  • New York Times journalist defends national security leaks at the Los Angeles Times 
  • Fast and Furious scandal: Obama exerts executive privilege; House panel moves forward with Holder contempt vote in the Washington Post
  • Administration Took Accidental Path to Setting Record for Leak Cases in the New York Times 
  • About the National Security Archive at the NSA website (the website provides access to documents on these issues as well as dozens of other important topics)

Photo: Smoke billows from the two World Trade Center towers after planes crashed into each tower, in New York on September 11, 2001. (Reuters)

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

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