Month: December 2014

President Obama’s Mislabeling the Sony Hack to Avoid Hard Choices: “Cyber-Vandalism”

President Obama is using his bully pulpit to mislabel another major event requiring presidential leadership so he can sidestep action. The Illinois back bencher will once again be able to vote “present.”

Back in early 2008 before his nomination became “inevitable,” candidate Barack Obama responded to an attack by Hillary Clinton that he had no experience but only offered “words” by giving his long-forgotten “Just words” speech in defense. It was soon pointed out that this February 2008 Obama speech was eerily similar to a speech given by Deval Patrick in 2003 – a speech, I might opine, given much better by Patrick.

Throughout his presidency Obama has mislabeled events with precision to gain the outcomes he wants and avoid having to take actions he doesn’t want to take. His consistency has served as a bulwark against taking forceful action on the world stage and domestically. By lowering the bar through “just words” he has avoided having to act and face the consequences of acting. By mislabeling situations he has been able to vote present.

By mislabeling terrorism as “man-caused disasters” (“just words”) he avoided all that pesky talk of war and congressional approval and declarations and stuff.  He also avoided that nasty blame game, where you have to perhaps talk about who is perpetrating the terrorism, and maybe mention the religion of peace.

By mislabeling terrorism at Fort Hood by self-proclaimed jihadist Nidal Malik Hasan in contact with terrorist Anwar al_Awlaki (whom President Obama had executed by drone in 2011) as “workplace violence” (“just words”) the president avoided all that nasty discussion of “oh, yeah, and he was a follower of Islam, too. Must be a coincidence.” It also kept 45 victims and their families from receiving Purple Hearts (and the civilian equivalent) and full military benefits for their losses (13 dead, 32 wounded) in this (dare I say it?) terror attack. It was only a few days ago that an act of Congress granted these benefits to these victims, in a bill the president is expected to sign after years of lobbying by lawmakers like Senator John Cornyn (R Texas).

Now, President Obama has, after staring resolutely into the camera and stating that Sony should not be cowed, and that the United States will make a proportional response at a time of our choosing, declared that the cyber-attack is “cyber-vandalism.” This is his classification of an assault that has potentially exposed the financial and medical records of hundreds of Sony employees, cost thousands of theater workers tens of thousands of dollars in lost wages, cost hundreds of theaters millions in lost revenues, cost Sony Pictures and all associated with The Interview millions of dollars, and threatened September 11, 2001 style attacks on theaters which screened the movie and patrons who watched.

Merriam-Webster defines “vandalism” as “willful or malicious destruction or defacement of public or private property.” That was certainly involved here, but this hacking went far beyond that. How about what Noah Webster’s heirs say about “terrorism”? “The use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.” Gee, Mr. President, that seems a bit more appropriate. But I will admit that “cyber-vandalism” rolls off the tongue easier than “cyber man-caused disasters.”

“Cyber-vandalism” allows for a proportional response of… what? A firm note from State? Taunting? Satirical films? No, wait, that won’t work. Defacing a statue of Kim Jong-un? Another UN resolution for China to veto? Maybe invite Dennis Rodman to the White House to have him go to Pyongyang as a special envoy?

Once again, President Obama is downsizing his definition of a problem so he can do little or nothing. By mislabeling “terrorism” as “vandalism” he allows himself to golf and enjoy his Christmas vacation without worry, and then come back and do nothing but blame Sony and the GOP and anyone else while claiming he is acting with resolve until this is forgotten because of the next crisis arising out of his abandonment of our leadership role in the world and the resulting vacuum.

Cyber-terrorism would require a real response from the Commander in Chief.  It would require accountability to the American people, an expectation that “at a time of our choosing” would mean that at some point in the near future we, the people, would expect (or demand) some significant action taken by our president against a rogue regime that has attacked us, has threatened us with 9/11 style terror.  It would require reassurances that our government was taking specific actions (not just forming committees) to safeguard our cyber infrastructure, our banks, our power grids, our water supplies, our nuclear power plants.  We’ve seen 24.  We’d expect some response that would punish a nation that reached into our lives and threatened us as we went to the movies with our families on Christmas day, enough of a “proportional” response to deter that nation and like-thinking nations from future acts.

Instead, we get a mall cop going after a teen with a spray can.

Presidential leadership? Just words…

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Some Less Obvious Aspects of CIA Director John Brennan’s Presser

When you are faced with a political hatchet job like the partisan Democrat Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program and you are President Obama’s Director of Central Intelligence (D/CIA), you have a couple of options.

You can resign in protest, firing off one shot and hope to make a big noise. You might get a page 14 mention in the New York Times and a minute on the CBS Evening News; it will probably be phrased as “CIA Director Quits Under Fire in Torture Scandal,” spinning it as if he is quitting in disgrace rather than in protest.

This can be seen by conservatives as the principled position. But is it the best for the country, or for the men and women in the CIA?

Or you can make a stand for your Agency in a precedent-setting news conference, defend your people, give some nods to your boss the president but make the clear disagreements with a partisan report while not naming names or parties.

When I watched Director Brennan’s press conference, my first reaction when I heard him saying he agreed with the president on not using enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs), I thought “the suck-up is protecting his job.”

Many commentators and journalists were dissatisfied that Brennan didn’t advance the story, or didn’t say anything concrete; they thought he was too vague, too evasive. Wow, who would expect vague or evasive in Washington (OK, in Virginia)?

But as I listened, and later read the transcript, I realized that what the D/CIA was doing was (probably) staying in place to protect his Agency and the people working there. And protecting the American people. He was also giving some real information if you paid attention.

Here are some points, subtle and not-so-subtle, which have not been discussed all that much that I have seen or read since the press conference.

  • Brennan supports the claims of Jose Rodriguez, Chief of the Counterterrorism Center of the CIA, and others that members of Congress and President Bush were fully briefed on the program.  While Brennan does state that there were instances where representations were “inaccurate, imprecise or fell short of our tradecraft standards,” he categorically denies that the agency “systematically and intentionally” misled Congress or the public.  What is perhaps most telling about this is his buried mention of a change in procedure he has implemented: “For example, as a result of our own investigations and our review of the committee’s report, CIA has taken steps to… improve our recordkeeping for interactions with the Congress.”  In other words, he is going to make sure the CIA has very careful documentation of every briefing they give Congress so that in the future members cannot claim that the CIA did not tell them this information, and that members did not give the CIA approval.  The CIA will be able to prove what was briefed and what members said during the briefings.  Never again, Senator Pelosi.  Never again, Senator Rockefeller.  Never again, Senator Feinstein.
  • Brennan refused to be sucked into the “torture” debate.  When asked by Ken Delaney of the Associated Press if Brennan agreed that some of the techniques used against detainees amounted to torture, Brennan said they exceeded the bounds of authorized actions and were harsh, but never once during the press conference did he use the word “torture.”  This clearly in my mind marks him as an Agency man, not the president’s man.  Had he been solely worried about saving his job, or been a Panetta-style Democrat, he would have not had a problem using the “T” word.  It would have been a simple enough concession to make unless he had a principled belief against using it.  By defiantly refusing to use the word that the Democrats (and sadly many Republicans like John McCain and George Will and libertarians like the addle-brained Andrew Napolitano of Fox News) throw out without a coherent definition, he is declaring a significant gap between himself and the president.  It won’t necessarily cost him his job, but won’t get him a Christmas card, either.  It was a bold move.
  • Brennan saved his job – allowing him to protect his Agency – by declaring he supported the president’s decision to stop using EITs, then backhandedly acknowledged that they were really, really effective.  Sure, he stated it was “unknowable” if the information they yielded eventually could have been obtained through other methods, but he went out of his way to point out  (several times) that a) he “fundamentally disagree[ed]” with the report’s conclusion that detainees subjected to EITs did not produce useful intelligence, b) this information only came after they had been subjected to EITs, not before, c) thus waterboarding (or other EITs) was not the first step (and thus lesser techniques had failed), and d) it was “unknowable” if other techniques could have elicited this information.  Of course it is unknowable if other techniques could have elicited the same information; one cannot say for certain that under some hypothetical set of circumstances, some form of questioning, some skilled interrogator, might have elicited the information without EITs.  As the saying goes, anything is possible.  But we do know that prior to the use of EITs this information had not been obtained through the techniques used up until that point, including the range of interrogation techniques from the Army Field Manual.
  • Why is it important for Brennan to stay in his position?  It was not just a matter of placing things in context that the D/CIA spent the first fourteen or so paragraphs of his prepared remarks reminding us of the history of 9/11 and his role at the CIA as deputy executive director in the days following the attacks.  He reminds us that he was there, and he understands what his role was, what was needed, what the nation and Congress asked of him and his Agency.  He understands how unprepared the CIA was, and why.  Unspoken, but surely remembered, was how devastated the CIA was after a similar congressional committee chaired by Democrat Frank Church of Idaho in the mid-1970s led to the gutting of the American intelligence agencies that led, in turn, in no small part to the intelligence failures leading up to 9/11/01.  This is part and parcel of why the CIA was unprepared for the job they had to do.  By remaining in his post now, Brennan prevents President Obama from naming someone as D/CIA who was not present on 9/11, someone who buys into the torture narrative, who would seek to diminish the effectiveness of our intelligence agencies just as our president has sought to diminish the effectiveness of our military and has refused to use military assets as recommended by his military experts.  Imagine the appointment of someone with the limited intelligence, experience and stature of a John Kerry to the position of D/CIA to replace John Brennan should he resign.  Brennan walked the fine line between supporting his Agency and staff, and supporting his boss to keep his job.  It was a rather masterful performance considering the balancing act he had to perform.
  • Brennan remains as a wall against the Democrats’ claims, and one they cannot dismiss as easily as they can Vice President Dick Cheney or Jose Rodriguez.  By remaining, Brennan can also not only help maintain order within the CIA but maintain relations with foreign intelligence services.  Perhaps the biggest casualty of this criminally irresponsible fit of political pique and self-aggrandizement by the Democrats is the damage it does to the delicate relationships we maintain with friendly (and not-so-friendly) intelligence agencies.  We have complex intelligence-sharing relationships with both traditional allies and countries with whom we have some shared interests but very tenuous ties.  Many of these relationships are very fragile, with a minimum of trust between the parties.  Fear of exposure is real, because exposure means death for many of these partners.  When Democrats – and even our president through his spokesman – indicate that they understand that an unclassified report may lead to the exposure and possible death of foreign assets but “exposing the truth is more important” we shatter that tenuous tie and make it that much more difficult for our intelligence and diplomatic agencies to gather intelligence and make deals.  Brennan indicated in the Q&A after his remarks that he was busy working the phones even before the report was made public trying to minimize the damage beforehand and prepare the ground.  He and his people will probably be spending most of their time for months trying to undo what Senator Feinstein and her unthinking comrades did for political gain heedless of consequences she should have, better than almost anyone in government, understood.

Only time will tell if Senator Feinstein has done as much lasting damage to American intelligence gathering as Senator Church did in 1975 and 1976. I’m hoping that Director Brennan has stayed on to hold his Agency together and maintain our intelligence relationships across the globe rather than to just keep his job.

We may all pay the price if he cannot.