As yet unrevealed domestic intelligence activities by the Bush administration sent shock waves through Washington on Friday, as a report critical of post-9/11 US surveillance programs capped a week of increasingly acrimonious debate in the American capital about Bush-era policies.
Disconcerting reports of abuses by the American intelligence community are nothing new, but the Friday news dump from five different Inspectors General - of the CIA, Justice Department, Defense Department, National Security Agency and the Office of the National Intelligence Director - only seemed to fan recent controversies concerning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a letter to the CIA Director from members of the House Intelligence Committee. Released earlier in the week, the letter mentioned as yet unrevealed programs, shocking even Republicans on the committee - a group not normally outraged by misbehavior on the part of American spooks or the military.
The report discusses in some detail the feeble legal analysis that ostensibly supported the NSA’s massive surveillance dragnet that has spawned such controversy in the United States, but apparently, it also discusses other domestic surveillance activities that were not a part of the NSA program that stirred so much fury. As we have noted in the past, rumors have long swirled that the bizarre attempt by reviled former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez to strong-arm his predecessor - John Ashcroft, who was in the hospital under heavy sedation at the time - into signing off on the legality of a domestic surveillance program that was not, in fact, the controversial NSA program.
According to the report, the CIA was also getting in on the domestic intelligence action, in clear violation of its mandate, but it is still is not clear if the CIA activity covered in the report is the same as what shocked Congress - even the Republicans - at the meeting on June 24th between CIA chief Leon Panetta and select members of Congress. Based on past behavior, it would appear that mere electronic surveillance would not be enough to raise the ire of Republicans in Congress, and Panetta’s behavior at the meeting seemed to indicate that something rather scarier was going on.
The report also came on the heels of claims by the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi that the CIA had been routinely misleading members of Congress about its activities for years, and no amount of diplomatic language seems to be lessening the friction between the legislative branch and the intelligence community. The meeting between CIA Director Leon Panetta on June 24th only reinforced the belief of many in Congress that the Speaker may have had a point. In his mea culpa to Congress, Panetta described a program in CIA-speak as "never fully operational," which appeared to distinguish it from the programs described in the IG report, and he clearly felt a sense of urgency in terminating the program. That only led to further speculation on the left that the meeting concerned a program far more incredible, one so shocking in fact that Mr. Panetta claimed to have halted it immediately upon discovering it the day before.
This would be the special forces terrorist assassination ring that, according to Seymour Hersh of Pentagon Papers fame, allegedly answered directly to Vice President Cheney and bypassed both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense. Whether or not the Cheney death squads postulated by Hersh are true or not, Panetta’s admission that even he had not known of the program for a period of months clearly left the members of Congress shaken.
The IG report, however, focused on surveillance, primarily signals intelligence, and most of those involved, such as the quisling attorney John Yoo and former CIA Director George Tenet, refused to be interviewed for the report. The report added some new facts to the puzzle of just how the warrantless surveillance and other illegal intelligence activities came into being: Fearing that more juice was needed, an unnamed White House official inserted a paragraph into the first threat assessment prepared by the CIA after the Sept. 11 attacks, strengthening the assessment to justify the extraordinary intelligence measures and making it appear that the paragraph had been vetted along with the rest of the assessment.
More importantly than the political manipulation of intelligence that so many have suspected for so long and that that little nugget highlights, the report reaches a troubling conclusion: that the sacrifice of civil liberties has led to no measurable improvement in the safety of the country. The report slams the legal review of the programs as at best inept and at worst woefully inadequate, and most intelligence officials interviewed "had difficulty citing specific instances" in which the wiretapping program did anything at all. ®