Prominent alumni of the intelligence community have a problem with the New York Times publishing the name of the CIA’s drone strike “architect.” Although Michael D’Andrea’s connection to the program had been sussed out nearly two years earlier and was apparently common knowledge to the governments of countries CIA drones launched from, the CIA still didn’t want his name publicly disclosed. Their officials pushed New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet. He pushed back.
Now, a letter to the editor signed by 20 ex-CIA officials is arguing that Baquet was wrong to do so. The attendant irony of known “leakers” Leon Panetta and David Petraeus signing this indignant ode to CIA secrecy can’t be allowed to pass without noting. Panetta handed off plenty of classified information, including names of personnel operating under “cover,” to the makers of Zero Dark Thirty. Petraeus handed over eight notebooks full of sensitive info to his mistress/biographer. Both have escaped any serious repercussions for their actions. But they’re righteously pissed that Baquet published the name of the person overseeing the CIA’s drone strike program.
The letter is a mess. If it’s meant to make a solid argument for members of media acquiescing to every government request to withhold information, it fails spectacularly. If anything, it helps demonstrate why those whose powers are shrouded by layers of opacity should be exposed more often.
When your lead-off acknowledges that you’re more angry than informed, you’re going to fail to land solid blows. Pointing to Dean Baquet’s interview with the Lawfare blog in which he defended his actions, the 20 ex-CIA officials all agree they really haven’t done their homework.
We profoundly disagree — not because we have analyzed this particular case (we have not), but because in our view he misstates the purpose of cover generally.
But rather than moving on to correcting this perceived error, the letter instead shifts to arguing that the law Baquet didn’t violate should actually have been violated, if only Congress hadn’t have screwed up more than three decades ago.
Congress overwhelmingly enacted the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 precisely to protect the dedicated men and women whose lives would be at risk if their names became widely publicized.
What Congress could not have anticipated at the time, of course, is that any name published in The Times would reside forever on the Internet, searchable by any terrorist with a laptop. It is true that certain foreign governments may know their names, but that is altogether different from making the name accessible to ISIS, Al Qaeda and every other murderer on the planet.
The law contains loopholes that apply to Baquet’s actions, as Lawfare’s Jack Goldsmith points out. These ex-officials are now stating these loopholes shouldn’t apply. Because the Internet. And this assertion is backed up by the portrayal of said internet as infested with “every other murderer on the planet.” This hyperbole is expected, as is the intelligence community’s confidence that it — and only it — knows what Congress did or didn’t foresee when passing laws related to surveillance and spycraft.
In this particular case, Congress couldn’t have foreseen an easily-searchable internet when passing a 1982 law. Fair enough, I suppose, but governing entities like Congress and the judicial system are immediately granted Nostradamus-esque powers of foresight whenever it works to the advantage of the entities performing long-delayed interpretations of Congressional intent. This same “power” is revoked the moment it becomes inconvenient to those seeking expanded powers with a minimum of accountability.
The letter then goes on to claim the press has no business attempting to increase government accountability. It’s doing a fine job of policing itself, thank you very much.
Officials who work on covert operations do not escape accountability. Their actions are carefully reviewed by the C.I.A.’s general counsel, the inspector general, White House officials, congressional overseers and Justice Department attorneys.
Would this be the same CIA general counsel that cleared the CIA of all wrongdoing in the Senate spying debacle? Are these the same DOJ attorneys who couldn’t be bothered to examine the Senate’s claims of CIA spying during the creation of the Torture Report? Is this the same government that finally admitted it was wrong to torture people but refused to hold anyone accountable for the CIA’s abuse of detainees? Is this the same vaunted oversight that seemed constantly surprised by the programs detailed in Snowden’s leaks?
“Oversight” is a word covert agencies use when they don’t want anyone taking a closer look at their programs or operations. When these officials point to “oversight,” all they’re really pointing to is the skeletal framework that remains after years and years of deliberately weakening oversight standards and processes. No one believes the government has the capability — much less the desire — to hold these agencies accountable for their actions. And the agencies know this.
The New York Time’s refusal to grant continued secrecy to the man behind the agency’s transformation into an efficient, impersonal killing machine may not result in direct responses from the oversight these officials claim works oh so well, but at least it prevents them from pretending they have no idea who was behind the program.