Exclusive: U.S. government officials insist that their secret surveillance techniques are so valuable in fighting “terrorism” that they must be kept completely in the dark – along with the American people. This alleged imperative has justified even lying to Congress, as ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern observes.
By Ray McGovern
The name card at the Senate hearing read, “Hon. General Keith B. Alexander,” but layering on the extra honorific title was not enough to change the sad reality that the National Security Agency’s director – a proven prevaricator – was not “honorable.”
You might have thought that some impish congressional staffer was trying to inject a touch of irony into the proceedings by prefacing “General” with “Hon.” – like Mark Antony mocking Julius Caesar’s murderers as “honorable men” in Shakespeare’s play. But that didn’t seem to be the case.
Likely, the extra title was just a mistake by the person printing out the name cards or someone who thought it would do no harm to tack on one more flattering title like a court herald might do in announcing the arrival of royalty. But – whatever the case – the image of Alexander, with his history of lying to Congress (see below), sitting behind the assurance that he was “honorable” might have elicited from the Bard a comment like, “Methinks they doth protest too much.”
The Wednesday hearing was led by Senate Appropriations Committee chair Barbara Mikulski, Democrat from Maryland, the state which hosts the gargantuan multi-billion-dollar-spending National Security Agency. To her credit, she let her Senate colleagues focus on the revelations by Edward Snowden regarding highly intrusive NSA monitoring of the communications of virtually every living soul, even though cyber-security spending was to be the main agenda item.
The public hearing, however, did allow the “honorable” Alexander to do a snow job on Edward Snowden, with the eager help of some of the senators. But when a few senators dared to ask probing questions, those were deferred to the Senate Intelligence Committee, where chair Dianne Feinstein can more easily protect Alexander and his Fourth-Amendment-shredding accomplices – including herself – especially in executive session.
Oversight Is ‘Nonsense’
Wednesday’s hearing proved Daniel Ellsberg right in saying earlier this week: “to say that there is judicial oversight is nonsense – as is the alleged oversight function of the intelligence committees in Congress. Not for the first time – as with issues of torture, kidnapping, detention, assassination by drones and death squads – they have shown themselves to be thoroughly co-opted by the agencies they supposedly monitor.”
Given what we now know, thanks to whistleblower Snowden, it is clear that Alexander made a host of untruthful statements to the media as well as Congress in recent years. Not to worry. Unconstitutional eavesdropping advocates/defenders in Congress and the media know quite well how to play all this. Exhibit A: Lead headline in Thursday’s Washington Post, “Dozens of attacks foiled, NSA says.”
Here’s the lede: “The head of the National Security Agency defended his agency’s broad electronic surveillance programs Wednesday, saying that they have helped thwart dozens of terrorist attacks and that their recent public disclosure has done ‘great harm’ to the nation’s security.” The Post adds that Alexander went on to claim: “Our agency takes great pride in protecting this nation and our civil liberties and privacy.”
The front-pager by Ellen Nakashima and Jerry Markon recounted – with no apparent attempt to solicit background, much less confirmation – specific cases where Alexander claimed that the intrusive eavesdropping programs “helped thwart” terrorist attacks. It took the London Guardian virtually no time to challenge Alexander on two of the main cases he adduced: the arrests and convictions of would-be New York subway bomber Najibullah Zazi in 2009 and David Headley, now serving a 35-year prison sentence for his role in the Mumbai attacks of 2008.
The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington and Nicholas Watt, no doubt anticipating the tales Alexander would weave, wrote: “But court documents lodged in the US and UK, as well as interviews with involved parties, suggest that data-mining through Prism and other NSA programmes played a relatively minor role in the interception of the two plots. Conventional surveillance techniques, in both cases including old-fashioned tip-offs from intelligence services in Britain, appear to have initiated the investigations.”
My apologies, but it’s just too contrived for me to defer to the convention, prevailing in the Washington Establishment, of not calling a lie a lie. For those few who may not have noticed, lying to the obsequious note-takers and speedy stenographers who pose as journalists is part of the woodwork in the nation’s capital these days.
But lying to Congress? Isn’t that still a felony or at least grounds for getting summarily fired? There is proof that Alexander lied to Congress – well before Wednesday’s disingenuous performance. He did so almost eight years ago. And he seems to have paid no price. Indeed, it has served him well, career-wise.
For almost a dozen years now we have been hearing, “After 9/11 everything changed!” Include NSA under that rubric. After the attacks of 9/11, then-Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden saluted smartly when ordered by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to trash what had been known throughout the intelligence community as NSA’s “First Commandment – Thou shalt not eavesdrop on Americans without a warrant.”
After 9/11 the prevailing attitude – in Congress as well as the Executive – was that there was no need to pay much attention to the rule of law, or to abide by solemn oaths to support and defend the Constitution. But there were still some Americans who believed that the law was the law and who sought some accountability from telecommunication companies that had cooperated with warrantless wiretapping.
However, by an artful change in the law, Hayden, Cheney, Bush and the telecoms were held harmless. The authors of the bill and the mainstream media even lauded those who collaborated in the warrantless wiretaps for their patriotism.
So, Hayden’s successor, Keith Alexander, knew which side his bread was buttered on and followed Hayden’s example. But Alexander was caught in a lie when he misled Rep. Rush Holt, D-New Jersey, who had the NSA portfolio on the House Intelligence Committee. It is a felony to lie to Congress; yet, that is precisely what Alexander did on Dec. 6, 2005, as Congressman Holt paid a call on NSA.
Alexander told Holt that NSA was not violating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act strictures against eavesdropping on Americans without a court order, which then was one of the Bush administration’s most sensitive secrets, albeit one that was about to be spilled.
Unfortunately for Alexander, the White House had neglected to tell him that a day earlier — on Dec. 5, 2005 — President Bush tried and failed to keep the New York Times sitting on the story (which it had politely done for more than a year). However, the Times editors had learned that their reporter James Risen was prepared to disclose the secret in a book scheduled for publication in early 2006. So the Times editors decided that they couldn’t afford to be scooped on their own story – and finally rebuffed Bush’s entreaties.
However, the unlucky Alexander was left out of the loop on these discussions so he continued to use the shopworn, dishonest NSA talking points when he spoke with Holt. On Dec. 16, 2005, the Times finally front-paged the exclusive by Risen and Eric Lichtblau, “Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts.”
It seems almost necessary to remind readers at this point that there was a “before 9/11” when a quaint notion prevailed that it was not quite right to lie to Congress. Even after 9/11, Holt was appropriately outraged. Holt said he would see to it that Alexander did not get a fourth star.
However, impunity seems to prevail in these circles of signals intelligence. Less than five years later, in May 2010, the Senate confirmed Alexander for appointment to the rank of four-star general at a ceremony at which he also assumed the key post of U.S. Cyber Commander.
Smoother than Clapper
Fortunately for the senators now bent on covering up NSA’s violation of Fourth Amendment rights – the sweeping up of “metadata” on apparently every phone call made by Americans so it can be mined for information about “terrorists” – the “honorable” Alexander is a smooth talker skilled in the art of deception. You might apply to Alexander the addendum to the old saying about “once you practice to deceive”: “But once you’ve practiced for a while; You markedly improve your style.”
National Intelligence Director James Clapper was much less polished when he tried to deflect questions about the collection of the phone data during a Senate hearing. What an embarrassment it was to watch him entangle himself when asked by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
In answering, Clapper appeared in some distress – “more than somewhat not comfortable,” as author Damon Runyon would put it. Clapper, who was under oath, tried to hide his face behind his hand, tugged on his pate though it hosted no hair, and responded: “No, sir.”
Wyden, who knew different, followed up, “It does not?”Clapper: “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.” Clapper later tried to excuse his lie as the “least untruthful” response he could come up with in an open hearing.
Clapper’s sad performance was particularly painful because he has been, for the most part, a stand-up guy even when facing pressure from lawmakers to retreat on controversial intelligence assessments. For example, he stood up to members of Congress when some pressed him to change the intelligence community’s considered judgment that Iran stopped working on a nuclear weapon almost ten years ago.
On Wednesday, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Michigan, openly accused Clapper of criminal perjury and called for him to resign, saying, “It now appears clear that the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, lied under oath to Congress and the American people.” Amash added that “Perjury is a serious crime … [and] Clapper should resign immediately.”
But Clapper too is an “honorable man” – someone deeply enmeshed in the machinations of America’s “secrecy/surveillance state.” It will be interesting to see if he decides to fall on his sword and demonstrate that at least someone has a sense of honor – or he could take lessons from Alexander on the finer arts of dissembling.
O Tempora; O Mores.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, part of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army officer and CIA intelligence analyst for 30 years, and is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).