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Advice Too Secret to Ignore

Dear Col. Manners,

When Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, he insisted that we “look forward,” not backward.  While he rejected the widespread use of torture and abuse by the CIA in the Bush years, his Department of Justice refused to prosecute a single torture case, even when death was the result.  (The only CIA agent to go to jail during the Obama presidency was the guy who blew the whistle on the CIA torture program!) 

Jump ahead five years, and instead of looking forward, it seems that we’re again looking backward big time.  The head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, usually the staunchest backer of U.S. intelligence, seems to have sworn a vendetta against the CIA on the Senate floor for spying on her oversight committee as it prepared its still-unreleased report on the Agency’s torture program.  The CIA denies it all and claims committee staffers spied on them.  Once again, the Justice Department faces the issue of charges over the Agency’s torture program!  It seems like little short of a constitutional catfight.

What gives, Colonel?  Shouldn’t President Obama have prosecuted CIA torturers in the first place and isn’t it time that he and his Justice Department finally take all this to court?

Tortured in Tacoma

Dear Tortured,

You’ve hit the nail on the head!  When Senator Feinstein turns on the CIA, the situation couldn’t be more disturbing -- or out of hand.  But believe me, the answer is not to call on the Justice Department (of all places!) to sort this out.  After all, as you indicate, it was incapable of prosecuting the killing of tortured prisoners, so it’s hardly likely to adopt a take-no-prisoners attitude toward either the CIA or the Senate Intelligence Committee over possible computer spying. 

Instead, as the president long ago suggested, we need to look forward, not backward.  And with that in mind, Senator John McCain has, I believe, made the most useful suggestion: that an independent investigative body be empaneled to get to the bottom of the dispute between Feinstein and the CIA.  As you know, over the last five years, the Senate Intelligence Committee has managed to write a still-incomplete report on the CIA’s black sites and torture campaign.  Though unreleased to the public even in redacted or summary form, it is reportedly 6,300 pages long.  By comparison, the first novel in history, the Tale of Genji, is only 1,200 pages, and War and Peace only 1,800 pages.  (And yes, Tortured, we in the secret world do have a certain attraction to fiction.)

You can do the math.  Let’s say that it takes months to empanel that committee and get it up to speed.  Among other things, its members will need to read that 6,300-page report and the 6.2 million documents on its interrogation program and related matters that the CIA also reputedly turned over to the committee. (That, of course, doesn’t include the videos of its interrogations that the Agency destroyed back in 2005 because they took up too much shelf space.)  Sorting through this sort of documentation will take time.  Let’s conservatively estimate that the panel doesn’t finish hearing witnesses and going over documents until mid-2015.  Next, it has to write up its report, which will obviously have to be more than 6,300 pages long.  It, in turn, will have to be read and vetted by numerous people in the intelligence community and elsewhere before it can be made public, lest someone find blood on their hands.

A reasonable time estimate for the whole process? Perhaps a heavily edited and redacted summary of the panel’s findings could see the light by late 2017 by which time -- and here’s the great benefit -- passions will have cooled, some of the participants will be dead, and the rest of us will have other things on our minds than a panel reporting on possible crimes committed in relation to a report about possible crimes committed a decade and a half earlier.  In short, this is a stellar example of effective long-term problem-solving the national security way.

Yours looking forward,

Col. Manners (ret.)


Dear Col. Manners,

I thought you were the only one!  Now, thanks to the nine zillionth document in the Edward Snowden revelations and journalist Peter Maass, I discovered that the National Security Agency has its own secret advice columnist who writes “Ask Zelda,” focusing on dear-to-the-NSA topics like what to do if your boss is spying on you. 

My question is this: Were you disappointed to discover that you had company and has “Zelda” stolen your thunder?

Blindsided in Biloxi

Dear Blindsided,

Actually, despite what you might imagine, “Zelda” and I are good friends.  In fact, the community of advice columnists inside the national security world is a very close-knit crew.  We even have a social group we jokingly call the Redacted Lonely Hearts Club Band.  We meet every Friday for happy hour at a local bar (name redacted) to exchange notes.  Zelda was indeed recently “outed” in the Snowden carnage.  I wouldn’t want to out other national security advice columnists, but it is a shame that most Americans don't have access to their everyday wisdom.  I can tell you that the CIA’s columnist is not only smart as a tack, but hilarious as well.  His offhand comments at our Friday gatherings regularly leave me in stitches.  “Advice from the Dark Side,” his column in the Bush years, was a national security hit.

Believe me, living in the shadows as we all do, our community desperately needs advice.  The hundreds of thousands of us (including private contractors) in the secret world often have no one to turn to.  We certainly can’t talk about our problems in your world, and yet issues of manners, mores, or morals arise all the time, and we often have no one to consult.  That’s why, in addition to Zelda, just about every secret outfit has an advice columnist. 

I can assure you that if Edward Snowden had reached out to Zelda he would never have become a Russian pawn.

Yours advisedly,

Col. Manners (ret.)


Dear Col. Manners,

My head’s spinning and I thought you might be able to straighten me out.  Vice-Admiral Michael Rogers, the nominee to be the new head of the National Security Agency, recently appeared before Congress and testified that aggressive cyberwar capabilities won’t simply be located in a single cyber command.  Instead, all the major combat commands of the U.S. military will soon have their own “dedicated” cyberforces and each will be capable of launching cyberattacks. 

Say it ain’t so, Colonel!  I know that every service wants a piece of every budgetary and operational pie, but isn’t it crazy to spread the ability to launch an aggressive cyberattack around widely?

Head Spun in Houston

Dear Head Spun,

It’s not crazy at all.  It’s the height of good sense.  Recently, while testifying about the collection of the phone data of Americans, Vice-Admiral Michael Rogers said, “One of my challenges as the director, if confirmed, is how do we engage the American people, and by extension their representatives, in a dialogue in which they have a level of comfort as to what we are doing and why.”  Quite right!  So let me lend a hand in that process.

I understand where you’re coming from, and I’d like to explain why the ability to launch a cyberattack can’t be spread widely enough in our military (and possibly beyond).  Response time on a cyberattack is everything.  If you’ve ever been inside Washington's bureaucracy, you know that anything not located at your fingertips is functionally not located anywhere.  Let’s say that U.S. Navy intelligence detects a North Korean plot to attack some aspect of its cyber-domains.  If that service has its own cyber command, then it’s instant, preemptive obliteration for North Korea's cyberwarriors.  If the Navy has to make its way through a labyrinth of military or civilian bureaucracies to get a decision on when and how to act, the North Koreans might be steering a couple of our aircraft carriers before anything gets done. 

Spend your career in Washington and you’ll discover soon enough that these are the realities.  In fact, you’ll be interested -- and now undoubtedly relieved -- to know that among the options being explored by U.S. cyber experts is the possibility of providing dedicated cyberforces to the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, the EPA, the IRS, and possibly even Head Start.  (What, just to take an obvious example, if a group of disgruntled tax-paying cyberterrorists is plotting to launch a first strike on the IRS?)

"Be prepared" isn’t just a saying for boy scouts -- not any more, not on our new, totally connected, and remarkably dangerous cyberplanet.

Head straightly yours,

Col. Manners (ret.)


Dear Col. Manners,

Honestly, what gives?  Since Vlad Putin sent his troops into the Crimea, it seems like every American official from the president on down has called what he did a gross violation of international law.  It is, of course, but I haven’t seen “international law” invoked this often in Washington in my lifetime.

How time flies (if you’ll excuse a note of sarcasm).  It seems like only yesterday that the Geneva Conventions were being called “quaint” by American officials, that we were invading another country (nowhere near our border) on trumped up weapons of mass destruction charges, and that there were all those not-so-internationally accepted acts we were enthusiastically involved in.  (You know, setting up black sites, Abu Ghraib, torture, kidnappings, etc.)  More recently, to offer just a couple of examples, the president has been ordering the drone killings of American citizens based on a Department of Justice legal finding so secret it has yet to be made public, and his officials, according to the New York Times, have seconded the Bush administration in claiming that a bill of rights-style international agreement the U.S. signed onto in 1995 does not apply to our treatment of anyone outside the boundaries of the United States.  This is evidently an internationally unique interpretation of that document. 

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m a local lawyer and not especially enamored of “international law,” but really, what is it?  Is the law ours to determine or is it the international community’s?  Can we really have it both ways, depending on whether we’re doing the bad things or they are?  You tell me.

Local Law Man from Baltimore

Dear Local Law Man,

There's a “law” you ignore in comparing Russian and U.S. actions.  Call it the law of exceptionally good intentions.  Manners and intent do matter, whether in our personal lives or in international invasions.  I’ve noticed, for instance, that John Kerry has been taken to the woodshed by critics for supporting the invasion of Iraq in the Senate back in 2002 and then making this statement about Russian actions in the Crimea: “You just don't in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped up pretext.”

This is a typically bum rap for our secretary of state.  Our invasion of Iraq and the recent Russian troop movements into Ukraine shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath.  Admittedly, we launched a war that killed many on the basis of a nonexistent arsenal of weaponry, while Russian troops crossed an international border in an intervention in which, so far, no one has died.  Still, the difference lies in the intentions of the invading parties.  Think of it as invasion etiquette.  Even when, as in Iraq, a U.S. invasion results in massive collateral damage and mistakes are made, they are honest ones taken with the best of intentions to bring freedom and democracy to peoples under tyranny.  This is commendable, whatever the results, and highlights the exceptional nature of our country.

Who would claim the same for the Russians (except of course, the Russians)?  In fact, when it comes to the rest of the so-called international community, it’s remarkable how seldom genuine good intentions are mixed up with aggressive acts.  For them, the constraints of international law are crucial.  For the United States, international law might be thought of as a luxury item.  Since we can be relied on to do our best, whatever the circumstances, we can naturally be left free to pick and choose among international law, national law, and a growing body of well-thought-out secret law, depending on the situation.

Yes, we make mistakes; yes, there are bad eggs in any basket; but please, this is the United States of America!  Don’t get all legalistic on us.

From the well-intentioned,

Col. Manners

Read entire article at TomDispatch