The CIA and its reporter friends: Anatomy of a backlash

The coordinated, successful effort to implant false story lines about John Brennan illustrates the power the intelligence community wields over political debates.

By Glenn Greenwald
December 8, 2008 1:56PM (UTC)
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The backlash from the "intelligence community" over John Brennan's withdrawal -- which pro-Brennan sources are now claiming was actually forced on Brennan by the Obama team -- continues to intensify.  Just marvel at how coordinated (and patently inaccurate) their messaging is, and -- more significantly -- how easily they can implant their message into establishment media outlets far and wide, which uncritically publish what they're told from their cherished "intelligence sources" and without even the pretense of verifying whether any of it is true and/or hearing any divergent views:

Jeff Stein, Congressional Quarterly, 12/5/2008:


Anyone connected to post-Sept. 11 “enhanced interrogation measures,” no matter at arm’s length, is apparently disqualified to run Barack Obama ’s spy agency.

Hence the immolation of former National Counterterrorism Center chief John Brennan, the president-elect’s closest intelligence adviser, as the lead candidate to run the spy agency.

The left-wing hit job on Brennan showed that liberals may have a taste for covert action after all, the spooks chuckle. . . .

Can anybody who could do the job, get the job?

“Beats me,” said a well-wired former senior intelligence official. “Brennan’s hands were not very dirty at all. He was apparently thrown under the bus because some ill-informed bloggers thought they were [dirty] and the transition folks didn’t have the will to explain that they were wrong.”

A former national security official and friend of Brennan, who asked not to be identified, is disgusted by what happened.

“Ninety-nine percent of” what the CIA has been doing since Sept. 11 “is not related to torture, but now everybody is tarred with this brush,” he said.

Diane Rehm Show, NPR, 12/5/2008:

Tom Gjelten, NPR:  I understand that it was the Obama team who pulled the plug on John Brennan.

Diane Rehm:  Why?

Gjelten:  I don't know why.  But Brennan had become a real target of criticisms of all those sectors -- largely on the left -- who were very concerned about interrogation and rendition and other such --

Rehm:  And it was lots of bloggers who apparently pointed out that he had somehow been involved in the decisions --

Michael Hirsh, Newsweek:  Without any direct evidence, of course -- as is so often the case in the blogging world (chuckles). . . .

The people with the most experience in the intelligence world, like Brennan -- Brennan was a first-class professional -- are getting sidelined because of these controversial issues surrounding detention, interrogation, Guantanamo Bay and so forth -- and the risk remains that you have someone there who really isn't the best candidate.

Shane Harris, National Journal, 12/6/2008 (sub. req.):

Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, New York Times, 12/2/2008:

Last week, John O. Brennan, a C.I.A. veteran who was widely seen as Mr. Obama’s likeliest choice to head the intelligence agency, withdrew his name from consideration after liberal critics attacked his alleged role in the agency’s detention and interrogation program. Mr. Brennan protested that he had been a “strong opponent” within the agency of harsh interrogation tactics, yet Mr. Obama evidently decided that nominating Mr. Brennan was not worth a battle with some of his most ardent supporters on the left.

Mr. Obama’s search for someone else and his future relationship with the agency are complicated by the tension between his apparent desire to make a clean break with Bush administration policies he has condemned and concern about alienating an agency with a central role in the campaign against Al Qaeda.

Mark M. Lowenthal, an intelligence veteran who left a senior post at the C.I.A. in 2005, said Mr. Obama’s decision to exclude Mr. Brennan from contention for the top job had sent a message that “if you worked in the C.I.A. during the war on terror, you are now tainted,” and had created anxiety in the ranks of the agency’s clandestine service.

Tom Gjelten, NPR, 12/3/2008:

Brennan's withdrawal, offered in a Nov. 25 letter to Obama, came after liberal bloggers mounted an opposition campaign against his possible appointment. They said he was tainted by his service in the CIA at a time when the agency was employing coercive interrogation methods, including "waterboarding," on detainees.

Mark Mazzetti, The New York Times, 11/25/2008:

The opposition to Mr. Brennan had been largely confined to liberal blogs, and there was not an expectation he would face a particularly difficult confirmation process. Still, the episode shows that the C.I.A.’s secret detention program remains a particularly incendiary issue for the Democratic base, making it difficult for Mr. Obama to select someone for a top intelligence post who has played any role in the agency’s campaign against Al Qaeda since the Sept. 11 attacks.

This is why I went through that long, arduous exercise with NPR's Gjelten the other day -- culminating in his admission that he should have reported the Brennan story more accurately ("Okay. That would be fair. That's how I should have said it. You're absolutely right. I should have said it that way"):  it's because these inaccurate themes, along with the coordinated planting of these storylines and the shoddy reporting which enables them, are everywhere.  And this matters for reasons far beyond the specific controversy over John Brennan.


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All of this illustrates the unparalleled power which the "intelligence community" exerts over our political debates, how easy it is for them to manipulate intelligence reporters who depend on cooperation with their intelligence sources and who thus identify with them and happily amplify whatever they are fed, and -- most of all -- how profoundly unrealistic is the expectation that, now that Democrats are "in control," they're just going to blithely proceed to impose all sorts of new restrictions on the CIA and the rest of the Surveillance State -- let alone launch probing investigations and impose accountability for past crimes -- without much of a major fight.

Just consider what all of this "reporting" has in common:


(1) All of these reports rely exclusively on pro-Brennan sources, allies and friends of his in the CIA who have fanned out to plant their storyline with their favorite reporters.  This truly excellent and amply documented critique by Columbia Journalism Review's Charles Kaiser of The New York Times' reporting on these matters is applicable to all of these reports, not just the ones in the NYT:

If you’ve only been reading The New York Times, you’re probably aware of these battles — but almost everyone you have seen quoted about them has similar points of view. Most of the Times’s sources don’t think that anyone who formulated or acquiesced in the current administration’s torture policies should be excluded as a candidate for CIA director, or prosecuted for possible violations of criminal law.

The story, by Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, noted that John O. Brennan had withdrawn his name from consideration for CIA director after liberal critics attacked his role in the agency’s interrogation program, even though Brennan characterized himself as a “strong opponent” within the agency of harsh interrogation techniques. Brennan’s characterization was not disputed by anyone else in the story, even though most experts on this subject agree that Brennan acquiesced in everything that the CIA did in this area while he served there.

“I was aghast reading this,” said Scott Horton, a professor of human rights law at Hofstra and a contributing editor at Harper’s, whose blog was instrumental in framing the opposition to Brennan’s appointment. “The Times doesn’t even do a reasonable job of presenting the conflicts — their principal source today was John O. Brennan. They have not reached out to the other side. It looks like Mark and Scott have decided that it’s payback time for a couple of their sources at the agency.”

In all of these accounts, Brennan's false claims of unfair persecution -- that he was attacked simply because he happened to be at the CIA -- are fully amplified in detail through his CIA allies, most of whom are quoted at length (though typically behind a generous wall of anonymity).  But Brennan's critics are almost never quoted or named (of all of the above-cited reports, only the National Journal article includes a quote from a named Brennan critic:  a couple vague snippets from one of the pieces I wrote about Brennan).  The "reporting" is all from the perspective of Brennan and his CIA supporters.  None of these journalists even entertain the idea of disputing or challenging the pro-Brennan version.


(2) None of this reporting even alludes to, let alone conveys, the central arguments against Brennan and the evidence for those arguments.  Unmentioned are his emphatic advocacy for rendition and "enhanced interrogation tactics."  None of the lengthy Brennan quotes defending these programs are acknowledged, despite the fact that not only bloggers, but also the much-cited psychologists' letter, emphasized those defenses (that letter complained that Brennan "supported Tenet's policies, including 'enhanced interrogations' as well as 'renditions' to torturing countries").  The seminal article on these CIA programs by The New Yorker's Jane Mayer -- who interviewed Brennan and identified him as a "supporter" of these programs despite "the moral, ethical, and legal issues" -- does not exist in the journalists' world.  

What instead pervades these stories is the patently deceitful claim typified by Newsweek's Michael Hirsh, who asserted that the case against Brennan was made "with no direct evidence" and then chuckled that this is "common for the blogging world" -- an ironic observation given that Hirsh himself is either completely ignorant of the ample evidence that was offered or is purposely pretending it doesn't exist in order to defend the CIA official Hirsh lauded as "the first-class professional."  That's how the persecution tale against Brennan is built -- by relying on mindless reporters to distort (when they weren't actively suppressing) the evidence against him.

(3) In these accounts, Brennan is described in reverent terms ("first-class professional"; a "natural candidate"; "the guy who's most qualified for the job") while his critics remain unnamed and unseen though dismissed with derogatory, demonizing terms ("some ill-informed bloggers"; "ill-informed but powerful activists"; "a few obscure blogs"; "bloggers" who don't "have that familiarity").


(4) Concerns over torture and rendition -- despite being widespread among countless military officials and intelligence professionals -- are uniformly depicted as nothing more than ideological idiosyncrasies from the dreaded Left ("left-wing hit job on Brennan"; "largely on the left"; "left-leaning bloggers and columnists"; "Obama's liberal base"; Obama's "most ardent supporters on the left"; "liberal critics"; "liberal bloggers"; "confined to liberal blogs"; "the Democratic base").

Thus:  non-ideological, pragmatic, Serious centrists (which, as everyone knows, is what we need now) are free of this nattering fixation on all this "torture" talk.  Serious adults know that it's time to move on and not hold grudges.  It's only the shrill ideologues on the Left who care about such things and want to hold it against those who defended these programs.  Depicting one's critics as confined to "the Left" is a time-honored Beltway method for rendering the criticisms unserious, and it's in full force here (and, as Digby ironically notes, it is the Right, far more than the Left, that has waged war against the CIA in recent years; the Left has largely defended the CIA against manipulation and abuse by the Bush White House). 

(5) What all of this is -- more than anything else -- is a clear warning to Obama from the CIA about the dangers of paying heed to anti-torture and pro-civil-liberties factions, and they're not really even hiding that.  They're explicitly expressing the message as a warning:  "the President-elect risks sending a troubling signal to the intelligence community."  As Mazzetti and Shane put it after speaking with their favorite sources:    Obama risks "alienating an agency with a central role in the campaign against Al Qaeda."


Those warnings are issued with an eye towards the events they know full well are imminent:  debates over how legally restrained the CIA should be in its interrogation and detention powers; demands that light be shined on what the CIA spent the last eight years doing at the behest of Dick Cheney and with the legal imprimatur of David Addington's cabal; and, most of all, efforts to hold those who committed war crimes accountable (efforts which would and should be directed at high-level Bush policy makers and legal advisers who enabled those crimes, not lower-level intelligence agents, but which the CIA nonetheless fears).

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What happened with John Brennan is very straightforward and ought not be particularly controversial.  This is someone who explicitly defended some of the most controversial Bush interrogation and detention policies.  Everything that Obama said about such policies, and everything his supporters believe about them, should, for that reason alone, preclude Brennan from being named to any top intelligence post, let alone CIA Director.  It's just as simple as that.

But, as has been historically true, many in "the intelligence community" are outraged by what they perceive as outside "interference" -- as though the CIA shouldn't be subjected to the same set of oversight, limitations, and democratic accountability, debate and restrictions as every other part of government.  That something as straightforward as the John Brennan controversy can produce this level of backlash from the intelligence community is a very potent sign of the formidable barriers to real reform of our interrogation and detention framework and, especially, to the prospects for meaningful disclosure of, and accountability for, past crimes.

Glenn Greenwald

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