The FBI: Accountable to No One

In the lead up to this year’s Boston Marathon, there has inevitably been an influx of coverage examining the status of the case of the Tsnarnaev brothers, more colloquially known as last year’s “Boston Marathon Bombers. One of the more interesting issues to have bubbled to the surface in the midst of all of this news coverage lack of accountability within the FBI, the agency who allegedly had information on the Tsnarnaev brothers’ extremist activities prior to the attacks. In this recent Boston Globe article, journalist Kevin Cullen highlights the transparency issue within the FBI; the FBI is not even accountable to Congress, so there are zero repercussions for the agency (aside from negative press) when they slip up and fail to thoroughly investigate a suspect, such as Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Continue reading

Benghazi Review Demonstrates the Transparency Promised by the Obama Administration

Earlier this morning, I posted briefly on the Benghazi report issued yesterday by the Senate Intelligence Committee (the report itself was approved about a month ago, but was only declassified yesterday). Several news outlets, including The New York Times, have pointed out that the report is “broadly consistent with the findings of previous inquiries into the attack on Sept. 11, 2012.” Continue reading

Snowden circumvented legitimate whistleblower route

Over the last couple of weeks, the a lot has been said on both sides of the argument about Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, and the balance of national security and privacy. His disclosures have raised a moderate amount of outrage on the part of libertarians of both parties, as well as a great deal of discussion on the proper balance of national security needs and privacy rights.

Interestingly, most representatives in Congress does not seem that perturbed by the idea of these programs, although they are livid that they were disclosed in this manner. And of course the Executive has been outraged that one of its trusted contractors has turned on them. And now, Snowden has been charged with espionage, however poorly that statute may fit the offense.

Something that is lost in all of this debate on whether the surveillance programs in question are legal, ethical, wise, etc. is the question of who should be asking these questions and how. We have a Whistleblower Protection Act for a reason, after all. It reiterates and reinforces the idea that national security policy questions are to be dealt with by our cadre of national security professionals and by Congress.

Snowden claims that he leaked the information in order to allow the American public to decide for itself if these programs were appropriate. But his own actions and methods belie this intent. By releasing the information into the public domain, instead of following the prescribed chain of notification and complaint, Snowden decided himself that the programs were a violation of the public’s privacy rights. So instead of having the decision on the careful balance between national security nd privacy made by our elected representatives, Snowden ensured that it was made by an unaccountable high school dropout.

I do not bring up this last point out of spite, or to merely disparage Snowden; I, too, never completed high school.  However, there is a reason for the overwhelming preference for college graduates with a broad liberal arts background. Such an education promotes better contextual understanding of the fine balances between the different competing factors confronted in any given situation. This is precisely the skill that the central question in this affair requires: whether the value to national security of these programs is worth the loss of a given amount of privacy. Interestingly enough, this is also exactly the type of decision made on a daily basis by our elected representatives in Congress, who (not incidentally) should have been the Snowden’s last stop before going public.

I know understand how powerful the personal belief that a certain national security program or event is unethical and must be exposed can be. I have been personally involved in a whistleblower case, and seen with my own eyes the emotional strain that can be caused by holding back the information that you vehemently believe should be made public. But that does not excuse those like Snowden or Bradley Manning, who have simply bypassed all of the proper channels and taken the decision entirely into their own hands.

If Snowden was a true patriot, he would not broadcast his information from safe havens abroad, on the run from the law (although he claims he is “not here to hide”—again, his actions belie his claimed intent). He would instead do what respectable whistleblowers do: First go through the correct channels, and when that fails and resort to the open media is required, stand up and face the music. Such whistleblowers often go unprosecuted, and when they are, they can at least rely on a jury of their fellow citizens to come to the rescue.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

Drone Courts and Transparency

On March 31, Greg McNeal, a national security law professor at Pepperdine, spoke with NPR’s Weekend Edition about targeted killing accountability and transparency, including the possibility of a drone court. A short clip is available at Lawfare, where McNeal has been blogging on drones and targeted killing for a couple of months. I haven’t followed his work at Lawfare (though I will assign my self the task of catching up), but I am heartened to hear that he appears to agree with the stance I have taken in previous posts on this site (here, and here, and here), and for many of the same reasons. He goes on, however, to very insightfully explain the dynamics that cause Congress to be, heretofore, unwilling to draw red lines on drones and targeting killing abroad.

Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

UN Drone Investigator Endorses Brennan for DCI

In a previous post, I suggested that the UN was beginning what was likely a highly biassed investigation of drone strikes by the U.S. and its allies. But I may have spoken too soon.

The British lawyer heading up the investigation, Ben Emmerson now appears to have endorsed John Brennan’s role in the U.S.’s drone program, as well as his nomination for Director of Central Intelligence.

In an interview with Danger Room, Emmerson said that

“By putting Brennan in direct control of the CIA’s policy [of targeted killings], the president has placed this mediating legal presence in direct control of the positions that the CIA will adopt and advance, so as to bring the CIA much more closely under direct presidential and democratic control. It’s right to view this as a recognition of the repository of trust that Obama places in Brennan to put him in control of the organization that poses the greatest threat to international legal consensus and recognition of the lawfulness of the drone program.”

Emmerson is convinced that Brennan has tried to ensure that the program properly balances the interests of the law, counterterrorism, and the agencies implementing it. He also claims that Brennan has upset some CIA hawks by holding them back and enforcing presidential authority over the agency.

Emmerson also believes that Brennan brings consistency and intelligibility to the program’s decision-making:

“Brennan has been the driving force for the imposition of a single consistent and coherent analysis, both legal and operational, as to the way the administration will pursue this program,” he explains. “I’m not suggesting that I agree with that analysis. That’s not a matter for me, it’s a matter for states, and there’s a very considerable disagreement about that. But what I am saying is that what he will impose is restraint over the wilder ambitions of the agency’s hawks to treat this program in a manner that is ultimately unaccountable and secret.”

“The decision to put Brennan as director of the CIA is a decision to stamp presidential authority over the agency, and to bring it firmly under control.”

Mr. Emmerson’s focus on the internal processes and institutions related to the drone program is very promising, since it means that his investigation will less likely turn into a litany of mistakes made in individual strikes or dubious statistics on civilian deaths. It may even suggest that Mr. Emmerson’s findings could include useful advice on procedural protections against such dangers as mistaken targeting, bad decisions regarding proportionality, and lack of accountability for abuses.

Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow

Center for Policy & Research