By Andrew Kreig, J.D., M.S.L., attorney and journalist. Director of JIP.
Member of the Editorial Board and Associate Editor at The Indicter Magazine.
President Trump’s clumsy explanation on June 21 of his planned military strike against Iran rapidly collapsed. But it falls within a longer tradition of Executive Branch secrecy and deception regarding history-making United States military and intelligence developments.
Trump claimed via Twitter and then during an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press host Chuck Todd that he learned from military officials for the first time just 30 minutes before a planned retaliatory attack on Iran that it would cause an estimated 150 Iranian deaths.
Trump is shown in an NBC News photo with Todd at right during the June 23 interview at the White House.
Trump said that he cancelled the Air Force attack on Iran just before launch because the effect would be disproportionate to Iran’s downing of an unmanned drone with no casualties.
Experts, including pundits quoted by name and unnamed sources, promptly disputed Trump’s version.
Former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, told an MSNBC audience, for example, that military officials always gave her casualty estimates early during any advance briefing for her as a senator — and that the military would certainly provide an even more thorough briefing to a president before a major strike. Military and intelligence experts concurred on air.
The New York Times first reported that airplanes were already in the air when Trump aborted the mission, contradicting his account. The Washington Post later reported that Trump had in fact been briefed on casualty estimates early on Thursday, unlike his claim that he raised the issue for the first time just 30 minutes before the attack and that “generals” had to research the matter and then get back to him in time for his executive decision.
Other critics roundly criticized Todd and NBC. Aaron Rupar of Vox, for example, published a June 24 column, Chuck Todd’s Trump interview, and the backlash to it, explained. Rupar wrote: “At numerous points throughout the interview, Todd let Trump get away with blatant falsehoods and gaslighting. Todd also teed up a number of softball questions for the president, like ‘Do you think you’ve been more successful in business or the presidency?’”
Similarly, the conservative but anti-Trump Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote on June 24Trump’s lies need to be exposed in real time.
The dispute over Trump’s veracity raises many issues. One involved the sudden resignation of Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan after someone leaked rumors of a long-ago domestic scandal.
Some commentators have claimed that the replacement of Shanahan smacks of internal Trump Administration intrigue. Shanahan’s replacement is Secretary of the Army, Mark Esper, (shown at right), a West Point classmate of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a purported ally of the administration’s most extreme hawks like Pompeo. Shanahan is reported to have been more cautious about embarking on war against Iran than Pompeo.
Whatever the facts on that, one issue noted all too seldom by major media is that dissembling and secrecy have a disturbing history in such presidential decision-making on the most important matters, typically involving war, assassinations and covert backgrounds of elected office-holders.
With a few exceptions, such as the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” hoax leading to the 2003 U.S. coalition attack on Iraq, the mainstream, corporate-owned media are especially reluctant to reassess the past even, or especially, in historically important “national security” matters.
Journalists fear of lost access to powerful officials. By contrast, NBC’s Todd showed his eagerness to host Trump and feed him questions regarded as “softballs” by some news colleagues. Journalists often fear also that if they dig too deep they might expose their own news organizations’ mistakes or complicity in suppressing previous stories.
Regarding government lies to promote venal policies under the rhetoric of “national security” or other foreign policy goals, the major media may serve as silent partners in elite government intrigues — and not independent voices, as promoted in conventional wisdom.
For example, our most recent column here, Trump Found His Roy Cohn In Deep State Fixer Bill Barr, reported how the major media and Congress alike have been extremely reluctant even to mention Attorney General William Barr’s disgraceful record as a CIA operative and Justice Department apparatchik decades ago in helping cover up heinous, state-sanctioned narcotics and arms smuggling along with associated financial crimes totaling hundreds of billions of dollars in victim losses.
Attorney General William Barr, center, is flanked by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, right, and Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Edward O’Callaghan of the National Security Division,as Barr used pro-Trump language to dismiss the findings of the Mueller Report at Justice Department news conference on April 18, 2019.
In the time since that column, there are new examples of how secrecy surrounds even the most important foreign policy decisions and even when enough time has passed so that they become the focus of historical inquiry.
A vivid example occurred two weeks ago when former U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spoke at the Atlantic Magazine’s headquarters at the Watergate about his new book, Inside the Five-Sided Box): Lessons from a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon.
Carter, shown at right on the cover of his book, had spent three decades at the Pentagon before his promotion from deputy defense secretary to the cabinet position during President Obama’s second term.
During Q&A, this reporter noted that the book briefly addressed Obama’s failure to enforce his “red line” in Syria during the late summer of 2013 but failed to describe who advocated for war authorization from Congress and who advocated for an immediate strike against the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad.
Carter, now director of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and no longer an administration employee, is writing and speaking for “history,” I mentioned as a preface to my question.
“I’m not going to tell you that for two reasons,” Carter responded. “One, I’m not sure I know because I was deputy secretary at the time….Second, I don’t remember that kind of detail and I would never betray that kind of confidence.”
Shortly afterward during the book-signing part of the program, I mentioned to Carter that I had published columns in 2013 based on sources who said that top uniformed military had persuaded the president to seek congressional authorization before starting a war against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government during the “red line” controversy despite contrary advice primarily from civilian defense and intelligence aides.
“I can’t confirm that,” Carter responded while signing my copy of his 463-page book. The book is endorsed on its cover by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg as “required reading for every citizen who wants to know more about how our country stays secure.”
My two 2013 columns on the Justice Integrity Project site had been Did America’s Top General Save Nation From Open-Ended War in Syria? on Sept. 3 and Learn the Truth About Benghazi Before Syria Vote! on Sept. 4.
They followed a column on the Wayne Madsen Report (WMR), Obama’s Syrian chemical attack “proof” relies solely on Israeli intelligence on Aug. 28, 2013, by my colleague Wayne Madsen, who had arranged a meeting for us with two intelligence experts used to analyzing timely but non-classified, sensitive matters.
Madsen, himself a former Navy intelligence officer and analyst for the National Security Agency, had begun his column this way:
WMR’s sources inside the Washington Beltway report that President Obama relied solely on signals intelligence (SIGINT) provided by Israel’s version of the U.S. National Security Agency, Unit 8200, to conclude that Syria’s government ordered the August 21 chemical attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.
Unit 8200 claimed it had intercepted a communication from a Syrian army unit operating near Ghouta on August 21. The Israelis concluded from the intercept that Syria’s army carried out the chemical attack on Ghouta, although there has been no independent confirmation from Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) or the UN weapons inspection team as to who carried out the attack and even what type of chemical weapons were used.
Madsen, right, has also published many columns and a 2012 book, The Manufacturing of a President. It documents how Obama’s and his parents’ longstanding ties to the U.S. intelligence community better explained his ascendancy to the presidency and his presidential policies than a his brief and later work as a community organizer in Chicago during the mid-1980s.
Madsen has written also about his belief that Obama was born in Hawaii and that the “Birther” movement casting doubt on his birthplace was concocted by right-wing operatives to demonize the half-black Democratic politician to mostly Southern and rural whites in a way that would not work if Obama were described more accurately as assisted by intelligence and finance capital connections.
For similar reasons, Obama, his allies and most of his biographers and supporters are disinclined to pursue discussions contrary to the feel-good success story.
Rising Star, for example, is the title of a major biography by David Garrow of Obama that provides some 1,400 pages of what purports to be a thorough study of Obama’s rise, but glosses over the most sensitive matters and instead focuses on thoroughly conventional themes.
The social critic and novelist Mark Twain has insight about this phenomenon worth sharing in the graphic at left.
This editor has re-reported and expanded a number of Madsen’s major findings for a 2013 book, Presidential Puppetry: Obama, Romney and Their Masters.
Interviews and social meetings with a several prominent political strategists, including some associated with the Trump campaign, have confirmed widespead knowledge of Obama’s true history in unlikely circles.
Madsen and I call this “The Magicians’ Club” pattern: Political magicians in the nation’s capital, like their counterparts who use playing card or similar magic tricks for performances, will share secrets on occasion with fellow professionals who can reciprocate, but almost never will do so with ordinary members of the public.
The importance? It’s fair to surmise that Obama’s hidden history of elite backers helps explain what might otherwise seem strange gaps in his policies, especially for a supposed community organizer and liberal.
For example, Tufts University professor Michael Glennon, former legal counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, began his compelling 2015 book National Security and Double Government this way:
Few who follow world events can doubt that the Obama administration’s approach to multiple national security issues has been essentially the same as those of the Bush administration.
Glennon explains the convergence of policies as “autocracy,” shared by leaders of both major parties who keep their shared agendas disguised by elections that have far less actual impact than generally imagined even if the system sometimes faces a crisis, as in 2013:
The Syrian “Gas Attack” Red Line In 2013
Madsen’s 2013 column on U.S. decision-making in 2013 continued this way:
Obama claims that his pursuit of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is intended to safeguard NSA’s most closely-guarded secrets that are used to combat terrorism. However, Obama, in his decision to accept the Israeli SIGINT as prima facie evidence of a Syrian chemical attack on civilians, bypassed NSA’s own SIGINT product, which is flowing into the joint NSA/British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) interception facility in Cyprus to push the notion that Syrian President Bashar al Assad carried out the attack.
NSA’s and GCHQ’s intelligence do not conclusively prove Syrian government involvement.
WMR has also learned that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, were opposed to taking military action against Syria based only on Israeli SIGINT. However, after Obama made his decision after deferring to National Security Adviser Susan Rice, UN ambassador Samantha Power, and political adviser Valerie Jarrett, both Hagel and Dempsey began plans on August 23 to carry out a unilateral military strike on Syria without the invocation of the War Powers Act or with the authorization of the UN Security Council.
Hersh Tries To Inform
Famed investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh, a former New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winner who had long contributed as a featured free-lancer to The New Yorker Magazine, later published a similar source-based story in The London Review of Books, Whose sarin? on Dec 19, 2013.
Hersh, shown delivering a lecture in 2015, began:
Barack Obama did not tell the whole story this autumn when he tried to make the case that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August. In some instances, he omitted important intelligence, and in others he presented assumptions as facts.
Most significant, he failed to acknowledge something known to the US intelligence community: that the Syrian army is not the only party in the country’s civil war with access to sarin, the nerve agent that a UN study concluded – without assessing responsibility – had been used in the rocket attack.
In the months before the attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports, culminating in a formal Operations Order — a planning document that precedes a ground invasion — citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity. When the attack occurred al-Nusra should have been a suspect, but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad.
The New Yorker declined to publish Hersh’s story or his follow up, The Red Line and the Rat Line on April 14, 2014. Hersh’s question, answered in nearly 5,800 words, was:
Why did Obama delay and then relent on Syria when he was not shy about rushing into Libya? The answer lies in a clash between those in the administration who were committed to enforcing the red line, and military leaders who thought that going to war was both unjustified and potentially disastrous.
The New Yorker’s banishment of Hersh for raising these types of questions severely undermined his relationship with his most important outlet and thus the ability of one of the nation’s best known and most honored investigative reporters to inform the public about national security issues.
Other examples abound. Discerning readers can find lots of them, although they are most apparent when investigative reporters on national security issues compare recollections with one another about the ongoing tensions between reporting “the story” and maintaining employment. Job-holding requires access to pro-interventionist sources, sometimes labeled “right to protect’ advocates when Democrats like Obama and his aides and “neo-conservatives” when Republican, like Trump’s secretary of state..
I can contribute one more such example here, among the many that other reporters experience and share.
On May 18, 2015, I attended a news conference at the National Press Club featuring former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell regarding the publication of his book The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism From Al Qa’ida to ISIS. For some reason, there were only about six reporters present. Not all asked questions, even though Morell (shown in one of my photos) had been an acting CIA director and had worked “intimately” with Presidents Bush and Obama and six CIA directors during his career.
So, it was not unreasonable for me to ask three questions at separate times during the news conference. One was why the CIA was fighting release of remaining classified documents about President Kennedy’s 1963 assassination that Congress had voted unanimously in 1992 to be released by 2017 in accordance with a careful review process.
Another question regarded the identity of those in the adjoining 2013 picture of then U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, the late Republican of Arizona, meeting with Syrian rebels in May 2013.
Some critics (including those who assembled the collage at left) have claimed that one of the rebels was the future ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, asserted by some to be second from the left in the top row of the collage and shown also there and at right before he became fully bearded.
A New York Times New York-based editor, Rick Gladstone, disputed those characterizations in a opinion-style column presented as a news article in 2014. The article, Try as He May, John McCain Can’t Shake Falsehoods About Ties to ISIS, cited scant evidence aside from general denials from McCain’s representatives that his meetings with rebel leaders had included future ISIS leaders.
“I don’t know,” was Morell’s answer to me at his 2015 news conference to all three of my questions. He delivered that reply with slight variations in reasonable tone, as befits a new author promoting his book to a professional audience. But his answer and the overall circumstances invited no further discussion to any of the three questions (the third was on the Syria rebellion and similar to the question posed to Ash Carter)..
After the news conference Morell amplified to me more privately while departing, again in a friendly tone: He said that while he did run the CIA at times as deputy and acting director, “that doesn’t mean I know everything.”
But the meeting of the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee with rebels in a war zone, like the other matters, is hardly trivial for an intelligence agency or for the public.
And the larger point prompting this column is that there never seems to be a time, whether in a book, a congressional investigation or small group interviews with the media, whereby the most sensitive questions are answered.
“I don’t know” seems to be the all-purpose answer from those at or close to the answers
The Basic Problem — And Suggested Solution
Future of Freedom President Jacob Hornberger summed up an even more basic problem in his June 24 opinion column, The Solution to Trump’s Iran Mayhem. Hornberger, right, a Libertarian, law school and military academy graduate, and a publisher of books on sensitive national security topics such as the JFK assassination.
Hornberger published in 2009, for example, a five-volume set Inside the Assassination Records Review Board (AARB), authored by Douglas P. Horne, chief analyst for military records of the congressionally mandated and presidentially supervised AARB process that had been designed by Congress to release all relevant JFK assassination records by 2017. The material is extremely sensitive, as indicated by the thousands of documents already released.
Horne, shown at left, began his Volume V, for example, by documenting his AARB research showing that JFK’s Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson had helped plan the fatal parade route for JFK in Dallas that placed the open-air presidential limo at virtually a standstill stop because of a sharp left turn in front of the Texas School Book Depository.
That building, located right at the kill zone in Dealey Plaza, was owned by Johnson’s friend D. H. Byrd, who also controlled LTV, a major defense contractor during the Vietnam War and beyond.
Trump thwarted that AARB document-release process in 2017 by ordering that many records must be withheld until at least after his first term. As we reported at the time, Trump gave scant meaningful explanation of why he felt he could simply claim “national security” on a blanket basis to unilaterally overturn a 1992 law that had been passed unanimously by Congress with the stipulation that a president must give a specific rationale for any document that is withheld as an exception to the full disclosure rule.
Hornberger, who organized a 2017 conference on Kennedy and his environment, had predicted Trump’s actions, however. He claimed that Trump as a deal-maker was doubtless in negotiations with the CIA and other intelligence agencies to advance his personal interests, including suppression of embarrassing material, in exchange for withholding information about the Kennedy assassination and cover up that might embarrass important (albeit deceased) U.S. employees and their still-living institutions.
Hornberger, in his column this week about Iran, continued:
The Iran mayhem goes far beyond Donald Trump. It should cause Americans to question the entire foreign policy/military paradigm under which the United States has been operating for more than a century, a paradigm based on empire, world policing, foreign interventionism, and national-security statism.
Hornberger’s JFK-related books focus on forensic medical discrepancies in Warren Commission report on the death and also on pro-war factions in the United States who hated Kennedy’s initiatives for peace late in his administration after the Bay of Pig fiasco in Cuba, the Russian Missile Crisis and the worsening Vietnam War.
The publisher continued in his June 24 column:
The problems began when the U.S. government abandoned its founding policies of a limited-government republic and non-interventionism and instead became a national-security state and embraced a foreign policy of empire and interventionism.
This is what gave the country a huge, permanent military establishment, both domestically and in foreign countries. It also gave the nation assassinations, torture, coups, regime-change operations, alliances with dictatorial regimes, installation of dictatorial regimes, sanctions, embargoes, illegal invasions and occupations, undeclared wars, wars of aggression, terrorism, a war on terrorism, out-of-control spending and debt, and, of course, the destruction of American liberty and privacy.
We close with the words that Douglas Horne, shown at left, used to begin his five-volume JFK assassination book series, published in 1,807 pages in an oversize format because there was so much-material.
The words came from President Kennedy, speaking in February 1962 on the 20th anniversary of the Voice of America (VOA), a U.S. government-run broadcast network. The words are not without irony. The VOA was always anti-Communist in tone and purpose. And the Kennedy Administration had its national security and other secrets, which have been only partially exposed despite an estimated 3,500 books addressing the still-partial public knowledge about the president’s assassination.
Nonetheless, Kennedy’s words can still inspire:
We seek a free flow of information….We are not afraid to entrust the Ameran people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.
In sum, the public deserves to know what really happened last week regarding Iran — but perhaps never will learn unless the current culture of silence, “I don’t know” and cover up is thwarted.
This analysis was first published in Justice Integrity Project
Contact the author Andrew Kreig