Saturday, November 30, 2013

Do Public Officials Ever Lie? Better Question: Do They Ever Tell The Truth?


Since taking over from Tim Sebastian in 2006, Stephen Sackur has been the anchor for the BBC's flagship news interview show, HARDtalk, which runs four times a week. I travel a lot, so I see it a lot. Sackur has a well-deserved reputation as the voice of Establishment Group Think propaganda and for asking questions and then aggressively interrupting his guests when they attempt to answer. He's one of television's most annoying little twits and I often wonder why credible figures ever agree to be interviewed by him. Last week, he interviewed Glenn Greenwald. I haven't been able to access the whole half hour back and forth, but above is a three-minutes excerpt that wound up on YouTube.

I could see by the tightening in Greenwald's face that he was about to explode at Sackur's mindless and sycophantic line of questioning. And Greenwald did not disappoint. Sackur started quoting patently false assertions from a batch of Military-Industrial Complex war criminals as "evidence" against whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Sackur pretends to be unable to comprehend that anyone in the upper echelons of the British Establishment could ever lie for any reason. Greenwald: "There is this thing called the Iraq War in which the U.S. and the U.K. governments persuaded their media outlets and their populations to support an aggressive attack on another country by making one false claim after the next, designed to scare the population into believing that there was a security threat that did not really exist, that they had to go to war to stop. What journalism is about," he tried explaining to the very-well paid state propagandist who plays the role of a journalist on television, "is based on the premise that when people like Mr. Robins and others who exercise power in the dark make these kinds of claims to justify their own power, they're often lying. They often tell things to the population that turns out to be untrue and the job of a journalist is not to investigate other journalists who are investigating those powerful officials; it's to try and be responsible when telling their viewers and readers what government officials are saying and then to access whether there's evidence for it. That's my role…"

By this time Sackur realized he and the Establishment he reveres were under attack and he was having none of it and started a series of interruptions to prevent Greenwald from completing his response to the questions. He went from attacking Ed Snowden's credibility to atticking his guest's credibility, begging the question of why he invited Greenwald onto the show (if not to discredit him on behalf of BBC viewers). He probably didn't count on how well Greenwald could hold his own-- and more.

"First of all," he began responding to Sackur's outburst, "I think the Iraq War in a pretty significant…" when Sackur burst in again, obviously intent on preventing him from answering. That's when Greenwald let him have it:
If you want to scream at me and make all kinds of filibustering remarks, I can just disconnect and you can do that, but if you want to ask me a question, you're going to give me time to actually answer it! The evidence that government officials lie is found in history with things like the Iraq War, when the U.S. and the U.K. destroyed a country of 26 million people based on lies they told over the course of two years to their population. And if you look at what happens in counties where there's constitutional guarantees of a free press, which I know doesn't include the U.K., but includes most western democracies, what you find us all sorts of people who have created those protections have done so based on their recognition that people in power, specifically national security officials, will routinely lie to their population. The evidence that I have is that 3 Democratic senators, just two weeks ago in the United States, who are on the Intelligence Committee and have access to classified information, came out and said that the claims of NSA officials and others that these programs have stopped terrorist plots is completely false, that there is no evidence for it.
I assume the three senators Greenwald was referring to were Ron Wyden (OR), Mark Udall (CO) and Martin Heinrich (NM), all moderate centrists. A few days ago they penned an explosive OpEd for the NY Times, End The N.S.A. Dragnet, Now. "The framers of the Constitution," the wrote, "declared that government officials had no power to seize the records of individual Americans without evidence of wrongdoing, and they embedded this principle in the Fourth Amendment. The bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records-- so-called metadata-- by the National Security Agency is, in our view, a clear case of a general warrant that violates the spirit of the framers’ intentions. This intrusive program was authorized under a secret legal process by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, so for years American citizens did not have the knowledge needed to challenge the infringement of their privacy rights.

"Our first priority is to keep Americans safe from the threat of terrorism. If government agencies identify a suspected terrorist, they should absolutely go to the relevant phone companies to get that person’s phone records. But this can be done without collecting the records of millions of law-abiding Americans. We recall Benjamin Franklin’s famous admonition that those who would give up essential liberty in the pursuit of temporary safety will lose both and deserve neither.

"The usefulness of the bulk collection program has been greatly exaggerated. We have yet to see any proof that it provides real, unique value in protecting national security. In spite of our repeated requests, the N.S.A. has not provided evidence of any instance when the agency used this program to review phone records that could not have been obtained using a regular court order or emergency authorization.

"Congress needs to preserve the agencies’ ability to collect information that is actually necessary to guard against threats to our security. But it also needs to preserve the right of citizens to be free from unwarranted interference in their lives, which the framers understood was vital to American liberties."

This grotesque perversion of the Constitution was specifically designed by Dick Cheney and David Addington in a serious and still unpunished series of criminal endeavors while Bush was fast asleep at the wheel. Pulitzer Award-winning journalist Barton Gellman laid out the whole operation in his jaw-dropping Cheney exposé Angler. This comes from Gellman's website:
One untold story that Angler recounts at length is what happened behind the scenes of the Bush administration's internal rebellion over warrantless domestic surveillance. Top advisers say on the record that Cheney came close to destroying Bush's presidency. This episode takes up two full chapters of Angler. The Washington Post gives a taste of the narrative in a pair of condensed excerpts.

From part one of the excerpts

A burst of ferocity stunned the room into silence. No other word for it: The vice president's attorney was shouting.

"The president doesn't want this! You are not going to see the opinions. You are out… of … your... lane!"

Five government lawyers had gathered around a small conference table in the Justice Department Command Center. Four were expected. David S. Addington, counsel to Vice President Cheney, got wind of the meeting and invited himself.

If Addington smelled revolt, he was not far wrong. Unwelcome questions about warrantless domestic surveillance had begun to find their voice.

Cheney and his counsel would struggle for months to quash the legal insurgency. By the time President Bush became aware of it, his No. 2 had stoked dissent into flat-out rebellion. The president would face a dilemma, and the presidency itself a historic test. Cheney would come close to leading them off a cliff, man and office both.

On this second Monday in December 2003, Addington's targets were a pair of would-be auditors from the National Security Agency. He had displeasure to spare for their Justice Department hosts.

Perfect example, right here. A couple of NSA bureaucrats breeze in and ask for the most sensitive documents in the building. And Justice wants to tell them, Help yourselves? This was going to be a very short meeting.

Joel Brenner and Vito Potenza, the two men wilting under Addington's wrath, had driven 26 miles from Fort Meade, the NSA's eavesdropping headquarters in Maryland. They were conducting a review of their agency's two-year-old special surveillance operation. They already knew the really secret stuff: The NSA and other services had been unleashed to turn their machinery inward, collecting signals intelligence inside the United States. What the two men didn't know was why the Bush administration believed the program was legal.

It was an awkward question. Potenza, the NSA's acting general counsel, and Brenner, its inspector general, were supposed to be the ones who kept their agency on the straight and narrow. That's what Cheney and their boss, Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, told doubters among the very few people who knew what was going on. Cheney, who chaired briefings for select members of Congress, said repeatedly that the NSA's top law and ethics officers-- career public servants-- approved and supervised the surveillance program.

That was not exactly true, not without one of those silent asterisks that secretly flip a sentence on its tail. Every 45 days, after Justice Department review, Bush renewed his military order for warrantless eavesdropping. Brenner and Potenza told Hayden that the agency was entitled to rely on those orders. The United States was at war with al-Qaeda, intelligence-gathering is inherent in war, and the Constitution appoints the president commander in chief.

But they had not been asked to give their own written assessments of the legality of domestic espionage. They based their answer in part on the attorney general's certification of the "form and legality" of the president's orders. Yet neither man had been allowed to see the program's codeword-classified legal analyses, which were prepared by John C. Yoo, Addington's close ally in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. Now they wanted to read Yoo's opinions for themselves.

He was massive in his swivel chair, taut and still, potential energy amping up the menace. Addington's pugnacity was not an act. Nothing mattered more, as the vice president and his lawyer saw the world, than these new surveillance tools. Bush had made a decision. Debate could only blow the secret, slow down vital work, or call the president's constitutional prerogatives into question.

The NSA lawyers returned to their car empty-handed.

The command center of "the president's program," as Addington usually called it, was not in the White House. Its controlling documents, which gave strategic direction to the nation's largest spy agency, lived in a vault across an alley from the West Wing-- in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, on the east side of the second floor, where the vice president headquartered his staff.

The vault was in EEOB 268, Addington's office. Cheney's lawyer held the documents, physical and electronic, because he was the one who wrote them. New forms of domestic espionage were created and developed over time in presidential authorizations that Addington typed on a Tempest-shielded computer across from his desk.

It is unlikely that the history of U.S. intelligence includes another operation conceived and supervised by the office of the vice president. White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. had "no idea," he said, that the presidential orders were held in a vice presidential safe. An authoritative source said the staff secretariat, which kept a comprehensive inventory of presidential papers, classified and unclassified, possessed no record of these.

…Addington's behavior with the NSA auditors was "a wake-up call for me," Jack Goldsmith [chief of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel] said. Cheney and Addington, he came to believe, were gaming the system, using secrecy and intimidation to prevent potential dissenters from conducting an independent review.

"They were geniuses at this," Goldsmith said. "They could divide up all these problems in the bureaucracy, ask different people to decide things in their lanes, control the facts they gave them, and then put the answers together to get the result they want."

…Mike Hayden and Vito Potenza drove down from NSA headquarters after lunch on Feb. 19, 2004, to give Jim Comey his first briefing on the program. In the Justice Department's vault-like SCIF, a sensitive compartmented information facility, Hayden got Comey's attention fast.

"I'm so glad you're getting read in, because now I won't be alone at the table when John Kerry is elected president," the NSA director said.

The witness table, Hayden meant. Congressional hearing, investigation of some kind. Nothing good. Kerry had the Democratic nomination just about locked up and was leading Bush in national polls. Hardly anyone in the intelligence field believed the next administration would climb as far out on a legal limb as this one had.

"Hayden was all dog-and-pony, and this is probably what happened to those poor folks in Congress, too," Comey told his chief of staff after the briefing. "You think for a second, 'Wow, that's great,' and then if you try actually to explain it back to yourself, you don't get it. You scratch your head afterward and you think, 'What the hell did that guy just tell me?'"

The NSA chief insisted on limiting surveillance to e-mails, phone calls and faxes in which one party was overseas, deflecting arguments from Cheney and Addington that he could just as well collect communications inside the United States.

…By the end of February, Goldsmith and Philbin had reached their conclusion: Parts of the surveillance operation had no support in law. Comey was so disturbed that he drove to Langley one evening to compare notes with Scott W. Muller, the general counsel at the CIA. Muller "got it immediately," agreeing with the Goldsmith-Philbin analysis, Comey said.

"At the end of the day, I concluded something I didn't ever think I would conclude, and that is that Pat Philbin and Jack Goldsmith understood this activity much better than Michael Hayden did," he said.

On Thursday, March 4, Comey brought the findings to Ashcroft, conferring for an hour one-on-one. Three senior Justice Department officials said in interviews that Ashcroft gave his full backing. He was not going to sign the next presidential order-- due in one week, March 11-- unless the White House agreed to a list of required changes.
And today? The situation is not better… it's worse, as though Cheney were still completely in charge and unchecked. This week, Andrew Rosenthal wrote a major editorial for the NY Times, The N.SA. Dips Into Pornography. The NSA is now collecting data on what porn sites people access online. "On one level," wrote Rosenthal, "this is old news-- using embarrassing sexual information against enemies. Spy novels are replete with the fabled 'honey trap' in which a tempting woman is placed in the path of an intelligence target in the hope that he will succumb and be vulnerable to blackmail. The only progress we’ve made in our digital times is that no actual person need be involved anymore, just images on the web. On another level, it’s sort of hilarious to imagine a gang of techno spy nerds in a darkened room, poring over browser histories, hunting for dirty URL’s, which of course they don’t linger over."
But beyond the absurdity of it all, this is precisely the way that politically directed, clandestine surveillance goes off the rails-- by digging into personal behavior. Because all of these operations are conducted in secret, according to secret rules, the public has no way of knowing whether the targets are actually enemies of the state, or just individuals who have fallen out of the state’s favor.

In fact, according to the Huffington Post, “none of the six individuals targeted by the N.S.A. is accused in the document of being involved in terror plots.”

J. Edgar Hoover compiled secret dossiers on the sexual peccadillos and private misbehavior of those he labeled as enemies-- really dangerous people like Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy, for example.

Government officials have repeatedly claimed that the National Security Agency’s collection of metadata is perfectly legal.  We should not worry about the N.S.A., according to President Obama, because there are safeguards in place to protect our constitutional rights. Agents would never, ever misuse that information to, say, check on where you’ve been web surfing.
One of the senators nodding and winking at the NSA shredding of the Constitution is Maine's make-believe moderate, Susan Collins (R). Luckily, an independent-minded grassroots progressive, Shenna Bellows, is running against her this cycle. Shenna, the former Executive Director of the Maine ACLU, has a very different perspective on the importance of the Constitution and the importance of legitimate privacy than Collins does. This morning she reiterated that "History demonstrates time and time again that government secrecy breeds abuse of power. The revelations about NSA spying show that yet again, the NSA is engaged in surveillance operations that clearly violate the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. News that the NSA is monitoring the online pornography habits of "radicalizers" is eerily reminiscent of the FBI's surveillance of the private lives of leading political figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. It's a waste of taxpayer dollars and an attack on civil liberties. Yet, Congress continues to abdicate its critical role in providing checks and balances on the Executive branch. The decision by members of the Senate Intelligence Committee to codify NSA spying authority and expand the Patriot Act demonstrates a dangerous disregard for our fundamental constitutional freedoms. It's time to rein in an out-of-control NSA and restore our constitutional freedoms. In a healthy democracy, the government doesn't spy on the private lives of its citizenry."

If you'd like to help Shenna replace Collins in the U.S. Senate, you can do that here on the Blue America Senate 2014 page.


The BBC has now posted the entire Sackur-Greenwald video on YouTube. Kudos! Here is is:

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At 6:56 AM, Blogger Tom Betz said...

While the BBC's iPlayer restricts video playback to the UK, the complete BBC radio version is available for the next six days at

At 7:10 AM, Blogger Tom Betz said...

Ah, I see that HardTalk themselves have posted the entire program to YouTube:

At 8:13 AM, Blogger DownWithTyranny said...

Thanks, Tom. I've now updated the post with the entire clip.


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