You probably heard that Jim Comey testified to the House Oversight Committee for over four hours today. You’ll see far less coverage of the second panel in that hearing, the testimony of Inspector Generals Steve Linick (from State) and Charles McCullough (from the IC).
In addition to OGR Chair Jason Chaffetz suggesting the committee convene a secrecy committee akin to the one Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan convened back in the 1990s (which would be very exciting), McCullough revealed something rather startling regarding a letter he sent to Congress back in January (this was first reported by Fox). The letter was his official notice to Congress that some of the information in Hillary’s emails was claimed by an agency he didn’t name to be Special Access.
To date, I have received two sworn declarations from one IC element. These declarations cover several dozen emails containing classified information determined by the IC element to be at the CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET, and TOP SECRET/SAP levels. According to the declarant, these documents contain information derived from classified IC element sources. Due to the presence of TOP SECRET/SAP information, I provided these declarations under separate cover to the Intelligence oversight committees and the Senate and House leadership.
By sending the email, McCullough made the SAP information very public, without providing information about whether the claim was very credible.
Shortly after the Fox report, Politico reported that the emails pertained to CIA drone strikes and related fallout in Pakistan.
However, the emails now deemed to contain “top secret, special access program” information are in addition to the messages previously disputed between State and the Director of National Intelligence, according to a spokesperson for McCullough. The official said the intelligence community review group is wrapping up its look into the documents and is putting these documents in the SAP category.
The Central Intelligence Agency is the agency that provided the declarations about the classified programs, another U.S. official familiar with the situation told POLITICO Wednesday.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some or all of the emails deemed to implicate “special access programs” related to U.S. drone strikes. Those who sent the emails were not involved in directing or approving the strikes, but responded to the fallout from them, the official said.
The information in the emails “was not obtained through a classified product, but is considered ‘per se’ classified” because it pertains to drones, the official added. The U.S. treats drone operations conducted by the CIA as classified, even though in a 2012 internet chat Presidential Barack Obama acknowledged U.S.-directed drone strikes in Pakistan.
WSJ reported last month that what are presumably the same emails included discussions among State Department officials about upcoming drone strikes.
The vaguely worded messages didn’t mention the “CIA,” “drones” or details about the militant targets, officials said.
The still-secret emails are a key part of the FBI investigation that has long dogged Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, these officials said.
They were written within the often-narrow time frame in which State Department officials had to decide whether or not to object to drone strikes before the CIA pulled the trigger, the officials said.
Law-enforcement and intelligence officials said State Department deliberations about the covert CIA drone program should have been conducted over a more secure government computer system designed to handle classified information.
State Department officials told FBI investigators they communicated via the less-secure system on a few instances, according to congressional and law-enforcement officials. It happened when decisions about imminent strikes had to be relayed fast and the U.S. diplomats in Pakistan or Washington didn’t have ready access to a more-secure system, either because it was night or they were traveling.
In other words, there has been a great deal of reporting on what are almost surely the emails in question, revealing that the key dispute pertains to an issue that CIA likes to pretend we don’t all know about, drone strikes in Pakistan.
In today’s hearing, McCullough reported that these emails — in addition to being a Special Access Program — are also classified Originator Controlled, ORCON, and the CIA (which he still didn’t name) has been refusing to distribute the emails or the statement beyond the original dissemination, the Intel committees and congressional leadership. So, in spite of the fact that numerous members of Congress have asked for more information (including, in today’s hearing, Chaffetz), they’ve been denied it. McCullough explained he had had to get his own staffers read into this, and he has gone back to the CIA (again, which he didn’t name) several times, only to have them refuse further distribution.
It may well be that the actual language used in the most sensitive emails revealed highly classified information — or it may be, as the WSJ reported, that State aides used a kind of code hiding the jist of their conversations.
Or it may be that State discussed a particularly controversial drone strike, such as the time CIA launched a drone strike right after Ray Davis was freed from Pakistani custody, which Jim White wrote about in a longer post suggesting CIA used drone strikes to retaliate against Pakistani action we don’t like.
Drone strikes in Pakistan by the US have occasionally been interrupted by various diplomatic issues. For example, there was a lull of over a month at the height of negotiations over the release of Raymond Davis. One of the most notorious US drone strikes was on March 17, 2011, the day after Raymond Davis was released. This signature strike killed over 40, and despite US claims (was that you, John Brennan?), that those killed “weren’t gathering for a bake sale” it was later determined that the majority of those killed were indeed civilians at a jirga to discuss local mineral rights. Because it was so poorly targeted, this strike always stood out in my mind as the product of an attitude where high-level US personnel demanded a target, no matter how poorly developed, simply to have something to hit since drone strikes had been on hold over the Davis negotiations and there was a need to teach Pakistan a lesson.
One way or another, though, these are topics that Congress (especially the Foreign Affairs Committees, which almost certainly have been denied these details) should be able to review.
But CIA is — as is their wont — playing classification games to ensure that a broader cross-section of Congress can’t assess how egregious this particular classification violation was.
Which, given CIA’s history, tends to mean either it wasn’t — or CIA has something to hide.