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Implausible Denial | The Nation

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Implausible Denial

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Writing in the December 16, 2002, edition of The Nation, I broke the news--and explored the concerns many in the US intelligence community had--about Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's quiet success in prevailing upon Congress to authorize the creation of a new senior position at the Pentagon,the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. Several months later, in the pages of the Columbia Journalism Review, I followed up with a piece devoted to the media's utter lack of interest--perhaps best demonstrated by the absence of any reporter from a farcical confirmation hearing--in the new Under Secretary himself, Stephen Cambone.

Additional support for this article was provided by the Fund for Constitutional Government.

About the Author

Jason Vest
Jason Vest writes on national security affairs for The Nation.

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Despite his status as the Pentagon's über-intelligence authority, in the initial days of the breaking Abu Ghraib scandal Cambone was virtually invisible. When Rumsfeld was called to the Hill to testify before the Armed Services Committee on May 7, however, Cambone was unexpectedly summoned to the witness table from his chair behind Rumsfeld. That cameo appearance resulted in a more expansive return appearance on May 11, in which Cambone less than deftly tried to undermine Abu Ghraib investigator Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba. (Cambone disputed the general's conclusion that military intelligence units effectively controlled the prison's military police detachment.) Cambone also reacted adversely to Senator Jack Reed's assertion (confirmed by Taguba) that recommendations made in a report on improving intelligence collection at Abu Ghraib by then-chief Guantánamo Bay interrogator Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller clearly called for the use of MPs in interrogations, which helped create an environment that begot the subsequent abuse and torture in the tiers. As a May 12 Washington Post editorial points out, Cambone's office approved interrogation practices that are in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions.

At the May 11 hearings, Cambone and another senior Defense Department official, Army intelligence chief Lieut. Gen Keith Alexander, essentially cast themselves as mere Pentagon representatives fielding questions about Abu Ghraib--and not as men who might bear any responsibility for what they desperately tried to cast as an aberrant and isolated incident. Yet many of their assertions on May 11 are in fact contradicted by statements they made before the same committee a month before, as well as a year-old memo outlining the responsibilities of Cambone's office.

The Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, or OUSD(I) in Pentagonese, was originally conceived by Rumsfeld as a centralizing measure, a way to give him "one dog to kick" rather than a "whole kennel" of individual civilian and uniformed defense intelligence agencies. In choosing the person responsible for ostensibly bringing unprecedented order and control to the Pentagon's spy shops, the Secretary chose Cambone, a man with no intelligence experience but a favored protégé and loyal partisan who had served on Rumsfeld's ballistic missile threat commission and worked with the neoconservative Project for the New American Century. Previously principal deputy to Under Secretary for Policy Doug Feith (and, in that capacity, liaison between Feith and the ideological intelligence analysis unit that would later morph into the notorious Office of Special Plans), Cambone went out of his way in his confirmation hearings to say that he would closely "consult and coordinate" with Feith to "insure [that] DoD-related intelligence activity supports the goals" of the Pentagon's policy shop.

Two months after Cambone's confirmation, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz described his new portfolio in a detailed internal Pentagon memo. Reflecting the seriousness and specificity of Cambone's mission, an organizational chart appended to the memo shows a generic under secretary with six deputies, including one for warfighting and operations, whose duties include specific liaison with the intelligence elements of each of the armed services, each individual combatant command, and the under secretary for policy. The document itself explicitly states that Cambone's office will, among other things:

provide oversight and policy guidance for all DoD intelligence activities; provide policy oversight of all the intelligence organizations within the DoD, to include ensuring these organizations are manned, trained, equipped and structured  to support the missions of the Department; provide assessments of and advice [to] the Secretary and CJCS [Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff] on the adequacy of military intelligence performance; exercise management and oversight of all DoD counterintelligence and security activities; coordinate DoD intelligence and intelligence-related policy, plans, programs, requirements and resource allocations; oversee provision of intelligence support and involvement in information operations, focused on assessments in support of operations.

None of this should leave much to the imagination, especially when it comes to policies and practices pertaining to the dimensions of human intelligence collection that involve interrogations conducted by military intelligence. Yet when asked by Senator John Warner if his office has "overall responsibility for policy concerning the handling of detainees," Cambone dodged with a "not precisely, sir," effectively denying any responsibility as set forth in his charge by Wolfowitz. Rather, Cambone said, he only reactively "became involved in this issue from the perspective of assuring there was a flow of intelligence back to the commands and done in an efficient and effective way."

Cambone's subsequent comments were in a similar vein, and lead one to conclude that either this particular under secretary was willfully obfuscating, or that he was providing yet another glaring example of the old adage that "military intelligence" is a contradiction in terms. Nothing pertinent crossed his desk; things were always  "signed out at the command level." Though he's had time to reflect on the whole affair, Cambone can't really say how he thinks any of it happened: "I don't know the facts, it's for me, hard to explain."

Key reports were seen only belatedly, "well after they were issued" or not at all, because they were "only delivered at command level." Cambone is apparently still in the dark regarding concerns voiced by the Coalition Provisional Authority and the State Department about prisoner treatment: "I'm not aware of those complaints," he said or, to clarify, "per se, in that sense, no." Though he's the senior Defense Department official responsible for intelligence, Cambone "did not discuss with anybody at Joint Task Force 7" interrogation procedure recommendations, especially ones that dealt with the transmission or dissemination of intelligence. As late as this past February--when most other senior officials were keenly aware of the problems at Abu Ghraib--"I still didn't know that there was a significant issue here." And when General Miller made his trip to Iraq, that was really under someone else's auspices, and merely with the "encouragement" of OUSD(I).

And one certainly shouldn't consider it anything like "collaboration"  that Cambone's deputy for warfighting and operations, Lieut. Gen. William Boykin (yes, that Boykin, of anti-Islam "My God is bigger than your God" fame), was subsequently briefed by Miller on his trip to Iraq; Boykin then briefed Cambone.

What makes this all the more remarkable, though, is how different in tone and substance Cambone's comments are compared with his appearance along with all the military intelligence chiefs--before the same committee on April 7. Review the transcript of that hearing and it seems as if Cambone and every element of the US military are working hand in glove. Recapping his first year as OUSD(I), Cambone effusively praised his uniformed colleagues and seemed to take particular delight in crowing about how closely his office was working with combatant commanders in Iraq on virtually every intelligence angle:

We undertook a major effort to support the transition from Fifth Corps to the Third Corps in Iraq, and the stand up of the Combined Joint Task Force Seven. We continue to be actively engaged with General Sanchez and General Fast, who is G2 [Army intelligence], in assisting the development of the intelligence architecture there, in providing counterintelligence support, in assisting the army and others with the transition, particularly their tactical HUMINT [human intelligence] teams and the like...the effort to improve capabilities within Iraq at the operational and tactical level has been so successful that [General Abizaid] has asked us to undertake a similar effort with his architecture in Afghanistan.

In that hearing, Cambone introduced Army military intelligence chief Lieut. Gen. Keith Alexander as having a "great deal of information" on the Army's intelligence efforts in Iraq. Of particular pride to Alexander, who expressly thanked Cambone for being "superb in providing us support"--is a program he declined to mention at his May 11 hearing but showcased on April 7. In that instance, after discussing the successful capture of an Iraqi general and the rapid sharing of intelligence between Defense Department intelligence agencies, Alexander said he chose to share that example

because, one, it shows you how important tactical questioning, analysis and interrogation is to our folks; and two, how we are training them today. We call Intel Support to Combating Terrorism. It's done at Fort Huachuca, and it uses the lessons learned from Guantánamo to our folks in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And also the benefits for tactical questioning, for those soldiers on the ground to know how to ask the right questions of these guys is being taught through every one of our centers and every one of our schools and centers throughout the United States before soldiers deploy.

Aside from this, the only other public mention of the Intelligence Support to Combating (or Counter) Terrorism program is in the February 13, 2003, edition of the Fort Huachuca base newspaper, which describes it as a crash course for military intelligence officers bound only for Guantánamo---but that the course will quickly become "globally oriented," as "the threat is not just in Afghanistan, it's also in the Philippines and the Middle East." While there is no mention in the article of Geneva Conventions-specific training--and while no mention of this unique training program was made on Tuesday--Alexander spent much of his time in the May 11 hearing emphasizing the strict adherence of his military intelligence officers to the standard training manuals, and trying to convince a skeptical committee that the whole Abu Ghraib mess likely begins and ends with nothing more than "a group of undisciplined military police." Yet on May 12, ABC News interviewed two former Fort Huachuca interrogation trainees who said that since early last year, "The US military has been teaching future interrogators how to cause physical pain while questioning detainees but remain technically within limits set by the Geneva Conventions."

Cambone can't have it both ways. The Armed Services Committee should thoroughly investigate the discrepancies between Cambone's and Alexander's April 7 and May 11 testimonies, and should recall the pair to the Hill for a more precise interrogation (in line with the Geneva Conventions, of course). In the end, the only place for Rumsfeld's "one dog to kick" may not be at his master's feet, but in the doghouse.

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