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Hippocrates Quote

Researching and writing about conspiracies, both real and imagined, is a great way to spend the day. From the comfort of a desk chair, it’s easy to pontificate. And I’m a believer in the efficacy of covert actions as well. The world is a dangerous place, and from time to time the US and our allies need to deploy deadly people and lethal tactics. But as I researched Sea of Lies, I brushed up against a litany of Post-9/11 CIA activities that left me asking if the ends actually justified the means. I still don’t have an answer, and, without access to classified information and a finely calibrated bullshit filter, I’m not certain anyone else does either. What I have concluded is that only the executive branch exerts any control over what US spy agencies do. Congress has been defied, hacked and lied to by the people it is mandated to supervise. The courts don’t play a useful role, either, citing the preservation of state secrets as their pretext.


We live in perilous times: the foes of Western Democracy would kill us if they could. There’s a legitimate and growing need for both machine-based and human intelligence. Nevertheless, we need greater checks on the intelligence services in general, and the CIA and NSA in particular. Otherwise we are only one deranged President away from having someone who might use kidnapping, off-premises detention and/or torture against his political opponents in the name of national security.


The US system lacks accountability, and in what feels like (!) an election year I hope that readers make clear to the candidates that this is unacceptable. Otherwise, the drone crosshairs on a target may someday be someone you know (or knew). Any reader thinking this view is hysterical should have a look at the Wikipedia entries on extraordinary rendition (35 pp), and black sites (23 pp). But begin by reading what happened when the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (“SSCI”) tried to review the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation (“RDI”) processes (


In recent years, the press has focused on the rules of engagement governing drone-fired missiles, particularly against citizens of the US (and its allies) operating in hostile territory. True Lies won’t pick up this topic because drone usage is widely understood, and I have no insights to add to the debate.


Yours from deep underground.


Bradley West, Singapore, 23 August 2015


Dangerous Minds

Since 9/11 the US military and its proxies have been on the offensive: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Yemen for starters with Syria and Iran still on the menu. Add to this the ongoing crusade against al Qaeda and the Islamic State (“ISIS”). Killing bin Laden in May 2011 was the apogee, but many other terrorist leaders before and since were extinguished by precision airborne munitions. Anyone with access to newspapers or the Internet accepts that the war on the Islamic terror organizations is total war, with non-combatant fatalities acceptable. When ISIS thugs are beheading Western aid workers on camera, the definition broadens as to what constitutes acceptable “collateral damage”.


Less visible these days are discussions about extraordinary rendition, the technical term for the CIA’s kidnapping of non-US citizens abroad. Hand in glove are the black sites, those off-the-books prisons adjacent to obscure airbases where CIA-chartered jets shuttled terrorist suspects back and forth according to whichever location was deemed better equipped to extract useful information. This tactic was particularly widespread from 2002-2005 with fourteen countries in Europe plus Egypt, Thailand, Uzbekistan, Morocco and Jordan also aiding and abetting the US. While liberals gnashed their teeth over the non-torture interrogation sessions of Guantanamo (“Gitmo”) Bay, the really nasty action was taking place off camera.


Waterboarding is near drowning with the mouth and nose covered, and forcing hoses down the throat to pump in water until the subject is on the verge of passing out. Often interrogators waterboarded their victims either upside down or head down. In March 2003 the CIA waterboarded 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed at least 183 times.


In 2005, then CIA director Porter Gross and former head of clandestine services Jose Rodriguez ordered the destruction of 90 Bangkok-origin videotapes which chronicled the harsh interrogation of al Qaeda suspects. Rodriquez allegedly said that release of the tapes “would make us look terrible” and would be “devastating to [the CIA]”.


In 2007, then CIA director Michael Hayden testified before the SSCI that the Army Field Manual principles of interrogation were no longer valid. Hayden said that bad guys were different from ordinary enemy combatants in both the type of information they possessed and their prior preparation. The bad guys already had the manual, and therefore would be trained in how to resist the techniques cited. The CIA needed to be able to go further. My take is that unless the CIA was killing everyone they interrogated using “enhanced techniques”, then soon enough the word would spread about blindfolds, long plane flights, waterboarding, enemas, sleep deprivation and being hung from hooks while being questioned by people from the country that hated you most. (This is actually what happened, so the bad guys presumably are now mentally prepared to resist this approach, too.)


Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen managed the logistics of the 1250+ CIA rendition flights (through 2007), and found itself on the receiving end of a lawsuit in 2007 brought on behalf of Gitmo detainee Khaled El-Masri. His lawyers at Amnesty International feared he would be subjected to extraordinary rendition to another country where torture was permitted. (Federal appeals court in 2010 later dismissed the suit citing national security.)


The New York Times in 2011 used court filings in a billing dispute to unravel several interesting tidbits with regard to the rendition transportation angle. (See for details.) Bali nightclub bombing architect Hambali came into US custody in 2003. In four days (12-16 August), a Gulfstream IV sublet from one of the owners of the Boston Red Sox flew the following circuit: Washington D.C. (Dulles) to Cold Bay (Alaska) to Osaka to Bangkok (where Hambali was loaded) to Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, the UAE, Ireland and then back to Dulles. Somewhere along this route, Hambali got off the plane and he’s never been seen again. The price of the tour was figured at $4900 an hour (including crew), and ran to $339,000.


How could the planes fly Post 9/11 around the world with impunity when airport security and air surveillance standards are so much higher than previously? The US gave one charter aviation company called DynCorp a waiver which allowed it fly internationally without passenger manifests as the people onboard were providing “global support to US embassies worldwide”. (DynCorp then hired a company named Sportslight which in turn hired Richmor which in turn leased from the baseball mogul the Gulfstream IV which ferried Hambali part of the way round the world.)


The Devil Within

In 2008 Obama ran for president with one of his planks being that no one was above the law. As a Constitutional lawyer, he’d ensure that the law was upheld. Post-election the extraordinary renditions halted (or almost stopped).


The Senate, the traditional CIA gatekeeper via the Select Committee on Intelligence, launched its own investigation in March, 2009. Led by California Senator Diane Feinstein, for three and a half years the SSCI scoured 9,400 CIA documents (and 6.2 million pages of unformatted, unstructured and unindexed information) detailing rendition, detention and interrogation (“RDI”) practices.  The final six thousand page report finished in December, 2012 and has never been released to the public for reasons of national security. The CIA also sought to neuter the 500 page executive summary, seeking so many redactions (deletions) that Feinstein was led to complain to the LA Times that, if accepted, these edits would “eliminate or obscure key facts that support the report’s findings and conclusion.”


But the story gets even worse, because in February 2010 the CIA hacked into the SSCI’s computer network to remove 920 documents that it had previously provided. Later CIA personnel impersonated Senate investigators to gain the access to those SSCI drives, including personal emails. In 2014 the CIA’s own Inspector General conducted an investigation that concluded five employees had been involved, and three had later lied about their roles. No action was taken by the CIA.


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Friends and acquaintances sometimes ask where I get the ideas for the Lies espionage trilogy. All I can do is shake my head and say, “Every time I open a newspaper there’s something new to pursue.” Last night I met someone at a cocktail party who has just set up a drone company that he hopes someday will amass the most complete databases in the world of people moving through certain public areas. If someone stops and looks around, the drone takes a snapshot. If more than two people huddle, the drone takes photos from different angles and initiates facial recognition sequences. The business model? Identify as many people as possible and put it all into an indexed database. Sell the resulting giant computer file to governments and/or private sector customers. Hmm . . . . There’s no shortage of material for conspiracy novelists, I assure you.


In the 1960s, according to The Graduate the growth industry was “plastics”. In the 2010s, Zero Dark Thirty has passed that mantle to “conspiracies”. But if you are a young person considering a career in intelligence, the big hurdle to get over is when the recruiter answers one of your questions with a smile and says, “You’ll have to trust us on that one.”


After a scandal involving the Erie Railroad, in 1869 robber baron Jim Fisk gave testimony to the Senate to explain his role in an action which pushed the US into a recession. Fisk said, “Nothing is lost save honor.” Loss of honor was a high price to pay back when the London Stock Exchange’s motto for real was dictum meum pactum (“My word is my bond”), but I wonder if it matters very much today (though the LSE motto remains unchanged).