Obama’s Counter-Terror Chief: We Have To Do It Secretly

By Dennis Loo

On Meet the Press the Sunday after 9/11, Vice-President Cheney famously stated:

“We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies – if we are going to be successful.” 
On November 5, 2009, the Harvard Law Record ran an article about Obama’s National Counterterrorism Chief Michael Leiter’s talk at Harvard Law School. Leiter, like Obama, is a Harvard Law School graduate (class of 2000). Leiter’s remarks, as far as I can tell, have not been reprinted anywhere.
This is an excerpt from the article:
“Finally, and most controversially, Leiter said that everything counterterrorism did would require a large degree of public trust. He believed transparency would undermine such trust, making it difficult for counterterrorism policymakers to operate. Much needed to happen behind the scenes, he said, citing the use of provisions of the Patriot Act to foil a recent bomb plot against New York City subways, and noting that, in terms of international operations, there ‘was no altruism in international affairs,’ and that difficult and delicate trade-offs were often made in the pursuit of security.
“Returning to his third major lesson, Leiter said that, in the absence of public oversight, lawyers ought to play a greater role ensuring that there is accountability for any action taken behind the scenes. [Like John Yoo, Alberto Gonzalez, and Jay Bybee?] A breakdown of the internal channels set up by the Church and Pike Commissions in the 1970s – specifically, a lack of trust in the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and the special courts set up to monitor use of the Foreign Intelligence Security Act (FISA) is what has led members of Congress to leak vital information to the press, rather than deal with problems within the system. ‘Everything now plays out on the front page of the New York Times and the Washington Post,’ Leiter said, making it difficult for the NCTC and other national security agencies to pursue effective policies.
“Leiter’s position on secrecy may reflect the fact that he is a legacy of the Bush administration, which first appointed him to his position in 2008. Still, he insists, his job has not changed much since Obama took office. 98% of his work, Leiter said, was ‘apolitical;’ it was just that “the discourse” in the media focused on the hard cases that were not. ‘In the New York Times counterterrorism is Guantanamo, torture, and assassinations,’ Leiter said. What had truly shifted between administrations, he observed, was the weight given to the needs and desires of different departments – Defense, in particular, had received more attention under Bush than Obama.”
I’m so happy that Mr. Change decided to keep his fellow Harvard Law School grad on and that working Cheney’s “dark side” has not taken a backseat to the transparency that Obama argued for as a candidate and still claims that he stands for as president. Makes me feel all warm inside that my government is doing things that it can’t tell me and that it’s better that way. So comforting.