Anatomy of a Non-Denial Denial

The CIA director misled the press about a veritable constitutional crisis, appearing to deny something he could not, in fact, dispute. And the press let it happen.

The non-denial denial is an art that takes many forms in official Washington.

The basic idea is that when you or your organization are accused of doing something that you did in fact do, you respond with what sounds like a denial, but really isn’t.

You issue a very narrowly-crafted denial involving a lot of hairsplitting, while avoiding the central claim. Or you dismiss the accusation as unworthy of response. Or you deny something else: You raise a straw man accusation and deny that; or – possibly best yet — you take advantage of a poorly worded question.

The press typically interprets it as a denial, and since you are a credible figure, it moves on.

And if the accusation against you is ever irrefutably proven, then you point out that you never really denied it. Since you didn’t technically lie, the press, again, moves on.

But the non-denial denial is fundamentally an act of deception.

So when and if the accused has to admit what they did publicly – i.e. by saying something to the effect of “I wasn’t lying because I carefully didn’t answer the real question” – they are de facto admitting that they were intentionally being deceitful. If they are public officials, that means they are admitting they betrayed their public trust.

CIA Director John Brennan had one of those moments last week.

The background: Back on March 11, Senate intelligence committee chair Dianne Feinstein took to the Senate floor to accuse the CIA of having violated the Constitution’s separation of powers principle by searching through computers being used by Senate staff members investigating the agency’s role in torturing detainees

Later that day, Brennan made comments to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell at a Council on Foreign Relations event that were widely interpreted as a blanket denial of the accusations.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Brennan said. “That’s just beyond the — you know, the scope of reason in terms of what we would do.”

But in July, a CIA inspector general’s report confirmed that the CIA had in fact improperly accessed those computers, just as Feinstein had charged.

Last week, on a panel at a national security and intelligence trade show, Brennan made his first public comments on the subject since the contradiction emerged between what he said and the truth.

Brennan now says that his denial had been mischaracterized, and that it was specific to the way Mitchell asked her question, which included a slightly hyperbolic and conflated paraphrasing of the charges that Feinstein had carefully drawn out that morning.

Indeed, Mitchell had given Brennan an opening of sorts, by asking him to respond to Feinstein’s claims – in Mitchell’s words – “that the CIA had hacked into the Senate Intelligence Committee staff computers to thwart an investigation by the committee into [the CIA’s] past practices.”

What Brennan said, in response was this:

As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into, you know, Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that. I mean, that’s — that’s just beyond the — you know, the scope of reason in terms of what we would do.

How Brennan explains that answer now:

At the Council of Foreign Relations, Andrea Mitchell said: “Did, in fact, CIA officers hack into the Senate computers to thwart the investigation on detention and interrogation?” “Thwart the investigation?” “Hacking in?” No, we did not. And I said, that’s beyond that scope of reason.

I’m assuming that Brennan felt safe brushing off the “hacking” charge because CIA staffers didn’t technically have to circumvent security to conduct their search; the computers were at a CIA facility, and were maintained by the CIA. What the CIA circumvented was a well-documented agreement between it and the Senate committee. But calling that “hacking” is somewhat imprecise.

Similarly, Feinstein hadn’t directly accused the CIA of conducting the search in order to thwart the investigation; rather she said that how the incident was resolved would show “whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee.”

So a “fact-checker” might say Brennan was technically off the hook.

But consider the context:

1) It was Brennan’s duty to publicly respond to Feinstein deeply troubling and very specific accusations, which happened to be correct.

Although he self-evidently didn’t agree with Feinstein’s conclusion — that the CIA’s search “may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight” – he darn well knew that the facts and history she laid out were accurate. (We know that because, among other things, he was the one who first told her about it, in a Jan. 7 letter complaining about what the search had found.)

2) He could have argued his real position, but chose not to.

He could have said: “Yes, we did what she said, but we don’t consider it hacking or wrong. They were actually our own computers; and we were pursuing what we thought was a security breach.”

That response might or might not have gone over very well.

As Feinstein had explained – accurately – the CIA had explicitly agreed not to access the computers it made available for the Senate staffers. (A CIA official confirmed this in a legal filing for an unrelated case, see pp. 5-6.)

And the alleged security concern was the result of top CIA officials freaking out when they discovered that Senate staffers had accessed an internal document that corroborated the scathing conclusions about the CIA’s role in torture that those same top officials were in the process of trying to squelch. (They still are.) According to Feinstein, that document, known as the Panetta Review was accessed legitimately, using CIA-provided search tools.

But rather than tell the public the CIA’s side of the story, it would appear that Brennan simply wanted the entire story to go away.

So he took advantage of the poor phrasing of Mitchell’s question to give the impression, through a non-denial denial, that Feinstein was unhinged. He used his credibility to attack hers, and muddy the narrative.

It worked. Coverage — in the mainstream press, at least — of what should have been recognized as a veritable constitutional crisis soon dwindled almost to nonexistence.

3) This was Brennan’s strategy, not an isolated, spur-of-the-moment decision.

A week before Feinstein had said anything in public, as leaks about a confrontation between the CIA and the Senate committee were making their way into media reports, Brennan issued a particularly contentious non-denial denial. On March 5 he said in a statement:

I am deeply dismayed that some members of the Senate have decided to make spurious allegations about CIA actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts. I am very confident that the appropriate authorities reviewing this matter will determine where wrongdoing, if any, occurred in either the executive branch or legislative branch.

Until then, I would encourage others to refrain from outbursts that do a disservice to the important relationship that needs to be maintained between intelligence officials and congressional overseers.

In a second exchange in his famous Council on Foreign Relations interview, asked about “potentially illegal and unconstitutional breaches by the CIA,” Brennan replied.

And, you know, when the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.

And in a separate interview Mitchell conducted for NBC News, Brennan — who refers to the intelligence committee, formerly known as the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, as the SSCI, or “sissy” — put it this way:

[L]et me assure you that CIA in no way was spying on the SSCI or the Senate.

So from the get-go, Brennan’s strategy was to cast doubt on the accusations rather than address them, and in that way attempt to avoid a public reckoning.

4) Brennan’s non-denial denials weren’t the only way his approach to this issue was deceitful.

Brennan also repeatedly accused his accusers of misconduct, without any evidence to support his claim – and continues to insinuate as much to this day.

When Feinstein responded with outrage to learning about the CIA’s search, the agency fired back: CIA acting general counsel Robert Eatinger sent a criminal referral to the Justice Department, charging that the Senate staffers had illegally accessed and removed the document in question.

That gambit backfired spectacularly. For one, it appears to have been what led Feinstein to go public: “I view the acting counsel general’s referral as a potential effort to intimidate this staff, and I am not taking this lightly,” she said in her speech.

And for the referral to have come from Eatinger, of all people, really set her off:

I should note that for most if not all of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, the now-acting general counsel was a lawyer in the CIA’s counterterrorism center, the unit within which the CIA managed and carried out this program. From mid-2004 until the official termination of the detention and interrogation program in January 2009, he was the unit’s chief lawyer. He is mentioned by name more than 1,600 times in our study.

And now, this individual is sending a crimes report to the Department of Justice on the actions of Congressional staff — the same Congressional staff who researched and drafted a report that details how CIA officers, including the acting general counsel himself, provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice about the program.

Eatinger’s charge was clearly bogus. Not only did the Justice Department decline to get involved, but the CIA inspector general concluded that “the factual basis for the referral was not supported, as the author of the referral had been provided inaccurate information on which the letter was based.”

Brennan, however, still won’t let it go. “And, you know, when I think about that incident, I think there are things on both sides that need to be addressed,” he said last week, “and I’ll just leave it at that.”

5) He still refuses to admit he’s done anything wrong.

Despite a CIA spokesman’s announcement that Brennan had apologized to Feinstein and the committee’s vice chair after the inspector general’s conclusion was made public – a shocker reported as “CIA Apologizes for Spying on Senate Committee” — now it doesn’t sound like it was much of an apology at all.

Here’s how Brennan now describes what happened:

And so I submitted this issue to our inspector general. I said, I want to know exactly what CIA officers did. And when the inspector general determined that, based on the common understanding between the CIA and the SSCI about this arrangement of computers, that our officers had improperly accessed it, even though these were supposedly CIA facilities, CIA computers and CIA had responsibility for the IT integrity of the system, that [sic] I apologized then to them for any improper access that was done, despite the fact we didn’t have a memorandum of agreement.

And so what I’ve said to the committee and to others is that if we do something wrong, I’ll stand up in a minute, but I’m not going to take, you know, the allegations about hacking and monitoring and spying and whatever else. No.

I find the fact that non-denial denials have become business as usual in Washington particularly galling, in part due to my own struggles getting the word “lie” into my column at the Washington Post, back when I was still being edited by the news side.

The reason you so infrequently see the word “lie” in elite media news stories is that the editors generally take the position that even when someone has said something clearly not true, a reporter’s use of the word “lie” — rather than, say, “misspoke” or “was incorrect” — requires knowledge of the subject’s intent to deceive. And a fair-minded journalist, they argue, can’t be sure what’s going on in someone else’s head.

But when someone who has so clearly uttered a non-denial denial has to go back and explain how he intentionally responded to an accusation in a very circumscribed or elliptical way, and how that answer was mischaracterized as a denial — and how he made no attempt to correct the record – isn’t that prima facie evidence of intent to deceive?

Even though the non-denial denial isn’t in itself strictly speaking a lie, when examined in context, isn’t that exactly what it is?

As it happens, there were actually some initial expressions of skepticism from a few journalistic quarters about the way Brennan phrased his denial. As soon as Brennan denied “hacking” I realized it would be an excellent test of how easily tricked the American media would be, and I started tracking via Twitter which news organizations let themselves be played, and which pushed back.

Politico, the New York Times, Reuters and the Wall Street Journal all pretty much cast Brennan’s statements as a blanket denial.

But I was pleasantly surprised by the AP (“He denied that the CIA ‘hacked’ into the computer network in remarks on Tuesday but did not address the question of a search”) and the Los Angeles Times (“offered carefully worded remarks that did not dispute the actions Feinstein said had taken place, but did deny that they constituted ‘spying’ on the Senate.”)

Nevertheless, even those reporters who had noted the limitations of Brennan’s denial didn’t really keep on the story. And over time, the skepticism and the nuance faded away, leaving the general impression that Brennan had in fact denied everything.

What could reporters have done? It’s not like anyone at the CIA was going to say anything more. But could they have kept demanding a straight answer somehow? Or simply kept writing about the story, treating Brennan’s statements as irrelevant, or even an admission?

Opinion columnists could have – and to some extent did – call for Brennan’s ouster.

But how could the Washington press corps change its ways, so that a non-denial denial is no longer such an effective technique for people like Brennan to use, when they want a story to die, and their own careers to live?

Next week: Great non-denial denials in recent American history. What are some of your favorites? I have a whole bunch, from Watergate to Lewinsky to torture and surveillance — but send me yours as well.

Photo Illustration: Andrew Burton/Getty Images; Alex Wong/Getty Images

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