jeff sessions
Credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/flickr

Donald Trump had been president for five and a half days when this appeared in the New York Times:

It contained crossed-out phrases and typos. It said that the Sept. 11 attacks occurred in 2011, rather than a decade earlier. It was clearly not meant for public consumption.

But the draft of a Trump administration executive order that spilled into public view early Wednesday — a document that raised the prospect of reviving C.I.A. “black site” prisons like those where terrorism suspects were once detained and tortured — has the potential to further fracture a national security team already divided over one of the most controversial policies of the post-9/11 era.

The White House disclaimed the document, which was leaked to The New York Times and other news organizations, but three administration officials said the White House had circulated it among National Security Council staff members for review on Tuesday morning. And many of its proposals — which also include halting transfers out of the Guantánamo Bay prison and sending new detainees there, which President Barack Obama refused to do — echo years of Republican national security policy and President Trump’s own speeches.

Here’s a little more detail about the draft memo:

In a nod to those laws, the draft order would rescind Mr. Obama’s executive branch directives, like those barring the C.I.A. from operating prisons, but it would not immediately reinstate the C.I.A. detention and interrogation program. Instead, it would direct executive branch officials to review detention and interrogation policy and make recommendations, including on whether to propose changes to the law.

During his recent confirmation hearing, Mr. Pompeo was unequivocal when asked whether he would comply with an order by Mr. Trump to reinstate the C.I.A.’s brutal interrogation methods.

“Absolutely not,” he answered. “Moreover, I can’t imagine that I would be asked that.”

But in written answers to the committee after the hearing, Mr. Pompeo did not rule out the possibility of asking Congress to relax interrogation limits “if experts believed current law was an impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country.”

In other words, coming right out of the box, one of the highest priorities of the incoming Trump administration was to restore the CIA’s power to operate secret black site prisons abroad and to start a process for reimplementing torture as an interrogation technique. It should alarm us that Trump’s nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel, was involved in both black site prisons and torture.

Just as Mr. Pompeo promised the Senate that he would not obey an order to torture people, Haspel has made the same assurances during her confirmation hearing. She had enough difficulty calling torture “immoral” however, as Sen. John McCain decided to publicly oppose her.

Hours later, McCain issued a statement declaring that “the methods we employ to keep our nation safe must be as right and just as the values we aspire to live up to and promote in the world.”

“I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defense,” he said. “However, Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”

Soon after, Kelly Riddell Sadler, a special assistant to the president in the office of White House Communications, declared in an internal meeting that it didn’t matter what John McCain thought because he will soon succumb to brain cancer.

At the time the black site prisons memo was circulated, it inspired lies and denials, but also the beginnings of an internal witch hunt for leakers. The hunt was led by Michael Flynn protégé Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a veteran of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

A former National Security Council official now slated to work for Attorney General Jeff Sessions explored ways to surreptitiously monitor the communications of White House staff for leaks or perceived political disloyalty to Donald Trump, according to three former Trump NSC officials familiar with the effort.

Ezra Cohen-Watnick, whom former national security adviser Michael Flynn brought onto the NSC as senior director for intelligence, sought technical solutions in early 2017 for collecting and analyzing phone and other data on White House colleagues for interactions with reporters. He portrayed his desired leak hunt as an “insider threat” detection effort, according to the ex-officials.

Michael Flynn was fired within weeks, but Cohen-Watnick stayed on a while longer. Perhaps you remember this startling incident:

It is the latest twist of a bizarre Washington drama that began after dark on March 21, when Mr. Nunes got a call from a person he has described only as a source. The call came as he was riding across town in an Uber car, and he quickly diverted to the White House. The next day, Mr. Nunes gave a hastily arranged news conference before going to brief Mr. Trump on what he had learned the night before from — as it turns out — White House officials.

The chain of events — and who helped provide the intelligence to Mr. Nunes — was detailed to The New York Times by four American officials.

Since disclosing the existence of the intelligence reports, Mr. Nunes has refused to identify his sources, saying he needed to protect them so others would feel safe going to the committee with sensitive information. In his public comments, he has described his sources as whistle-blowers trying to expose wrongdoing at great risk to themselves.

That does not appear to be the case. Several current American officials identified the White House officials as Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a lawyer who works on national security issues at the White House Counsel’s Office and was previously counsel to Mr. Nunes’s committee. Though neither has been accused of breaking any laws, they do appear to have sought to use intelligence to advance the political goals of the Trump administration.

If you’re trying to keep track at home, the aforementioned shitshow led directly to Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, recusing himself from all matters related to the Russia investigation pending the outcome of a House Ethics investigation. You won’t be shocked to learn that Nunes was cleared of any violations and resumed his duties by threatening to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who oversees Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Rosenstein is in charge of Mueller because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself after committing perjury related to his Russian contacts during his own confirmation hearing. Ezra Cohen-Watnick was eventually fired (although his lawyer denies this) and went to work in the private sector for Oracle. He has been brought out of moth balls, apparently, although it appears that he has not yet been formally hired to work for the Department of Justice.

Whether he’s signed the paperwork or not, his new job is to work as an advisor to Jeff Sessions on counterintelligence and counterterrorism issues. This calls to mind the “counterintelligence” work he did at the National Security Council in the first weeks of Trump’s administration.

All this is happening right as the White House is once again obsessed with leaks and angry at the Justice Department for the Russia probe. Yet practically every major administration figure, including Trump himself, is being accused of leaking.

That’s caused Cohen-Watnick’s former colleagues, who spoke on condition of anonymity, to recall the insider-threat episode out of suspicion that his new role is to be a political commissar, ensuring Sessions toes the party line desired by a president who distrusts his attorney general. Unlike previous national-security aides to attorneys general, Cohen-Watnick is not a lawyer, and the Justice Department, for more than a decade, has a formal national-security division working on such issues.

“I used to refer to him as the one most likely to end up like Ollie North,” said a former Trump NSC official, referring to the Marine officer and Reagan administration official central to the Iran-Contra scandal who turned a policy laboratory in the White House into an unauthorized operational agency.

As nearly everyone knows, President Trump has been furious with Jeff Sessions for recusing himself and has considered firing him on many occasions. At least once, Sessions has drawn up a letter of resignation. Trump doesn’t trust Sessions and he now appears to have put a Michael Flynn acolyte in as a minder to monitor Sessions’s office and activities.

Despite his recusal, it’s not clear how sequestered Sessions truly is from the Mueller investigation. Someone with access to his office who isn’t precluded from reviewing Russian-related matters could serve as a very effective mole for the administration and its lawyers. They can also hunt anyone at the Department of Justice who talks to reporters.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at