So … what has transpired over the last 800 days or so in the national-security arena? ISIS went from being the “jayvee team” to a terrorist quasi-state launching deadly attacks from the Sinai to the streets of Paris. Iran’s navy fired missiles at US Navy ships and captured ten American sailors. China built an island in the middle of the ocean and claimed the area as territorial waters. North Korea has … continued being North Korea.
What did two top officials of naval intelligence know about any of these crises, and others? Probably nothing at all other than what appeared in the papers, because the admiral in charge of naval intelligence has had all of his clearances suspended since November 2013. The Washington Post reported last night that one of Vice Admiral Ted Branch’s key aides had his clearance suspended at the same time:
For more than two years, the Navy’s intelligence chief has been stuck with a major handicap: He’s not allowed to know any secrets.
Vice Adm. Ted “Twig” Branch has been barred from reading, seeing or hearing classified information since November 2013, when the Navy learned from the Justice Department that his name had surfaced in a giant corruption investigation involving a foreign defense contractor and scores of Navy personnel.
Worried that Branch was on the verge of being indicted, Navy leaders suspended his access to classified materials. They did the same to one of his deputies, Rear Adm. Bruce F. Loveless, the Navy’s director of intelligence operations.
More than 800 days later, neither Branch nor Loveless has been charged. But neither has been cleared, either. Their access to classified information remains blocked.
Loveless got shifted out of that assignment eventually to what the Post’s Craig Whitlock describes as “a slightly less sensitive position,” but Branch remains in charge of naval intelligence. How, though, can Branch effectively run an intelligence service while not having clearance to access the intel it produces? Better yet — why has it taken more than two years for this decision to get seriously challenged?
For one thing, it turns out that the Justice Department never completed its corruption investigation. It has gone on for more than 800 days without a determination of whether Branch and Loveless committed criminal or liable acts. Investigators have not shared their findings with the military, for good reason, and the Navy assumed that it wouldn’t take long. Whitlock hears from one senior Navy official that “until these things resolve themselves, we’re kind of frozen.”
Actually, no, they’re not frozen at all. All due respect to Admiral Branch and the presumption of innocence, but the security of the US and the need for maximum effectiveness in naval intelligence takes precedence over the man’s career. Leadership in the Navy and in the White House should have taken action to move Branch and Loveless completely out of the way so that a new commander for naval intelligence could take the reins. That should have happened two years ago. The lack of action by the Obama administration to deal with this situation demonstrates an appalling lack of seriousness about national security at a time when threats are rising, not receding.
For that matter, the 800-plus days Justice has taken on the criminal case seems a little long, too. Corruption cases can become very complicated, but is it taking this long because it’s complicated, or is it being stalled?