Former US Congress House Intelligence Committee Chair Peter Hoekstra is a formidable figure who, though a Republican, does not fit easily into a box.
Unquestionably more of his views are closer to the Republican party’s views on fighting terror and foreign policy issues than to the Democratic party.
Speaking to Hoekstra on the side lines of this week’s Israel Bar Association conference in Eilat, it is clear that he stands firmly behind the US using enhanced interrogation or torture techniques (depending who you ask) to extract intelligence information from certain terrorist detainees.
He also strongly criticizes the US Senate’s December 2014 report that lambasted the techniques as illegal torture.
All of this could come back to Israel at some point as it often tracks the US in how far to push the balance of national security versus civil liberties.
As head of the intelligence committee, he was briefed both by the former chairman about what went on during the early Bush years, and as chairman from 2004-2006, on the techniques still under dispute.
He said “I walked out of the room understanding that although the techniques were not being used at the time, given specific circumstances, they might be employed, and if they were employed, they might start without me knowing about it – though once they were started I would be informed of it.”
Hoekstra also understood that “if I had an objection, now was the time to express opposition. I believe anyone in that room, could have had a legitimate shot at stopping the program if they really objected.”
This last point is part of Hoekstra’s attack and rejection of aspects of the Senate report.
He says that Democratic members of the “Gang of 8” the top representatives of both parties on the Congressional intelligence committees knew what they were approving or not objecting to, and were disingenuous later to say they had not realized what was happening.
Hoekstra, now a senior director at the major law firm Greenberg Traurig, which has an office in Tel Aviv, also strikes a fairly robust Republican view on National Security Agency spying and collecting of telephone and email metadata.
That program has been under fire now for two years and was recently ruled unconstitutional by a US federal appeals court.
With the court ruling and the authority for the NSA program due to expire on June 1, the momentum in Congress has shifted toward either dropping the program or passing a bipartisan reform of the program, which would place new limits on collecting and the storage of information.
In contrast, Hoekstra is firmly in the shrinking but formidable camp of people demanding that the program be reauthorized without changes.
This again impacts Israel, as Israel’s 8200 Unit gets significance intelligence from the NSA.
Hoekstra says that the secret NSA program, which the general public only learned about in 2013 by and illegal leak from Edward Snowden, was “the first program I got briefed on” as Intelligence Committee Chairman back in 2004.
He said that both he and his Democratic colleagues “knew what the program did and knew the results.”
The former committee chairman said that the NSA program is “necessary and legal.”
He explained that the data that is collected without a court issued warrant is limited to that “this specific telephone called that telephone and the call lasted 56 seconds” – but he said there is no content or names at this stage.
Only after getting a warrant from the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) can the NSA seek to extract content from someone who it regards as dangerous, “the same process authorities need to go through to get a wiretap” on criminals, says Hoekstra.
He accuses “certain people of misidentifying what the program is by saying that all conversations are gobbled up” by the NSA.
Hoekstra states that the compromise bill, the USA Freedom Act, which has passed the US House of Representatives already will “make it harder” for government officials fighting terror “to get information” and that it is overly “micromanaging” their efforts.
He says that keeping the collected data stored in the private sector could limit the NSA to tracking “one or two telephone numbers at a time,” which will lose it “insight and speed” when “speed and flexibility” are crucial.
Sounds like a straight hardnosed security-hawk Republican? But this is where Hoekstra jumps out of the box, possibly because he has been at the center of it all and is willing to take hard shots at national security officials when he has witnessed mistakes.
Hoekstra talked about a 2001 incident in which the Peruvian air force, working with the CIA as part of a drug interdiction program, shot down an innocent US missionary airplane, killing some people who were also his constituents.
Initially, as with many CIA operations, there was not much of an investigation and very little filtered into the public sphere.
Hoekstra recalled CIA Director George Tenet testifying behind closed-doors about the incident and explaining that the program was very well-managed and that all seven to eight steps of procedures and warnings had been followed.
He says that the CIA wanted to convey the message that the incident was tragic, but unavoidable and that sometimes bad things just happen.
But then a member of Hoekstra’s committee asked if there were tapes of the incident, which left the CIA uncomfortable, but stuck having to turn over the tapes.
Hoekstra says that when he watched the tapes that it was apparent that “they did not follow any rules, that the Peruvian air force got up behind the missionary airplane and they were going to shoot it down from the beginning.”
From the tapes he says the new conclusion was that in that incident, the CIA program had been “totally out of control - no wonder people got killed.”
He added that if the airplane had not by chance crashed near a village where the tapes could be recovered and if the killed civilians had not been from the intelligence chairman’s district, one of the few people who could question the CIA hard and directly, the truth might not have ever come out.
Hoekstra used this story to bridge into targeted criticism he has of the enhanced interrogations program, more specifically of one of the program’s leaders, former top CIA official Jose Rodriguez.
Many Republicans, including former US Vice President Dick Cheney, celebrate Rodriguez as a hero who spirited through a program that helped protect the country in its darkest hour, post September 11, 2001.
But Hoekstra disagrees with them and Cheney, and says that Rodriguez should be prosecuted for destroying tapes of the detainee interrogations (no one from the CIA program has been prosecuted to date, and Rodriguez has been previously cleared.) While Rodriguez has defended himself as having had prior approvals to destroy the tapes from CIA and other government lawyers, Hoekstra says all of that became invalid once his committee asked for the tapes.
Hoekstra says that the program should not be ended, but he agrees with former Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman who called for greater accountability and controls for the program.
He speculates whether other interrogators may have violated the law, but were saved in a cover-up by Rodriguez destroying the tapes.
Returning to the NSA program he has defended, Hoekstra describes that “when I was on the intelligence committee, we got notifications from the NSA saying we screwed up, we did this on a US telephone number without judicial review.”
Hoekstra even admits that he “cannot say it notified us every time” it went over the line.
Still, he says problems with the above programs mean simply that Congress must take its oversight duties seriously, as he did in the Peruvian- CIA incident (which belatedly and eventually led to over a dozen official being disciplined), but without “blowing incidents out of proportion” and undermining the good accomplished by these programs.
He also adds that with politicians doing micro-targeting for their campaigns, “if the American people saw,” how much their privacy was being invaded by this micro-targeting, they “would view it as a much greater violation of privacy than anything the NSA has ever done.”
All of this brings Hoekstra to his real primary message: that fighting terror and addressing complex major foreign policy issues like balancing alliances with traditional Middle East allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia or exploring a nuclear deal with Iran, must be done in the future on a more bipartisan basis.
Having met personally with Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, he says that as eccentric as Gaddafi was with ideas like solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by creating the new country of “Isratine,” there was not a broad and bipartisan enough debate about whether Gaddafi should be swept under the bus after cooperating with the US for decades, and more importantly, what to replace him with.
Hoekstra decried both parties for scoring attack points on the other party’s president, whether Bush or Obama, saying that foreign policy is complex, with few easy answers and that the key was to achieve bipartisan consensus on major issues which would not change with every new president.
Of course, Hoekstra’s idea of bipartisan remains close to the Republican consensus.
But if he can be critical of the intelligence community on some issues while defending it on others, maybe other politicians can also take a more long-term view toward common ideas.
Israel and other US allies would certainly appreciate a more consistent policy in the region.