In September 1995, John Deutch, the director of Central Intelligence, bowed to congressional pressure and fired two CIA officials because they had recruited Guatemalan military assets who had been involved in political assassinations.
Inside the agency’s amphitheater, known as the “Bubble,” Deutch then told CIA employees that despite the firings, they should continue to take risks in the service of their country. That brought snickers from many of the clandestine officers in the audience.
Deutch laid down the law that recruitment of assets or spies with so-called human rights violations would require high-level approval. Yet who else would know about terrorists and our enemies except those who were themselves involved in treachery?
The message was clear: Stay away from informants who are not politically correct.
Deutch’s effort to recruit Boy Scouts as spies was chilling.
“People retired in place or left,” says William Lofgren, who headed the Central Eurasian Division, which included Russia. “Our spirit was broken. At the CIA, you have to be able to inspire people to take outrageous risks.”
That risk-averse atmosphere, in turn, contributed to the failure to detect the 9/11 plot that killed 3,000 Americans and sent the economy reeling.
Now, President Obama’s release of memos on harsh interrogation tactics and his condemnation of those tactics — though approved by President Bush, the Justice Department, and key members of Congress — is sending an even greater shudder through the intelligence community.
By their very nature, intelligence officers who obtain secrets of other countries or of terrorist organizations are at risk. This is no amusement park.
They meet with terrorists in dark alleys to try to enlist them to spy for the agency. They break into foreign embassies to steal secret codes and install listening devices in homes of terrorists. They pick up top secret military plans from clandestine hiding places. They recruit arms dealers to report on efforts to steal nuclear weapons.
If their work is uncovered, they may be arrested by a foreign power or murdered by a terrorist.
Back when the forerunner of the CIA started in 1942, its first director, William J. Donovan, called it an “unusual experiment.” For his Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the best and the brightest were recruited to embark on a dangerous mission: to penetrate the enemy, learn its secrets, and disrupt its operations through covert means, including sabotage and assassination.
The enemy then was Nazi Germany and Japan, and the nascent intelligence agency was charged with preventing another Pearl Harbor.
Indications of imminent war, properly pieced together, would have compelled President Roosevelt to place the U.S. military on alert and disperse ships at Pearl Harbor. But the strike caught the military by surprise. The attack killed 2,388 people.
In the parlance adopted after Sept. 11, there was a failure to connect the dots. Still, that may not be enough to thwart an attack.
What is needed is penetration of the enemy. Such a penetration usually entails inserting spies into the heart of an organization or government so that its innermost plans and secrets are passed along. That is the job of the CIA.
When George Tenet became director of Central Intelligence in July 1997, he tried to overcome what Deutch had done to the agency. If employees “don’t believe that you believe in them and the mission, you can articulate all the strategy you want and nothing will happen. You can’t do it by yourself: They have to implement it,” Tenet would say.
Within two months of taking over, Tenet established himself as a champion of the agency and a leader who appreciated what is now called the National Clandestine Service. But it would take time to change the culture. Since 9/11, and especially under CIA Director Michael Hayden, the CIA has been operating on all cylinders.
Now Obama has demonized CIA officers for following instructions from the highest levels of the U.S. government. He has raised the specter of prosecutions, saying it would be up to Attorney General Eric Holder whether to charge those who gave legal opinions authorizing the tactics.
Contrary to conservative wisdom, the situation is quite different from what happened when the Church Committee investigated the CIA and held public hearings beginning in 1976. The committee exposed real abuses and a lack of focus, and it ultimately improved the agency.
Back then, the CIA spied on Vietnam protesters, foolishly enlisted the Mafia to try to kill Fidel Castro, embarked on the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, and engaged in silly plots like an effort to humiliate Castro with his own people by trying to get his beard to fall off.
In contrast, the CIA’s coercive interrogations were focused, approved by members of Congress, and successful. During initial interrogations, Abu Zubaydah was reluctant to give up individuals who were close to him. After he was waterboarded — which is inflicted on our own special forces during training — he gave up Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a member of Osama bin Laden’s inner circle. In turn, that led to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 plot, and the uncovering of a plot to target the West Coast in a second wave of attacks.
If Obama were genuinely interested in “transparency” and spreading goodwill, he would have released CIA reports detailing those successes.
Obama’s message to the intelligence community was clear: Even if techniques have been approved by the country’s elected leaders, you take your career in your hands if you engage in any operation that could be considered close to the edge. That same message would be sent to the military if the president and Congress declared war and a subsequent administration conducted witch hunts and threatened prosecutions of soldiers who killed the enemy in battle.
As former CIA Director Michael Hayden has said, the effect of the release is to “invite the kind of institutional timidity and fear of recrimination that weakened intelligence gathering in the past, and that we came sorely to regret on Sept. 11, 2001.”
As Hayden points out, releasing the memos discourages foreign intelligence services from cooperating with the CIA for fear their cooperation will be exposed.
No wonder Leon Panetta, the current CIA director, four of his predecessors, and Obama’s counterterrorism advisor John Brennan opposed releasing the memos.
By disclosing the techniques, Obama made it impossible for him or his successors to authorize their use in the future in the event of an imminent future attack. That’s because, as in waterboarding, many of them were intended to create fear but not actually hurt detainees.
Despite failures and gaffes, Donovan’s “unusual experiment” has paid off. Through the most terrifying moments of the Cold War, the CIA penetrated Soviet secrecy, warned of most threats, and allowed policymakers to orchestrate a measured response that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
While the CIA failed to uncover the plots of 9/11 and was wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, as outlined in my book “The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack,” it has scored a dazzling success in the war on terror.
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The fact we have not been attacked in more than seven years is evidence that the CIA — along with the FBI — has been successful at penetrating and rolling up plots.
Just as Deutch did, Obama spoke to CIA employees after releasing the memos. As if talking to a kindergarten class, Obama said, “Don’t be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we’ve made some mistakes. That’s how we learn.”
At the same time, he claimed he fully supports CIA officers.
CIA officers feel betrayed by Obama and Congress. Even though they were briefed on the techniques — and some asked why the CIA was not doing even more — members of Congress like Nancy Pelosi are claiming they had no clue about the information they in fact received.
As a result, CIA officers are “slow rolling,” something they may do with politically sensitive assignments: They go through the motions, stall, and ask for lawyer approval at every turn.
“The lesson officers are learning is when you are asked to do anything that entails risk — whether it has to do with the reputation of the agency, the risk of personal failure, or the possibility of criminal liability because people will revisit all the assurances they gave you up front — the lesson is, Don’t take those risks to protect America,” says a former CIA officer who was involved in the interrogations. “Find a way not to do it, or you’ll be sorry.”
“After Sept. 11, the general outcry was, ‘Why don’t we have better overseas capabilities?’” says Porter Goss, who was briefed on the interrogation methods in Congress and later headed the CIA. “I fear that in the years to come, this refrain will be heard again . . . It is certainly not trust that is fostered when intelligence officers are told one day ‘I have your back,’ only to learn a day later that a knife is being held to it.”
At a time when al-Qaida is plotting to wipe out America with nuclear weapons, the president has paralyzed our first line of defense.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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