Leave aside for the moment, if possible, the moral and legal debate surrounding the release of the top secret Justice Department memorandums on interrogation.
What effects will their release will have on national security, or more particular our ability to collect human intelligence (HUMINT) in support of counter-terrorism operations? That there’s a problem here should be evident from the fact that President Obama’s own CIA Director Leon Panetta as well as the four previous CIA directors opposed the release of the memos and why two of them, Michael Hayden and Peter Goss have published articles laying out their objections to the release of the memos.
But don’t take my word for it. If you’re not inclined to believe Panetta or Hayden or Goss or Tenet, then you should pay heed to David Ignatius.
While I suspect that Washington Post columnist David Ignatius is not all that well-known outside the beltway, he is known inside the D.C. area as perhaps the most well-connected journalist to the intelligence community. That’s means he talks a lot to the CIA folks at Langley and they talk to him and he writes about what they talk about in the Washington Post. Ignatius does not have a reputation as being a political ideologue, although I suspect few would contest the suggestion that he might be described as moderate to liberal politically.
On Wednesday Ignatius laid it out in his article “Slow Roll Time at Langley.” If you have spent any time in the intelligence bureaucracy (as I have) you learn very quickly about the art of “slow rolling” and so you know what is coming:
At the Central Intelligence Agency, it’s known as “slow rolling.” That’s what agency officers sometimes do on politically sensitive assignments. They go through the motions; they pass cables back and forth; they take other jobs out of the danger zone; they cover their backsides.
Sad to say, it’s slow roll time at Langley after the release of interrogation memos that, in the words of one veteran officer, “hit the agency like a car bomb in the driveway.” President Obama promised CIA officers that they won’t be prosecuted for carrying out lawful orders, but the people on the firing line don’t believe him. They think the memos have opened a new season of investigation and retribution.
The lesson for younger officers is obvious: Keep your head down. Duck the assignments that carry political risk. Stay away from a counterterrorism program that has become a career hazard.
Obama tried personally to reassure the CIA workforce during a visit to Langley on Monday. He said all the right things about the agency’s clandestine role. But it had the look of a campaign event, with employees hooting and hollering and the president reading from his teleprompter with a backdrop of stars that commemorate the CIA’s fallen warriors. By yesterday, Obama was deferring to the attorney general whether to prosecute “those who formulated those legal decisions,” whatever that means.
Obama seems to think he can have it both ways—authorizing an unprecedented disclosure of CIA operational methods and at the same time galvanizing a clandestine service whose best days, he told them Monday, are “yet to come.” Life doesn’t work that way—even for charismatic politicians. Disclosure of the torture memos may have been necessary, as part of an overdue campaign to change America’s image in the world. But nobody should pretend that the disclosures weren’t costly to CIA morale and effectiveness.
If anything, I suspect that Ignatius is underestimating the problem. It is an open secret that for decades the CIA has been a “risk-adverse” institution with a risk adverse culture. This last week has only exacerbated matters, perhaps irreversibly. Ducking counter-terrorism assignments in an age of terrorism isn’t exactly the kind of “culture” you want to be creating over at Langley. Here’s Ignatius:
One veteran counterterrorism operative says that agents in the field are already being more careful about using the legal findings that authorize covert action. An example is the so-called “risk of capture” interview that takes place in the first hour after a terrorism suspect is grabbed. This used to be the key window of opportunity, in which the subject was questioned aggressively and his cellphone contacts and “pocket litter” were exploited quickly.
Now, field officers are more careful. They want guidance from headquarters. They need legal advice. I’m told that in the case of an al-Qaeda suspect seized in Iraq several weeks ago, the CIA didn’t even try to interrogate him. The agency handed him over to the U.S. military.
Agency officials also worry about the effect on foreign intelligence services that share secrets with the United States in a process politely known as “liaison.” A former official who remains in close touch with key Arab allies such as Egypt and Jordan warns: “There is a growing concern that the risk is too high to do the things with America they’ve done in the past.”
If Obama means what he says about protecting the CIA workforce and its operational edge, he must give up the idea that he can please everyone on this issue.
If the results of this “trying to please everyone” by Obama were not so serious in terms of national security, or more specifically counter-terrorism, the results of “trying to please everyone” would be comical.
For a taste of just how comical, consider the case of retired Admiral Dennis Blair, President Obama’s new Director of National Intelligence—the CIA Director’s ostensible bureaucratic superior. As Stephen F. Hayes observes, last week Admiral Blair sent a letter to his intelligence colleagues saying that “High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country.” However, when the letter was released to the public that particular sentence was censored, except in the intelligence community it is called being “redacted.”
It is also what is called the “politicization of intelligence,” something that the Obama administration, we have been assured, is “moving beyond.” The office of the DNI, Hayes reports, smelled out a potential scandal and went to work trying to explain why that statement was cut, what with it taking up too much space on the press release and too many data bits online and all. In the intelligence community that is called “damage control.”
But we’re not done: Blair tells us that he, unlike his ostensible subordinate Leon Panetta over at the CIA, supported the President’s decision to release the Justice Department memos. However, “I made clear,” he said parroting the Obama administration party line, “that the CIA should not be punished for carrying out legal orders,” which is just what Obama told his adoring fans when he visited CIA headquarters. I suspect the response of the more experienced folks over at Langley was simply to roll their eyes while the likely response of the younger folks in the intelligence community was something along the lines of “Well, duh?” The entire controversy, after all, has to do with whether the orders given to the interrogators and other spooks at CIA were legal and lawful in the first place.
So, it is no surprise that the spooks over at Langley won’t find Blair’s reassurances all that comforting what with their having a moral and legal obligation to disobey unlawful orders and all. Obama (and Blair) could have said, “ I am the merciful one so, you will not be prosecuted for following unlawful orders” or “I will insist that justice be done and therefore you will be prosecuted for following unlawful orders.” Either would have made sense. But wanting to “please everybody” he resorted to saying that they would not be prosecuted for obeying legal orders. Not being prosecuted for doing something that is legal is what I think the analysts in the intelligence community might call a “tautology.”
Finally, the Post reports that Blair says:
“The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world,” Blair said in the statement. “The damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.”
Intelligence professionals have a name for this too.
But let’s hear what Porter Goss, a former CIA case officer, former chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and former director of the CIA thinks of this assertion:
The suggestion that we are safer now because information about interrogation techniques is in the public domain conjures up images of unicorns and fairy dust. We have given our enemy invaluable information about the rules by which we operate.
That is what is called “straight-shooting.”