CIA Clash: The Left Assaults Langley -- Again

COMMENTARY Homeland Security

CIA Clash: The Left Assaults Langley -- Again

Nov 4, 2009 12 min read

Former Senior Research Fellow, Center for National Defense

Peter researched and developed Heritage’s policy on weapons of mass destruction and counter proliferation.

You would think with hot wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and on Terror, the Left would rule out declaring war on the Central Intelligence Agency, too, one of this country's key intelligence collection and analysis organizations.

But, in fact, it has not.

The Left--led by the Obama White House and congressional Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi--has gone to general quarters with the shadowy agency, whose roots stretch back to the heroism of World War II's Office of Strategic Services.

This onslaught comes despite its negative impact on CIA morale, the agency's leadership and intelligence operations that bolster our national security, including senior-level decision-making and our brave war-fighters in the field.

This is not the first time the Left has gone to battle stations with the CIA, leading to disastrous consequences for our intelligence capabilities, especially human intelligence (HUMINT), not to mention our national interests.

But perhaps no days were darker than the 1970s.

Carter Cuts

Following an inquisition into CIA activities by the Democrat-led, congressional Church Commission (1975-1976), an effort that would have made Torquemada smile and the Soviet KGB titter, presidential candidate Jimmy Carter put Langley squarely in his sights.

Like President Herbert Hoover's Secretary of State Henry Stimson, who said gentlemen do not read others' mail, candidate Carter expressed concerns about the CIA's cloak-and-dagger past, especially covert action.

Once in office, Carter got busy. Working with his Annapolis classmate and new CIA chief, Adm. Stansfield Turner, he took a knife to the agency's HUMINT (or operations) directorate, its core competency--and the real reason the organization existed.

Dubbed the "Halloween Massacre," Turner gutted some 20 percent of the CIA's clandestine service (reportedly some 800 operatives), preferring instead to focus on high-tech intelligence collection such as satellites.

While high-tech is great, sometimes low-tech is what it takes.

For instance, while an imagery (photo) satellite can tell you a high-level meeting is taking place at a dacha in the Moscow countryside by the Soviet "luxury" Zil limousines parked on the compound, it will not tell you everything. Sure, Soviet leaders are huddling, but you will not know from those pictures what was said over dinner or endless shots of vodka. For that you need a spy--either to be there, get it second-hand from an asset or arrange the placement of a listening device.

But lacking human assets to steal state secrets, Carter and Turner almost assured Washington would be blindsided by international events that might otherwise have been foreseen. And that is exactly what happened.

Perhaps, most notably, was the 1979 Iranian revolution. The upheaval led not only to the overthrow of the pro-American Shah, replacing him with today's radical Islamic regime, but to the holding more than 50 Americans from the U.S. embassy hostage for 444 days.

Carter's cuts also came home to roost when the intelligence community was largely caught unawares by the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan the same year, potentially threatening the U.S. position in the Middle East and energy supplies.

Among some now-retired CIA operatives from the era, Carter and Turner evoke the same response as Jane Fonda does with some Vietnam vets, especially former POWs. Their sentiments certainly are not printable here.

Following a bolstering of agency HUMINT capabilities during the Reagan years for opposing the Soviets around the world, especially Afghanistan, the agency suffered cutbacks--again--under the next Democratic administration to take office.


Believing we had earned a peace dividend with the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Clinton administration began redirecting and slimming U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA.

Beginning in 1993, looking to direct funding toward domestic programs such as universal health care, the Clinton White House cut the CIA's clandestine work force while closing overseas embassies, stations and bases.

According to the 9/11 Commission, which looked at intelligence shortcomings in the run-up to the horrific attack in its study, to meet emergency contingencies, CIA officers were shifted--temporarily--from one hot spot to another to fill shortages. These stop-gap measures did fill manpower holes, but not always with officers qualified in the language or with regional expertise.

Due to the complexity of the work, it usually takes five or more years of spy training, language and regional study, and street experience to qualify a newly recruited CIA operations officer for field work. The low-point came in 1995, when only 25 new case officers joined the spy service, ensuring continued shortages of qualified intelligence officers.

Because of these cuts, U.S. HUMINT also began to rely heavily on friendly (and previously unfriendly) intelligence services, including the former Soviet KGB and GRU (Russian military intelligence).

While this, in some cases, improved counter-intelligence, leading to the arrest of some Americans spying against their own country, it also left us reliant on the judgment of other governments for some foreign intelligence.

This is a risky proposition.

Intelligence officials will tell you there is really no such thing as a "friendly" intelligence service. No one tells you all of his secrets; some of it might even be purposefully misleading. It becomes your job to figure out what is fact and what is fiction.

In addition, smacking of the Carter-era human rights national security focus, the Clinton team injected a "holier-than-thou" attitude into the world's second-oldest profession. It called for a stable cleaning of any assets with a shady present or past in a move now referred to as the "Deutch Doctrine" after the then-Director of Central Intelligence, John Deutch.

Of course, this increased the difficulty of getting "privileged information" since a lot of spies were cut loose, making analysis more difficult. Agency officers began to wonder if they could actually recruit Mother Theresa-types to spy for the United States against their countries?

Believing a new dawn had broken, the White House also broadened the definition of national security to include environmental and economic issues, diverting already scarce resources from critical--and often on-the-boil--subject matters.

The intelligence community, including the CIA, was dinged for some earth-shaking events during the Clinton years such failing to predict the timing of India and Pakistan's nuclear breakout and the advanced stage of North Korea's long-range ballistic missile capabilities.

On the terror front, the U.S. missed the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, which killed nearly 20 American servicemen, the al Qaeda bombing of the American embassies in East Africa and the USS Cole attack in Yemen, which cost the lives of almost 20 U.S. sailors.

Of course, worst of all, many judged that a shortage of CIA (and FBI) HUMINT capabilities and resources was central to events that led to the horrors of 9/11, the worst attack on the American homeland since the strike on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Despite this, the Left still has the CIA in its crosshairs.

Left's Latest Lunges

The Left's newest assault on Langley came this year after Barack Obama won the White House. But while Obama expressed concerns about the CIA during the 2008 campaign, the first salvo actually came from Congress, not 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

It started in May, with onedoozy of a case of "he said, she said." Speaker Pelosi and White House-appointed CIA Director Leon Panetta began a public tiff about "who told whom what when" regarding the interrogation of al Qaeda terrorists.

Pelosi claimed the CIA misled Congress about the use of coercive techniques (e.g., water-boarding) on senior al Qaeda operatives when it briefed the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence back in the War on Terror's early years.

The CIA--and a host of others--claimed that it was not so and that then-not-yet-Speaker Pelosi (and Congress) were advised of the use of enhanced interrogation techniques against top al Qaeda types as far back as 2002.

Defending the agency, Panetta said CIA briefers dealt with lawmakers honestly but ultimately it would be up to members of Congress to make their own judgments about what transpired at the classified briefings.

President Obama, the ostensible leader of the Democratic Party and a main consumer of CIA intelligence as commander in chief, said nothing about the matter, but he surely could not be pleased about the public dissension within his senior political ranks.

It gets worse. The next salvo came over the CIA's transom a few months later--this time from the Obama Justice Department.

In August, the Obama administration released a previously classified 2004 CIA Inspector General (IG) report on the interrogation activities of nearly a dozen employees and contractors for the period 2002-2003.

The report's release coincided with the decision of Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to look into possible misdeeds in the CIA's questioning of high-value terrorists such as 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

While Obama claimed he was unaware of the decision of his personal friend and attorney general, many believe that a decision of this magnitude and potential political controversy could not have been made without the Oval Office knowing. Others point out the president is the country's chief law enforcement official and should have known of such a decision.

But strangely enough, there is no new information in the IG's report to justify a re-look. In fact, the Bush Justice Department already prosecuted a contractor based on the IG account for the death of a prisoner in Afghanistan.

Moreover, the CIA's IG report was delivered to Congress in 2004, but Capitol Hill took no action on it. The only real change was the 2008 election, which left Democrats in power at both ends of Pennsylvania Ave.

Indeed, Director Panetta, the former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, said the DOJ's career prosecutors worked painstakingly for years to decide on whether to prosecute - and those employees that were not prosecuted often faced CIA disciplinary action.

But, perhaps, most bizarre of all regarding this Obama administration effort to re-open the past is that the coercive interrogation techniques, which are now being re-examined, worked.

In fact, the CIA IG report states: "[T]heir interrogation has provided intelligence that has enabled the identification and apprehension of other terrorists, warned of terrorist plots planned for the United States and around the world," concluding, "[T]here is no doubt that the Program has been effective."

Supporting that assertion, the Obama administration did release a few other previously classified CIA memos, showing the interrogation of some high-value terrorists yielded information that disrupted post-9/11 attacks.

Indeed, the heavily redacted 2004-2005 memos call the interrogations a "crucial pillar of U.S. counterterrorism efforts," helping foil 9/11-style attacks planned for Los Angeles' Library Tower and London's Heathrow Airport.

In another blow to the agency's ego, the White House decided to take the lead for the interrogation of high-value detainees away from the CIA and place it under FBI, which would report directly to the White House's National Security Council.

This move is not only a slap at the CIA, but it is another roundhouse to confidence in Panetta's leadership. (Some believe Panetta will not be around much longer, giving the already-rattled CIA its sixth leader since 9/11.)

The other concern is that by putting this task under the FBI, the Obama administration is reverting to the law enforcement mentality toward terrorism that existed during Clinton's term, which some experts and analysts believe contributed to 9/11.

Unfortunately, the attacks on the CIA will not be limited to just some epithets hurled from Capitol Hill, the possible prosecution of some CIA officers for transgressions committed six or seven years ago or the shifting of responsibilities.

Clandestine Consequences

The most troubling part of these events is the impact these Left-hooks to the CIA's jaw will have on the organization and its ability and, indeed, willingness to carry out its mission without questions.

Pelosi's charges of lying will certainly chill morale at the agency. Having an entire group's integrity publicly questioned cannot do anything but diminish an organization's espirit de corps and confidence. (There is also a rich irony in being called mendacious by the political class, well known for dissembling, spinning and parsing.)

The DOJ's investigation will not help boost the mood at the agency, either, especially after Obama had made it clear in a speech at CIA earlier this year that, while he had concerns about the past, it was time for the agency to look to the future. That sentiment was greeted positively by CIA employees, many of whom have been rattled by campaign rhetoric and worried about the possibility of a Carter-era witch hunt by the Obama administration.

Of course, after executing a one-eighty with the Justice Department decision, they have to be asking themselves: What will the next policy flip-flop be?

Even worse, it was reported in September that Holder never read the key memos on the cases against the CIA officers done by Bush's Justice Department before making the decision to re-open the investigation.

It has gotten so out of hand that in mid-September, seven former CIA directors called on Obama to end the investigation, citing the potential damage to the organization and its operations. Obama responded he would not interfere in Holder's probes.

The CIA director reportedly told his employees to ignore the political white noise swirling around them and to focus on the job at hand--and rightfully so. But it will be hard for them to do that, considering the controversy swirling about them.

All of this is also a major distraction to the CIA's embattled director, who seems to be drowning in a sea of inquiries pouring into his seventh-floor Langley office from his White House and the Democratic Congress. It would seem the director has more important things to look after, such as the Iraq and Afghan wars, catching Osama bin Laden, dealing with rising Russia and China, and Iranian and North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs, to name a few.

Also troubling is that the re-opening of the investigation into interrogations will leave officers in the field wondering whether they should be more concerned about getting the terrorists--or getting lawyers.

It may also make them risk averse if they feel that their well-intentioned efforts in support of our national security will, instead of getting them the praise of a grateful nation, get them a subpoena. Some are buying liability insurance.

Even worse, insiders say experienced officers are heading for the doors, worried about being hauled before a congressional committee or frog-marched before a grand jury. Some gray hair around the temples is helpful--especially when you are at war.

And what about young people: Will they still want to serve their country in the CIA?

Additionally, the public release of information on interrogations will also allow al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorists to use it for propaganda purposes, allowing them to recruit new members and raise funds for training and operations.

It will also give terrorists insights into our intelligence sources and methods, potentially allowing them to resist future interrogations, which may keep us from preventing terrorist attacks and winning on the battlefield.

And lastly, the discretionary publication of national security information by the Obama administration, though heavily redacted, will also give intelligence allies and sources who spy for the United States serious pause: Why share secrets with the Americans if it is going to end up on the front page of a newspaper and all over the Internet? It could lead to embarrassment for a government or, worse yet, a swing in the gallows for an undercover asset.

Leashing the Left

Unfortunately, the Left has been yanking the chain of the national-security establishment pretty hard lately, from the on-again-off-again release of detainee-abuse photos to the publication of interrogation memos to calls for a "truth commission" from some in Congress.

This is not helpful--or right.

These events have a distasteful political dimension, too. It helps Obama distract from the disastrous health care debate, skyrocketing deficit predictions and concerns over his energy and environment agenda, among others.

It also demonizes the George W. Bush administration--always a popular pastime for the Left--providing the White House with an opportunity to unify its base, which still has not gotten its pound of Bush's flesh and is increasingly unhappy with its own White House.

Brave Americans earn our national security one tough day at a time. We cannot allow some on the Left to kick around their efforts like a political football, distracting them from the important tasks at hand.

If we do, there is sure to be a price paid--in American lives.

In the end, it is not by chance that we have not been attacked in more than eight years. Former Vice President Dick Cheney said it best, pointing out that, instead of criticizing the agency, we owe the CIA a debt of gratitude for helping keep us safe.

It is also important to note: Intelligence collection and analysis is tough enough under the best circumstances - without anyone making it harder; it is also our first line of defense.

These are sentiments that those on the Left should really consider before it goes any further--or does any more damage--to the critical work the CIA and others are doing on behalf of our national security.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

First Appeared in Townhall Magazine