Reporting on the intelligence community is very interesting to read. Since intelligence activities are, by definition, secret, there’s a lot of interest in journalism that pierces the veil of secrecy. But this leads to frustrating situations. To do intelligence reporting you need intelligence sources. And to have intelligence sources, you need to be pretty kind to the institutional interests of the intelligence people who are serving as your sources. What’s more, since the whole thing is supposed to be shrouded in secrecy, there’s an incredibly low bar for what constitutes a journalistically viable level of sourcing.
Which is how you get things like this David Ignatius column warning darkly of the pernicious impact on CIA morale of the release of the torture memos and the even more dire impact that further pursuit of legal accountability would have. His main example is, however, pretty unconvincing:
For a taste of what’s ahead, recall the chilling effects of past CIA scandals. In 1995, then-Director John Deutch ordered a “scrub” of the agency’s assets after revelations of past links to Guatemalan death squads. Officers were told they shouldn’t jettison sources who had provided truly valuable intelligence. But the practical message, recalls one former division chief, was: “Don’t deal with assets who could pose political risks.” A similar signal is being sent now, he warns.
Lets get real here. Guatemalan security forces killed hundreds of thousands of people. I would like to see David Ignatius go visit the mother of someone killed by a death squad in Guatemala and explain to her why it is that making the CIA feel good about taking “political risks” was more important than making the CIA feel bad about killing her kid. He could do it tomorrow. Then visit another mom the following day. Then another the following day. It would take him well over 400 years to finish explaining himself to everyone.
By “political risks,” in other words, we’re talking about the risk of complicitly in mass murder and it strikes me as eminently reasonable to want the CIA to be wary of that kind of thing. And to be wary about torture, too! A lot of commentary sort of regrets that the torturing happened, but says you have to understand what a tough position the torturers were in, and so we should let them off the hook. But what about the next time a CIA operative is asked to torture someone? If he can say “sorry, boss, that’s illegal the last guys who tortured people on the basis of flimsy and absurd legal reasoning went to jail” then he’ll be in a strong position to avoid following illegal and immoral orders. But if he can’t say that, if his boss can say to him “look, everyone knows this isn’t really illegal; nobody’s ever been punsihed for anything” then he’s really in quite a pickle.
If the CIA had a sterling track record as a hugely effective agency that had made one random slip-up, I’d be sympathetic to this view. But the evidence is overwhelming that that’s not the case. Instead, alongside occasional doses of incompetence, the CIA veers between out-of-control behavior (death squads, torture) and whining that past efforts to prevent it from going rogue are the reason that it can’t do its job. As Spencer Ackerman has written:
Truman didn’t want to institutionalize the OSS for the cold war, yet the only people with experience in the shadows to staff the espionage organization he wanted were OSS veterans, and they quickly took charge of the nascent agency. These unsentimental elitists did not wait for Congress to authorize such an entity through legislation, since they were used to simply taking the money they needed and doing as they pleased. State Department appropriations became slush funds to finance disinformation efforts, bribe foreign officials and pay for three-martini lunches in European capitals. By the time Congress passed an act creating the CIA in 1949, the agency had already become a playground for paranoid alcoholics like Frank Wisner and James Jesus Angleton to tinker with the US-Soviet balance in Europe. The only ironclad provision in the agency’s deliberately vague charter was that it could not spy on US citizens domestically. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to violate that prohibition.
The CIA’s successes were meager. After numerous “missteps”–which, in practice, meant getting local proxies killed–the CIA managed to oust Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala and Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran. Perhaps the agency’s most competent director, Richard Helms, kept the criminally insane Angleton on as head of counterintelligence because he stopped the Soviets from penetrating the agency’s highest levels. Meanwhile, Angleton told nearly every secret the agency had about its European assets to his drinking buddy, the Soviet agent Kim Philby. To call the CIA comically incompetent in its early years would be to diminish the considerable achievements of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. In 1950 William Wolf Weisband, an employee in the CIA’s cryptanalysis division whose job was to translate intercepted Soviet communications, gave the agency’s code-breaking secrets to the USSR. The catastrophe had more than one fateful consequence: in addition to what an official history later called “perhaps the most significant intelligence loss in U.S. history,” it led to the creation of the National Security Agency, which under George W. Bush implemented a constellation of illegal, unconstitutional programs for warrantless domestic surveillance. It should be clear that even at that early date, CIA analysis was a sideshow to the much sexier realm of covert action.
Men like Wisner and Helms knew that public exposure of the agency’s failures would mean the agency’s end. Their solution, and that of their colleagues and successors, was to lie. In 1961 Johnson toured the CIA station in Berlin. The Berlin chief, Bill Graver, wowed the Vice President with stories about how many East Germans, Czechs and Poles, military officers and civilians, were snitching on the Soviet empire. “However, if you knew what we had,” recalled Graver’s subordinate Haviland Smith, “you knew that the penetration of the Polish military mission was the guy who sold newspapers on the corner,” not the roster of well-placed finks peddled to a starry-eyed LBJ. The only thing more routine than lying to Congress was ignoring it. Helms, as luminous a star as the CIA ever produced, was eventually convicted of lying to Congress under oath.
You sometimes hear that we should “get rid of” the CIA, but I don’t think it makes sense to say that you’re not going to have an intelligence agency. And the CIA’s basic intelligence analysis work, though at times wrong, is definitely better to have than not to have. But to worry that the CIA will somehow feel “constrained” about undertaking illegal operations is nuts. The problem has always been the reverse; that the CIA, in order to curry favor with the President-of-the-moment, is too inclined to bend over and agree to undertake illegal operations.