Updating Various CIA Controversies

Richard Clarke made sense in Saturday’s WSJ in an extended piece that went behind three current surface controversies involving the CIA. Clarke endorses a “truth commission” as a step toward creating a political space for a more sophisticated discussion of what we expect from intelligence in a democratic society.

On Saturday The Wall Street Journal carried a long and thoughtful piece by Bush/Clinton/Bush NSC counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke that analyzed three recent stories about the role of the CIA. Clarke’s underlying point is that the three stories are animated by deep tensions in the role of intelligence in a democratic society, but the way they are being addressed is dysfunctional because the surface symptoms rather than the underlying substantive issues are the focus of controversy.

So on whether the CIA has misled the Congress, he says that oversight has been dysfunctional for 30 years, and needs to be reconstructed. Democrats in Congress have a proposal to do so, which the Administration has threatened to veto. Hardly anyone is assessing whether it is in fact a good proposal.

The issue of possible CIA hit squads, he suggests, is much more about the CIA’s inability over ten years to develop a meaningful covert capability against Al Qaeda’s top leadership–it’s competence, even more than oversight, that needs attention.

On the issue of whether AG Holder might appoint a special prosecutor to examine interrogations that went beyond techniques authorized by the Bush administration, Clarke notices a somewhat hysterical reaction on the part of the CIA’s public friends to what is after all not a change in Administration policy. The issue of interrogations within what was authorized is the more fraught issue, given that the Nuremberg defense is invalid and the further likelihood that the authorization was in violation of international and US law and perhaps fraudulently obtained.

Clarke sees a truth commission of the sort Senator Leahy has advocated as the best path to sorting through these underlying issues of what we want the CIA to do and how to improve its governance and effectiveness.

I don’t agree with Clarke on every point — for example there is much more to “covert action” than “lethal action,” and it’s not only the lethal action that’s problematic (use of covert funds and dirty tricks to influence election results in other countries was another problematic activity over the years). As a result leaving lethal action to the military wouldn’t solve the oversight problem. Moreover, there are clandestine elements to intelligence collection, creating important common elements between collection and covert action–suggesting that it would not make sense to just separate the two.

For another perspective on covert action that also suggests a bias against it, see Greg Treverton’s recent book, Intelligence for an Age of Terror. At places Treverton needs to be read closely — for example he does not really intend the facile contrast between Cold War intelligence as being properly about “puzzles” and 21st century intelligence being about “mysteries.”

Clarke’s article is worth attending to because it’s so much more useful than much commentary elsewhere — like David Ignatius’s article in the Post last week, which managed to suggest that politicians by raising questions about the veracity of the CIA are impairing morale and capability– thus tending to prevent any oversight and force for improvement of the CIA. In this line of argument, the CIA is so fragile that it cannot bear any sunshine. Or Marc Thiessen’s defamatory assertion that the leaking of the nature of the assassination program shows that Congress cannot keep a secret — when it is equally possible that the CIA itself was the source of the leak, even perhaps to discredit the Congress.

Too many in Congress are using the 9/11 Commission recommendations and the role of the Director of National Intelligence and his office as the litmus tests of Intelligence reform, rather than focusing on the determinants of real intelligence capability and effectiveness.

Meanwhile, evidence continues to accumulate about the fecklessness (at best) of CIA management of interrogations and a lack of scrupulous regard for the truth in its dealing with other branches of the government.

In the most detailed discussion yet of the CIA’s supervision of the torture of Abu Zubaidah, the Washington Post explains that the CIA contractors who designed its enhanced methods were ultimately at odds with CIA HQs because they thought Zubaidah had broken but HQs (probably under the influence of Cheney and Bush) still insisted on further waterboarding. The torture only stopped when the contractors threatened to quit and insisted that HQs personnel travel to Thailand to see it for themselves. The implication of the Post’s account is that it was the brutality of waterboarding, not the question of whether Zubaidah was cooperating, that convinced CIA counter-terror officials to stop the practice.

The Post reports that Royce Lamberth, the extremely activist but not partisan Federal Judge who is the chief of the DC District Bench and who was on the FISA court when it was informed of the Bush administration’s illegal wiretapping, has ruled that five CIA officials including George Tenet perpetrated a fraud on his court.

Update David Ignatius plays catch-up in today’s (July 23) Washington Post, recognizing the question of why the CIA has programs that start and stop and start again over eight years with no results.