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She Said/He Said: So Much for Building Trust

Monday, June 01, 2009
Joe Mazzafro

North Korea is testing nuclear weapons, fighting is intensifying in Pakistan's Swat Valley, and the White House 60 Cyber Review has been released, but the political brawl over whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi was or was not mislead by the CIA regarding the use of waterboarding seems to be confirming the point I was making in these pages last month about the lack of trust between the Intelligence Community (IC) and Congress.

 

The perils of this mistrust became manifest for the whole nation to see when the Obama White House, against the advice of CIA Director Leon Penatta and every  former CIA Director with a pulse, released the Bush Administration memos authorizing the use of enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT) against high value Al Qaeda detainees.  This quickly deteriorated into Congressional calls from some in the Democratic Majority for hearings and possible criminal prosecutions for those who authorized or conducted EIT under the rubric of violating U.S. laws against the use of torture.  The leadership of the Republican Minority in Congress pushed back hard pointing out that no less than Speaker Pelosi as the then ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) at the time was briefed by the CIA in 2002 on the released memos that use of EITs were necessary and within the law.  The Speaker’s concurrence was inferred through her continuing silence until now.

 

I pretty much saw all this as petty partisan posturing until Speaker Pelosi decided that Inman’s Third Rule of Intelligence "when you are explaining, you are losing" didn’t apply to her.  In what I can only describe as a  "give me more bullets I still have toes left” press conference, the Speaker explained that the CIA had "mislead Congress" when it briefed the HPSCI on EITs .  Because misleading Congress is a crime, CIA Director Penatta apparently felt compelled to release CIA notes on what it briefed to Congress on EITs and remind all that it is not CIA policy to mislead Congress.

 

Now we have a classic "he said/she said" controversy over EITs where "he" is the Director of the CIA and "she" is the Speaker of the House!  Obvious solution to supporters of the Speaker is a "truth commission" to discern who in the Congress was told what when by the CIA about EITs.  The authorization to employ EITs by such a truth commission was cleverly left as an open question.

 

Just when I am thinking it can't get any worse than this publicly tawdry display of personal ill will between Pelosi and Panetta born of self-protection, this situation escalates into dueling national addresses between President Obama and former Vice President Cheney on whether or not EITs are necessary for national security and sub-rosa if they do or do not constitute torture under U.S. law.  Forgetting how this Obama-Cheney debate over necessity if not legality of EITs is playing out on the

Muslim Street;
it surely means the partisan debate over EITs will continue in the Congress.  In the short term the implications of this debate of whether the CIA agents should have refused as illegal the orders to conduct waterboarding and whether or not the CIA misled Congress about the use of waterboarding are enormous:

 

First, we can look for every major IC decision the Congress makes to have a partisan debate associated with it.

 

Second, we can expect the Congress to be more probing as it staffs and reviews IC actions ---- especially funding actions.  I’ll take the "under" on no Intel Authorization Bill for the 5th straight year in this poisoned partisan environment.

 

Third, look for the IC to become even more risk adverse and wanting documentation of approval for activities that politicians need and want plausible deniability before proceeding

 

Fourth, anticipate Nancy Pelosi getting even in terms of embarrassing the CIA and by extension the IC while others in the Congress (from both parties) try to use this debate undermine Nancy Pelosi political authority as Speaker

 

These are all "inevitable surprises" based on what is too loudly already in the public domain.  Intelligence Professionals like to think of themselves as "shadow warriors" and as Mike Hayden observed when he went to be CIA Director that his first job was to get CIA off of the front page of the Washington Post because publicity is antithetical to the practice of intelligence.  If Speaker Pelosi and President Obama don't understand this basic condition for the IC to be effective, they will learn it soon enough through experience.

 

The more strategic question brought into focus here though, is how can intelligence be practiced effectively under the Constitution when the Congress and the IC don't trust each other?  If a CIA Director, who is a creature of the House of Representatives, feels compelled to defend his agency's integrity because it is being questioned by the Speaker of the House on its veracity about waterboarding Al Qaeda mission planners, what happens when the issues become setting the balance between security and civil liberties as the practices of domestic and foreign intelligence converge or the use of cyber effects with potentially lethal impacts?  To be effective in a threat environment that puts the U.S. homeland at risk on a near constant basis, the IC needs to trust that the Congress will provide it with the anonymity required to find, fix, and understand adversaries.  Conversely the IC needs to trust that Congress represents the will of the people when it comes to how they want to be protected.

 

That’s what I think; what do you think?   Joemaz

Comments

Congress as it is presently manned and staffed is more interested in the safety of their seats than in the safety of the nation.

This was the risk when it was brought more and more into the day to day operations of the IC. Coupled with the apparently limitless perceived right of the media to have a need to know and the purposeful leakage from the Executive Branch to favored sources, we have an IC which is compromised at every opportunity by its supposed civilian masters.

The bi-partisanship in politico-military policy which we saw in place during the late Cold War with the USSR has been shredded.

What we are seeing is the unfortunate result of an unfortunate war into which the Congress believes it was led by an Executive Branch of a different political party.

The IC bears some blame for this, for nowhere in the chain of command did anybody of high rank stand up on principle to protest the shoddy use to which sloppy intelligence work was put. If it had not lost its virginity before, it surely did when it submitted to the likes of Douglas Feith and Scooter Libby and their masters. There was however, nowhere to go to complain, no support from their military or civilian superiors,

Trust once lost is hard to come by again. Integrity is no hollow thing. The mantle of respect once taken off can no longer be put on. The IC became the whipping boy for the Commanders and now for the legislature.

It may take a new generation before it can be repaired. Without it, however, the country becomes myopic and weakened, billions if not trillions are thrown on the pile of fruitless enterprise.

One can only pray that cooler heads in Congress will realize the cost, stand still for ugly truths presented by honest men and women, and hold them close and dear.

By Pete Speer

Thanks Pete. It may be a difference wihtout a distinction, but I believe virtually all members of the Congress see their presence in the National Legislature as critical to the well being of their constituents if not the national security. I certainly agree that the HPSCI and the SSCI have lost the bipartisan sense with which they were founded, but lets not forget how they game into being: A President who was using the IC to not just violate civil rights of citizens but to punish political opponents. The problem with democracy is that constiuents have to make elected members of the House and Senate understand they don't intelligence to remain a political pig sty for making points agains the other party. joemaz

By joemaz

Nice run down of events Joe, and agree with most of the analysis. Unfortunate events for difficult times. My only observation would be, has Leon Panetta been there long enough to understand his current organization?

By Mark Ward

Mark thanks for the feedback! I agree with you that it is unlikely that Leon Penatta understands the institutional DNA of CIA, but he certainly knows the Congress. Clearly CIA Director Penatta was letting Speaker Pelosi know that she needs to chose her words more carefully when criticizing the IC/CIA. Its one thing for a member of Congress to say I did understand what I was being briefed and other to say an intel agency is [purposely] misleading Congress. Director Penatta does two positive things with this response: first he builds cred with the CIA rank and file that he will protect them; second and more importantly he is establishing a tone that a large majority in the Congress from the President's party does not blur the separation of powers between the Legislative and Executive branches of the government. joemaz

By joemaz

you're right about her "friends" in Congress being out to get her - did you see the begrudging smile on steny hoyer's face when he had to "grudgingly" announce an inquiry into the situation?

By marc

Thanks Mark! I did notice Stenny Hoyer's reaction, but I thought that was just me remembering how hard he challenged Nancy Pelosi for the Speaker's Chair back 2004. The larger point, of course, is this espisode has weakened Speaker Pelosi inside of the House Democratic Party Cacus, which can have ripple effect on everything from national security to earmarks for road repairs joemaz

By joemaz