August was a revealing month, at least for me, in terms of understanding where intelligence fits in the grand scheme of the Obama Administration. Even before the economic crisis, it was clear from his campaign that President Obama did not intend to focus on intelligence and would depend on John Brennan to manage the IC and tell him what he needed to know when he needed to know it.
There's nothing wrong with this approach, especially after the Bush Administrations seeming fixation on the IC, but for it to work the IC cannot be in the news on a daily basis. Therefore, Attorney General Holder's decision to name a special prosecutor to investigate CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques" used against high value Al Qaeda detainees is a self inflicted political wound that has moved the IC from being a necessary national security function to a major political annoyance – one that takes the White House off message from its vital concerns about economic recovery and health care.
I suspect I share the view of most reading this blog that the decision to allow AG Holder to proceed with naming a special prosecutor to investigate past CIA interrogation methods that were reviewed by the Justice Department, briefed to the leadership of the Congress, and authorized by the Director of CIA with the acknowledgment of the President is bad politics and even worse policy. Like many at Langley, we are all wondering what the President meant when he visited the CIA earlier this year to tell the work force there in Director Panetta’s presence that he did not want to reopen the debate over aggressive interrogation practices, but rather he wanted to move forward, and that it would be wrong to prosecute CIA agents who believed they were following lawful orders.
The TV show "24" this past season took a pretty hard look at the moral, constitutional, and practical contradictions associated with the employment of extraordinary interrogation techniques in times of extreme national security dangers. While "24" clearly favored Jack Bauer's "do whatever it takes approach," there was no right or wrong judgment presented as Bauer was clearly conflicted by many of the effective actions he took in the name of national security.
Supreme Court Associate Justice Brennan tells us that the Constitution is not a suicide pact, but it is also what all military and intelligence officer swear they will defend so it cannot be disregarded either. The question is where does reasonable interpretation end and disregard begin? If agents of the government are engaged in questionable activity without chain of command authorization, that is simply illegal. The problem here is these CIA agents thought they were following reasonable directions that they could trace to the Director of the CIA and the President. Seems simple to me: if there is something prosecutable here the wrong guys are being investigated. This of course is the Nuremberg Defense that the
Constitutional sophistry and partisan politics aside, all this will result in making HUMINT more risk adverse and not very useful; it will cause a turning to technical collection. We saw this movie in the 70s and it resulted in the Beirut Barracks bombing; we watched it again prior to 9/11 as we perceived a lack of threats. When Mike Hayden was CIA Director, he told his agents, and indirectly the American people, that to be effective against Al Qaeda they needed to metaphorically get "chalk on their cleats" from working as close as possible to the line of allowed actions. Now there will be an institutionally imposed de facto buffer that will surely keep the IC much further away from the chalked foul line than is necessary or prudent. It does not take much imagination to see IC lawyers and Inspector Generals (IGs) now counseling IC agency heads to not proceed with new initiatives without legal findings from the White House Counsel, the Department of Justice, and the Congressional oversight committees.
I am a fan of technical collection (people are just not that reliable!) but technical collection is best suited for force-on-force peer competitors who have economic infrastructure, deploy ICBMs, or operate discernable military units that have advance weapons with technical signatures – not the irregular threats and conflicts Secretary Gates says we should expect and prepare for. Moral and Constitutional question aside (as important as they), we are now moving towards a structural disconnect between the threats we are facing and the intelligence capabilities needed to monitor them and provide timely I&W.
I am not sure there was ever a casting call for this CIA Interrogations morality play, but in retrospect it seems inevitable that Leon Panetta would assume the roles of both tragic hero and fall guy. Tragic hero because he alone has shown the courage to defend those he is responsible for leading; fall guy because to protect the people reporting to him he must defend what political correctness has deemed indefensible. Perhaps like me you are asking where is DNI Blair in this
With Panetta politically entangled and Blair seemingly disengaged, Deputy National Security Adviser for Intelligence and Counterterrorism John O. Brennan appears to be emerging as the behind the scenes policy arbiter for the IC. Ironically, John had to withdraw from being considered for nomination as CIA Director because many Obama politicos believed he had not done enough to stop the CIA's use of enhanced interrogation techniques approved by national command authority while he was in senior, non-political positions at CIA after 9/11.
As I began, August has been a revealing month both about the importance of the IC to President Obama and who is really running it for him. That's what I think; what do you think?