Tuesday, September 08, 2009
Joe Mazzafro

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 US rejected when employed by mid-level Nazi officials. 

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 Potomac drama?  With Leon Panetta not acting like an administration team player and negotiating in the press, Denny Blair has apparently opted to observe these proceedings from a neutral corner so as not to get sucked into to the no-win pool of quicksand Leon Panetta finds himself in.  Conspiracy theorists might even suggest that Denny Blair sees in all this the sufficient weakening of the CIA so that "the boys at Langley" will finally fall under DNI sovereignty.

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?

Share Your Thoughts:

Technical collection is not free of scrutiny, either. It was particularly disheartening to see telecommunications companies criticized for permitting access to their circuits. Without ignoring considerations of civil rights and privacy, we ought to be able to make rational judgments about the threats posed by terrorists versus that posed by government snooping.

An important observation and what I was getting at about all IC agencies feeling legally constrained as result of the naming of this special prosecutor. Had I been more thoughtful in constructing this month's blog I would referred back to the NSA/FISA debacle of 2008 and noted that the common thread is all this the convergence of foreign and domestic threats that is taking us into uncharted areas of Constitutional Law

thanks joemaz

A definitive government definition of the word torture needs to be clearly explained and set forth in all manuals. To me, torture is infliction of extreme physical pain not normally endurable by a human being. Psychological torture to me is a contradiction of terms. Speaking of which, no one ever mentions the psychological torture endured every day by the relatives and friends who lost 3000 loved ones on 9/11. Those opposed to enhanced interrogation techniques by the CIA, should first ponder and deeply reflect the losses and pain suffered by everyone everyday because of 9/11. When I was in the Navy working for NSA, a basic theme was always drilled into us: "Pearl Harbor must never happen again". That always hit home with us. Likewise, there must never be a 9/11 ever again.

I'm conflicted. I'd feel a lot better if the CIA had not been excessive. KSM waterboarding does not appear to have been within guidance. CIA IG investigation was initiated in response to complaints by CIA personnel about excesses, but that's lost in the clutter. To extrapolate and suggest that this specific instance of interrogation will undermine HUMINT aggressivness broadly, seems a stretch. That all said, all points about CIA/DNI in the news and the impacts of outside investigations are valid and of concern. So, how do we ensure accountability and compliance within the IC without a public spectacle? In a less partisan and political age, it was possible. I fear that possibility is not a thing of the past and we'll pay the consequences in lives lost and future attacks....that then will begin the cycle again.


Astute observations as usual. Couldn't agree more with you analysis.

Phil thanks! Always good to hear from you shipmate!

LJ --- conflicted is the way I think lots of feel about this subject. I don't know where harsh stops and torture begins, so I am willing to give the interrogators the benefit of the doubt for the past but their clearly needs to be guidance and accountability of interrogation techniques used going forward

Lynn I am no expert but what little I remember from SERE training in the Navy is that fear of the unknown is critical to managing a POW's behavior. I am not sure torture is definable if it is how doing so helps to get critical information from a detanee to prevent another 9/11. With regard to the suffering of the 9/11 family victims I am reasonably sure that segment of them don't want another family to experience what they have

Appreciate the thought provoking comments joemaz

Dear Maz, how do you perceive the differences between the newly publish 2009 National Intelligence Strategy and the 2005 one? It's quite a suprise that the NIS came out before the obama's National Security Strategy, and I can tell that the Mission Objectives are from Obama's current Policies, but what about the EOs? Do you think there are big changes?

The following stand out to me as new/different in the 2009 NIS. Some have to do with what neither version of the NIS addresses:

1. NIS 2009 is more intelligence substance focused (threat understanding, mission management, cyber, CI, etc) focused than NIS 2005 and IC Vision 2015, which are more about using IT to build the IC enterprise
2. NIS 2009 goes out of its way to assure that the IC will be bound by the Constitution and mind of civil liberties
3. In its discussion of the changing strategic environment, NIS 2009 is silent on the accelerating convergence of foreign and domestic intelligence particularly in the areas of terrorism and cyber. There are practical as well as legal strains this reality places on the IC.
4. EO 5: Advance S&T/R&DMO is about IC ingestion and use of technology for its own needs vice S&T support to acquisition as required by DoD 5000 series instructions or warning about technology surprise that could threaten national security
5. "non-traditional" is sprinkled throughout NIS 2009 (non-traditional treats, non-traditional partners, non-traditional users of intelligence) without providing at least generic examples of what is meant by "non-traditional" in each context.