A bloated corpse remains, but life and spirit have left the CIA. A
troubled agency which can ill afford it has had a very bad week.
Attorney General Eric Holder who before his confirmation hearings
told senators he wouldn't has appointed a special prosecutor to
pursue CIA interrogators who made threats to al Qaida bigwigs to get
them to talk.
The biggest example of actual torture revealed by Mr. Holder was that in
2002, a CIA interrogator blew cigar smoke in the face of abd al Rahim al
Nashiri, the mastermind of the bombing of the USS Cole.
- The Senate Intelligence Committee has sided with the Director of
National Intelligence in a dispute over who should appoint the top U.S.
intelligence officer in each foreign country. Currently, that's the CIA
station chief in the U.S. embassy.
- The Obama administration announced the president has approved creation
of a new unit, which would report directly to the National Security
Council, to interrogate high level terror suspects.
The CIA's terrible week illustrates that CIA Director Leon Panetta has
as little clout with the president as he has respect from his
subordinates. According to ABC News, Mr. Panetta was in a
"profanity-laced screaming match" last month over the decision to make
public the 2004 CIA Inspector General report on interrogations.
Mr. Panetta lost the respect of most of his troops when he told the
House Intelligence Committee in June the CIA had concealed from it a
secret program to assassinate al Qaida terrorists. This wasn't true, as
Mr. Panetta learned when he belatedly talked to his predecessors.
Congress was never briefed on the plan because it was never implemented.
There's speculation Mr. Panetta will resign in protest, or be fired. It
may not matter very much. The CIA has not been central to intelligence
for quite some while.
Most of the intelligence we collect is gathered by the National Security
Agency (electronic intercepts) or by the National Geo-Spatial
Intelligence Agency (spy satellites). The CIA's role has pretty much
been restricted to human intelligence, and analyzing intel gathered by
It's done a poor job of both. The most frighteningly funny book I've
read in a long time is "The Human Factor," the memoir of "Ishmael Jones"
of his career as a non-official cover (NOC) officer of the CIA.
The CIA Mr. Jones describes is a massive, risk averse bureaucracy so
dysfunctional it can't even pay its NOCs on time. His evidence is
mostly anecdotal, but the most telling statistic he offers is that more
than 90 percent of CIA employees work within the United States, which is
odd for an agency whose alleged purpose is the collection of foreign
The CIA long ago gave up as too dangerous trying to recruit agents in
hard targets such as North Korea or prewar Iraq, "Ishmael Jones" said.
The CIA hasn't done much better at analyzing intel gathered by others.
The CIA missed the 9/11 plot. Agency analysts were caught flat-footed
by Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, and by the collapse of the
Only harm can come from Mr. Holder's persecution of CIA interrogators.
But the other elements of the CIA's very bad week may not be so bad for
the rest of us.
"Ishmael Jones" thinks dividing foreign intelligence collection into
country fiefdoms has been the chief bureaucratic barrier to effective
HUMINT collection, and anything that shakes that system up has got to be
for the better.
One thing the CIA has done well is prisoner interrogation. According to
the CIA, 57 percent of its HUMINT reports since 9/11 have come from
detainees. But Mr. Holder has taken care of that.
The new "High Value Interrogation Group" President Obama is setting up
will be forbidden to use even mild coercive tactics such as playing loud
music or sleep deprivation.
I have doubts about how effective an interrogation unit that treats
terrorists with hugs will be. And civil libertarians should have qualms
about having such a group report directly to the National Security
Council, that is, to the White House. I guess politicization of
intelligence is only an issue when a Republican is president.
But something is better than nothing, and nothing is what we can now
expect from a CIA that has become, in Jonah Goldberg's phrase, the CYA.