Gutting the CIA: The Obama administration further debilitates a damaged agency

The Obama administration further debilitates a damaged agency

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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 discomforted al-Qaida bigwigs to get them to talk.

• The Senate Intelligence Committee has sided with the director of national intelligence in a dispute with the CIA over who should appoint the top U.S. intelligence officer in each foreign country. Currently, the top officers are CIA station chiefs.

• 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 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 others.

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 officer (NOC) 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 intelligence.

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 Soviet Union.

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 the effective collection of human intelligence and that anything that shakes up that system 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 human-intelligence 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 the 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.


Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The (Toledo) Blade ( jkelly@post-gazette.com , 412 263-1476).


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