Ignatius proposes “A New Deal for The CIA” – perhaps they should sometimes obey our laws

I doubt that proposals for partial reform of the CIA make sense.  Not after reading the major histories of the CIA (e.g., Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes).  Even so, this specimen looks unusually daft:  “A New Deal for The CIA“, David Ignatius, op-ed in the Washington Post, 17 September 2009.

It opens with the usual romantic tales of daring spys.  The actual history is far more sordid, the actual results too often bad for both America and the nations subject to the CIA’s manipulation.  The second half returns to the real world.


What’s required is a new approach to intelligence based on the need for political sustainability. This, in turn, will require a degree of transparency with Congress and the public that may make the intelligence community uncomfortable. But frankly, after the torture debate, there’s no other way.

… When we read about waterboarding and other techniques that shock the conscience, it’s easy to lose sight of what intelligence agents like my friend Jeannie do most of the time — and their importance in protecting the country. The interrogation policies may have been directed by the George W. Bush administration, but it is the CIA and its people who have paid the price.

The question is how to put the pieces back together — how to restore public trust in intelligence. I heard powerful presentations on that subject last Saturday in Geneva by Gen. Michael Hayden, former CIA director, and Sir David Omand, former coordinator of British intelligence. They were speaking at a meeting of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. (Full disclosure: I am a member of that group’s advisory council.)

Hayden drew a Venn diagram to explain where the CIA needs to operate. First, he drew three circles that represent the traditional parameters: An activity must be technically feasible, operationally relevant and lawful. Then he added a fourth requirement. The activity must also be “politically sustainable,” through more transparency with Congress and the public. “We need a program that does not have an on-off switch every two years,” he said.

Omand argued that the intelligence community must accept a “paradigm shift.” The old “secret state,” in which intelligence agencies could do pretty much as they liked, is gone. In its place is a “protecting state,” in which the public gives the intelligence agencies certain powers needed to keep the country safe. It’s a “citizen-centric approach,” Omand explained, based on the reality of mutual dependence. The spies need information from the community (especially the large Muslim population in Britain), and the public needs protection.

In this new “grand bargain,” Omand stressed, the public must understand that if it decides — for moral and political reasons — to limit certain activities (as in interrogation or surveillance techniques), it also accepts the risk that there will be “normal accidents.”

This history of the CIA has been largely a successful effort to avoid giving the public the information necessary to evaluate our ‘secret state’ — or the ability to influence (let alone control) its operation.  I see few signs of change, despite Hayden’s assertions.  Most likely the current efforts are just Kubuki — like previous efforts.

Matthew Yglesias comments on this at ThinkProgress:

On one level, who could disagree with this? On another level, how is it that we’re having this conversation? This isn’t East Germany. Of course intelligence services are supposed to be “citizen-centric” rather than have the ability to “do pretty much as they liked.” But what’s the bargain here? My general understanding of the bargain between the law and citizens is that citizens are supposed to follow the law and in exchange they don’t get subjected to criminal penalties. That’s the bargain I have. And people who work at the CIA are also American citizens, right? Subject to the law, right?

As usual, the comments on his site are more interesting than the post.

(#14)  Rich in PA Says:

Ignatius should do PR for General Zod when he runs in 2012. Regrettably Zod’s 2008 campaign website is now off-line, but the gist of it was that if elected, we would give him our wealth and pledge eternal allegiance to him, and in return he would permit us to live. This seems to be the CIA’s position.

(#17 )  Glen Tomkins Says:

A Devil’s Bargain

“And people who work at the CIA are also American citizens, right? Subject to the law, right?”

Of course they aren’t subject to the law. The whole point of having secret police/secret intelligence agencies like the CIA, NSA, DIA, etc. is so, in the Mission Impossible formulation, “The Secretary will disavow all knowledge.” We wouldn’t have needed the CIA unless we intended it to do nasty and illegal things we didn’t want to have to acknowledge we as a nation were doing.

Secrecy has never been about increased effectiveness. Let any agency work in secret, and of course its work product will deteriorate in value to nothing, as its brutality goes up to compensate. Why would anyone imagine that our secret police was going to be any different from all of the other secret police forces in history, and that we would end up with anything other than something that looks like the KGB, or the Securitate? Secrecy is about letting the public luxuriate in the blissful state of not having to think. Well, not having to think until the real-world consequences of letting a secret police loose catch up to us.

No, the secret police aren’t subject to our laws. Let’s hope cosmic justice doesn’t prevail, and we never have to face ourselves the full consequences that we unleashed on other nations when we created a secret police and let them loose on the world. But it’s going to have to remain a mere hope, because we gave up control of our fate two generations ago.

Another interesting article about the CIA

Well-worth reading:  “The Secret History – Can Leon Panetta move the C.I.A. forward without confronting its past?“, Jane Mayer, The New Yorker, 22 June 2009


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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest are:

Posts about the CIA:

  1. The Plame Affair and the Decline of the State, 25 October 2005
  2. The new NIE, another small step in the Decline of the State, 10 December 2007
  3. A must-read book for any American interested in geopolitics, 5 March 2008 — “Legacy of Ashes”
  4. When will global oil production peak? Ask the CIA!, 1 May 2008
  5. Something every American should read, 25 May 2009 — About the CIA’s use of torture
  6. Another urban legend that will not die: the CIA is the world’s major drug dealer, 11 July 2009

18 thoughts on “Ignatius proposes “A New Deal for The CIA” – perhaps they should sometimes obey our laws”

  1. I think we should avoid, despise and combat expressions like “political sustainability” and speak the plain truth.

  2. According my “unnamed source,” Intel Officers are mostly human. Thus there will always be accidents, failures and broken laws. But how do we respond to them? What shall we do about that?

  3. From Roxanne (1987 movie)

    “I have a dream. It’s not a big dream, it’s just a little dream. My dream – and I hope you don’t find this too crazy – is that I would like the people of this community to feel that if, God forbid, there were a fire, calling the fire department would actually be a wise thing to do. You can’t have people, if their houses are burning down, saying, “Whatever you do, don’t call the fire department!” That would be bad.”

    Err, oops he said fire department, not CIA. Sorry, my bad.

  4. What you see in the US is a growing tendency for politicians not to want to have their decisions made public. Whether it is whole programs secreted away or simply the militarization of issues. These are really just ways to exclude them from the democratic process and accountability.

    Not only is this deeply ironical in a society that sees itself as the height of democracy but the anti-democratic cultures of the military and secret services are a direct contributor to their failures to proselytize overseas. They don’t believe in what they are spreading and they don’t practice it themselves.

  5. The CIA has never been intended to or used for gathering intelligence on foreign threats. Indeed, it has a dismal record in predicting threats: the CIA announced thought the Shah of Iran would stay in power for 50 years, the CIA predicted that the USSR’s GDP would surpass America’s by 1980, and the CIA never knew that Russia had sent nuclear missiles to Cuba until the Cubans began to set up missile launchers.

    CIA The CIA was from the beginning designed to destabilize and manipulate our allies and mold domestic public opinion, with gathering intelligence about foreign threats a minor subsidiary function.

    The CIA’s first major operation after its formation was the dirty-tricks destabilization of the Communist left in the Italian election of 1948. The Communists looked like they were going to win, but a CIA black op prevented it.

    See here for details.

    Today, the primary function of the CIA involves manipulation of the U.S. media and control of American opinion through carefully sculpted operations involving their contacts in TV and print journalism. It has been said (though I cannot verify this) that essentially <A HREF="everyone in the Washington D.C. Beltway media power elite is on the CIA payroll in some capacity or other. This dates back to Operation Mockingbird in 1949.

    This would explain the extraordinary uniformity of opinion within the Beltway about continuing such debacles as the Af-Pak war. See Noam Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent for more details.

  6. So why do we need a grand bargain with the CIA over water boarding? It’s my understanding that they didn’t go off the reservation when they did this (a few exceptions), but that they followed policy set by the Executive Branch/White House. If, say, we were able to hold the government accountable with something other than star chambers, wouldn’t this alleviate the problem?

    Obviously, this model is prone to failures like everything else under democracy–elected and appointed officials will betray the public trust, democracy is just a tool of holding them accountable, not guaranteeing that we always have the best, bravest, and most honest statesmen in all offices at all times. Active citizenry cut down on that behavior, but cannot extinguish it.

  7. mclaren, #5:

    Interesting articles. We also now know a little bit of the current propaganda activities, a lot of which have been moved over to Defense where there’s less congressional oversight [sic]. MO seems to be about the same, plant stories in the foreign press in the hopes they get picked up domestically.

    As for the uniformity of beltway opinion, Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model posits a much more prosaic explanation than bags of cash changing hands in parking garages. It’s the age-old pressure to be a “team player” and “go along to get along.” Journalists and pundits whose work supports the elite consensus are rewarded handsomely, and are held to much lower standards (Thomas Friedman being an archetypical example); those who are critical and “speak truth to power,” find their sources clamming up, their pieces subject to heavy editorial pressure, criticism, promotions a long time coming, etc. up to and including complete wrecking of careers.

    It’s just like any institution: corporations, the military, etc. It doesn’t pay to buck the system, and it can certainly hurt you. By these filters systems seek to preserve themselves, and the government-media-corporate nexus in Washington is so tightly interwoven as to function essentially as a single system in this respect.


  8. underscore33, #6

    So why do we need a grand bargain with the CIA over water boarding? It’s my understanding that they didn’t go off the reservation when they did this (a few exceptions), but that they followed policy set by the Executive Branch/White House.

    The article you linked to merely states that the scope of the Justice Dept. inquiry is limited to a few select cases where for political and/or evidentiary reasons they have chosen to focus. It does not mean that there was not wrongdoing in other cases. Further, per the Nuremberg standard, as well as U.S. law, “following orders” is not a valid defense. The Zetas in Mexico carrying out assassinations and bombings are “only following orders.” If my boss showed up at my cube tomorrow with a jerry can of gasoline and told me to burn down our competitor’s headquarters, I wouldn’t count on the “following orders” defense to get me very far.

    What we tend to have with these investigations is classic buck-passing. The people getting their hands dirty were “only following orders” and the higher-ups say there were a few “bad apples” doing it on their own. Frankly the buck needs to stop somewhere, preferably with both, and with the order-givers taking most of the responsibility. Just like Nuremberg. But you’re right that without citizen pressure this will never happen outside of some symbolic scapegoating.


  9. Worse than waterboarding , is when secret services act as executive of secret gov policies , which well might disgust the electorate ( eg coup against Mosaddeq ) .

  10. phageghost,

    I am not trying to justify the program–I think the whole thing was bogus and wrong and I am down with that idea of a truth commission, DOJ investigations, or whatever it takes to put this behind us and arrive at closure (as opposed to the Obama forgive and forget mentality).

    what I meant is that I agree with Yglesias that the idea of a grand bargain is silly. the investigations in the WaPo article should be handled as he says–prosecutions of citizens who broke the law. the same way you prosecute the guys from Abu Ghraib and My Lai.

    as for the rest who were within interrogation guidelines, maybe we should prosecute them, maybe not. truth is probably more important for healing than punishment, and i think there’s precedence for this besides Nuremberg. I don’t know the answer–it might brighten our halo a bit if we threw ’em in jail, but we do it at the risk of losing some of the best minds in the US intelligence community. I think this is a tough call.

    but I think Ignatius’ op-ed and the idea of a grand bargain assume there was a lax legal culture among the US intelligence community–nonsense! it was a result of a lax legal culture from our executive branch, and that’s where reform must happen. they are the ones who disregard(ed) the Geneva conventions! we must start not by sanitizing the reputation of the CIA but removing the mechanisms outside the agency that keep accountability low.

    I’m also mistrustful of demonizing the CIA as manipulators of US public opinion and general conspirators against the world abroad. PACs are much cheaper and more effective at manipulating the people, and those are the ambitions of an imperial presidency, not its intelligence gathering arm.

  11. underscore33 #10,

    It seems we’re basically in agreement, but where we differ (I think) is the question of what to do with those who were following the interrogation guidelines, but who broke the law because those guidelines permitted illegal behavior. I certainly agree that primary culpability lies with those who promulgated illegal guidelines (responsibility starts at the top) but I think it’s vitally important to enforce the responsibility of underlings to refuse illegal or immoral orders. Now, this is not trivial, as there is a tremendous amount of very real pressure on such people and a lot of consequences to doing so, including loss of a career. For folks with 20+ years invested and a family to support, that’s a very tough call to ask them to make, especially when both the cultural and government zeitgeist seem to support the illegal activity. But that was true of many of the Nuremberg defendants as well.

    Ultimately I think the reason to follow the Nuremberg principle is twofold: 1. Because it introduces many more potential checks against abuses of power. It’s relatively easy for a few bad apples to take control at the top, but more difficult to coopt every individual in an organization. In this way it provides a “democratic” check against the autocratic tendencies of large institutions. 2. Because it accords with the concept of individual moral agency and responsibility that is at the heart of the Western philosophical tradition that underpins our legal system and ideas of justice.

    It can be tough to bring the hammer down on people who honestly thought they were doing the right thing or were under much pressure to conform, and certainly this should be taken into account in any sentencing (as was done at Nuremberg) but at least a token punishment would provide a deterrent for the future. Such a breakdown would accord with our mutual view that the primary moral responsibility is for those with the greatest freedom of action, i.e. the people in the executive branch who gave the orders.

    P.S. I agree that looking to the CIA as an arbiter of opinion control is peripheral (and often counter-productive since it smacks of “conspiracy theories”). Specific cases should be investigated, of course, but in general the control mechanisms of our society are right out in the open, a measure of how well they function, in fact.

  12. In this day and age the intelligence agencies suffer from information overload. Why they could not predict 9/11. Way too much information to sift through.

  13. since we’re both basically in agreement except for the treatment of people who complied with white house directives but possibly broke the law, I have a question for which I don’t have an answer for. we both cited two legal proceedings based on genocide–is that the right framework for considering the excesses created by the GWOT? is it too cavalier? and does it stop at the CIA, or do we hold the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as felonious extensions of the same corrupt ideology?

  14. “Foreign intelligence agencies have been holding back their liaison activities and their cooperation with the CIA because of the crimes….”
    — “Seven Former CIA Directors Want To Bury The Truth“, Melvin A. Goodman, The Public Record, 23 Sept 2009


    “I have a dream. It’s not a big dream, it’s just a little dream. My dream – and I hope you don’t find this too crazy – is that I would like the people of this community to feel that if, God forbid, there were a fire, calling the fire department would actually be a wise thing to do. You can’t have people, if their houses are burning down, saying, “Whatever you do, don’t call the fire department!” That would be bad.”
    — C. D. Bales in the 1987 film Roxanne (source)

  15. underscore33,

    Regarding the legal framework, well the crimes we’re talking about obviously don’t even come close to the extent and scope of the Germans. Although a Norwegian court after WWII convicted and executed several Germans for essentially the exact same interrogation techniques the U.S. has been using. The parallels are erie, even down to the defendants echoing John Yoo’s justifications (which were rejected by the court). There were certainly problems with the Nuremberg trials, primarily that they were, in a sense, a case of “victor’s justice” insofar as a valid defense for any war crime was to show that the allies also comitted it. Robert McNamara and Curtis LeMay thought along the same lines with respect to their involvement in the firebombing of Japanese civilians, as recalled by McNamara in The Fog of War:

    LeMay said, “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?

    Despite this glaring flaw, however, I believe the Nuremberg trials established two important principles: 1. The principle of individual responsibility, as noted earlier, and 2. The supremecy of the crime of aggressive war. In the words of the chief American prosecutor, Robert H. Jackson:

    To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.

    This bears on your second question.

    As for the Rwandan Truth Commissions, I find the concept quite interesting but I believe they are a special case, drawing on indiginous traditions of tribal justice and uniquely suited to the circumstances of that conflict, which don’t apply here. The Rwandan genocide was committed by a huge proportion of the population, which it would be completely impractical to imprison or execute. Given that, and the fact that the perpetrators and victims were neighbors who are going to have to live with each other afterward, this kind of conciliatory approach is probably necessary.

    In our case we already have a legal framework, the U.S. court system. No need for special tribunals. Absent politics (yeah, right) the process should be fairly straightforward. There were laws in place prohibiting torture and these appear to have been violated. If sufficient evidence exists showing these laws were broken, indict and try the accused before a jury of their peers.

    As for your second question about the legality of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, well that’s a bit murkier. Technically, since they were both done without Security Council authorization they are violations of the U.N. Charter, which per the constitution is legally binding. However it appears that violations of such are to be referred to the Security Council, which of course has taken no action (the reason that the U.N. system has never had a chance of working to prevent war — there is no enforcement mechanism against the great powers that have veto authority). In any case, as much as I would love to see Bush and Cheney getting perp-walked to a courthouse, I would put money on porcine aviation happening first.

    Clarification: I said the Security Council took no action. What they did do was essentially legalize them after the fact, with various resolutions establishing legal frameworks for the occupations. Certainly not punitive actions against the U.S. and none calling for withdrawal. But at the time of the invasion the Iraq war was a violation of Chapter VII. Afghanistan likewise I believe, since Article 51 only authorizes military force to repel the attack and member nations should then refer the matter to the Security Council for further action.

    I’m certainly not an expert in international law, though, so take this all with a grain of salt, as it’s merely my interpretation. I welcome any corrections from folks with more expertise in this area.
    Fabius Maximus replies: It is not accurate to say that the UN actions legalized the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions “after the fact.” The UN votes about Iraq preceeded the invasion, however thin the resulting resolution. The UN action authorizing the NATO intervention was December 2001. See the following comment for details.

  16. UN Authorization for NATO operations in Afghanistan

    ISAF Mandate, From the NATO website

    ISAF has been deployed since 2001 under the authority of the UN Security Council (UNSC) which authorised the establishment of the force to assist the Afghan government “in the maintenance of security in Kabul and its surrounding areas, so that the Afghan Interim Authority as well as the personnel of the United Nations can operate in a secure environment.”

    ISAF is a coalition of the willing – not a UN force properly speaking – which has a peace-enforcement mandate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

    Nine UN Security Council Resolutions relate to ISAF, namely: 1386, 1413, 1444, 1510, 1563, 1623, 1707, 1776 and 1833 (on 23 September 2008). A detailed Military Technical Agreement agreed between the ISAF Commander and the Afghan Transitional Authority in January 2002 provides additional guidance for ISAF operations.

    NATO took command of ISAF in August 2003 upon request of the UN and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and soon after, the UN gave ISAF a mandate to expand outside of Kabul.

  17. hey phageghost,

    i think what you talked about in regards to Rwanda is at the heart of my concern. everyone who participated in the genocide is a murderer. period. no matter what you say about torture, 99% of the time, killing is worse. but if Rwanda is choosing not to put any but the worst offenders in jail, and not to execute anyone (I believe) to foment a reconciliation, perhaps that’s what we need to do with our Intelligence community. obviously, the worst go to jail–people who were outside the legal guidelines, the guys responsible for the dead and the disappeared, no question. but for the guys who gave tacit agreements and participated within the legal framework, throwing them behind bars may or may not be good.

    On the not good side, two things strike me. the first is that I do not believe that kind of prosecution will unite us. it will divide us. it will create mistrust and animosity between the government/congress and our intelligence agencies, become a wedge issue for the conservatives, and you’ll just get a ton of people saying that we are punishing people for serving the country. let me say again that I agree that torture/water boarding is wrong, but let me posit that its wrongness is not as clear as killing 6 million Jews. perhaps it should be, but the reality is that it is not.

    secondly, let us not forget that there are not a lot of spies that we can easily hire and train. some of those guys on Panella’s staff are tainted (arguably anyone in the CIA during the past 8 years is) but they are also the leading experts in their field. throw them in jail, and you will have to rebuild that institutional knowledge. am I saying that being an expert excludes you from guilt? no, absolutely not. but when you put your best covert ops guy in jail because he submitted to policy he objected to but was overruled on, you lose things that cannot be replace and damage the organization.

    all of that said, you can’t push this under the carpet or create a new organization that will do it better. we need some kind of truth commission whereby the public gets the full gist of what was done by the CIA and military intelligence without scapegoating either agency. i think giving immunity to some of the low level operators in return for truthful testimony is a good way to both come to terms with what was done without turning prosecution into a Pyrrhic victory.

    a note on international law:

    it’s pretty much bunk. basically international law comes into force through treaties or through common practice by both nations. however, if you don’t like where the law is trending, you can opt out by either making explicit statements and qualifications disagreeing with it (the Bush doctrine) or by submitting reservations, understandings, and declarations to a treaty (example). it seems pretty crazy, because we find ourselves in the same boat as many terrible regimes, but keep in mind that like most countries, we value our sovereignty and our freedom to act, and this fuels our opposition to pretty much all international law except piracy.

  18. FM, thanks for the clarification. I ran out of time at the end to track down the relevant sources. What I meant was that although the invasions were illegal at the time (the U.S. having declined to seek security council authorization for Afghanistan and, IMO, being refused it for Iraq), the ongoing occupations were no longer “illegal.”

    Of course, as underscore33 points out, international law is pretty much a joke, since it lacks any substantive enforcement mechanism for the great powers. If you’re a little country, you’d better follow the letter of the law; if you’re one of the big boys, particularly the U.S, you can ignore it when it suits your purposes. As ridiculous as Gaddhaffi’s U.N. speech was, he had a point there. It’s mainly used as rhetorical window dressing for beating up on some defenseless third-world country. Witness also the disparate treatment of Iran as a compliant signatory to the NPT and Israel, Pakistan and India who withdrew from it.

    I do think that in a world where conflicts between major powers have a good possibility of ending in nuclear exchanges we need a robust system of international law/ Therefore we ought to try to strengthen the existing system rather than undermine it. To do otherwise may be good for the U.S. in the short-term but potentially catastrophic in the long-term.

    As for the truth commission idea, I think it just lets too many off the hook and provides no real deterrent. The same argument of retaining expertise will be used the next time. Besides, I’m not too worried about retaining expertise in the CIA because, as many commentators have pointed out, the CIA’s track record of intelligence-gathering and analysis is pretty dismal. Not that they’re not smart guys — maybe it just can’t be done. Or maybe it’s the instutional culture/ideological blinders and the agency needs a major overhaul or abolishment and replacement. The main thing the CIA seems to be good at is short-sighted dirty ops that end up blowing back in our faces: Iran (would we have been better off with the democratic successor to Mossadeq, or propping up the Shah for decades and ending up with the “Islamic Republic”?), Bay of Pigs, Afghanistan, etc.

    FM: only the first and third paragraphs of the indented section in my comment #15 are quotes. The middle paragraph is my text. Also, what are the tags for producing block quotes like that? I’d like to save you the trouble if possible. Thanks again.

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