CIA Director Panetta: Reform Suffers for Bush Apparatchiks and Spy Chiefs

05/25/2011 01:50 pm ET

CIA Director Leon Panetta wants the world to know: he is on a mission to promote the agenda of top-level intelligence chiefs and former members of the Bush administration chickenhawk-ocracy who fear accountability for their policies, which not only diminished American honor but increasingly appear to have been riddled with incompetence while yielding little worthwhile intelligence.

In an op-ed in the Sunday, August 2, Washington Post, Panetta intended to make the case, yet again, that subjecting Bush-era intelligence misdeeds to investigative scrutiny amounts to just so much political score settling. But Panetta's Washington Post piece affirms that he drank the CIA kool-aid and is an avowed defender of the CIA and Beltway conventional wisdom that holds that all calls for accountability for Bush-era intelligence abuses are nakedly partisan attacks that could not possibly be motivated by serious, well-informed concern for U.S. intelligence policy.

This same conventional wisdom puts forth a false choice: America can either sweep past intelligence misdeeds under the rug, or stab junior intelligence officers in the back so that Democrats can take cheap shots at dethroned Republicans.

To begin making his point, Panetta claims that the intelligence chief of "a major Western ally" asked him, "Why . . . is Washington so consumed with what the CIA did in the past, when the most pressing national security concerns are in the present?"

It would be interesting to know just which "major Western ally" thinks that CIA is unfairly getting grief, when most of America's major Western allies have strongly disapproved of both U.S. intelligence's unilateralism and humans rights abuses.

Canada, that closest of U.S. allies, actually fired the head of one of its security agencies after revelations that Canadian officials were complicit in a U.S. operation that erroneously sent a Canadian citizen to a Syrian torture chamber.

America's other close ally, the United Kingdom, has experienced domestic political repercussions and court challenges over U.K. spy service complicity with CIA detention and torture operations, with repeated reports that senior U.S. officials have threatened to cut off security ties with the U.K. if details of U.S. torture and detention operations are disclosed in U.K. courts or media.

Italy is actually trying CIA renditions officers for kidnapping, and Germany attempted to do so as well after CIA abducted and imprisoned a German national in a case of mistaken identity. Other EU countries have mounted their own investigations of CIA rendition activity that may have taken place in their territory.

Despite Panetta's hang-out of this suspect anecdote, America's major Western allies -- and their pesky, independent courts and accountable democracy -- turn out to be a lot of the reason why Bush-era intelligence activity won't just go quietly into the night. Maybe Panetta is confusing what he heard a "major Western ally" spy chief ask, with what a "major authoritarian ally in the Middle East" or a "major authoritarian ally in the former Soviet republics" spy chief might have uttered.

Panetta goes on to lament that there has been a fundamental breakdown in the 'consensus' between the executive and legislative branches regarding intelligence and covert operations. "We need broad agreement," Panetta writes,

...between the executive and legislative branches on what our intelligence organizations do and why. For much of our history, we have had that. Over the past eight years, on specific issues -- including the detention and interrogation of terrorists -- the consensus deteriorated.

Of course that consensus deteriorated -- it was built on lies and outhouse lawyering. No less an eminence than President Bush denied that the U.S. used torture and illegal imprisonment in the fight against terrorism. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld assured Americans and the world that Guantanamo housed only "the worst of the worst." To drum up support for invading Iraq, Bush officials concocted specious intelligence to connect the 9/11 attacks to Iraq. As more details of U.S. military and intelligence excesses emerged, journalists and critics of these policies were excoriated -- even accused of treason -- by Bush administration supporters. Meanwhile, Bush administration ideologues devised a Rube Goldberg tangle of secret legal justifications that sustained the radical new reach of U.S. intelligence activity into torture, extrajudicial imprisonment, and new domestic spying operations.

Panetta and, by extension, the Obama administration will not be able to restore intelligence policy consensus between the executive and legislative branches until it forthrightly confronts the deceit and abuse that gutted that consensus in the first place. The Obama national security team will need to do more than just say, "It's okay to trust us now."

And so far, there's not much indication that CIA and the intelligence community are really doing anything differently. Obama administration lawyers continue to stymie courtroom defendants with the same old 'state secrets' assertions. The CIA still maintains that it can magically turn information it previously released to the public back into super-secret classified information. Investigative reporters continue to uncover more horrors from the torture and detention programs, and that intelligence officers involved in egregiously botched intelligence operations -- like the ones in which the wrong guy ends up in a hellhole prison in Afghanistan, or a homicide occurs -- continue to climb the career ladder. In short -- many of the policies of secrecy and uncritical defense of a broken intelligence culture and ingrained resistance to accountability are still very much in existence. Unfortunately, Panetta says practically nothing in his Washington Post piece that actually gives lawmakers or the public assurance that the CIA is on a track to more constitutional, humane, and above all, more effective intelligence operations.

Disingenuous appeals of "trust me" on the pages of the Washington Post aren't going to stop what Panetta calls "recrimination" that will supposedly cause the brave men and women of the CIA to "pay a price." Senior Bush (and maybe a few Obama) apparatchiks and spy chiefs -- who devised and sustained intelligence policies that don't conform with American traditions of decency and humanity need to come forward to accept responsibility for these policies.

It's a matter of honor in the profession of arms, after all: good leaders protect their subordinates from harm and accept responsibility when their subordinates go astray. Panetta, an old Army guy, ought to know that the troops eat first.

But stalwart Sergeant Rocks are far and few between in the ranks of national security policymakers and senior intelligence bureaucrats. Resident Bush chickenhawks Cheney (five draft deferments due to "other priorities in the '60s"), Addington (dropped out of the U.S. Naval Academy), and Yoo (lifelong attorney and thinktanker) never were fortunate enough to learn manly-man military leadership lessons.

And I'm sad to report that leaderly honor is in shockingly short supply in the CIA hallways as well -- I remember, quite clearly, one CIA manager in full-on, cold sweat panic at the unfairness of it all when she learned she might possibly have to take the heat for an errant subordinate. Later, as a consiglieri-contractor to a senior operations manager, I witnessed dizzying combinations of blame-shifting, blame-deflecting, blame-denying, and counterblaming -- and even swallowed a lot of that blame myself.

Panetta's -- and Obama's -- instincts are correct when they promise to protect the CIA's rank and file from prosecution. But protecting the troops from prosecution is not the same as resisting accountability. To begin with, Panetta should take highly visible action to show the American public, lawmakers, and the world that CIA polices itself and takes its ethical, legal, and moral obligations very seriously. Egregious acts of cruelty and violence that significantly exceeded operative policies, such as homicides and sexual assaults by individuals against detainees, ought to be referred with vigor by CIA to the Justice Department. Several such cases are known to exist and should be acted on immediately. Intelligence professionals of all ranks would welcome prosecution of murderers, sadists, and worse who are in their midst.

Panetta should support and commit to facilitating a full accounting of Bush era intelligence excesses -- whether that arises from Congress, the courts, or a special commission. If such inquiries determine that prosecutions for criminal policy are warranted, however, they should be focused on Senior Intelligence Service officers, appointed intelligence leaders, and enabling policymakers. So far, Panetta has protected his senior-most officers

SIS officers were, ostensibly, expert advisers and organizational representatives to senior U.S. policymakers on intelligence matters. Senior intelligence officers should have advised Bush administration officials that the Jack Bauer/24 vision of intelligence operations does not work in reality and would certainly damage US honor and credibility. And if Bush administration officials wouldn't accept such expert intelligence counsel and advice, these senior officers and appointees should have visibly and publicly resigned in protest. But they didn't -- SISers and appointees went along with Bush administration directives that didn't have the backing of true consensus between the executive and legislative branches of government. When the mask came off that fake consensus, Congress and Americans started wanting answers.

Today, the CIA's institutional resistance to any kind of accountability -- as embodied in Panetta's beg for less scrutiny in the Washington Post -- ends up making the agency look like its senior officers are indeed in a hurry to put the past behind. But if Panetta's new era of trust and consensus is to emerge, the CIA will need to earn that trust. That means Panetta should end old, reflexive secrecy that looks absurd and accomplishes nothing for national security. It also means that the CIA should meaningfully and visibly police itself and take decisive action against senior intelligence officers who misused their trust and responsibility.

Intelligence officers I know favor getting rid of senior-level incompetents, cowards, and opportunists who steered U.S. intelligence away from American values. Maybe morale would actually improve if Panetta took bold steps to restore professionalism and ethics to the spy ranks -- instead of nursing an intelligence status quo that doesn't boost the reputation or security of America.