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A young, fresh face campaigns for the presidency by attacking the CIA: “Our government should justify the character and moral principles of the American people, and our foreign policy should not short-circuit that for temporary advantage,” he says. He promises to never “do anything as president that would be a contravention of the moral and ethical standards that I would exemplify in my own life as an individual.”
He wins the election and begins to decimate the intelligence agencies. Barack Obama? No. Jimmy Carter. The Carter administration’s national-security record should not serve as a model for any president. But unless Obama changes course, he risks duplicating the intelligence disasters of the ’70s, and endangering the nation.
Last month, the president and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. launched a destructive investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation of al-Qaeda leaders. Several of the detainees were directly involved with the planning and execution of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. They were captured at a time when our government feared a second wave of attacks.
Our nation’s leaders made the difficult decision to use coercive interrogation methods to learn as quickly as possible what these hardened al-Qaeda operatives knew. As one of many government lawyers who worked on these counterterrorism programs, I can attest to the terrible pressure of time and events in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Knowledgeable officials expected that al-Qaeda would try again–soon–and in a more devastating fashion. But as we pause to remember the Sept. 11 attacks eight years later, fair-minded people should take heart that there has been no follow-up attack in the United States. To the contrary, several plots have been foiled and the terrorists are on the run. This was not the result of luck–it is because of the hard work of members of the military and our intelligence agencies.
Their reward is an open-ended investigation, and in some instances the disturbing reopening of cases closed by career prosecutors. Others have written about the financial ruin in store for agents and analysts whose focus will shift from the enemy to their legal bills. What has gone less well understood is what the investigation will do to the CIA as an institution at a time when it serves as the nation’s eyes and ears and, sometimes, the sword and shield, during war against a shadowy, covert enemy.
The Carter presidency serves as a warning. Attacking “Watergate, Vietnam, and the CIA,” Carter came to office determined to clean house. He and his CIA director, Adm. Stansfield Turner, fell in love with technical means of intelligence-gathering, such as the real-time photos sent by reconnaissance satellites. They saw little need for information gathered by spies and informants. Turner promptly took a buzz saw to the division in charge of covert operations, eliminating 820 positions out of 4,730.
The message was clear, and as a result CIA agents became risk-averse. After all, if you might be fired or prosecuted for doing something, the safest thing to do is nothing. America’s ability to gather human intelligence and conduct covert operations swiftly fell apart. The CIA failed to predict the fall of the shah. Iranian students–one of them now the president of Iran–took U.S. Embassy officials hostage. A covert operation to rescue them failed miserably, killing eight Americans.
The effects of this decimation of our intelligence capabilities continue. The intelligence agencies failed to stop the 9/11 attacks and do not appear to have penetrated al-Qaeda’s leadership. As the Silberman-Robb Commission reported in 2005, the intelligence community’s estimates on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were almost totally mistaken. The cause was not political pressure, according to the commission, but the CIA’s lack of spies in Iraq, its inability to analyze what little information it collected, and Saddam Hussein’s intent to deceive his own generals and Iran as to his arsenal.
Even the most fervent antiwar activists should welcome an effective intelligence service. If the CIA had accurately judged Iraq’s lack of WMD in 2003, the war might not have occurred. If the CIA had decapitated al-Qaeda’s leadership in the 1990s (the plans were vetoed by President Bill Clinton), the 9/11 attacks may have been headed off and the invasion of Afghanistan rendered unnecessary.
All intelligence involves probabilities and educated guesses, but effective intelligence can actually provide the information needed to avoid costly wars.
Henry L. Stimson, secretary of state under President Herbert Hoover, once explained the shuttering of the United States’ only code-breaking unit with these words: “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” Unfortunately, we do not live in a world of gentlemen. Stimson realized this in his next cabinet post, as FDR’s secretary of war on the day of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
Persecuting the CIA risks another surprise attack or major intelligence failure.
John Yoo is a visiting scholar at AEI.
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