Arthur Herman: The 35-Year War on the CIA

Roundup: Talking About History

[Arthur Herman is the author, most recently, of Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for 2009. His article “The Gitmo Myth and the Torture Canard” appeared in COMMENTARY’s June issue.]

When your own outfit is trying to put you in jail, it’s time to go.” Those are the words of Robert Baer, once a CIA operative in the Middle East, describing the days in 1995 when he found himself under investigation by the Clinton administration, the FBI, and the CIA’s own inspector general. Baer’s crime? Daring to talk to Iraqi dissidents who were plotting to assassinate Saddam Hussein.

CIA officers in 2009 who are living with a Sword of Damocles hovering over their heads—in the form of a special prosecutor appointed by Barack Obama’s attorney general in August to probe allegations of torture during interrogations of al-Qaeda members and other suspects—now know how Baer felt. In September, every living former director of Central Intelligence (except Robert Gates, the current defense secretary) signed a letter to President Obama asking him to halt the special-prosecutor proceedings for the sake of the future of the agency. The president did not respond.

Subsequent events have largely vindicated Baer. The charges against him were dismissed in 1997. Five years later a CIA director might have suggested pinning a medal on him rather than trying to throw him in jail. How posterity will view the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation tactics during the anxious years of 2002 and 2003, when the real possibility of another 9/11 attack loomed, may depend less on what we learn about the results of the interrogations themselves than on the Obama administration’s conduct in determining their appropriateness and legality.

The appointment of a special prosecutor is just one of a series of administration attacks on the CIA. Those attacks have included the release—over the objections of his own CIA head, Leon Panetta—of the classified 2004 CIA Inspector General Report revealing which enhanced interrogation methods were actually used on which suspects (including threatening to seize members of one suspect’s family and intimidating another suspect with a power drill). The administration has also created a new “High Value Detainee Interrogation Group,” effectively stripping the CIA of responsibility for interrogating important terrorist suspects and handing it over to the vastly more constrained FBI.

This assault on the CIA might seem strange considering that just two years ago, Democrats and the media were expressing outrage over the Bush administration’s alleged “outing” of a supposedly covert operative named Valerie Plame. A special prosecutor was then tasked with finding out who had been so “un-American” (as Senator John Kerry termed it) as to leak the name of a CIA employee. Now we have a special prosecutor who may not only “out” CIA interrogators but also work hard to throw them into prison.1

So what if the 2004 Inspector General’s Report explicitly states that the waterboarding and other fully authorized techniques used on al-Qaeda detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were effective and yielded valuable, actionable information that may have saved thousands of lives? Never mind that when Justice Department career lawyers scrutinized the Inspector General’s Report in 2006 looking for evidence of wrongdoing worthy of prosecution, they could find none. The argument that the United States and those in the government’s employ behaved in reprehensible ways in the aftermath of 9/11 deserving of legal sanction has become standard issue among Democrats and liberals, and when a Democratic liberal ascended to the White House, it was no longer an argument. It is now policy.

In all this, Obama and the Democrats are not just attempting to delegitimize the conduct of the past eight years. They are also reverting to type. For the past 35 years, American liberals have attacked and vilified the CIA with a fervency that borders on holy war. Their antipathy toward the CIA and its works has been reflected in Hollywood films from Three Days of the Condor in 1975 to Rendition in 2007; in popular thrillers like Robert Ludlum’s Bourne trilogy published in the 1980s, as well as the Matt Damon movies based on the novels that came out in this decade; and in lengthy nonfiction exposes of CIA misdeeds by leftist critics like John Prados (Safe for Democracy: The CIA’s Secret Wars)and David Wise (The American Police State). In this view, the CIA has conducted itself around the world in monstrous fashion—sometimes in the service of a barbaric chief executive and sometimes to undermine a purer president—and in ways that merit and justify hatred of the United States outside our borders.

This war has also been enshrined in one disastrous liberal-led “reform” of the CIA after another. The wreckage reaches back to congressional hearings conducted in the 1970s, to the disastrous cutbacks in CIA activities under Jimmy Carter, and to the Clinton administration’s ban on sharing intelligence between the CIA and domestic law enforcement.

So what is it about the CIA that makes liberals and Democrats lose their common sense? The FBI’s record of abuse of American citizens’ civil liberties is far longer and more egregious, as its treatment of Martin Luther King suggests. During Vietnam and other contentious periods of the Cold War, the FBI opened far more secret files on Americans and conducted far more unauthorized break-ins and wiretaps than the CIA could ever have contemplated. Yet the FBI has never been subjected to quite the same relentless serial abuse on Capitol Hill or in the popular culture as the CIA. Indeed, the Obama administration is not the first to send in the FBI to rescue the CIA from itself.

One cannot deny that Republican administrations have made disastrous decisions regarding the CIA as well. And there is no covering over the fact that the CIA has sometimes been its own worst enemy—not least when it decides to act on the advice of its liberal critics. At any rate, a serious examination of this implacable hostility toward America’s leading spy agency on the part of the American Left over the course of the past 35 years reveals a great deal about the nature of modern liberalism itself and its often self-destructive course...
Read entire article at Commentary

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 12/17/2009

that's what one might think after reading author's complaints on alleged mistreatment by its own governments.
Of course, if one recalls just one out of miriad of evidence to the contrary - that CIA is/was responsible for illegal interference in other countries's internal affairs, overthrowing of foreign governments, drug-trafficking, assasinations, and international terrorism more than all other foreign intelligence services taken together, perhaps, he would recognize that there is/was a legal basis for investigation of some of the CIA's activity... unless the latter strives to eclipse Soviet KGB in criminal activity.