Commentary Magazine


Panetta Begs for an End to the War on the CIA

CIA Director Leon Panetta’s Sunday op-ed in the Washington Post raised more questions than it answered. It appeared to be a desperate effort to halt the congressional Democrats’ war on the CIA, or in his words, to “learn lessons from the past without getting stuck there.” He wrote:

I’ve become increasingly concerned that the focus on the past, especially in Congress, threatens to distract the CIA from its crucial core missions: intelligence collection, analysis and covert action.

[. . .]

In its earliest days, the Obama administration made policy changes in intelligence that ended some controversial practices. The CIA no longer operates black sites and no longer employs “enhanced” interrogation techniques. It is worth remembering that the CIA implements presidential decisions; we do not make them. Yet my agency continues to pay a price for enduring disputes over policies that no longer exist. Those conflicts fuel a climate of suspicion and partisanship on Capitol Hill that our intelligence officers — and our country — would be better off without. My goal as director is to do everything I can to build the kind of dialogue and trust with Congress that is essential to our intelligence mission.

In that spirit, on June 24, I briefed the intelligence oversight committees of Congress on a highly classified program that had been brought to my attention the day before. Never fully operational, the program had not, in seven years, taken a single terrorist off the street, and information about it had not been shared appropriately with Congress. For me, this was more than just a simple question of law or legal requirements. Rather, it was a reflection of my firm belief that a straightforward and honest partnership with Congress can build support for intelligence. That’s what I want, and I am convinced it’s what our nation needs.

Unfortunately, rather than providing an opportunity to start a new chapter in CIA-congressional relations, the meeting sparked a fresh round of recriminations about the past.

Well, that’s a far cry from the spin put on all this by Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats, who claimed they were “lied to” and denied legally required briefings. As a colleague points out, “if it was never fully operational and had never taken a terrorist off the street, what was there to share?” While Panetta says in vague terms that the nonoperational operation had not been “appropriately shared” with Congress, he doesn’t say there was any legal obligation to do so. But still, without identifying the culprits, he is telling us that the congressional Democrats who have turned this into another case of “Bush lied!” are not serving the public by inflating the incident into yet another partisan witch hunt.

Panetta then declares:

Intelligence can be a valuable weapon, but it is not one we should use on each other. As the president has said, this is not a time for retribution. Debates over who knew what when — or what happened seven years ago — miss a larger, more important point: We are a nation at war in a dangerous world, and good intelligence is vital to us all. That is where our focus should be. The CIA has plenty of tools to fight al Qaeda and its allies. Unlike the effort I canceled in June, our present tools are effective, we use them aggressively to go after our enemies, and Congress has been briefed on them.

Hmm. It is hard to escape the conclusion that he is aiming his complaint straight at Sen. Pat Leahy and Nancy Pelosi, who want to investigate and prosecute those who defended “a nation at war.” But it also seems equally applicable to Attorney General Eric Holder. He is, after all, bent on pushing forward with investigations of not just the Bush-administration lawyers who authored the enhanced-interrogation-technique memos but also of CIA operatives who carried out those interrogations. Isn’t Holder the one determined to use intelligence operations as a weapon on his fellow Americans?

Panetta concludes:

When President Obama visited the CIA in April, he told agency officers, “I am going to need you more than ever.” The men and women of the CIA truly are America’s first line of defense. They must run risks and make sacrifices to acquire the intelligence our country needs for its safety and security. Having spent 16 years in the House, I know that Congress can get the facts it needs to do its job without undue strife or name-calling. I also know that we can learn lessons from the past without getting stuck there. That is what the American people expect. The CIA is ready to do its part. The nation deserves no less.

Once again, one is left dumbstruck. Who is in charge of the Obama administration’s policies on the war on terror? If, in fact, Panetta represents the administration’s thinking, why not shut down the Justice Department’s inquisitions and tell Pelosi, Leahy, and others once and for all that the administration won’t play another round of “Get the Bushies”? The president has the authority to put an end to what Panetta rightly describes as a self-destructive and dangerous war on the intelligence community. That he has not suggests he lacks the will to do so — or that he is engaged in some deceitful bit of misdirection. Did he mean what he said at Langley or not?

If the president doesn’t agree with Panetta or lacks the will to defend the intelligence community, Panetta should do the only honorable thing: resign. That is the least Panetta can do for his agency if the president is unwilling to defend the CIA.

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