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CIA Must Learn the Lesson of Playing Politics

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s CIA “torture report” is a symbol of partisan venality. The old adage garbage-in, garbage-out holds true. One former CIA general counsel says the intelligence committee never asked him to testify and therefore did not consider his input, which countered Feinstein’s pre-ordained conclusions. Many former CIA directors dispute the report’s conclusions, and argue that “enhanced interrogation” did indeed lead to actionable intelligence which prevented terror attacks. Certainly, there is a tendency among bureaucrats to circle the wagon and protect the organization to which they have dedicated their life and from which they get their salaries, but that doesn’t mean that they also don’t truly believe what they argue or that they also don’t have very good evidence upon which to make their arguments. Outgoing Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein seems less motivated by principle than by personal vendetta. And the collateral damage she causes, well, she appears to be fine with it.

But while it seems clear that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is sullying its reputation by being so overtly partisan and playing out personal grudges against the intelligence community, the CIA must also learn that when it plays politics, it opens a Pandora’s Box and ultimately will get burned. It is ironic—but also a good thing—that so many former Bush administration officials are standing up for the CIA.

Many might harbor personal grievance because they were targets of malicious and politically-motivated CIA leaks. In November 2005, W. Patrick Lang, former Defense Intelligence Officer for the Middle East, South Asia, and counter-terrorism, told the American Prospect of some CIA analysts’ efforts to hurt the White House prior to the 2004 presidential election. “Of course they were leaking,” he said. “They told me about it at the time. They thought it was funny. They’d say things like, ‘This last thing that came out, surely people will pay attention to that. They won’t re-elect this man [President Bush]’.”

As I chronicle in my recent book, that’s just one example of many: CIA interference in policy and politics dates back to the Johnson administration at least, and was a constant problem during the Cold War under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Intelligence officials leaking to affect policy should have been exposed and fired. Frequent and unplugged leaks may win the CIA analysts short-term policy battles, but such illegalities hemorrhage long-term trust and ultimately come back to bite the agency in a way that undermines both it and the American national security which it seeks to preserve. As the old adage goes, “You can’t be a little bit pregnant.” The CIA can’t dabble in politics a little bit and expect not to be burned. While Feinstein is treating the CIA unfairly—and breeding distrust that will continue for years in the process—it is long past time for the CIA to recognize that it is not always the victim, but often a full participant in unnecessary political games.



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