Painful Years Remembered
Barack Obama's decision to release four memos documenting the harsh interrogation methods CIA agents were allowed to use against terrorist suspects and its unforeseen fallout has revived memories of the agency's most painful years all too vividly.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that agency veterans are worried that the CIA is being dragged into a crisis that recalls bygone storms, the darkest being President Jimmy Carter's term 32 years ago.
When Carter took office in January 1977, he had nary a clue about intelligence. Unfamiliar with the candidates for the post of DCI (Director of Central Intelligence), he turned to Adm. Stanfield Turner, whom he knew vaguely from their days at the Naval Academy and offered him the job.
The Turner era must have been the most chaotic in agency history. This new broom shunted CIA assets aside and reconfigured agency work on intelligence-gathering through satellites and electronic sources rather than human intelligence. He drastically cut back on clandestine operations.
Carrying on like a self-appointed moralizing martinet, the ex-admiral gave summary orders, expecting them to be carried out. He doctored analysts' reports by injecting his own views.
But his worst offense was the wholesale sacking of Directorate for Operations veterans, forcing nearly 150 into early retirement in an operation Langley dubbed “The Halloween Massacre.”
Turner may be credited with abolishing MKULTRA, the top-secret CIA research project into the possible use of LSD and other mind-altering drugs to produce perfect agents by putting their brains under the control of their case officers. But he offset this by indulging in off-the-wall foibles of his own; one was the use of psychics as vehicles for dipping into the minds of people far away. Turner treated this as a primary source of intelligence.
The fear of clueless presidential cronies
The “Company” has few fond memories of the two Clinton terms.
He did not take his rapprochement with the Muslim world to the same lengths as Obama but, like the White House incumbent, Cinton made the Israeli-Palestinian peace process the centerpiece of his foreign policy and key to buying Arab and Muslim friends.
Clinton skewed his Muslim ties, policies and undercover operations to bring them in line with his overriding Middle East peacemaking goals. He even pulled his punches in the war of terror for fear of its untoward influence on the Israel-Palestinian peace process.
Later, he admitted that his excessive focus on the Israel-Palestinian peace front, which petered out again, and failure to hit al Qaeda hard enough had been his two big mistakes as president.
CIA staffers are not admitting out loud to their fear of being stuck again with a DCI who is a presidential crony and a virtual stranger to their craft. This has happened too often in the past.
In 1994, Clinton's appointee, John N. Deutsch's two years were marred not only by the exposure of Aldrich Ames as a Russian spy and head of a network of moles, but by the DCI's difficulty in finding a common language with the top CIA brass and field operatives.
President George W. Bush, who came next, trusted Porter J. Goss (DCI from Sept. 2004 to May 2006) to repair some of the damage left over from the Clinton presidency. Bush reckoned this personally loyal official would also be accepted by the agency as one of their own because of his service with the CIA's Directorate of Operations from 1960 to 1971.
But Goss was badly hampered by his seriously outdated intelligence experience. He never gained credibility with the agency staff and lost the trust of President Bush. (It later turned out that Goss was not much interested in the cloak and dagger business but mad about organic farming.)
Panetta may be too independent to survive
Slotting Leon Panetta, former Chief of Staff to President Clinton, into the DCI position went smoothly at first. But his independent streak may bring him into collision with the President.
Obama's rejection of Panetta's advice to refrain from declassifying the four interrogation memos because of the inevitable intelligence and operational fallout for the agency has caused red lights to flash all over Langley.
Panetta essentially agrees with his predecessor, Michael Hayden, whom Obama's people are savaging in the press for criticizing the exposure of CIA interrogation methods and claiming it gave al Qaeda a tactical advantage.
Heads of “The Company” are more concerned about the new DCI's relations with the President's inner circle than with Obama himself.
A senior intelligence source in Washington puts it this way: “Panetta hasn't even settled in and he already finds out that the spy agency he's in charge of can't – and won't – keep up with the agenda and political pace dictated by Obama's people.”
The source further reported: “All agency personnel, high-ranking and low, feel the pace of their work impacted by these events and it's all coming to a halt.”
The main question is: How far can Panetta insulate the agency from this political maelstrom?
This he had clearly failed to do in the first week of a major hullabaloo. And as the furor swells – which it shows every sign of doing – Washington insiders wonder how long he can hold on to his job.
All the parties concerned are too caught up in the ins and outs of this burgeoning affair to wonder how it is viewed by al Qaeda and other jihadi enemies of America and its potential effect on the objectives, modus operandi and timelines of terror plots in the making against the US and Europe.