Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Release of "torture" memos is already hobbling CIA counterterrorism programs

CIA field officers now view counterterrorism as a career hazard

It seemed inevitable President Obama's release of the so-called "torture" memos and the subsequent calls for prosecutions, Congressional investigations, and a "truth commission" would sap the morale of CIA officers engaged in the difficult and often dangerous counterterrorism activities of America's leading intelligence organization -- despite Obama's visit to CIA headquarters and his latest promise not to hold agency personnel responsible. According to this report from Stratfor, the private intelligence service, that's just what has happened already:

[O]ur contacts in the intelligence community report that the release of the memos has had a discernible "chilling effect” on those in the clandestine service who work on counterterrorism issues.
The question troubling clandestine officers is not possible prosecution, which is highly unlikely, and it's not the interrogation tactics themselves, which ceased to be used several years ago. It's the loss of the officers' ability to rely on the word of their government any longer.

[T]he end effect of the memos’ release is that people who have put their lives on the line in U.S. counterterrorism efforts are now uncertain of whether they should be making that sacrifice. Many of these people are now questioning whether the administration that happens to be in power at any given time will recognize the fact that they were carrying out lawful orders under a previous administration. It is hard to retain officers and attract quality recruits in this kind of environment. It has become safer to work in programs other than counterterrorism
CIA launched a furious war against al Qaeda after 9/11, with repeated orders and authorizations for its actions coming straight from the President with the strong support of the Congress, the press and the public. Yet, a few years later, second thoughts, second guessing and finger pointing replaced post-9/11 national unity and resolve, with the result that field officers engaged in the war were left to feel out in the cold. Now, rather than being congratulated for rolling up myriad al Qaeda plots and capturing or killing half of al Qaeda's core leaders and operators, they have to worry about getting lawyers. So counterterrorism doesn't look like a great career option.

At the CIA, being a counterterrorism specialist in the clandestine service means that you will most likely spend much of your life in places line Sanaa, Islamabad and Kabul instead of Vienna, Paris or London. This means that, in addition to hurting your chances for career advancement, your job also is quite dangerous, provides relatively poor living conditions for your family and offers the possibility of contracting serious diseases.

While being declared persona non grata and getting kicked out of a country as part of an intelligence spat is considered almost a badge of honor at the CIA, the threat of being arrested and indicted for participating in the rendition of a terrorist suspect from an allied country like Italy is not. Equally unappealing is being sued in civil court by a terrorist suspect or facing the possibility of prosecution after a change of government in the United States. Over the past few years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of CIA case officers who are choosing to carry personal liability insurance because they do not trust the agency and the U.S. government to look out for their best interests.
Even officers who are still up for these challenges face other obstacles.
Now, there are officers who are willing to endure hardship and who do not really care much about career advancement, but for those officers there is another hazard — frustration. Aggressive officers dedicated to the counterterrorism mission quickly learn that many of the people in the food chain above them are concerned about their careers, and these superiors often take measures to rein in their less-mainstream subordinates. Additionally, due to the restrictions brought about by laws and regulations like the Torricelli Amendment [which restricts the use of shady characters in covert operations], case officers working counterterrorism are often tightly bound by myriad legal restrictions.
For a brief time after 9/11, urgency led to the phalanx of government lawyers allowing greater operational flexibility, but no more.

Unlike in television shows like “24,” it is not uncommon in the real world for a meeting called to plan a counterterrorism operation to feature more CIA lawyers than case officers or analysts. These staff lawyers are intricately involved in the operational decisions made at headquarters, and legal issues often trump operational considerations. The need to obtain legal approval often delays decisions long enough for a critical window of operational opportunity to be slammed shut. This restrictive legal environment goes back many years in the CIA and is not a new fixture brought in by the Obama administration. There was a sense of urgency that served to trump the lawyers to some extent after 9/11, but the lawyers never went away and have reasserted themselves firmly over the past several years.
What is new under Obama is an explicit, public rejection of a wide range of CIA counterterrorism activities, coupled with ominous threats of investigations and trials. Given that, it's easy to see why no one would still want to work in counterterrorism.

What are your thoughts? Post a comment.

1 comment:

  1. Secrecy is what gave the terrorists the ability to carry out the attack on 9/11. It seems to me, that is one of the terrorists greatest weapons against the U.S....they know how to keep things hush-hush.
    If it's not our government releasing sensitive information, it's the media scooping the world with top secret breaking news. We're hurting ourselves with our big mouths!