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The CIA's Truth Problem | The Nation

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The CIA's Truth Problem

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The United States has been trying to run a secret intelligence service in an open democracy for sixty years. It depends on trust between politicians and spies, two professions known to wrestle with truth. Trust has been broken time and again.

About the Author

Tim Weiner
Tim Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, covered the CIA for the New York Times. He is the author of Legacy of...

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent charge that the CIA lied to her about the torture of suspected terrorists under President George W. Bush has started a whirlwind of spin. The big lie--President Bush said the United States didn't torture, though we did--has been lost in the maelstrom. So has a harsh truth: yes, the CIA has stonewalled and deceived Congress in the past, but Congress is stone deaf and derelict in overseeing the CIA.

Pelosi's old Congressional colleague Leon Panetta, who runs the CIA, wants to set things right. "There's been a lot of poison in the well," Panetta said on May 18, and "it hurts this country" when "Congress and the CIA don't feel like they're partners." He said he would commune with his Congressional overseers, hash things out in private, talk with them "in a way in which we can be honest with one another."

Good luck, Leon. Others have gone before you.

Like it or not, the United States needs trustworthy intelligence. But spying is a dirty and dangerous business. The CIA depends on officers who know how to lie, cheat and steal--"to use deception, to use manipulation, to use, frankly, dishonesty," in the words of former CIA general counsel Jeffrey Smith. But when things go wrong overseas--as they often do--the CIA is called to account in Washington from time to time. That's where things really go wrong.

The CIA is "an organization that thrives on deception," says John Hamre, former deputy secretary of defense. "How do you manage an organization like that?" Congress hasn't had the will or the wherewithal to do it.

Congress created the CIA in 1947, and for a generation most of its members did as Senator John Stennis advised: "Make up your mind that you are going to have an intelligence agency and protect it as such, and shut your eyes some, and take what is coming." Then a newly anointed president, Gerald Ford, let slip that the CIA had run lethal plots against foreign leaders, which would tarnish every president since Harry Truman.

Ford looked back in some anguish on this; he had been a Congressman when called to serve on the Warren Commission, which looked into the assassination of President Kennedy. Late in life he reflected on the CIA's keeping secrets from the commission--notably its plots against Fidel Castro. It was "unconscionable" that the CIA was "not giving us the full story," Ford said.

But when he was in the White House, Ford feared that the truth about the past would destroy the CIA and damage the United States. That same kind of fear is drowning out calls for a truth commission on the conduct of the "war on terror."

"The question is how to plan to meet the investigation of the CIA," Ford mused at a White House meeting in February 1975. His chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld, called for "a damage-limiting operation" to save the secrets from spilling in Congress. The man Ford chose to run the CIA--George H.W. Bush--tried his best. But no one protected former CIA director Richard Helms. He drew a two-year suspended sentence in 1977 on a federal charge of deceiving Congress about his orders from President Nixon to overthrow the government of Chile.

Helms had an obligation to testify truthfully, but he thought he had a higher oath to keep secrets. America's political history turned on which oath mattered more. For the past thirty years, Congress has fought for the right to oversee the CIA. It has failed to fulfill its responsibilities.

Before President Reagan took office, in 1981, Congress created intelligence oversight committees in the Senate and the House. Reagan's CIA chief, William Casey, foiled them for six years. "Casey was guilty of contempt of Congress from the day he was sworn in," said Robert Gates, Casey's number-two man, now defense secretary. Casey obfuscated gleefully before the intelligence committees; his senior officers testified evasively. Among the consequences was the Iran/Contra affair, which blew up in late 1986. The spectacle of the United States caught shipping weapons to Iran, skimming the profits and slipping the money to anticommunists in Central America came close to wrecking Reagan's presidency.

From 1986 to '94, the CIA sent ninety-five highly classified reports on Moscow's military strength to the White House. Senior CIA officials knew some of the data were manipulated by Moscow and designed to deceive the United States. They decided it didn't matter. The discovery of this deception in 1995 was "incredible" and "shocking," said Fred Hitz, then the CIA's inspector general. "What came out of this whole episode was a feeling that the agency couldn't be trusted." The CIA had broken "the sacred trust," said Hitz, "and without that, no espionage agency can do its job."

Starting in 1995, the CIA used the Peruvian air force to shoot down airplanes suspected of carrying cocaine. In April 2001, the operation attacked a plane carrying a family of Michigan missionaries over the Amazon. Veronica Bowers, 35, and her daughter, Charity, seven months old, were killed. CIA inspector general John Helgerson reported that CIA officers had violated presidential orders controlling the operation and hid their misdeeds from Congress, the Justice Department and the National Security Council.

Seven years after the shoot-down, Peter Hoekstra--the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, now running for governor of Michigan--published a few damning paragraphs from the report. He called it evidence that the CIA "operates outside the law and covers up what it does and lies to Congress." That's what Pelosi said about torture.

Now, on orders from President Obama to dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda, the CIA is killing suspected terrorists with remote-controlled missiles fired from drone aircraft above Pakistan and Afghanistan. The CIA decides if it has hit the right targets and whether civilian deaths are acceptable. Do we want to live in a world where the CIA's clandestine service has the authority to decide who lives and who dies? The idea that the CIA may be killing civilians, sparking an ever wider war, is too hot for Congress to handle.

Oversight is a word with two meanings--to oversee and to oversleep. So is mislead. It means to lie, and it means a lack of leadership. Congress has a responsibility to oversee the CIA that remains largely unfulfilled. It has to ask the right questions, demand full answers and report the facts annually to the American people.

Will the CIA tell Congress the truth? Would Congress listen if it did? If trust remains broken, intelligence will fail again. And when intelligence fails, soldiers and civilians die.

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