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.
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.