The CIA’s Wars and John Brennan’s Dilemma

The CIA’s Wars and John Brennan’s Dilemma

The CIA’s Wars and John Brennan’s Dilemma

Fixing the CIA is a tall order, but it can be done.


CIA Director John Brennan. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster.)

Settling in at the Central Intelligence Agency, Director John Brennan has some tough choices to make. An immediate one, according to an important article in The Washington Post, will be the fate of the agency’s clandestine services director (i.e., covert operations chief), who is tangled in the CIA’s past role as brutal interrogator and torturer.

But a more important, and longer range decision, is what Brennan will choose to do about the agency’s preoccupation, or obsession, with drones and with pursuing kinetic, counterterrorism actions as part of what is no longer called the “Global War on Terror.” The CIA’s too-heavy focus on military-type operations, drones and covert wars that have long since reached their sell-by dates has weakened, perhaps fatally, the CIA’s ability to actually find out stuff, and therefore inform the president of what’s happening around the world.

That’s the conclusion of an important new (classified) report prepared for the CIA by a panel of experts that included, significantly, Chuck Hagel, before he was named secretary of defense.

Let’s start with the unnamed woman who runs covert ops.

According to the Post:

[Earlier] a woman had been placed in charge of the CIA’s clandestine service for the first time in the agency’s history. She is a veteran officer with broad support inside the agency. But she also helped run the CIA’s detention and interrogation program after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and signed off on the 2005 decision to destroy videotapes of prisoners being subjected to treatment critics have called torture.

The woman, who remains undercover and cannot be named, was put in the top position on an acting basis when the previous chief retired last month. The question of whether to give her the job permanently poses an early quandary for Brennan, who is already struggling to distance the agency from the decade-old controversies.

Along with another covert ops chief, the person in question coauthored the decision to destroy videotape records of CIA-led interrogations at secret prisons in Thailand after 2001, says the paper.

Brennan needs to get rid of her, and fast, if he and President Obama are serious at all about clearing the air on CIA actions during the George W. Bush era and on the current mishmash of policies that govern drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, North Africa and (soon, see below) Syria.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the CIA is planning to expand the drone program into another war zone: Syria. Says the LA Times:

The CIA has stepped up secret contingency planning to protect the United States and its allies as the turmoil expands in Syria, including collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes, according to current and former U.S. officials.

Meanwhile, following reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post that the CIA is actively engaged in training Syrian fighters, including what the Post calls “Sunnis and tribal Bedouins,” at secret locations in next-door Jordan and fostering an expanded flow of arms to who-knows-who in Syria, The Wall Street Journal tells us that the CIA has also engaged with Syrian rebels by providing them with intelligence:

The Central Intelligence Agency is expanding its role in the campaign against the Syrian regime by feeding intelligence to select rebel fighters to use against government forces, current and former U.S. officials said. … The expanded CIA role bolsters an effort by Western intelligence agencies to support the Syrian opposition with training in areas including weapons use, urban combat and countering spying by the regime.

So, for Brennan, as he reviews the CIA’s covert ops, a big question is: Does he want an Afghanistan-1980s-style war in Syria as his first big engagement?

Meanwhile, in the secret report by Hagel and others, the conclusion is that the CIA can’t understand what’s happening in Russia, China, and the Middle East in part because it is too focused on blowing people up:

A panel of White House advisers warned President Obama in a secret report that U.S. spy agencies were paying inadequate attention to China, the Middle East and other national security flash points because they had become too focused on military operations and drone strikes, U.S. officials said.

Apparently, it seems, Brennan agrees, which may have had something to do with why he got the job:

John O. Brennan, Obama’s former top counterterrorism adviser, who was sworn in as CIA director this month, told Congress in February that he planned to evaluate the “allocation of mission” at the agency. He described the scope of CIA involvement in lethal operations as an “aberration from its traditional role.”

Various members of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which prepared the report—including former Senator David Boren and former Representative Lee Hamilton—chimed in with comments that the CIA is losing its focus and that it is too tied to the military. Needless to say, the militarization of the CIA has been underway for decades and long noted. General David Petraeus, who recently resigned in disgrace as CIA director, was the latest in a long line of generals and admirals who’ve either directed the CIA or served as the president’s chief intelligence officer as director of National Intelligence in the White House. “The intelligence community has become to some degree a military support operation,” said Boren. (The current DNI is former General James Clapper.)

Adds the Post story:

The classified document called for the first significant shift in intelligence resources since they began flowing heavily toward counterterrorism programs and war zones after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001

That would be a good start. But the real question is: What kind of CIA ought the United States have? Some liberal-left types might argue to abolish it entirely, but that’s both impractical and a bad idea, anyway. Instead, the CIA ought to be president’s eyes and ears, allowing him good, accurate and reliable information about what’s happening out there in the wide world, without caving in to the latest gossip, pressure from hawks and neoconservatives, and ending up with “slam dunks” like George Tenet’s egregious miscall in advance of the war in Iraq in 2002.

Read Robert Dreyfuss on a former general and friend of Obama who warned of blowback to the US drone program.

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