Politics & Policy

“a Lout’s Game”

Intel problems way beyond Tenet.

CIA Director George Tenet has resigned. Good. Can Congress and the media resign next?

Tenet stacked up an impressive number of failures during his tenure, but pinning America’s atrophied intelligence capabilities on him is a little like blaming Danish Defense Minister Soeren Gade for Denmark’s weak defense. The problem is the national material with which both have had to work. Led by Congress and the media, the United States has hobbled its ability to conduct intelligence operations throughout the past three decades with its squeamishness and its gotcha political culture.

Intelligence is a dirty business–”a lout’s game,” in the words of writer Rebecca West. In the course of engaging in it, things will inevitably go wrong. Unless you are willing to accept these facts with some equanimity, you won’t be able to do intelligence well. You will instead write Marquess of Queensberry rules for yourself and engage in paroxysms of self-blame when they aren’t followed properly.

Since the emasculating Church hearings of the 1970s, this has been the story of the CIA. It seemed that 9/11 would change all that. Instead of picking ourselves apart with self-criticism, we would meet the dangers confronting us, even in the face of setbacks and mistakes. Alas, in the explosion of media and congressional attention to the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and in the self-flagellating 9/11 Commission hearings, it has been the 1970s all over again.

In the matter of Abu Ghraib, Sen. John Warner called three generals back from a war zone to testify before his committee, providing more TV time for himself and other senators as they repeated questions that they had already asked other officials and that were being addressed in internal military inquiries. The media gleefully played along, the New York Times in particular urging Warner not to let a sense of proportion get in the way of his flogging of the scandal.

The 9/11 Commission has engaged in similar grandstanding, seemingly forgetting that the catastrophic attacks that day were the doing of our enemies, whatever our specific failings at the time. The old story line was back–nefarious, high U.S. government officials were responsible for victimizing innocents, in this case “the 9/11 widows.”

When a legalistic political culture obsessed with scandal and victimization meets the real world, the consequences are catastrophic. During the 1990s, the CIA was consciously made to look more like the FBI, which operates under the constrictions of the American legal system. The CIA was prohibited from contracting with foreign operatives with shady backgrounds. This meant its work would be consistent, in the words of former New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli, the prohibition’s author, with “American values.”

Although this specific prohibition has been loosened, the impulse behind it survived Sept. 11. In the wake of Abu Ghraib, critics have been pushing the Bush administration, with some success, to limit itself in the war on terror to interrogation techniques that would be lawful here in the United States.

But the foundation for American values is America, and those values won’t endure unless the nation withstands assaults by enemies who care nothing for Miranda rights or any other legal niceties. They have to be met in a dirty, shadowy war. The men waging it can’t be looking over their shoulders at which publicity-hungry congressman might be second-guessing them next. Prior to 9/11, a chief obstacle in the way of our counterterrorist officials and operatives was fear–fear of running afoul of some rule, fear of being abused in front of a congressional committee, fear of being splashed on the front page of the Washington Post.

That fear has probably returned, if it ever fully went away. We will know that we have established the predicate for waging an effective intelligence war when the next time something goes wrong, it is corrected quickly, but without an orgy of groveling self-abuse. Unfortunately, by then George Tenet will likely be a distant memory indeed.


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