Politics & Policy

Irresponsibility

CIA director Michael Hayden strongly opposed the release of an executive summary of a classified inspector-general report on the CIA’s performance before 9/11 because it would “consume time and attention revisiting ground that is already well plowed.” His desire to keep CIA officers’ derelict performance a secret “is not about avoiding responsibility.” But it sure looks that way.

Following its examination of intelligence failures before the 9/11 attacks, a House-Senate panel in 2002 asked the CIA’s inspector general (IG) to review its findings and investigate the question of accountability. His classified report was given to congressional intelligence committees two years ago, and its redacted, 19-page summary has now been released because Congress demanded that it be made public.

The summary makes a convincing case for the creation of an accountability board that would, unlike the general findings of the IG, hold specific officials responsible and recommend appropriate action. Hayden — and no doubt his recalcitrant bureaucracy — is resisting this.

Somehow, multiple awards have been bestowed on CIA officials despite the agency’s failures. Most notorious was former CIA Director George Tenet’s Presidential Medal of Freedom in December 2004. Without the accountability board recommended by the IG, no one will be disciplined for failing to act “in accordance with a reasonable level of professionalism, skill, and diligence,” the standard applied by the IG in accordance with agency regulations.

The IG report, written by a 36-year CIA veteran, documents failures for which the responsible parties should clearly be held to account. It disagrees with some previous fault-finding on the grounds that agency employees sometimes faced a “difficult operating environment.” But it offers no such exculpatory explanations for the sorry performance of George Tenet and some other officials, including the former head of the agency’s counterterrorism center.

Tenet is faulted for failing to follow through on his December 1998 “We are at war” pronouncement about the terrorist threat. The report claims that there was no comprehensive strategic plan to counter the threat — no new resources, no additional personnel, and no leadership from Tenet to resolve crippling interagency disputes.

“The IG is flat wrong,” Tenet declared in a statement responding to the release of the summary. He complains that the review team failed to interview him. (He would, of course, have the opportunity to make his case to an accountability board, if one is established.) He also protests that he implored the Clinton administration in vain for additional intelligence resources and got only a small portion of what he was requesting, thanks to the help of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Although congressional Democrats wanted to make the IG’s summary public in the hope of embarrassing President Bush, the CIA’s management failings and inexcusable complacency came on Clinton’s watch. Democrats are unlikely to press for the creation of an accountability board, since it could be expected to pin the blame for the CIA’s pre-9/11 failures squarely on Clinton’s subordinates.

But it is the Bush administration that has failed to hold officials responsible for their inadequate performance. It bears repeating: George Tenet should have been fired. Instead, he has his medal and his lucrative book deal.

Congressional Republicans should insist on the creation of an accountability board “made up of individuals who are not employees of the agency,” as the IG recommended. Americans deserve to have their public officials held to account; capable, dedicated CIA employees should be pleased to know that performance matters.

The ridiculous Valerie Plame affair, manufactured and promoted by CIA officials, was a disgraceful waste of time and attention. Demanding a first-rate effort on counterterrorism from the CIA, in contrast, is worth whatever it takes.

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