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Spooks, Scoops and Pols

April 22nd, 2009 - 8:30 pm

“A fine mess down there, I must say.  Nobody learns, ever, so far as I can tell…”

It was hard to disagree, especially with one of the great experts on intelligence, the late James Jesus Angleton, once upon a time the head of CIA Counterintelligence.  I wanted his take on the latest Chinese fire drill over the abridged “torture memos” that the Obama people had made public, and all the subsequent smoke and fire about possible prosecutions and/or investigations of the “guilty parties.”

I’d had some repairs made to my ouija board, and had tracked him down in the great beyond.  He was more reflective than angry, which surprised me a little.  Back when he was destroyed by scandal–his enemies inside the CIA leaked details of his operation opening Americans’ mail–he was furious, and I had expected some of the old rage.  But no, he was in an analytical, almost philosophical mood.

ML: “So what else is new?  First tragedy, then farce, as Marx used to say.”

JJA: “Right.  And it works on all levels.  The politicians don’t learn that you can’t use the intelligence community as a pawn in their enterprises, the journalists are the willing instruments of leakers, whatever the consequences (even those who do worry about such things are rarely in a position to evaluate the consequences), and the intel professionals don’t foresee that the rules can be changed from one minute to the next.”

ML: “OK, let’s just look at that bundle of issues.  The politicians, for example.  In this case, the White House–sorry, everything’s personal in this administration, so we should say, President Obama–produced a few documents that laid out the interrogation methods used against the 9/11 terrorists and other enemy combatants.  His position was that it was important to show “the world” that his predecessors had done evil things, and he was coming clean, and we wouldn’t misbehave again.  It’s a variation on ‘the truth shall set you free,’ which after all is the CIA’s motto, isn’t it?”

JJA: “It is indeed.  There are several points, however.  First, is that if you’re going to have a secret intelligence service, it’s nuts to hang out all of its dirty linen in public.  You do it privately.  I have a lot of sympathy–not total, but a lot–with those who say that if we reveal our interrogation methods to our enemies, they will be better prepared to cope with it.”

ML: “Why not total sympathy?”

JJA: “For two reasons.  First, it’s probably impossible for them to believe that we’ve really told the whole story.  In the world they live in, no country would voluntarily reveal such information, and no country would freely deprive itself of the full range of interrogation methods.  So they probably don’t believe it; they probably think it’s some sort of diabolical trick, hahaha.”

ML: “Nobody’s made that point, but it’s certainly worth considering.  And the second reason you don’t totally believe that the revelations will make it easier for future interrogation targets to resist?”

JJA: “Because most of the time, torture, or even the methods that are called ‘torture’ but really aren’t (I mean, if sleep deprivation is ‘torture,’ then every family that’s had a baby has been tortured, hasn’t it?), are not necessary.  A skilled interrogator can usually get the information.  And a person being tortured will often give ‘information’ that’s invented, just to stop the pain.  So the ‘information’ is probably less reliable than that obtained through less violent means.”

ML: “I agree.  After all, we’ve had three babies.  But one of the horrible things about this whole question is that torture does work sometimes.  Even some of the French officers in Algeria–men who were opposed to torture–discovered, to their horror, that it DID work.  The traditional methods sometimes take longer, and you don’t always have the time, do you?  As it turns out, for example, we uncovered a plot to attack Los Angeles by subjecting two al Qaeda terrorists to some pretty violent treatment.”

JJA: “Yes, the whole subject is terrible.  For me, and I think George Friedman has made this point, it’s pretty clear that we were driven to the use of waterboarding and like because, as of 9/12, we didn’t know much about al Qaeda, and we didn’t know what we didn’t know (so we didn’t know how much time we had to get the information out of the people we captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan).”

ML: “So we’re back to the infamous intelligence failure again, aren’t we?”

JJA: “Exactly.  And if the politicians keep on throwing intelligence professionals to the wolves, we’re going to have failure upon failure.  It’s often a very good thing to change the rules, but if we punish those who broke the new rules before they even existed, prudent professionals are going to do nothing that’s even remotely aggressive.  And then we won’t penetrate terrorist groups and we’ll be right back in that nightmare position of having to choose between following the narrowest possible interpretation of the rules and possibly failing to prevent a massive disaster.”

ML: “Indeed, the failure to get on top of al Qaeda, and Hezbollah, for example, came from precisely that sort of rule change, didn’t it?”

JJA: “In part, it did.  When President Carter signed his executive order forbidding anyone to have anything to do with ‘assassination,’ the lawyers at the Agency said that meant we couldn’t recruit terrorists, because they either were, or might very well become, assassins.  And so we had to depend on second- and third-hand information about terrorists.”

ML: “But still, I have a lot of sympathy for the people after 9/11 who had to deal with a real Hobson’s Choice: we could either do nasty things that we didn’t much like, or we could work more slowly and hope we weren’t blown up in the meantime.”

JJA: “Sure, one understands those things, and Obama’s total lack of comprehension of the existential dilemmas faced by the intel people is very discouraging.  He was right when he said that all these things were behind us, and we should concentrate on the future.  But he didn’t do that.  He humiliated the people who were, after all, assured that waterboarding and so forth were perfectly legal, and then he even hinted that those people might be prosecuted.  There’s really no excuse for that.  It shows you don’t value your intelligence agency.”

ML: “I think it’s worse than that.  Obama wanted to portray his predecessors as totally evil, and so he edited a memo on the subject from Admiral Blair.  The memo noted that the harsh methods had ‘worked,’ and had probably saved American lives.  But those words were censored.  So there was a deliberate attempt to deceive the public, by portraying the Agency’s behavior as unadulterated evil.”

JJA: “Quite.  It’s Carter all over again.  I wonder if Obama’s going to have Panetta do the same thing Carter had Stansfield Turner do: purge the most experienced people from CIA, and promote the newbies, who don’t know enough to protect us effectively.”

ML: “Well, time will tell.”

JJA: “That’s just what worries me.”

And he was gone.  For once, the ouija board wasn’t damaged, so I’m going to pursue this in a few days.

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