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  1. Law
September 29, 2009

The Spooks Spooked

By Spear's

Nigel West on the growing — and embarrassingly public — rift between the CIA and the US government

WHILE NATO SEEKS to challenge the Afghani Taliban in Operation Panther’s Claw, and the West attempts to cope with deep-seated religious differences in Iraq and Pakistan, a new conflict has opened in Washington DC between politicians and the intelligence community.

The scale of the crisis can be judged by the recent visits of presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton to the CIA’s ‘bubble’ auditorium at the Langley campus; an email circulated to his staff by the CIA’s director, Leon Panetta; and a subsequent op-ed article contributed by Panetta to The New York Times in early August. All these events are linked and reflect growing anxiety that the US intelligence community is facing paralysis because of a growing reluctance to take decisions.

When Panetta introduced Clinton to the audience he joked that the last time he had persuaded the former president, for whom he had worked as chief of staff in the White House, to undertake a speaking engagement free of charge, the trip had been to California, and the price had been a round of golf with Clint Eastwood.

This drew a great response from those gathered, as did Clinton’s praise for the Agency’s product and the help he had received in dealing with Yasser Arafat. Similarly, President Obama had said during his visit in April that he was going to be more heavily reliant on the Agency than ever before.

This reassurance was intended to restore confidence following the partisan bickering in the Capitol over charges and counter-claims about who knew what, and when, about Congressional briefings on enhanced interrogation techniques. On that occasion Panetta had sought to silence the CIA’s critics by assuring his staff that Congress had not been lied to or misled.

For a while all looked promising, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi declining to repeat her allegation that the CIA had concealed information from her about waterboarding, but then Panetta created an entirely new controversy.

In June, Panetta learnt about a dormant operation, set up in 2002 in the aftermath of 9/11, to assassinate high-value terrorists. The original proposal noted that Mossad had pursued the Black September gunmen who had massacred the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, as depicted in the film Munich, and suggested that the CIA should develop a similar capability.

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In the modus operandi of any large bureaucracy, the CIA circulated the recommendation, sought opinions from analysts and sponsored a study of the Israeli experience. Over a period of seven years, $1 million was spent on the project, which initiated a limited training programme but did not conduct a single operation.

THE CIA’S RISK-AVERSE management concluded that the political repercussions of a bungled plot were far too great. Although an element of plausible deniability was built into the plan, the reality was that a trained hit-man, most likely a former Special Forces volunteer, might end up in a foreign prison and become a significant political embarrassment and liability.

No doubt long memories recalled the CIA’s dismay when in 1960 Khrushchev revealed that the U-2 pilot F. Gary Powers was alive and well in the KGB’s custody, confessing to his CIA employment and photo-reconnaissance mission, soon after Eisenhower had publicly insisted that the aircraft was an innocent Nasa research plane that had accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace.

Of course, the president had been assured by the CIA that Powers could not have survived the crash, and the revelation that he had been carrying CIA documentation and was talking his head off to interrogators caused acute discomfort in Washington. Eisenhower was caught in a very public lie, and the clandestine overflights were terminated immediately.

Quite apart from the political and ethical implications, the challenge of infiltrating a sniper into a denied area, conducting a covert reconnaissance of his target and then exfiltrating successfully following the hit posed far too many problems and the plan was quietly shelved. Indeed, so quietly that Panetta was only informed of the project in June. Astonishingly, he drove to Congress the very next day and not only revealed the dormant scheme, but also admitted that his predecessors, George Tenet and Michael Hayden, should have informed the relevant oversight committees.

AT BEST, THIS was an act of astonishing naivety. Indeed, far from being interpreted as proof that Panetta was determined to cooperate fully with the oversight committees and make a fresh start, his disclosure was seen as further evidence that Tenet had been sucked into a culture of illegality.

The question of whether Tenet or Hayden were ever under any obligation to consult Congress about mere contingency plans seems to has been overlooked. The CIA’s critics are now convinced there is enough to justify
a full-blown investigation, and if Panetta fails in his plea for perspective, the Agency will be in danger of being rendered impotent.

Read Nigel West’s blog here

Illustration by Jeremy Leasor

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