Day By Day

Monday, August 24, 2009

Shifting Focus

Obama, noting that the health care issue is inflicting serious, perhaps permanent, damage to his administration, has decided to switch the topics of our national conversation. Once again he has gone to the well to bash Bush. The justice department has decided to investigate Bush era "abuses" at the CIA, and the administration has announced the creation of a new "elite" interrogation force that will be run out of the White House. [here, here] And the White House gleefully publicized a heated "shouting match" with CIA Director, Leon Panetta, who objected to these actions, while promising a major shakeup of CIA personnel next year. [here]

I recently read Tim Weiner's scathing history of the CIA, "Legacy of Ashes". Every president since Truman, who founded the organization, has regretted the inadequate and often illegal performance of the CIA. Each has promised to reform it; many have sought to terminate it. None have ultimately been able to control it, and in many cases the CIA has actively and successfully subverted the policies of administrations from both parties. So, Obama's recent actions are nothing new, just another episode in the long war between the CIA and the White House.

If the agency has so often acted illegally, has so often run amok, has failed time and again to provide adequate intelligence in times of crisis, and has frequently undertaken subversive activities toward people and policies they oppose, why has it survived?

Conspiratorially minded people of both parties would answer that the agency knows where the bodies are buried and, if pressed too hard, would reveal secrets that would destroy any administration. That is why no administration can afford to take actions that would seriously imperil those who direct the CIA. Perhaps there's some truth to it. The damaging leaks that undermined the credibility of the Bush administration were clearly a response to administration attempts to reform the agency and to transfer many of its functions to the military. But far more important is the fact that each administration in its time has learned that, in a hard and dangerous world, dirty, nasty, illegal things must be done, and there has to be someone, somewhere willing and able to do those things. That has been the unofficial role of the CIA's clandestine service for more than half a century.

The administration is taking a great risk in transferring agency activities to the White House because in the future any abuses will be the President's direct responsibility. Idealists expect that, under White House control, abuses will end. But the world is not going away and dirty, nasty things will always have to be done. If the responsibility for doing them lies with the White House, not with the CIA, will Obama be willing or able to do them? Will future administrations?

We shall see.