Slow roll time at the CIA? You bet it is
At the Central Intelligence Agency, it's known as "slow rolling." That's what agency officers sometimes do on politically sensitive assignments. They go through the motions; they pass cables back and forth; they take other jobs out of the danger zone; they cover their backsides.
Sad to say, it's slow roll time at Langley after the release of interrogation memos that, in the words of one veteran officer, "hit the agency like a car bomb in the driveway." President Obama promised CIA officers that they won't be prosecuted for carrying out lawful orders, but the people on the firing line don't believe him. They think the memos have opened a new season of investigation and retribution.
The lesson for younger officers is obvious: Keep your head down. Duck the assignments that carry political risk. Stay away from a counterterrorism program that has become a career hazard.
Obama tried personally to reassure the CIA workforce during a visit to Langley on Monday. He said all the right things about the agency's clandestine role. But it had the look of a campaign event, with employees hooting and hollering and the president reading from his teleprompter with a backdrop of stars that commemorate the CIA's fallen warriors. By yesterday, Obama was deferring to the attorney general whether to prosecute "those who formulated those legal decisions," whatever that means.
Obama seems to think he can have it both ways -- authorizing an unprecedented disclosure of CIA operational methods and at the same time galvanizing a clandestine service whose best days, he told them Monday, are "yet to come." Life doesn't work that way -- even for charismatic politicians. Disclosure of the torture memos may have been necessary, as part of an overdue campaign to change America's image in the world. But nobody should pretend that the disclosures weren't costly to CIA morale and effectiveness.
Put yourself in the shoes of the people who were asked to interrogate al-Qaeda prisoners in 2002. One former officer told me he declined the job, not because he thought the program was wrong but because he knew it would blow up. "We all knew the political wind would change eventually," he recalled. Other officers who didn't make that cynical but correct calculation are now "broken and bewildered," says the former operative.
For a taste of what's ahead, recall the chilling effects of past CIA scandals. In 1995, then-Director John Deutch ordered a "scrub" of the agency's assets after revelations of past links to Guatemalan death squads. Officers were told they shouldn't jettison sources who had provided truly valuable intelligence. But the practical message, recalls one former division chief, was: "Don't deal with assets who could pose political risks." A similar signal is being sent now, he warns.
One veteran counterterrorism operative says that agents in the field are already being more careful about using the legal findings that authorize covert action. An example is the so-called "risk of capture" interview that takes place in the first hour after a terrorism suspect is grabbed. This used to be the key window of opportunity, in which the subject was questioned aggressively and his cellphone contacts and "pocket litter" were exploited quickly.
Now, field officers are more careful. They want guidance from headquarters. They need legal advice. I'm told that in the case of an al-Qaeda suspect seized in Iraq several weeks ago, the CIA didn't even try to interrogate him. The agency handed him over to the U.S. military.
Hammer. Nail. Head. Read the whole thing. Ignatius gets it right in how this is being perceived by the CIA officers that carry out these interrogations. While Barry says one thing -- that these people won't face any consequences -- the truth is they will, and they are right now. This is intimidation on a political level the CIA hasn't seen since the Church Commission hearings of the late 70s. Will we see a round of commissions like that again? Maybe, but that has yet to be determined. If Congress gets it's way, it will likely happen.
I'm not saying that the CIA should be allowed to do whatever they want to do. We still have laws that have to be followed. But to intimidate and cow the CIA, or any intelligence agency for that matter, makes for a very dangerous situation. These people are the ones who crunch the data. They're the ones who dig up the dirt on our enemies. If the president intimidates them where they won't handle sensitive operations, we are going to be opened up to our enemies in ways we can't possibly fathom.