Kennan and his supporters cleverly shoehorned the covert operations function and its practitioners into the CIA by inserting one sentence into the National Security Act of 1947. That sentence charged the CIA director with performing "such other functions and duties related to intelligence" as the President might assign.
Presidents like George W. Bush have interpreted that sentence as carte blanche to use the CIA as their own personal Gestapo. Do not blanche before the word G estapo, the name for Adolf Hitler's secret police. Once out of office, Truman himself was quoted as using it while bemoaning what had become of the CIA he created to provide him with objective intelligence upon which to base well informed policy decisions.
In a Washington Post op-ed on Dec. 22, 1963, titled "Limit CIA Role to Intelligence," Truman complained that the CIA had been "diverted from its original assignment ... from its intended role." He argued that the CIA's "operational duties be terminated or properly used elsewhere."
Correspondence between Truman and a former intelligence aide, Admiral Sidney Souers, suggests that the timing of the op-ed, one month after President John Kennedy's assassination, was no accident. Documents in the Truman Library show that nine days after the assassination, Truman sketched out what he wanted to say in the op-ed.
The mainstream media moved quickly to prevent further distribution of Truman's op-ed. Moreover, it was reportedly pulled from subsequent editions of that day's Washington Post itself. Apparently, covert action, including the use of "agents of influence" within the U.S. media, was alive and well in 1963.
Fast forward four decades to George W. Bush's decision to mount a "global war on terror" and to attack Iraq under conditions identical to what the post-WWII Nuremberg Tribunal defined as a "war of aggression." Nuremberg depicted such a war as the "supreme international crime, differing from other war crimes only in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."
It fell to then-CIA Director George Tenet to structure and staff the accumulated evils of kidnapping, torture, secret prisons -- and God knows what else. Tenet performed "such other functions and duties" with aplomb -- with only a tiny trace of soul searching.
In his memoir, At the Center of the Storm, Tenet notes that the CIA needed "the right authorities" to do the President's bidding: "We would be given as many authorities as CIA had ever had. Things could blow up. People, me among them, could end up spending some of the worst days of our lives justifying before congressional overseers our new freedom to act." (p. 178)
But Tenet and his White House masters concluded, correctly, that given the mood of the times and the lack of spine among lawmakers, congressional "overseers" would bend into their post-9/11 role of serving as congressional "overlookers."
That left only the federal prosecutors to worry about. With Holder's announcement last week, any lingering fear that Obama or Holder might summon the courage to prosecute CIA officials, operating within those "authorities" or beyond them, has now evaporated.
Back at CIA
What effect, I wonder, will the exoneration of all those "dark-side" CIA officials have on the agency's efforts to recruit new employees? What kinds of recruits are likely to be attracted at the prospect of engaging in this kind of work with "no worries?" And what will it be like eating in the CIA cafeteria, wondering whether the folks at the next table have had blood on their hands.
What kind of chilling effect will Holder's announcement have on CIA and military employees with a conscience, who might consider blowing the whistle, in the hope that the crimes be stopped and the perpetrators held to account?
Now, not only will they be acutely aware that by sticking their necks out they will risk their own livelihoods and more, but they would also have to reckon with the likelihood that the crimes they might try to expose would be covered up and their perpetrators protected.
Bottom line? Nothing will be done about it anyway, so why take any risk at all? That is the message intelligence officials are likely to take from the announcement of our chief law enforcement official, Attorney General Eric Holder, that no one is to be prosecuted for grievous crimes of state.