I’d love to be a fly on the wall (or, KGB-style, a bug in the wall) of CIA Director Panetta’s office as he begins to master the complexities of his new job. Not because I long to learn deep, dark secrets, but simply to observe any “Aha!” moments as he comes to understand how the public perception of Intelligence matters, even for a seasoned politician and senior statesman, may differ from the perspective of CIA professionals.
No tactic of the Bush Administration’s anti-Terrorist crusade has aroused more liberal outrage than the practice of “extraordinary rendition”, bureaucratic gobbledygook for what vociferous critics have decried as “Torture by Proxy” since the practice was leaked to the press five years ago.
According to those leaks, the bizarre procedure was this: A terrorist suspect living in foreign Country X would be seized by CIA officers – either with the tacit consent of the authorities of X, or less diplomatically, by outright kidnapping – and clandestinely transported to Country Y, there to be imprisoned without due process of law, and then interrogated by extreme methods that might be illegal under American law.
Nuances: Transporting the suspect might require the connivance of another friendly power, Country Z. And “secret prisons” – shades of Torquemada, Poe, Pit and Pendulum – had to be set up and maintained in Country Y, which was not the suspect’s country of origin. If, as random example, American agents were to “snatch” a Moroccan citizen in Germany and return him to Morocco for what Chicago and New York cops once called Third Degree treatment, that “rendition” would not be “extraordinary”.
Many of the details in the public domain of “rendition” are still based on leaks of unknown accuracy which may tell only part of the story. And we’re still too close to the excesses of the so-called War on Terror rationally to discuss such abhorrent questions as what exactly constitutes Torture, whether interrogation under extreme mental or physical duress ever yields vital, life-or-death Intelligence, and whether “borderline” methods might be justified in exceptional instances of national peril.
So my intent here is not to Think About The Unthinkable, as the Strangelove set once coolly discussed Thermonuclear War, but to put this all in a different context, as it might conceivably be put to Director Panetta – not in terms of those controversial operations now banned by the Obama Administration, but rather the underlying and ongoing Intelligence relationships with Countries X, Y and Z which made them possible.
For “extraordinary rendition”, to some professionals, was just another “sensitive collection method” involving the crucial and indispensable practice of Liaison – receiving Intelligence from the cooperative secret services of other nations.
Long ago, my friend and academic mentor, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., held a conference at the City University of New York, to ponder CIA Covert Action, secret operations with a political objective, as opposed to classical espionage. Finding myself to be the only under-30 participant who had not been a senior government official, I flushed and spoke with a nervous stutter when I suggested that even plain, old-fashioned spying sometimes had political consequences – especially when it involved Liaison with foreign services. Those were Cold War, counter-insurgency days, and what I had in mind was CIA coziness with brutal secret police forces in developing nations.
My point brought an impassioned response from Lyman Kirkpatrick, former CIA executive director and inspector general. If you restricted Liaison, he said, it would virtually destroy the CIA; the Agency would be hamstrung without all the critical Intelligence it received voluntarily from allied countries.
Maybe a diligent scholar at the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence has already produced a classified thesis with some dry-as-dust academic title like Liaison as a Quasi-Diplomatic Function. If not, it would be worth the effort because “liaising” with foreign services is indeed fraught with political and diplomatic ramifications.
It’s hardly astounding that freely cooperative foreign services pass along Intelligence because it’s in their own country’s national interest, and in doing so, they sometimes have their own axes to grind in that process. Even the most invaluable liaison relationships – with the British or Israelis, for instance –might produce information that is skewed, intentionally or otherwise. Probing the “Niger Yellow Cake” incident which so embarrassed the Bush Administration, hell-bent on proving Saddam Hussein’s clear and present danger to world peace, might reveal ulterior hanky-panky by more than one American ally, with ultimately disastrous consequences for US foreign policy.
Another liaison relationship much discussed in the media in recent years is CIA’s long and fruitful cooperation with the secret services of Pakistan. Originally forged in fraternal paramilitary operations against the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan, this undoubtedly helped set in motion the train of events that led to the 9/11 attacks. There have been subsequent allegations that factions of these same Pakistani services were plotting to undermine their own country’s government.
On the other hand, more recent leaks suggest that CIA played an important intermediary role in bringing together traditionally-hostile Intelligence professionals of both Pakistan and India jointly to hunt down the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks of last November. A temporary “back-channel” rapprochement that could not be accomplished by more traditional diplomacy.
So if indeed CIA cannot survive without Liaison – under ordinary, let alone “extraordinary”, circumstances - one important responsibility of the CIA Director is to insure that any diplomatic and political fallout from those essential cooperative Intelligence relationships are not detrimental to the greater goals of American foreign policy.