Not your father’s CIA

According to the Washington Post, when Michael Hayden became the director of the CIA he wrote a memo stating that “CIA needs to get out of the news as source or subject.” Two years later, the Post correctly assesses, “that goal is far from met,” and Hayden is still stressing the need for the agency to “stay in the shadows.”

It’s a hopeless quest. To be “out of the news as source or subject” means not talking, not being talked about, and maybe even leaving a little influence “on the table.” These outcomes are unacceptable in our chatty, bloggy, self-referential, Oprahesque society. A CIA that “stayed in the shadows” was possible in the days of our reticent fathers or grandfathers; indeed, it was the creature of these men. But that generation has passed, and its children and grandchildren fairly trip over each other in the rush to be “source or subject.” (I’m not sure exactly when this transformation became clear to me, but I think it was when I saw that a gay baseball umpire had published his autobiography).

A truly secretive CIA may not be possible, but some of Hayden’s other goals don’t seem like too much to ask. For example, Hayden contends that it would be a mistake publicly to limit the CIA to using only the interrogation tactics spelled out in the Army Field Manual, since this would allow al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups to know in advance what to expect if captured. That sounds reasonable enough. The modern CIA will always leak, but it need not publish its operating procedures.

Hayden also opposes the idea of banning contractors from participating in interrogations. The CIA has relied on outside experts — mostly former military and law enforcement officials — due the lack of experienced interrogators on its payroll. As Hayden explains, “the person who does the interrogation is defined by only one thing: the best interrogator available for this subject, and it is less interesting to us whether the person is currently a government employee or is available as a contractor.” Again the common sense of this view seems obvious.

Those who reject Hayden’s views tend to do so on the basis of mush. This certainly is true of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who is sponsoring legislation that would implement the measures to which Hayden objects. Whitehouse states that his proposals would “help put right what has gone so badly wrong, and restore the stature and goodwill this nation had earned around the world before this administration took office.” The feckless Whitehouse slides right by the critical question of the effectiveness of our interrogations (terrrorists captured and killed; lives saved, etc) as compared to a regime governed exclusively by the Army Field Manual, and proceeds directly to matter that obsesses so many in our society — “goodwill.”

Whitehouse isn’t terribly clear about whose goodwill we’ve lost and what adverse consequences, if any, flow from that loss. If other intelligence agencies stopped cooperating with us, that would be a matter of concern. But I’m not aware of evidence that this has occurred, or even that many foreign intelligence agencies think that our interrogation procedures should be controlled by the publicly available Army Field Manual.

If foreign governments were increasingly hostile to us that too would be undesirable. But we’re not really seeing this. Instead we see just what we always see — in some countries (e.g., Spain) pro-American governments ave been replaced by less pro-American governments while in other countries (e.g., France and Germany) the reverse has occurred. In no instance is there any evidence that U.S. interrogation techniques have played a role.

Most likely, Whitehouse’s concern is with what he perceives as an uptick in anti-American noise from “the man in the foreign street.” Why we should let that “man” determine how we go about obtaining vital information from terrorists is unclear. Perhaps it’s because our need to be “source and subject” stems from a lack of self-confidence that our reticent fathers or grandfathers would have found incomprehensible.

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