Loose Canons

The Petraeus Passport Puzzle

Shouldn't he mind that the State Department is denying "country clearances" to CIA operatives?

By 7.16.12

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Hillary Clinton's State Department bureaucrats are interfering with current CIA operations by denying passports to agents, according to intelligence community sources.

Though this has happened in the past, these denials were until recently a rare occurrence. There has been a surge in the State Department's denial of "country clearances" in recent months. Because the State Department has legal control over the issuance of all U.S. passports -- including those diplomatic and other special passports often used by active CIA operatives -- its refusal to issue passports in recent months has denied the CIA the ability to mount planned operations in several nations. My sources did not reveal which countries are involved but -- given the turmoil in Egypt and Pakistan, and the U.S.'s tenuous relationship with both countries -- they would likely be among those nations for which the passports are being denied.

The State Department's decreasing cooperation with the CIA may have begun as early as January 2011 when CIA contractor Raymond Davis got into a shootout with Pakistanis on a street in Lahore, killing two men who Davis said were attempting to rob him. Davis was arrested for murder and his diplomatic passport was deemed ineffective by the Pakistanis, who held him in prison until the U.S. government paid "blood money" to the relatives of the dead.

These events come at a time when rumblings about the effectiveness of new CIA Director, Gen. David Petraeus, are also being heard. If the passport denial is as great a problem as my sources indicated, why would Petraeus not be fighting the State Department's usurpation of his job?

The denial of passports to CIA agents would most affect those who are going abroad to gather intelligence under an official cover of other U.S. government employment. Covert operations, logically, would not be affected as the agents involved would not be traveling on U.S. government passports, though "case officers" who run the covert agents might be.

The need for the intelligence those agents would gather is too obvious to explain at length here. In short, the instability in nations such as Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen, Somalia, and others enjoying the Islamist fruits of the "Arab spring" has reduced America's ability to influence events in those nations to a dangerous degree. More -- and more accurate -- intelligence is essential to maintaining what little influence we have.

The urgent need for intelligence from inside those nations raises three large questions: is Hillary Clinton behind these actions? Is the president not interested in what advantages we could gain from having it? What is DCI Petraeus doing about the problem?

One source questioned whether Clinton was behind it. This person reminded me of Attorney General Eric Holder's war against the CIA. Holder, before he was confirmed as AG, promised several Republican senators that he would not try to prosecute current and former intelligence agents who were involved in using the "enhanced interrogation methods" that were highly effective when used during the Bush presidency. Obama banned them soon after he was inaugurated. Holder is known to have favored the ban and broke his promise to the Senate members. Though the cases have not yet been pressed, his Justice Department has an open investigation into the conduct of CIA interrogators. That source expressed skepticism that Clinton would be behind the passport denials, pointing instead to Holder.

But Clinton is now in Egypt, delivering praise of its new Islamist president. She might have wanted to bar CIA operations in Egypt to gain favor with Morsi.

Whether Holder or Clinton is behind the State Department's action, Gen. Petraeus is the man who has the responsibility of gathering, analyzing, and passing to the president and other top intelligence consumers the information they need to function in all matters of foreign affairs and conflict. But, as one source said, Petraeus's political nature may be preventing him from insisting that the State Department issue the clearances and passports his operatives need.

Petraeus is ambitious and when his term as CIA Director ends it is highly unlikely that he would simply disappear from the political world. More likely is that he would use the CIA post as a stepping stone to a bigger position in a second Obama administration or to pursue political office on his own.

But nothing would excuse his acquiescing in even a temporary reduction in the CIA's ability to gather intelligence. Petraeus -- as U.S. commander in Iraq and then Afghanistan -- saw first-hand how crucial intelligence is to every U.S. action in those nations. It is no less crucial in learning what the capabilities and intentions of our adversaries are elsewhere.

The CIA has taken a battering over the past few years. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, when she was speaker of the House, accused the CIA of lying to Congress over the use of the "enhanced interrogation" methods. Pelosi falsely denied being briefed on the use of waterboarding when she was on the House Intelligence Committee. Her accusation has not been withdrawn.

Holder's actions in bringing and continuing the investigation of CIA interrogators put the CIA, as one source said, into the "CYA mode." Obama has done nothing to help the CIA recover from Holder's actions, but has been all too willing to take credit for its successes such as finding Osama bin Laden.

The State-CIA conflict comes at a time when our intelligence community should be focusing on a great many threats to vital U.S. national security interests. It's been years since the Russians loaded up ships with weapons and sent them to places such as Syria. What, precisely, are they sending to aid Bashar Assad, and how will that affect the stability of those nations adjacent to Syria? How is Pakistan aiding the Taliban to ensure it can return to govern Afghanistan when we leave? What will the Egyptian army do to help its new Islamist government aid terrorists organizing attacks on Israel?

The State Department has the legal authority over government passports. But it should never -- repeat never -- be able to interfere with CIA operations that the Director of the CIA deems necessary to gather essential information abroad. Whether Hillary Clinton, Eric Holder, or even President Obama is behind the State Department's actions, Petraeus is duty-bound to defend his agency's mission even to the point of taking the issue to the bipartisan leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees.

The intelligence committee leaders have cooperated on a bipartisan basis on a great many important issues since 9/11. Only a few weeks ago, they held a joint press conference to urge a thorough investigation of the leaks of intelligence information evidently coming from the White House.

They should take action now. The four -- Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Cal.), Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ala.), Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) should call Petraeus to the Hill for a classified briefing on the State Department's interference in intelligence operations. Once they find out how big and how severe the problem is, they can demand that the CIA -- and the White House -- solve it forthwith.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.