General Michael Hayden, the new CIA director, has the responsibility for coordinating the nation’s HUMINT, human intelligence gathering. It’s a daunting task, but not in the recruiting of foreign agents. His big worry will be whether the self-anointed intelligence authorities in Congress and the media will allow the United States to have a truly covert information-gathering and action-taking capability.
Every member of Congress, every ex-general, every journalist, and academic “specialist” is an expert, so he or she believes. Professional intelligence analysts who never left their comfortable desks and are now happily retired fall over each other in their efforts to get their books published. Of course not one of these people has actually run any intelligence field operations.
Admittedly, there also are a few former case officers who break the unwritten rules and — for reasons of vanity or venality — have made themselves available to publishers and the press. In an earlier time they would have been ostracized, at the very least. Fortunately, their attractiveness swiftly disappears and their usefulness to television dries up. These opportunists, however, are never as exciting as the Congressional committee members with the “inside” information on the latest expose of so-called American intelligence failures.
It has been especially amazing to watch the 9/11 Commission, no member of which has an operational intelligence background . The Commission has become for them a second career based on an amateur investigation of the events and circumstances leading to the disasters of September 11, 2001. To his credit the former Navy SEAL officer and senator, Bob Kerrey, has maintained a low profile. Would that the chairmen, Hamilton and Kean, as well as ex-congressman Roemer, had done the same.
Many of America’s politicians and journalists appear to believe they have a right to make public any intelligence activity they learn of no matter the security result — simply for their own political or personal benefit.
The intelligence services are the nation’s first line of defense and their operational sector is the one most vulnerable to the enemy. Disclosures, purposeful or accidental, which endanger “ops” officers’ and their agents’ careers (and sometimes lives), should be punished no matter the source.
Related to this, the consumers of classified intelligence, from the White House down, must be prevented from influencing the assessment of the intelligence take so as to satisfy their own interests and viewpoints.
Traditionally, a career in intelligence both during and after employment required an acceptance of the suspension of certain rights, not the least of which was the ability to discuss publicly what one had done or learned. In recent years this essential part of intelligence life has been challenged or simply disregarded. Protecting a patient’s medical history is carefully adhered to. Yet, protecting information that has an impact on the health of the body of the nation seems to have come to have lesser importance.
Intelligence employees cannot be allowed to go outside the structure of their organization to redress a grievance of any kind. It may run counter to the normal American ethos, but it is the only way to run an effective intelligence service. Operational disagreements and “whistle blowing” must remain an internal affair.
To make this possible and effective the process must be simple, fair and without retribution. The lack of such an easily accessible instrument is partly to blame for today’s threadbare security and consequent proliferation of leaks. A major step in this effort would be to expand the authority of the inspector general’s office while at the same time make available agency lawyers to represent employee interests rather than forcing them to hire their own legal counsel in order to pursue their claims. A JAG department for the civilian intelligence services is needed.
It must be remembered that the innate riskiness of intelligence operations requires an organizational and individual mentality that is willing — and able — to accept that risk, be it personal or political. Exposure of intelligence activities by whomever, regardless of their intent, endangers the entire raison d’etre of intelligence as an instrument of national policy.
George H. Wittman, a member of the Committee on the Present Danger, was founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.
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