Rome’s Praetorian Guards began as a small elite imperial guard that grew into a force unto themselves. Independent of the army and the Senate they were the emperor’s own, and utterly loyal to him. Until they were not. Over three centuries, as their wealth and power increased, the scope of their loyalty shrank so that they were not even loyal among themselves. Their end came when they scrupled at nothing. They murdered emperors and anointed imperial successors and were finally disbanded for disloyalty. We have never seen such a rogue force in the United States, but among the thousands of CIA employees is an influential number of Praetorians whose political corruption threatens the whole agency. As the Wall Street Journal said of the CIA in an editorial last Wednesday, “The serious and disturbing question is whether the rot is so deep that it is unfixable, and we ought to start all over and create a new intelligence agency.”
The political corruption in the CIA is not of the Duke Cunningham dollars for votes variety. It is a neo-Praetorian corruption that grew out of the CIA’s failures. The last major success our intelligence community produced was the 1962 appearance before the UN General Assembly in which Adlai Stevenson displayed pictures of Soviet missile sites in Cuba. They were irrefutable, and Stevenson’s moment exposed Soviet lies and helped compel the Soviets to back down. That was forty-four years ago. The CIA’s record since then is a string of failures unblemished by a single notable success. From the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the rise of bin Laden and 9-11, the CIA has been a blind watchdog. These failures created in the CIA a CYA culture that began as a desperate attempt to resurrect the CIA’s reputation and has since turned into a covert operation against the President, new CIA director Porter Goss, and — most importantly — against the nation the CIA is supposed to help protect.
The only victories the CIA has achieved since the Cuban Missile Crisis have been in the arena in which it is legally forbidden to operate: in the domestic politics of the United States. The Joe Wilson Niger trip was set up to produce publicity adverse to the Bush administration and its case for war in Iraq. Wilson was sent to Niger without a security agreement, which is normally required of everyone working in intelligence. It’s a hard contract that also reminds you of your possible criminal liability if you divulge secrets. But Wilson wasn’t required to sign one, because the CIA leaders he worked for wanted the predictable results to be made public in the most embarrassing way. Their media pals took the non-story of the Plame name leak and increased the benefit of the CIA’s Wilson scam tenfold.
Now, there is an alliance between the CIA praetorians and the media that works to hamper the President’s policies. It doesn’t scruple at leaking top-secret information to upset policies with which it disagrees. And it does so carefully, using its own tradecraft to achieve its goals.
The CIA’s firing of Mary McCarthy, who reportedly leaked the CIA secret detention facility program to Dana Priest of the Washington Post, is a case study of the CIA’s interference in American policymaking. As a top-secret program, the terrorist detention facility program was apparently compartmented: the information about it divided into small chunks so that only a few people at the top could know all about the program and be in a position to do damage by disclosing it. McCarthy wasn’t one of the top people, so how could she learn?
Larry Johnson, a former CIA employee who has been loudly defending Joe Wilson and bashing the president, has claimed that his information about Plame’s so-called secret status was given him by active-duty CIA employees. Last week, Johnson made a statement about McCarthy that may show how the CIA Praetorians managed the leak of the terrorist detention program. Writing in an overheated lefty blog, Johnson said: “Mary [McCarthy] never worked on the Operations side of the house…she subsequently worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies from 2001 to 2005. That…would not put her in a position to know anything first hand about secret prisons. Sometime within the last year, she returned to the CIA on a terminal assignment.” That assignment put McCarthy in one of the few places that compartmented information can be assembled without the usual need-to-know: the CIA’s inspector general office.
Johnson went on, writing, “[McCarthy] could find out about secret prisons if intelligence officers involved with that program had filed a complaint with the IG or if there was some incident that compelled senior CIA officials to determine if an investigation was warranted.” Johnson has been indiscreet before about what he learns from inside the CIA. His bias is manifest, and his reliability is — at best — questionable. But what he says in this case makes sense.
What if the CIA praetorians wanted to stop the CIA secret prisons program, but didn’t want the leak coming from one of the few top people who knew all about it? Someone could, even anonymously, make a complaint to the IG’s office about the legality of the program knowing McCarthy — one of their own — would be in a position to assemble all the scattered components, leak them, and then retire. Even if she were caught, those who made the complaint to set up the leak would be protected. And, working with the Praetorians’ friends in the media, her leak (if that is whose it was) would be sure to be published in utter disregard for the effect on our ability to obtain secret cooperation from other nations in the war against radical Islam.
The alliance between CIA dissidents and the press has brought the agency to a point where it has become a danger to the prosecution of the war. Nothing about this is solved by imposing the new National Director of Intelligence as the overlord of intelligence. It can only be fixed one of two ways.
CIA Director Porter Goss is working hard to fix the problems with his agency, and the investigation that caught Mary McCarthy is part of his extraordinary effort. If McCarthy and other Praetorians (perhaps those who set up the Wilson affair and others who may have leaked the NSA terrorist surveillance program) are punished harshly, their influence can be destroyed and the CIA rehabilitated to its principal mission. If not, perhaps the Castra Praetoria in Langley will have to suffer the same fate as the original. Is the rot so deep? Only by exposing it and scrubbing it out — with all those who cause it — can we be confident that anyone knows. Only if this is done can the CIA be saved.
TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery, 2004) and the forthcoming book (with Edward Timperlake) Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States (Regnery, May 2006).
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