The violent ambitions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have been condemned across the world: in Europe and the Middle East, by Sunni nations and Shiite ones, and by sworn enemies like Israel and Iran. Now, even Pope Francis has joined the call for ISIS to be stopped.
The recent military successes of ISIS, and the barbarous slaughter of women and children and the beheading of two American journalists sent a new round of national security chills throughout the country. These grisly events were stark reminders of the resourcefulness and dogged determination of terrorists hell-bent on inflicting grievous harm to Americans.
President Obama has vowed “to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.” This vital campaign will require maximum efforts by the CIA and special forces to achieve enhanced intelligence and to execute effective covert operations.
The recent atrocities in Iraq are just the most recent reminders of our continuing national security challenges. In 2009, at least six planned terrorist plots against the United States were foiled. In fact, at least 30 terrorist plots against the U.S. have been foiled since the tragic events of September 11, and all but two of them were prevented by law enforcement and our national security network. The two notable exceptions are the passengers and flight attendants who subdued the “shoe bomber” in 2001 and the “underwear bomber” on Christmas Day in 2009.
Thus far, our counter-terrorism strategy has worked. This success is in large part the result of the comprehensive reexamination of our national intelligence capabilities and the entire national security apparatus conducted by the independent 9/11 Commission. That examination was long overdue.
Its final report identified wholesale flaws in the collection, dissemination, and use of intelligence data, and recommended a major overhaul of the CIA/FBI/NSC triangle. Implementation of the Commission’s recommendations by the Bush and Obama administrations has significantly enhanced our ability to foil these attacks.
To be sure, our nation walks a delicate high wire in the intelligence business, balancing national security “need to know” urgency against pesky constitutional protections and individual liberties. Critics say the CIA has been hobbled in the execution of its vital mission ever since Senator Frank Church’s 1975 congressional investigation of covert CIA operations resulted in major, debilitating restrictions on its methods of operation.
The world of “dirty little secrets,” covert infiltration, termination “with extreme prejudice,” and so on, isn’t pretty. The CIA and special forces are trained to do the jobs most of us will never know much about. But, most national security experts agree we need a robust, fully operational CIA today more than ever before. The challenges the Cold War presented to our intelligence operations were like child’s play compared to the complex mission of keeping tabs on myriad terrorist organizations and operatives around the world.
Critics argue that Congressional oversight of the CIA and other national security entities is indispensable and must be strengthened. They say that during the Bush-Cheney years the CIA and related national security agencies operated as the private fiefdom of the White House, which manipulated an unlawful end-run on safeguards designed to protect against illegal operations and abuses of human rights. They called for a thorough investigation of alleged abuses in the interrogation and possible torture of detainees.
This conflicted mood of our country regarding national security is reminiscent of the courtroom scene in the film classic A Few Good Men, in which the imperious commanding officer of the Guantanamo Bay Cuba Marine Base, Colonel Nathan Jessup, brilliantly played by Jack Nicholson, spits out the classic line, “You can’t handle the truth,” in response to cross-examination by Lt. Daniel Kaffee, a defense lawyer played by Tom Cruise.
Maybe we can’t handle the truth. Maybe we don’t want to know the truth. Maybe we are simply content with the knowledge that we are safe and more secure as a result of what those CIA operatives are doing. Just let them do their thing if it spares us the agony of another September 11, or worse.
The national security debate also is reminiscent of Col. Jessup’s explosive speech under cross-examination in which he challenges those who cringe at the military’s methods that provide the security they enjoy:
Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You?… I have more responsibility here than you could possibly fathom… You have the luxury of not knowing what I know… that my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives… You don’t want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.… I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it. I prefer you said thank you, and went on your way. Otherwise I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand to post.
Col. Jessup’s angry outburst frames the issue that pervades the shadowy “cloak and dagger” world of espionage and intelligence operations. If the investigation of the interrogation of detainees and alleged terrorists moves forward, it remains to be seen whether the American people will insist on explanations of the details of our counter-terrorist operations — all those “dirty little secrets”.
Or, will we thankfully accept the peace of mind that flows from protection against another 9/11 attack, or lethal bombs disguised as printer ink cartridges or tucked away in a shoe, without further inquisition about our nation’s intelligence methodology. As the campaign to “degrade and destroy” ISIL unfolds, we will need the CIA and special forces on that wall more than ever before.