The tragic events of September 11 prompted a close reexamination of our national intelligence capabilities and the entire national security apparatus. That examination was long overdue. The final report of the independent 9-11 Commission identified wholesale flaws in the collection, dissemination, and use of intelligence data, and recommended a major overhaul of the CIA/FBI/NSC triangle. It recommended a detailed plan of action to facilitate the exchange of information to “connect the dots” more effectively. By all accounts, that ambitious plan is being executed.
Now comes Chapter 2 in the ongoing debate over the role of the CIA in our national security program. The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on secret interrogations and torture of suspects by the CIA from 2001-2007 is a chilling reminder of what takes place behind the label, “CLASSIFIED,” particularly when the interrogation is delegated to government contractors. Whether it’s labeled illegal “torture” or legal “enhanced interrogation techniques” is immaterial. It’s clearly not who we are as Americans, it’s not what we do. I am ashamed. We all should be.
But we should also be very careful not to allow the torture report to obscure the increasingly important role of the CIA in the fight against international terror. To be sure, our nation walks a delicate high wire in the intelligence business, balancing national security “need to know” urgency against bedrock 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 investigation of covert CIA operations resulted in major, debilitating restrictions on its methods of operation. Simply put, “connecting the dots” became much more difficult in the wake of Church’s congressional witch hunt.
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.
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. Some say just let them do their thing if it spares us the agony of another September 11, or worse.
Who can ever tire 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 [ironically, Gitmo] 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 question 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 outburst frames the issue that pervades the shadowy “cloak and dagger” world of espionage and intelligence operations. As the fallout from release of the Senate report continues to reverberate in this country and around the world, 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 without further inquisition about our nation’s intelligence methodology like the CIA endured during the infamous Church Committee proceedings in 1975, the aftermath of which hobbled Langley’s vital operations for decades.
Stay tuned for further riveting drama — except it’s going to be very real and not a movie.