We have lately witnessed two cabinet-level confirmation hearings by the Senate in which little or nothing was asked that actually might enlighten us as to how the State and Defense Departments might be transformed over the next four years. John Kerry was tossed softballs, while Chuck Hagel was hammered over his reported detachment from Israel and its interests. America’s important relationships with China, Russia, and the European Union were largely ignored, and potential threats posed by Iran and al-Qaeda were grossly exaggerated
Part of the reason for this is that no one expects transformational changes at either the State Department or Pentagon even if sequestration or other budget cuts occur. But it will be different at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Obama’s nominee for director, John Brennan, was predictably attacked by senators concerned about the expanding drone program, which he supervised; about CIA torture, which he had little to do with; for the kill lists that he helped manage; and regarding the pervasive government secrecy, which he surely condoned to cover up the questionable nature of the assassination lists and the drones. Not surprisingly, he was forced to defend the policies of an administration that he has served as top counterterrorism adviser.
But he also cited his basic disagreement with CIA interrogation policies and expressed surprise at learning that enhanced interrogation—which he refused to label torture because he is “no lawyer”—had not provided any unique or actionable information. He had only “raised serious questions” in his own mind on the issue after reading the 300-page summary of the recent 6,000-page report prepared by the Senate Intelligence Committee, a document that detailed the failure of the Agency program. Brennan’s reaction suggested at a minimum that he had read material produced by CIA that had inflated the value of the intelligence produced.
Surprisingly, the subject of rendition—which Brennan must surely have been involved with while at CIA—hardly surfaced, though two other interesting snippets emerged from the questioning. One was confirmation that the government has its own secret list of innocent civilians killed by drones, even as it maintains that such fatalities do not occur. And more relevant to Brennan himself, Sen. John D. Rockefeller provided insight into the still-classified Senate report on CIA torture, mentioning that the enhanced interrogation program was both “managed incompetently” and “corrupted by personnel with pecuniary conflicts of interest.” One would certainly like to learn more about the contractors (presumably) who profited corruptly from waterboarding, and to know if they were in any way punished—especially as Brennan several times spoke about the need for accountability.
Brennan was not questioned at all about the conflict of interest or ethical issues raised by the revolving door that he benefited from when he left CIA as deputy executive director in 2005 and joined a British-owned company, The Analysis Corporation (TAC), where he was named CEO. He almost certainly made millions when CIA and other federal agencies awarded TAC contracts to develop biometrics and set up systems to manage the government’s various watch lists. Brennan also reportedly knew how to return a favor, giving his former boss at CIA, George Tenet, a compensated advisory position with his company and hosting in 2007 a book signing for Tenet’s At the Center of the Storm. The invitation-only event included 600 current and former intelligence officers, some of whom waited for hours to have Tenet sign copies of the book, which were provided by TAC.
The Senate’s lack of curiosity extended to questions relating to what Brennan might do to make CIA relevant in the coming post-“Global War on Terrorism” environment. If one thing is certain after the misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is that the United States will not launch a ground war to combat terrorism unless there is another attack along the lines of 9/11 initiated by some state player. The Senate’s deep unease about the drone program, which has swallowed up Agency resources and become the ugly face of CIA, was also evident. Drones have become the driver for both budgets and the training of new officers at Langley.
Even CIA’s friends on the Senate panel implied that in their view the Agency has become a paramilitarized killing machine in which traditional skills in espionage and analysis have been abandoned. The White House apparently intends to change that, which will force a realignment of what CIA does. President Obama has spoken of his goal of demilitarizing both counterterrorism and U.S. diplomacy, allowing the State Department, aided by the law-enforcement and intelligence communities, to step up its efforts as the Pentagon’s role in those areas declines. This is overdue: there are simply fewer terrorists to go around, and those that remain are far less capable than their predecessors. The “with us or against us” mentality of the Bush years only succeeded in making enemies for the United States worldwide. To be sure, drones are here to stay. But the CIA will have to take the lead in counterterrorism in the old fashioned way by spying, running agents, and working cooperatively with local intelligence and security services overseas. Back in Washington, focused intelligence estimates rather than analysis to identify drone targets will be crucial in anticipating developing threats in such a way as to maximize dwindling resources.
So that is Brennan’s task—to make things as they once were. But no one asked how he will do it, and his job will be all the harder because basic espionage and analytical skills that have been lost at CIA over the past 12 years. Brennan, however, is “old school.” He has worked as a CIA analyst and as an operations officer, is reportedly fluent in Arabic, and has served as chief of station in Saudi Arabia. He knows what has to be done, and he appreciates the value of good liaison relationships, which used to be the backbone of the Agency’s overseas operations. Training must be tweaked to emphasize the once more required old skills, and the entire system of rewards has to be revamped so that recruiting a useful source who will provide a steady stream of information for ten years will be more career-enhancing than directing a drone to kill a suspected terrorist. And no, it won’t happen overnight: kill lists and drones will continue. But a return to the “normal” security environment that prevailed prior to 9/11 is no longer unimaginable.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.