Envisioning Intelligence Post-Bush

Tim Shorrock is one of the most well-informed and fascinating writers on the intelligence world (check out his interview with Glenn Greenwald here). His recent book, "Spies for Hire," uncovers the extremely cozy relationship between the official CIA and its corresponding "trade association," the INSA (Intelligence and National Security Alliance). You can read some more about that relationship, especially as it relates to John Brennan, in a diary I wrote here. Brennan was until mid-Nov of this year the chairman of the INSA.

Shorrock and Frank Naif recently wrote two really excellent articles for the Huffington Post that describe the problems a post-Bush intelligence agency is going to face as well as the skills and attitudes that are going to be needed to face them.

First, as found in "Top Intelligence Picks a No-Win for Obama," the problems of intelligence contracting:

Installing Brennan as a senior intelligence leader would have flown in the face of Obama's campaign promise to roll back the Bush administration's heavy reliance on contractors. In an October 2008 mass mailing to federal workers, Obama pledged to scale back government outsourcing and boost the power of federal agencies in regulation and oversight. "We plan specifically to look at work that is being contracted out to ensure that it is fiscally responsible and effective," Obama told workers at one agency. "It is dishonest to claim real savings by reducing the number of [government] employees overseeing a program but increase the real cost of the program by transferring oversight to contracts. I pledge to reverse this poor management practice."

Intelligence contracting IS a huge and troubling area and it is good that Obama sees it as a problem to be fixed. It is unclear how John Brennan, in a role as CIA chief or DNI, would've been able to offer much assistance to Obama, coming straight out of the INSA. As I wrote in my previous diary, quoting Shorrock, the DNI has allowed the INSA to "contribute directly to those who are doing the strategic planning and outlining the priorities for the DNI for the next five-to-ten years" and holds regular discussions with INSA members holding security clearances, under precious little oversight.

Shorrock and Naif also discuss how intelligence contracting has led to a brain drain (as contractors make a great deal more money than agency people) and how it has led to "setbacks in the field" [link from Pajamas Media provided in the Shorrock and Naif article] -

Pajamas Media is the first to report that the CIA station is all but motionless-as meetings with informants and Iraqi government officials have been hastily cancelled.

What caused the shut down? Following a firefight between Iraqi insurgents and a Blackwater USA protection detail on Sunday (12:08 PM Baghdad time), Iraqi officials suspended the operating license of the North Carolina-based government contractor. While the Iraqi government is yet to hold a formal hearing on the matter, Blackwater and all it protects remain frozen.

"By jamming up Blackwater, they shut down the movements of the embassy and the [CIA] station," a State department source told Pajamas Media. He is not cleared to talk to the press.

Holy crapballs. Aside from just being outlandish and immoral, Blackwater impairs the ability of the CIA to do its job. The contracting structure prevents work from getting done. That is really terrible, and ensuring that these problems do not happen is certainly going to be a task for the new CIA Director.

Shorrock and Naif also lay out the potential fiasco of dealing with the international legal consequences of Bush's rendition policies in "Reckoning Renditions to America's Allies":

The legal mess resulting from two US terrorist rendition cases have been in the news in recent weeks, emphasizing the need for the incoming Obama administration to reverse rendition policy and start undoing the damage these high-profile, botch-prone intelligence operations have caused for US prestige.

Two weeks ago, an Italian trial into the alleged 2003 CIA kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric from the streets of Milan was halted because prosecutors and defense attorneys are in dispute over Italian government claims to secrecy privileges. Italian intelligence officials and 26 US government employees--mostly CIA officers, on trial in absentia--stand accused of kidnapping Muslim cleric Hassan Mustafa Omar Nasr (AKA "Abu Omar"), and spiriting him back to his home country of Egypt, where he was very likely tortured.

The Italian supreme court is expected to rule on the secrecy dispute this spring, with the CIA kidnapping trial expected to resume in March.

This is on top of the more well known issues pertaining to Maher Arar's rendition. Read the Matthew Cole GQ article [warning: PDF] on the rendition of Hassan Mustafa Omar Nasr/Abu Omar cited by Shorrock and Naif here. It describes the rendition procedure, which was opposed by Bob Lady, the CIA's Milan chief (he believed it to be unnecessary). Along with other CIA officers, Lady is on trial (in absentia) for the rendition in Italy. The CIA has not provided him with a lawyer, or helped him pay for one (see the Jeff Stein link below). A quote from Matthew Cole:

"The responsibility for this operation [the rendition of Abu Omar] falls on COS [chief of station] Rome. This was Jeff Castelli's operation from the beginning. He ran a very good station, but he had a history of not paying attention to details." This former official also said that Castelli, a rising star and a skilled bureaucratic infighter, knew the rendition team was being sloppy with the phones but never alerted anyone in Langley. Of course, this operation was one that he--and CIA leadership--had been pushing for all along, to "show the wimps in the NSC and the House Intelligence Committee that the agency didn't need help from foreign governments,"said the former official.

The phones, and their inappropriate usage, helped Italian law enforcement officials trace the movements of CIA officers involved with the rendition team. In line with other accounts of CIA promotion practices, Cole writes:

In the wake of this debacle, the CIA has promoted Jeff Castelli twice in three years, deep into senior management.

And Jeff Stein adds:

While Lady suffers, the official who concocted the Milan caper is moving on up.

As I reported last February, Jeff Castelli got only a rap on the knuckles from the CIA's Accountability Board and is being groomed to take over the agency's New York station, a hugely important post.

This is a really depressing state of affairs. Shorrock and Naif characterize the Bush administration's reaction to these problems as a "tangled web of ineptitude, cowardice, and naïve wish-thinking." I think we are all assuming the Obama administration will want to improve on that.

Here is Shorrock and Naif's prescription:

The toughest tasks for repairing the damage from renditions fall to Attorney General-designate Holder and the new intelligence community leadership. They must be prepared to craft a meaningful strategy for addressing the prerogatives of foreign justice while not ravaging the spy ranks. It will not suffice to throw some mid- and low-level intelligence officers (or contractors) under the bus for political or diplomatic expediency, as the Bush administration did with low-ranking part-time soldiers in response to the Abu Graib atrocities.

Rogue or careless intelligence officers could not carry out a rendition on their own initiative--any of us who have worked in intelligence know that even simple intelligence operations are subject to a dizzying queue of review and second guessing that rivals the credit roll at the end of a Pixar movie. Senior management, legal counsel, and echelons of other bureaucrats all had a hand in the planning and execution of these high-stakes renditions.

Ignoring allied complaints about heavy-handed renditions is not an option--senior career and appointed officials who greenlighted these operations should step forward for the inevitable reckoning on behalf of their country, and on behalf of the brave men and women whose intelligence careers and personal lives have been turned inside out by foreign indictments.

It's the right thing to do, and it's what makes us better than terrorists.

I very much agree with this. The issue of "torture as taint" that has been bandied about in some circles is about more than just liberals drawing a line for their moral comfort. It is about making sure that important operational policy fixes can be made when it comes to intelligence. If you were one of the senior staffers pushing for renditions during the Bush-era, and another country comes a callin' for an explanation as you lead Obama's intelligence agency, are you really going to have the guts to turn yourself in? Should Obama appoint someone who he is going to have to defend in that way? Having a hand in the implementation of renditions is a huge deal and a giant potential distraction from the duties of the CIA Director. Not to mention that it would jeopardize the Agency's interests if its senior officials were focused on protecting their own interests.

No small wonder Obama is taking his time appointing his intelligence staff. In this case, personnel appointments are of extreme importance. Watching incompetents climb the management ranks while others foot the bill for their poor judgments is not my idea of change I can believe in.

And if it is also not your idea of change, I suggest you hop over to Change.gov and register your disapproval of any step that would lock the Obama CIA into maintaining the status quo.

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    Thanks lilburro (none / 0) (#1)
    by ruffian on Wed Dec 17, 2008 at 09:08:52 AM EST
    I have not been doing my reading on this topic so I appreciate your summary. Also, it was inconceivable to me that Obama would maintain he status quo in this area.  If he was not elected to change this, than what? I didn't think I had to worry about it anymore.

    But I've recently woken up and believe that not only does he have to change it going forward, but someone has to be held accountable for this.  We have a real chance here to make our country stand for something again.

    As Springsteen says in one of my favorite songs, 'Long Walk Home':

    That flag flying over the courthouse
    Means certain things are set in stone
    Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't.