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Now, for the Accountability
The CIA and FBI also need a reckoning now that Kabul is gone. Two new startling insider accounts offer a roadmap.
Hello darkness, my old friend.
We’ve been here before, watching through our fingers as American troops flee from an ill-advised war or battles: Phnom Penh, Saigon, Mogadishu, Baghdad, Syria, now Kabul. We’ve run out of guerrilla wars—for the moment, and that’s a good thing.
It’s all over but the shouting now, except in Afghanistan, where the executioners go about their dirty work and score-settlings.
Here, there’s a justifiable cry for accountability, particularly for the generals who repeatedly lied about the war’s progress. Some are calling for a naming-and-shaming, truth commission extravaganza. Not likely to happen. With a few notable exceptions, we specialize in amnesia. As for Afghanistan, most Americans stopped following the war there years ago, thanks in large measure to the “all volunteer army” that shielded students or other single young men and women from a Vietnam War-style draft,
But there’s a related reckoning that’s way overdue, one that Americans, already in an anti-government mood, may find more to their appetite: That’s getting the CIA and FBI, which the 9/11 attacks turned into something akin to the Soviet KGB, back into a Constitutional harness.
Two new works strongly make the case that these two agencies, the former principally responsible for deciphering and preventing foreign threats to the U.S., the latter for defusing domestic threats strictly within the law, have drifted way, way out of line.
The first case comes from former senior CIA officer Douglas London, who has authored the most scorching insider portrayal of the spy agency’s leadership since The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, written nearly a half century ago by former CIA official Victor Marchetti and former State Department employee John D. Marks. The main thrust of their highly censored work was that the agency had developed an obsession with covert operations at the expense of intelligence gathering.
London pounds a similar theme in his memoir, The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence, due out near the end of the month. In an advance interview for the SpyTalk podcast to be aired next week, London, who spent the bulk of his 34-year career in increasingly responsible positions relating to the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, accuses the CIA’s post-9/11 leadership of plunging full-force into counterterrorism mainly to ward off encroachments by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was chagrined to be caught flat-footed by George W. Bush’s order to wreak vengeance on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. In the event, London argues, the espionage agency pivoted into a paramilitary organization, its ranks swelling with former Green Berets, Navy SEALs and Marines special ops commandos who tilted the agency away from its principal espionage mission, and whose cardinal value was unquestioning obedience.
“Post-9/11, the leadership of the agency was filled with folks...who embraced a very conservative religious, political-social view of the world, who had come from positions in the military and were much more willing to embrace a harsher code of engagement with detainees, or even agents, at this point,” London told me. The CIA really went “off the rails” when it embraced so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, he says. Meanwhile, no one was being held accountable for intelligence failures or the loss of agents through sloppy tradecraft management. Indeed, the miscreants got promoted and dissenters were “expunged.”
“One of the ironic twists about the agency is, very rarely have careers suffered when operations went awry,” London continued. “No CIA officers were held accountable” for 9/11, or the intelligence failure on Iraq WMD, or enhanced interrogations, or the feckless lapses that allowed an Al Qaeda mole with a suicide vest inside the CIA base in Khost, “which cost the lives of several CIA officers.”
Agency managers also “failed to identify the rise of the Islamic State before it spread across two countries and wreaked havoc in Europe,” he writes in The Recruiter. (Previously, the CIA had failed to anticipate the Arab Spring, former CIA Director Leon Panetta told me in a SpyTalk podcast.)
In another, startling dart, London, a secular Jew, writes that he frequently encountered a not-so-subtle strain of antisemitism in the CIA, especially in its fabled Near East Division, home to many Catholic Arabists. “They told me that, well, I probably wouldn't be competitive and well-received in the division, nor considered very capable to go out and recruit Arabs,” he told me. One of London’s bosses asked him if he had to “consult with my rabbi” on operations, “presumptions,” he says, “that I found shocking for an educated man.”
The CIA needs a thorough house cleaning, prodded by a bipartisan congressional panel, along the lines of the 9/11 Commission. Word is that Biden’s new CIA director, William Burns, is pushing the old boys out. Good. The nation cannot afford any more intelligence failures, especially now that it’s refocusing its intelligence-gathering energies on China, Russia and Iran. Thank heavens counterinsurgency, a toxin for the past half century, is off the table for now.
But it’s the FBI, meanwhile, that needs a power wash. According to new, stomach-turning reporting in the forthcoming issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, the FBI was so panicked by the 9/11 attacks that it adopted an escalating series of secret police tactics to coerce thousands of innocent Muslims into becoming informants.
Searching for what Attorney General John Ashcroft called the “terrorists among us,” FBI Director Robert Mueller spurred his agents to track down 331 potential terrorist “sleeper” operatives inside the United States— a number almost entirely made up but which generated a kind of mass fear of, and lasting prejudice toward, all Muslims in the U.S.
It gets worse.
“In December 2008,” writes the magazine’s accomplished investigative reporter Janet Reitman, “Attorney General Michael Mukasey...pushed through a series of changes to the FBI’s investigative guidelines that permitted agents to open low-level investigations known as ‘assessments,’ without any formal claim of wrongdoing or even a credible tip. All that was needed was an agent’s assertion that there was a ‘clearly defined objective’ in looking at a subject to initiate the baseline collection process.” Over the next two years, the FBI opened nearly 43,000 counterterrorism-related assessments, “though fewer than 2,000 led to further investigation,” Reitman reports.
One effect of the “assessments” was to run up the stats on confidential source recruitments. Another was “to create a database of American Muslims,” former FBI agent Terry Albury told Reitman. Immigrants from police states like Syria, he said, would literally start shaking like a leaf when they found an FBI agent on their doorstep, making it easy to turn them into informants, no matter that they seldom had anything useful to report. But once they were “in the system,” Albury related, their names forever carried a law enforcement asterisk, making it difficult to obtain a drivers license, get on an airplane or land work that required a security check.
“I helped destroy people,” a remorseful and angry Albury told Reitman, by way of explaining why he leaked documents about the FBI’s excesses to the media. In October 2018, he was sentenced to four years in prison. When he complained about overcrowding, the onetime highly decorated agent was thrown into solitary. Last November, Albury was released to his family with an ankle bracelet. The experience “hardened his belief that he was a prisoner of conscience, but he refused to call himself a whistle-blower,” Reitman writes.
“I didn’t ‘blow the whistle,’” said Albury, whose mother was a political refugee from Ethiopia, whose communist rulers executed her father, an army general, and imprisoned her for eight years. “I tried to expose a whole system.”
Albury’s case drew very little attention relative to that of Reality Winner, an intelligence analyst imprisoned for leaking classified information relating to Russian interference in the 2016 election.
But now, it should. Albury should be Witness Number One in a full fledged, bipartisan congressional investigation into FBI abuses related to its counterterrorism program—if such a thing is possible these days. The same goes for Douglas London and the CIA, although a public airing of the agency’s leadership problems is even more unlikely. (The 1975 Church Committee hearings showed it is possible, however.)
What this nation craves is accountability—for all the mistakes, evasions and outright lies perpetrated in the name of counterterrorism, from the first 9/11 to this one. It’s only our future as a democracy at stake. Bad things are in the offing.