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Barack Obama's presidency

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Panetta Pleads for No CIA Punishment

By Melvin A. Goodman
August 2, 2009

Editor’s Note: It seems that whenever a Republican administration gets caught abusing its power, the following Democratic administration balks at the hard work of accountability and urges the nation to “move on." Key news outlets, like the Washington Post, concur that it's time to let bygones be bygones.

Caught but not chastened, the Republicans soon regain power and resume abusing their authority, but the Democrats never recognize the connection between their see-no-evil reactions and the GOP’s do-whatever-you-want behavior, as ex-CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman notes in this guest essay:

The ideological partnership between the Washington Post and the Central Intelligence Agency is becoming despicable.  

For the past several weeks, the Post has carried a series of editorial and op-eds that were designed to prevent the release of the Justice Department memoranda that permitted the use of CIA torture and abuse and to prevent any rigorous examination of these practices that went beyond the permitted guidelines.

On Sunday, the Washington Post carried an op-ed by CIA Director Leon Panetta that is entitled “Congress and the CIA: Time to Move On” and accuses Congress of seeking “retribution” from CIA officials who were simply implementing “presidential decisions.”

Panetta’s views are similar to those of former director Richard Helms who, in defending the CIA’s role in overthrowing the elected government in Chile, said that “we are all honorable men.”  The following year, Helms was fined $2,000 and given a two-year suspended prison sentence for misleading the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The Post and Panetta strongly believe that Washington is too “consumed with what the CIA did in the past” and that it is pointless to pursue “disputes over policies that no longer exist.” However, these policies and the cover-up of these policies have compromised the objectivity and independence of the CIA.

Objective intelligence is needed to enable policymakers to challenge the polemicists and alarmists who exaggerate the threats to our national security. One of the most damaging exaggerations was the Bush administration’s drum-beat of fear concerning Iraq’s fictional arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the Iraq War.

CIA director George Tenet was in a position to at least try to educate the Bush administration with the intelligence that refuted the lies concerning WMD. Instead, Tenet said that it would be a “slam dunk” to provide the phony intelligence to make the case for war, and his deputy, John McLaughlin, actually delivered the “slam dunk” briefing in the White House in January 2003.

Unfortunately, President Obama has made the journey toward an investigation of torture and abuse more difficult by appointing Panetta as CIA director and John Brennan as deputy director of the National Security Council.

Brennan was a major player in the era of cover-up at the CIA, serving as Tenet’s executive assistant and playing a public role in selling renditions and secret prisons to the media, including the Washington Post.

Panetta, moreover, has retained the ideological drivers of these policies, including Steve Kappes, currently deputy director of the CIA, and Mike Sulick, chief of the National Clandestine Service.

Panetta takes credit in his op-ed for reporting a secret assassination program to Congress, but he has not addressed the fact that Kappes and Sulick kept the program secret from the director for more than four months. All four of these officials tried to stop President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder from releasing the torture memoranda.

Panetta has not named a new Inspector General for the CIA, although the former IG — John Helgerson — announced his retirement more than six months ago. Instead, Panetta has relied on a weak acting IG who is not up to maintaining the independence of the office of the IG.

President Obama and Senate intelligence committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-California, should find it unacceptable that there is not a statutory IG in place at the CIA at this delicate juncture.

Helgerson’s departure was particularly untimely because he was responsible for the only authoritative study of CIA torture and abuse and detention policies that documented the abuse that started before the Justice Department sanctioned these measures and the torture that exceeded the permitted guidelines.

Panetta correctly argues that the CIA and the intelligence community are America’s first line of defense, but he fails to recognize that the abusive practices of the CIA have made it more difficult for foreign intelligence services to share vital information with their CIA counterparts.

CIA’s detention and interrogation programs were hidden from foreign intelligence services — and from our own congressional intelligence committees — and this has created suspicion and skepticism about CIA actions and assessments.

This has complicated the task of maintaining credible relations with our allies in the battle against terrorism and with Congress in its important constitutional role of oversight.

Sadly, Panetta’s op-ed suggests that he is a follower of Stephen Decatur, the naval commander who won a major victory over the Barbary pirates in 1816 and celebrated with these words: “Our country!  In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.”

Panetta would serve the country better if he followed the words of Carl Schurz, a Major General in the Union Army who was elected to the Senate, where he proclaimed: “Our country, right or wrong.  When right, it ought to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.”

Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, is The Public Record’s National Security and Intelligence columnist. He spent 42 years with the CIA, the National War College, and the U.S. Army. His latest book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA.

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