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The War on CIA's Inspector General

By Melvin A. Goodman
September 3, 2009

Editor’s Note: One of the few reforms that came out of the Iran-Contra scandal was the creation of an independent CIA Inspector General to keep tabs on the spy agency – and one result has been relatively honest examinations of CIA abuses, from contra drug trafficking in the 1980s to the torture of detainees in the “war on terror.”

Now, however, that independence is under assault, as former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman notes in this guest essay:

President Barack Obama is permitting CIA Director Leon Panetta to weaken the Agency’s’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).

The OIG has produced the only official and authoritative study of the abuses of the CIA detentions and interrogations program; it also has published seminal studies of the CIA’s involvement in the shoot down of a missionary plane in Peru in 2001 (and the subsequent cover-up of its role) as well as the controversial 9/11 accountability study.

These reports angered senior CIA managers and led to efforts by three successive directors (George Tenet, Porter Goss and Gen. Michael Hayden) to restrict the investigative work of the office.  Panetta is continuing the campaign they began.

Although John Helgerson, the inspector general who produced these reports, announced his retirement seven months ago, Panetta and the White House have not named a replacement. They clearly prefer that the OIG remain without the strong leadership it requires to pursue difficult investigations in the face of management resistance.

The creation of an independent, statutory OIG at CIA resulted from the Agency’s involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. CIA’s internal investigation of its role in that scandal was inadequate, particularly in comparison with congressional and independent investigations.

CIA had an administrative inspector general, but he was appointed by the CIA director, had limited access to sensitive information, and had no more than a handful of professionals on his staff.

The congressional oversight committees were not given full access to his reports and not even the Justice Department received all IG reports of suspected illegalities.

In fact, it was the efforts of CIA Director William Casey to prevent the Attorney General from receiving reports on Iran-Contra illegalities that led Senators Arlen Specter and John Glenn to sponsor a bill to create an independent IG, appointed by the President and responsible to Congress.

CIA Director William Webster opposed the bill, and President George H.W. Bush signed it reluctantly in 1989; as a former CIA director, Bush feared that an independent IG would be “out of control,” a junkyard dog that could not be controlled by the bureaucracy.

Bush waited a year before appointing Frederick Hitz, a lawyer and former CIA operations officer, as the first statutory IG. Hitz and his successors did perform independently, producing reports critical of the Agency’s performance in a number of areas.

Helgerson, appointed in 2002, proved more tenacious than many expected, even criticizing CIA Director Tenet and other senior CIA leaders in the 9/11 report. His tenacity angered Agency directors, however, and they have subsequently tried to weaken the office, primarily by attacking the professionalism of its work.

If the Agency’s director believes the work of the OIG is flawed, he has several options.  He can go to Congress, the President’s Intelligence Oversight Board, the President’s Commission on Integrity and Efficiency — the watchdog of the government’s inspectors general — even to the President himself.

Instead, CIA’s leadership chose to mount an unprecedented attack on the OIG.

In 2006, in an effort to intimidate the OIG, Goss ordered a leak investigation that led to the unprecedented polygraphing of the IG himself and the firing of a senior OIG official for having unreported conversations with journalists — even though the conversations had nothing to do with the leak investigation.

Hayden, seeking to rein in the OIG, appointed a special assistant, Robert Deitz, to ”investigate” the office, an action that infringed on the IG’s independence and that Congress should have stopped immediately.  (Deitz was Hayden’s General Counsel at the National Security Agency when Hayden was director there, and crafted the internal legal opinions to justify warrantless eavesdropping.)

Deitz’s so-called investigation was designed to intimidate the OIG.

Hitz, who had served as IG from 1990 to 1998, labeled Hayden’s internal investigation an effort to “call off the dogs.” He said that it would “lead to an undercutting of the IG’s authority and his ability to investigate allegations of wrongdoing.”

It is difficult enough to gain cooperation from the rank and file for an IG investigation; once Agency officers understand that their leadership is not respectful of the office, the OIG’s ability to ferret out the truth becomes far more difficult.

Hayden’s intimidation campaign ignored provisions in the 1989 law that required the CIA director to inform the Congress of any attempt to hinder the IG in the execution of his duties.

His efforts were consistent with the Bush administration’s campaign to weaken the role of the IG throughout the government, including trying to limit a bill in the House of Representatives to strengthen the independence of IGs by giving them seven-year terms and to permit the White House to fire them only for cause.

Helgerson announced his retirement the same week Panetta was confirmed as CIA director.  Panetta, however, has not named a new IG and has continued to convey disapproval of the work of the office by his defense of actions that were criticized in the IG’s report on detentions and interrogations.

Perhaps as a result, Helgerson has started talking to journalists. This is an unusual step for a CIA officer, even one who is retired; it is particularly surprising for Helgerson, who is extremely discrete.

In a statement last week, Helgerson emphasized that the CIA had conducted waterboarding in a manner inconsistent with the understanding between the CIA and the Justice Department and that the CIA had reneged on its assurance that repetitive use of this technique would “not be substantial.” Helgerson concluded that the CIA was “abusing this technique.”

Helgerson also questioned whether it had been necessary to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” and recommended the creation of a panel of experts to “evaluate the quality of intelligence gained as related to the specific techniques used.”

Helgerson took issue with Panetta’s claim that the CIA itself had commissioned the OIG’s 2004 study, stating that he had initiated the 2004 report because many officers had told him that CIA techniques were “fundamentally inconsistent with long established U.S. Government policy and with American values, and were based on strained legal reasoning.”

Helgerson added that he “could not walk through the cafeteria without people walking up to me, not to complain but to say ‘More power to you.’”
He emphasized that it is the mission of the IG to make sure that CIA operations are “efficient, effective, and run in a manner that is consistent with law and regulation, and to recommend improvements as appropriate.” He expressed particular disappointment with the fact that all 10 of the OIG’s recommendations had been redacted.

The fact that Panetta and President Obama have not nominated an individual to replace Helgerson is not surprising. It is surprising, however, that both Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and Rep. Silvestre Reyes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, have ignored the issue.

The weakening of the OIG by CIA leadership is an affront to Congress, particularly to Feinstein and Reyes; they are demonstrating a dereliction of duty.

Panetta and the White House are obviously slow-rolling the appointment, leaving a weak acting IG in place as long as possible, probably searching for just the right candidate to acquiesce in their campaign to weaken the only effective oversight body that exists to investigate CIA activities.

Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, 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. [This story originally appeared at The Public Record.]

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