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Barack Obama's presidency

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Obama's Weak Report Card on the CIA

By Melvin A. Goodman
November 30, 2009

Editor’s Note: President Barack Obama's unwillingness to rock Washington's boat after he won Election 2008 -- his desire to "look forward, not backward" -- continues to haunt him.

One of these areas of difficulty remains the U.S. intelligence community which evaded meaningful accountability for the crimes and abuses of the George W. Bush era, as former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman notes in this guest essay:

President Obama has had nearly a year to make necessary changes in the intelligence community and the Central Intelligence Agency.

While he has been successful in addressing the CIA's renditions, detentions and interrogations programs, he has failed to appoint leaders willing to address the culture of cover-up that exists at the CIA and to make the necessary strategic changes.

Until President Obama is willing to address the militarization and centralization of the intelligence community, he will retain his grade of C+ in managing the community.

The President deserves high grades for ending the CIA's use of torture and abuse, closing down the CIA's secret prisons and restoring a legal framework to the renditions policy that has brought embarrassment to the CIA and the United States.

His attorney general, Eric Holder, proved to be particularly tough-minded in releasing the four torture memoranda drafted by John Yoo and Jay Bybee over the loud protests of both the director of national intelligence (DNI) and the director of the CIA. Holder also has held firm in his decision to investigate possible criminal behavior by CIA personnel.

The President has not officially ended the odious use of renditions, but apparently there have been no renditions in the past year due in part to the extreme opposition of West and East European countries. European countries have been embarrassed politically over the use of European sites and facilities for both CIA "black sites" and the conduct of extraordinary renditions.

President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and national security adviser Gen. Jim Jones also deserve credit for resolving a recent food fight between Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and CIA Director Leon Panetta over the naming of intelligence representatives to high-ranking positions overseas and to attend NSC meetings in the White House.

In an obtuse bureaucratic battle over turf, both Blair and Panetta behaved poorly in failing to resolve differences over the naming of senior intelligence representatives or "station chiefs" overseas, the role of the DNI in the conduct of covert action and the naming of intelligence representatives to NSC meetings at the White House.

The donnybrook between Blair and Panetta was an embarrassment to the Obama administration, and Vice President Biden had to step in to settle these matters, tilting in favor of the CIA on virtually all issues.

President Obama has reversed the efforts of the Bush administration to weaken the external oversight responsibilities of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB) and the Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB), which are designed to ensure that the intelligence agencies obey federal laws and follow presidential directives.

The Obama administration also has restored the IOB's responsibility for informing the attorney general about violations of federal laws and its ability to demand sensitive information and assistance from the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

President Obama also appointed two capable and experienced co-chairmen of the PIAB, former Sens. Chuck Hagel and David Boren. President George W. Bush had ignored both groups.

Unfortunately, President Obama has not been willing to take a strong leadership role in addressing the problems of the CIA, and therefore the culture of cover-up continues. Neither Blair nor Panetta has a strong strategic sense of the need for change; neither may understand the culture that prevails.

As a result, the operational leaders of the CIA, Steve Kappes and Mike Sulick, are managing agency policies. Kappes and Sulick were deeply involved in the programs of renditions, detentions and interrogations (RDI) that proved to be such a national embarrassment.

Both have an interest in protecting themselves and their colleagues - much as they have done in covering up the events surrounding the shooting down of a missionary plane that resulted in the deaths of American citizens over Peru in 2001.

The White House (and the Senate intelligence committee), moreover, have abandoned the need for internal oversight of the CIA by not pursuing a statutory inspector general to replace John Helgerson, who announced his retirement more than nine months ago.

Helgerson is responsible for the only authoritative assessment of the RDI programs, which was completed more than five years ago and has not been supplemented in the interim.

Panetta has joined three previous directors of the CIA in undermining the position of the inspector general and in ensuring that the Office of the Inspector General was monitored by the CIA's Office of the General Counsel. This violates the federal law that established the IG 20 years ago.

Blair and Panetta have been particularly active in covering up the transgressions of the CIA over the past decade, fighting the release of the torture memoranda of the Bush administration and the decision of Holder's Justice Department to review interrogation files for potential prosecution.

Blair and Panetta also joined forces with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to successfully stop the release of photographs that would document the conduct of torture and abuse by military and intelligence officers.

Panetta has done his best to protect the equities of the National Clandestine Service; the White House even had to step in to make sure that important intelligence information on covert action was shared with Blair, the so-called intelligence czar.

It is obvious that Blair and Panetta are not working as a team. This can only damage the cooperation that creation of the DNI was intended to strengthen.
President Obama demonstrated his own lack of trust in the community by failing to ask for a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) during the current high-level substantive discussions over troop levels for Afghanistan.

NIEs are the only corporate product of the intelligence community and they have become a required item during decision-making involving the use of force.

CIA estimates on Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s argued that the French would not prevail in Vietnam, that the Ngo Dinh Diem government was incapable of leading the struggle against North Vietnam and that US combat forces and systematic bombing would not save South Vietnam.

Sadly, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations failed to use these estimates to counter mounting pressure from the Pentagon to send U.S. troops to Vietnam.

Despite obvious problems within the CIA and the intelligence community, President Obama has not changed direction from the Bush administration in key areas. His administration has threatened the British government with the cut-off of sensitive intelligence if a British court revealed details of CIA renditions in Europe and has resorted to a state security defense to prevent revelations of renditions policies in U.S. courts as well.

Obama is following too many of his predecessors, who simply hoped to control controversy at the CIA by failing to address problems directly. This approach has not worked in the past and presumably will fail once again. President Obama would be better served by tackling these issues directly.

In appointing Blair and Panetta, the president is signaling that accountability and transparency should have no role in reforming intelligence policy.

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]

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