The intelligence community suspected that the fervor to protect the nation from terrorist attack would fade as they succeeded in doing so. That conundrum has proven true, as the agency takes fire for intel methods that had consensus support in the months after the 9/11 attack. It continues as the newspaper most responsible for anti-intelligence backlash now reports on the effect they’ve had on national security efforts (via Memeorandum):
For six years, Central Intelligence Agency officers have worried that someday the tide of post-Sept. 11 opinion would turn, and their harsh treatment of prisoners from Al Qaeda would be subjected to hostile scrutiny and possible criminal prosecution.
Now that day may have arrived, after years of shifting legal advice, searing criticism from rights groups — and no new terrorist attacks on American soil.
The Justice Department, which in 2002 gave the C.I.A. legal approval for waterboarding and other tough interrogation methods, is reviewing whether agency officials broke the law by destroying videotapes of those very methods.
The Congressional intelligence committees, whose leaders in 2002 gave at least tacit approval for the tough tactics, have voted in conference to ban all coercive techniques, and they have announced investigations of the destruction of the videotapes and the methods they documented.
“Exactly what they feared is what’s happening,” Jack Goldsmith, the former head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department, said of the C.I.A. officials he advised in that job. “The winds change, and the recriminations begin.”
I have had a lot of criticism for the intel community, but in this case they have a real grievance. For three years after the 9/11 attacks, they got overwhelming criticism for their inability to “connect the dots” and stop the terrorist attack before it started. Some of that criticism was justified, but a lot of it related more to bureaucratic hurdles in allowing communication between law enforcement and intelligence agents, as well as interagency barriers that had long stood in the way of cooperative intelligence. Instead of addressing these issues, the 9/11 Commission surfed that wave of recrimination to establishing even more bureaucratic obstacles rather than streamlining intelligence.
The failure to connect the dots came from bureaucratic interference. Failure to collect dots came from a lack of resources and poor prioritization. In the case of the former, America demanded a much more robust effort to collect intel that could prevent another 9/11. The administration and its agencies responded with aggressive tactics that have prevented dozens of attacks and identified hundreds of terrorists abroad. For six years, despite the bloodthirsty appetites of our enemies, we have not suffered another attack on our soil, and not even one against our diplomatic or military assets around the world, save in Iraq.
What have we done to celebrate that success? We have newspapers like the New York Times exposing the programs that have kept us safe and that have identified and caught major terrorists before they could strike. We have people in Congress like Nancy Pelosi screaming for prosecutions against the agents and the administration for efforts she personally witnessed and to which she never objected until years later.
People wondered on 9/12 why our intel operatives were so risk-adverse. In 2007, the question answers itself. They conducted aggressive, effective national defense in 2002 with the enthusiastic support not just of the nation, but specifically of politicians in both parties, with no dissent whatsoever. In 2007, they risk prosecution for the actions they took in 2002.
How do you suppose they feel about aggressive national defense in 2007? Do you think that they’ll be inclined to take risks, or to cover their ass?
My issues with the intel agencies has to do with their failures, the poor structure created in the wake of the 9/11 Commission, and the apparent obstruction of justice committed by someone at CIA regarding tapes of interrogations approved long ago by Congress. This problem will exist even if we streamline our intel services and create maximum efficiency and oversight. If the American public and especially the political class proves themselves to be fair-weather friends to the intel community as a whole, we cannot expect anything more from them than a bunker mentality and a litany of excuses after the next 9/11.