After Paris, Rethinking Intelligence Bashing

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, might we ask Senator Diane Feinstein if she’d like to rethink her very public discussion about the CIA and enhanced interrogation?

Such discussions are meaningless when they take place as 9/11 recedes into memory and as we sit safe and secure in America while all over the Middle East people’s lives are disposed of from suicide and truck bombs. The time to have a discussion over enhanced interrogation is when the horror confronts us, as it now does. The place to have it is behind closed doors.

Does the greatest threat to our free institutions emerge from a government conducting enhanced interrogation of erstwhile mass murderers or from the murders themselves and the ensuing fear they will cause? Given a choice between freedom and personal security, even democratic societies choose security. Those were the lessons indelibly written into law when Irish Republican Army terror bombings crossed the Irish Sea onto British soil.

When politicians pretend they have no idea of the means that intelligence agencies are exercising against those who plan mass murder, they are simply engaging in deception. If they don’t know, it is because they don’t want to know. If they seek to create reform through public spectacle, it is because there is a political benefit in the spectacle and reform is unlikely.

In America, there is no “invisible government”. The Central Intelligence Agency does not make policy -- it implements the policies of the administration. There are now more than ample mechanisms for Congressional oversight, if Congress chooses to exercise them.

The problem the intelligence community faces is that during times of crisis, as after 9/11, they are told to get the job done, and there is a wide latitude given in order for that to happen. When the threat recedes and elections are in the offing, the bashing takes place. This procedes with disregard of the damage it does to our ability to gather information vital to our protection, especially in the realm of human intelligence, humint.

Humint is dependent on an organizational structure created, nurtured, and expanded over time. Its primary  asset is people willing to provide information on their own country or revolutionary group. The reasons people spy is as varied as it is complex. The one thing they most require is  assurance they will not be exposed.

Public hearings send them the wrong message. They live on the edge and the public discussion of intelligence operations is a view into the abyss of their fear. While Senator Feinstein is scoring political points, intelligence networks are drying up as a result.

No one would argue that the intelligence community is without abuse or that Congressional oversight is not vital to the functioning of a stable democracy. The question is not should there be oversight, but how it is conducted and for what purpose.

Genuine reform is possible without Congressional grandstanding before the cameras lights and baiting a voracious media that are only concerned about the next sensational sound bit to increase advertising  revenue.

The carnage in Paris is all too vivid a reminder that the best remedy to terrorism is good intelligence. That intelligence is difficult to acquire because terrorist organizations are highly insular and difficult to penetrate.

Senator Feinstein hardened the terrorist target. If she truly wanted reform, then that goal was achievable behind closed doors removed from the camera’s lens.

The reality is that somewhere out there an intelligence asset will not be produced because scoring political points by bashing the intelligence community is far more important to some of the people who are charged with our security than protecting us. 

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor and former chair of the Intelligence Studies Section of the International Studies Association. He is currently a senior fellow with the Haym Salomon Center.