Just weeks after the attacks of 9/11, a flatbed truck was parked unceremoniously in the tree-lined fire lane next to the CIA’s New Headquarters Building, surrounded by furious activity.
The team was packing gear on shipping pallets for a mission of uncertain duration: bandages, trauma packs and children’s kites. The ballistic body amour was on back order – added to the growing list that would have to be air-dropped to wherever the team ended up.
In the melee, a white-bearded paramilitary officer collected “other paper work”— a euphemism for final letters to loved ones.
Military members of the team were unaccustomed to the improvisational nature of agency planning. Bare bones staffing, just enough provisions to get by, and constantly shifting priorities – like the World War-II era “Glorious Amateurs” of the Office of Special Services or OSS. Special operators and CIA officers were deploying together again, as they’d once fought side-by-side in the fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants OSS, with a new shared mission: stop the next al-Qaida attack on the homeland. We were at war.
More than a decade and a half later, we are still a nation at war. If anything, the threats have multiplied.
That’s why we need a seasoned and experienced field officer like Gina Haspel at the helm of the CIA, who served through those fraught times. We need the insights and leadership of a senior officer who took on some of the hardest collection missions to keep our nation safe to lead the organization into the future.
Her upcoming senate confirmation hearing is an opportunity to define how we as a nation collect intelligence and how we respond to threats to our country in an era of perpetual conflict.
The agency is designed to work in the murky grey world of perpetual ambiguity. The primary goal of agency operations (paramilitary, technical and human) is to obtain intelligence of value to the U.S. decision-makers. The more valuable the intelligence, the more risk to the collection and the collector.
Among the many paradoxes of intelligence collection is the notion of plausible deniability. The ability to deny that an operation is conducted on behalf of the government is a fundamental tenet of espionage, one designed to protect reputational and political risk, and thwart and misdirect possible retaliation by our enemies. The reality that a clandestine intelligence operation can be disavowed and denied by the very government it is a part of is a foundational component of “diplomacy by other means.”
This paradox is difficult for a spy organization in a free an open society, and is particularly vexing for lawmakers outside the oversight committees to grasp and distill for their constituents in the era of sound bites and tweets. Plausible deniability codifies the popular ethos that intelligence operations are rogue, unapproved and out of control.
Despite the portrayals in fiction and popular culture, the CIA is a top-down, military-command-style organization. All covert actions are contained within the boundaries of the U.S. Constitution, U.S. federal law and agency regulation.
The practice of espionage – going to foreign lands and obtaining secret information from foreign governments without their permission – is inherently a violation of their laws, but does not violate the laws of the United States.
When the U.S. Senate – representatives of the American people – question the DCIA designate about actions taken in 2002, they should do so through the proper historical lens. The questions should not focus on what the agency did in 2002. An exhaustive CIA Inspector General investigation and a comprehensive investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) has already answered those questions. Actions taken by the CIA at the time were in compliance with U.S. law. When the U.S. law changed, the organization complied.
Rather, the full Senate should ask tough questions about the role and responsibilities of the CIA moving forward after nearly two decades of war. The questions should focus on how the CIA can be aligned to collect information vital to keep our nation safe against a staggering array of threats.
The confirmation process is a rare opportunity for representatives of the American people to have a public debate on the future role our premier intelligence organization should play in a complex and dangerous world. The methods of collection and disruption should conform to the ethical standards of who we are as a nation.
But legislating the U.S. intelligence community should be done behind a veil of secrecy to preserve the fragile advantage over our adversaries. Identifying asymmetric threats to our nation by militant, suicidal, non-state ideologues is difficult under the best of circumstances. Our elected representatives need to have a robust discussion on how we conduct intelligence collection to thwart them. However, this debate should be done so as not to hinder our ability to carry out this difficult task.
The policy role of the CIA director, aka the DCIA, like the craft of espionage itself, is murky and ill-defined. The DCIA has unique collection and executive authorities but is not an “official” policymaker. The DCIA needs the trust of the president and of legislative oversight, as well as cabinet members responsible for national security. However, the DCIA cannot comment on successful operations, keeping true to the axiom that there are “only policy successes and intelligence failures.”
The duty of the DCIA – to carry out the policy objectives of the president, and to keep the Congress fully informed – is a heavy and unique burden. Richard Helms and William Colby, previous directors who rose from the operational ranks of the CIA (and the OSS), were cut and scarred in the frequent thrust and parry of executive-legislative struggle over intelligence.
Now more than ever, we need a seasoned intelligence professional to lead the CIA, to provide context and warning to those on both sides of the aisle, and both ends of Pennsylvania Ave., who seek to gain political advantage with our hard-won intelligence.
Gina Haspel has taken the hard field assignments and grappled with complex collection issues. She, like the organization, has been tempered in the crucible of mission-critical collection operations designed to protect our country at a time of war. The American people will be well served by a DCIA with firsthand experience from the front lines – and deep behind the enemy’s lines – in our nation’s longest conflict.