[Web Special] The Buck Stops Where?

For CIA, secrecy clouds accountability

Monday, August 24, 2009 - 08:32 AM

There is now a hullabaloo in Congress about alleged abortive CIA plans to assassinate al-Qaeda members. While the New York Times and other sources are reporting that the plan was initiated at the behest of Vice President Cheney and never got off the ground, members of Congress are nevertheless now beating the same drum heard again and again over the years:  “Let’s investigate the CIA.” ...(continue reading)


Stretching all the way back to the Bay of Pigs, a pattern has developed in Washington. The CIA initiates a covert action at the orders of whatever administration is in power, and when the covert actions blow up, suddenly the politicians who ordered the operations are nowhere to be found. Every time this happens, the phrase “Rogue Agency” makes the rounds in Washington, while at the same time the phrase “Executive Accountability” suddenly evaporates from the lexicon of both the mainstream press and the Congresscritters whose antics and leaks feed the media circus.

The CIA has devolved into Washington D.C.’s perennial whipping boy.

Conflicting accounts of the alleged plan to assassinate al-Qaeda leaders are emerging, but one thing that all accounts agree on is that the plan never got off the ground; no actual assassinations were carried out, nor were any “hit teams” ever deployed.

In 2006 I served on the front lines of this fight, working out of a base in the Middle East on counterterrorism operations. Before heading over, I was briefed on highly classified efforts to target al-Qaeda, efforts which have met with some success and received extensive press coverage. What I was NOT briefed on was any secret plan to target al-Qaeda members for assassination. As the position I was serving in would have been just the post to help implement any such plans, the lack of a briefing on the matter allows me to draw my own conclusions on the affair.

As a beaten dog becomes hypersensitive to the approach of a man wielding a stick, so CIA officers at all levels have become sensitive to stupid ideas – promulgated by politicians – that will land the CIA in hot water. CIA officers are well aware that all administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, run for cover when black operations come to light. As the CIA can neither refuse nor publicize orders to carry out such operations without causing an open rupture between the intelligence community and the presidential administration it exists to serve, what most often happens when questionable orders are given is this: the CIA salutes and says, “Yessir, you got it, Sir.” Yet somehow, those operations never get off the ground…exactly what appears to have happened here.

In the late 1990s, Congress voted large sums of money to the CIA to undertake a covert action to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The CIA, having noted that two unsuccessful uprisings against Saddam in the early and mid 90's ended in debacle, knew that such an undertaking was doomed to failure without much more massive support than either Congress or the President was willing to give. The covert action funds which were appropriated to overthrow Saddam therefore sat there, largely untouched. Having been burned before, the CIA did not want to get burned again.

In the case of assassinations, the CIA is legally barred from carrying out such plans by Executive Order 12333, signed into law by Ronald Reagan. If any administration wants to change that order, they can do so publicly with the stroke of a pen. Easy for any presidential administration to do… but it would force an open debate on the wisdom of such a course, which would carry a political cost. Ordering the CIA to carry out assassinations without first publicly rescinding the executive order barring them, and then ordering the CIA not to report such a program, are cowardly political acts. They are cowardly acts of precisely the sort that have landed the CIA, through no fault of its own, in hot water again and again.

Enough is enough! Does the Department of Defense get blamed for waking up a few years back and suddenly deciding to invade Iraq? They were ordered to invade (in many cases against the better judgment of senior military leadership), and invade they did. Yet somehow, what is unthinkable when it comes to allocating ultimate responsibility for military operations is routine when it comes to intelligence operations. Yet why should the CIA be blamed for politicians’ orders any more than the DOD is?

Isn’t it about time to see a little “The Buck Stops Here” accountability in the world of intelligence operations?

Art Keller is a former CIA case officer who served in Pakistan in 2006. He is author of the forthcoming novel, "Hollow Strength."


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