President Obama is doing to the intelligence services what Democratic presidents always do, demoralize them and discourage initiative. David Ignatius writes:
President Obama promised CIA officers that they won’t be prosecuted for carrying out lawful orders, but the people on the firing line don’t believe him. They think the memos have opened a new season of investigation and retribution.
The lesson for younger officers is obvious: Keep your head down. Duck the assignments that carry political risk. Stay away from a counterterrorism program that has become a career hazard. . .
For a taste of what’s ahead, recall the chilling effects of past CIA scandals. In 1995, then-Director John Deutch ordered a “scrub” of the agency’s assets after revelations of past links to Guatemalan death squads. Officers were told they shouldn’t jettison sources who had provided truly valuable intelligence. But the practical message, recalls one former division chief, was: “Don’t deal with assets who could pose political risks.” A similar signal is being sent now, he warns.
One veteran counterterrorism operative says that agents in the field are already being more careful about using the legal findings that authorize covert action. An example is the so-called “risk of capture” interview that takes place in the first hour after a terrorism suspect is grabbed. This used to be the key window of opportunity, in which the subject was questioned aggressively and his cellphone contacts and “pocket litter” were exploited quickly.
Now, field officers are more careful. They want guidance from headquarters. They need legal advice. I’m told that in the case of an al-Qaeda suspect seized in Iraq several weeks ago, the CIA didn’t even try to interrogate him. The agency handed him over to the U.S. military.
Agency officials also worry about the effect on foreign intelligence services that share secrets with the United States in a process politely known as “liaison.” A former official who remains in close touch with key Arab allies such as Egypt and Jordan warns: “There is a growing concern that the risk is too high to do the things with America they’ve done in the past.”
Some time down the road, we might wish we still had a counterterrorism program.