David Ignatius, The Washington Post’s self-appointed apologist for the Central Intelligence Agency, has struck again. Last year, Ignatius argued that it was “just plain nuts” to investigate the CIA’s assassination program because “nobody had been killed.” He lambasted Attorney General Eric Holder for considering the appointment of a prosecutor to investigate possible CIA war crimes because these “unauthorized practices” merely involved “kicks, threats and other abuse.” Now, Ignatius argues that CIA Director Leon Panetta has left his “mark on the CIA,” foolishly crediting the director with stepping up aggressive operations in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa and waging the “most aggressive operation in the history of the agency” against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
The CIA and its National Clandestine Service (NCS) have conducted a successful campaign against Panetta, who has sustained the culture of cover-up that has governed the agency since William Casey and Robert Gates collaborated to hide the crimes of Iran-Contra. Panetta has lobbied the administration to limit the investigation of possible crimes that include torture and abuse as well as erroneous renditions. He supported the heavy redaction of the Inspector General’s report of 2004, which is the most authoritative account on record of the CIA’s interrogation practices and the use of torture and abuse against detainees.
Panetta has demonstrated no concern with the CIA’s destruction of nearly 100 interrogation videotapes, and he has made sure that the Obama administration has not appointed a new statutory Inspector General to replace John Helgerson, who retired more than fifteen months ago. The senior members of the NCS, who would be threatened by any independent investigation of their actions, have convinced Panetta to leave vacant the position of statutory IG for the first time in the more than two decades since the law was passed to create the post.
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Panetta has also blocked release of an investigation of the cover-up of CIA’s shoot-down of a missionary plane in Peru in 2001 that led to the deaths of a missionary and her seven-month-old daughter. An IG report from Helgerson documented the CIA’s failure to follow presidential orders controlling the operation. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Michigan), whose district is home to the family of the victims, is the only congressman to express interest in this case, but he has received no support from the leaders of the Congressional intelligence committees. Panetta has used his Hill background effectively to make sure that there are no embarrassing investigations.
Ignatius ignores the fact that Panetta’s “mark” on the CIA includes two major intelligence failures that took place last December. There was the intelligence analysis failure on Christmas Day, when the CIA and other intelligence agencies missed reporting that could have prevented a Nigerian suicide bomber from boarding a US commercial jetliner. Several days later, a suicide bomber succeeded in killing six CIA officers and contractors in an operation that totally ignored clandestine tradecraft. Ignatius foolishly credits Panetta with more aggressive techniques in the fight against al-Qaeda, forgetting that policy is made elsewhere. The credit belongs to the Obama administration, not to an intelligence agency.
Ignatius also foolishly credits Panetta with “choosing his own deputy, Michael Morell,” who “defies the preppy, blue-blood CIA stereotype.” Blue bloods left the CIA several decades ago even before the Cold War ended. Morell, in fact, is a CIA careerist, a protégé of his predecessor, Steve Kappes, who was the ideological driver of torture and abuse as well as extraordinary renditions. Morell will allow the senior members of the NCS to continue to run the CIA, and he will make sure that CIA remains without a statutory IG.
Finally, Ignatius credits Panetta with a five-year plan to create a more diverse workforce; to improve the study of foreign languages, and to recruit more operational officers with nonofficial cover. If Ignatius had done a little research, he would have found that these boilerplate recommendations were central to the five-year plans of Panetta’s three predecessors (George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden). The more things change, the more they stay the same.
One change is likely to take place, however. Ignatius will continue to be an apologist for the CIA, but he may no longer be The Washington Post’s leading apologist. With the hiring of Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for the Bush administration, the Post now employs the man who wrote speeches for both President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney justifying torture and abuse, secret prisons and renditions. He will certainly try, but not even Ignatius will be able to top the efforts of Thiessen.