President Barack Obama and CIA Director Leon Panetta have managed to accomplish what the Bush administration and three CIA directors failed to do over a five-year period – significantly compromise the position of the CIA’s statutory Inspector General (IG) and its Office of the Inspector General (OIG). In announcing the completion of the CIA’s internal review of the tragic suicide bombing at an agency base in Afghanistan in late December, Panetta acknowledged that the review was prepared by senior officers of the CIA’s counterintelligence division, that the report would be provided to the OIG in “keeping with past practice,” and that – despite the deaths of seven agency operatives and contractors – no one would be held accountable.
Even before the review was undertaken, it was obvious that gross negligence had taken place and that basic operational tradecraft had been observed in the breach. The review, however, concluded that the failure was “systemic,” and Panetta ascribed the failure to too much zeal. This is the same Leon Panetta who told agency employees after his confirmation last year that the CIA’s task was to “tell it like it is, even if that’s not what people always want to hear. Keep it up. Our national security depends on it.”
Panetta is being totally disingenuous in declaring that the sharing of the report with the OIG was consistent with “past practice.” The report, of course, should have been prepared in the OIG, which is exactly what previous practice dictated over the past 20 years. In assigning the report to the counterintelligence division, Panetta clearly allowed one of the divisions negligent in the vetting of the suicide bomber, a double agent, to protect colleagues from harm to their careers. No organization or entity should ever allow an operational component involved in a serious operational failure to inspect itself.
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More seriously, Panetta’s failure to assign the review to the new statutory IG, who was confirmed last month, was a blatant challenge to the legislative creation of a statutory or “independent” IG in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal of the mid-1980s. Despite a political campaign that emphasized the need for openness and accountability, President Obama clearly indicated that he had no interest in serious internal investigations at the CIA. He left the post of the IG vacant for more than a year and a half.
It was the inadequacy of previous CIA investigations that led to the creation of the statutory IG, who would be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was negligent in not demanding that the president immediately appoint a successor to the previous IG, John Helgerson, who retired in February 2009. Statutory IGs were created in 1978 at most government agencies as part of a post-Vietnam reform process, but the CIA was exempted from the law until 1990.
Helgerson, in fact, earned the ire of three CIA directors (George Tenet, Porter Goss and General Michael Hayden) who mounted an unprecedented attack on the CIA’s only independent watchdog. Since these three directors were involved in the decisions that led to secret prisons in Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia, the use of torture and abuse, and the rendition of individuals who were guilty of no crimes against the United States, it was understandable that they would try to block any serious investigations. Indeed, they worked assiduously to cover up the 9/11 accountability report of the CIA’s IG.
In addition to the 9/11 report, Helgerson was responsible for an IG report that investigated the CIA shootdown of a missionary plane in Peru in 2001 and the CIA cover-up of the shootdown. Representative Peter Hoekstra (R-Michigan), then- ranking minority member of the House Intelligence Committee, documented the dissembling of the CIA to cover up the agency’s involvement in a drug interdiction program in Peru that led to the loss of innocent lives. Hoekstra accused CIA director Tenet with misleading the congress. Meanwhile, the CIA has never addressed the serious procedural and institutional problems that were exposed in a report from the OIG on the Peru program, which concluded that agency officials deliberately misled congress, the White House, and the Justice Department.
President Obama has demonstrated time and again that he is unwilling to address the CIA’s controversial – possibly illegal – actions, and CIA director Panetta is making sure that no internal oversight body does so. The president seems to have succumbed to what his favorite philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, terms the “false security to which all men are tempted” – the security of power.