If This Administration Won’t Tackle the Vexing Problems of America’s Vast Intelligence Gathering Apparatus, We’re All in Danger
When he was at the helm of the Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Hayden was fond of comparing the laws that limit agency operations to the white sidelines of a football field. CIA agents should operate so close to legal boundaries, he remarked, that they get “chalk on their cleats.”
Unfortunately, those chalk lines today are too faint for either intelligence officers or the public to see. Although Congress instituted intelligence reform in 2004, and a hallmark of President Barack Obama’s first term has been his aggressive approach to fighting terrorism, there has never been a real debate in Congress or in the public square about the intersection of our values and our requirements for gathering intelligence.
The result is a hodgepodge of internally inconsistent policies, an outsized role for the courts in interpreting and, in some cases, striking down those policies, and huge gaps in what the public knows and has been told. Recent questions raised about the nature of the New York Police Department’s surveillance of mosques are but one example.
In the absence of clear legal policies, those expected to implement them either become risk averse or feel enabled to commit abuses. Abu Ghraib and the more recent Quran burnings in Kabul are unfortunate cases in point. (While the awful Quran episode may have had more to do with cultural insensitivity than intelligence gathering, have we really learned nothing in ten years in Afghanistan?)
One of the biggest reasons for this lack of progress is Congress’s ongoing and exquisite dysfunction. The toxic paradigm of finger-pointing instead of bipartisan problem-solving has created almost total legislative gridlock. What passes for serious debate occurs within a tiny bandwidth, leaving scant chance to raise the tough issues — let alone resolve them during this heated election year.
Discussion of these issues must be high on the agenda for the next president, no matter who he (gender seems the only given at this point) may be. America’s leaders have an obligation — indeed, a very heavy burden — to tackle them.