Jacob Heilbrunn

The CIA's Moral Abyss

The CIA is once again staring into a moral abyss. Its new head John Brennan, who I argued should not have been confirmed to run the agency, is now confronted with a dilemma, as the Washington Post reports, about whether or not to approve the appointment of a senior official who was deeply involved in the torture program of suspected terrorists and who, moreover, sanctioned the destruction of dozens of torture tapes to head the clandestine service. The brouhaha further suggests why Brennan was a dubious selection on President Obama's part.

What Obama—and, by extension, the CIA—faces, or is refusing to face, is the corrupting legacy of the Bush administration. As a new documentary about vice president Dick Cheney shows, he remains unrepentant about his destructive role in the administration, claiming that he had "a job to do." What he did, however, was pull off a con job on both the president and the rest of America. He blustered and prevaricated his way to war in Iraq, attempting to scare the bejeezus out of ordinary Americans and inflating the terrorist threat out of all significance to its true proportions. In dealing with this legacy, Obama has stumbled.

There can be no doubting that Brennan has performed ably for Obama and has, according to numerous reports, pushed for a codification of drone policy. To deem him a villain would be stretching matters. But as someone who truckled to Bush and Cheney and who, despite his professions of an inability to recall all of his actions, appears to have been involved in some of the more unsavory interrogation practices not only countenanced, but actively promoted by the Bush camarilla, he is not an official who has the standing to rehabilitate the CIA.

The woman whom Brennan is considering to run the clandestine service apparently has an extremely accomplished record when it comes to her overall career. But Brennan is hedging his bets. The Post says the official "was also heavily involved in the interrogation program at the beginning and for the first couple of years." Brennan has convened a board composed of three former officials to "evaluate" several candidates. This is unprecedented. It testifies to Brennan's irresolution and desperation, for, as the Post notes,

The move has led to speculation that Brennan is seeking political cover for a decision made more difficult by the re-emergence of the interrogation controversy and the acting chief’s ties to that program.

But what does it say about his young tenure as CIA head that he doesn't even feel comfortable making his own pick to run the clandestine service? Does he really want someone who was, in effect, the torturer-in-chief to be promoted to a position of high responsibility?

The fundamental problem is that the CIA needs to be shielded better from the whims of presidents. Contrary to its image, at least in the past, of a rogue agency, the CIA has, more often than not, been the plaything of presidents. Its reputation suffered a body blow in the mid-1970s when reports of its ineptitude and assassination plots surfaced during the Church committee hearings, but it was the Kennedy brothers who had urged it to devise various schemes to overthrow the Castro regime. The George W. Bush administration once again soiled the reputation of the CIA by involving it in torture interrogations. Ambitious officials such as Brennan were only too happy to cater to the demands of their superiors rather than consulting their consciences.

Obama could have cleaned house. Instead, he shunned conflict and failed to repair the agency's moral deficit. Now the CIA is enmeshed in a fresh crisis that is a direct product of the Bush-Cheney era that Obama refuses to confront.