through the old looking glass darkly ....
In the last week, the American public has been reminded of the Central Intelligence Agency’s contradictory attitude toward secrecy.
In a critique of “Zero Dark Thirty,” published last Thursday in The Washington Post, a former deputy director of the C.I.A., Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., defended the use of waterboarding and said that operatives used small plastic bottles, not buckets as depicted in the film, to carry out this interrogation method on three notable terrorists. On Sunday, The New York Times reported on the Justice Department’s case against a former C.I.A. officer, John C. Kiriakou, a critic of waterboarding who faces 30 months in prison for sharing the name of a covert operative with a reporter, who never used the name in print.
The contrast points to the real threat to secrecy, which comes not from the likes of Mr Kiriakou but from the agency itself. The C.I.A. invokes secrecy to serve its interests but abandons it to burnish its image and discredit critics.
Over the years, I have interviewed many active and retired C.I.A. personnel who were not authorized to speak with me; they included heads of the agency’s clandestine service, analysts and well over 100 case officers, including station chiefs. Five former directors of central intelligence have spoken to me, mostly “on background.” Not one of these interviewees, to my knowledge, was taken to the woodshed, though our discussions invariably touched on classified territory.
Somewhere along the way, the agency that clung to “neither confirm nor deny” had morphed into one that selectively enforces its edicts on secrecy, using different standards depending on rank, message, internal politics and whim.
I am no fan of excessive secrecy, or of prosecuting whistle-blowers or leakers whose actions cannot be shown to have damaged American security. The C.I.A. needs secrecy, as do those who place their lives in the agency’s hands, but the agency cannot have it both ways.
What message did it send when George J. Tenet, its former director, refused to explain the intelligence debacle involving nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but later got a seven-figure book contract and became a highly paid speaker? How is it that Milton Bearden, a former covert operative, got agency permission to write a book (“The Main Enemy”) with a New York Times reporter? What of the many memoirs written by ex-spooks like Robert Baer (“See No Evil,” and, with his wife, another former C.I.A. operative, “The Company We Keep”), Tony Mendez (“The Master of Disguise”), Lindsay Moran (“Blowing My Cover”), Melissa Boyle Mahle (“Denial and Deception”) and Floyd L. Paseman (“A Spy’s Journey”)?
These works help us understand the shadowy business of intelligence gathering, but collectively they may be undermining the credo of espionage: it is not a spectator sport. And how do we explain the profusion of former C.I.A. operatives who are now on-air pundits?
There was a time at the C.I.A., not so long ago, when the notion of cashing in on one’s access to secrets was considered contemptible. How, then, does one explain how Chase Brandon, a former C.I.A. covert operative, became the agency’s liaison with Hollywood (“Mission Impossible III”)? And what of the International Spy Museum, a for-profit entity in Washington headed by a former covert C.I.A. officer, Peter Earnest? (The museum gift shop’s most popular T-shirt says “Deny Everything.”)
The agency can be quite creative in evading its own strictures on secrecy. When I was researching a book on covert operatives killed in the line of duty — a book the C.I.A. tried to persuade me not to write — a senior agency employee called me. He gave me the ISBN number and part of the title of an obscure book, and advised me to find a copy. When I did, I saw what he had left out of the title: the name of a deceased covert operative. Why? So he could pass a polygraph test if asked if he had ever given a reporter the name of an operative. All that training in tradecraft, and it was used to evade the very secrecy it was designed to protect.
Now consider Mr. Rodriguez. As recently as 2005, national security reporters were told that they could not use his full name — unusual for someone at such a senior position — though he was no longer in the field and was overseeing covert operations from Washington. Under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, even reporters can be prosecuted for unmasking operatives. So journalists complied and referred to Mr. Rodriguez simply as “Jose.” Mr. Rodriguez oversaw — and then ordered the destruction of videotapes that documented — the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding. He is now a published author and public speaker. The agency has no apparent problem with that; after all, he is defending not only his own handiwork but also the agency’s.
The confidentiality of clandestine work is and must be a core value at the C.I.A. But the agency’s arbitrary and selective application of secrecy rules threatens its already fragile credibility. If confirmed, John O. Brennan, whom President Obama has nominated to lead the C.I.A., should demand more consistent and less self-serving application of those rules.
Ted Gup is the author of “The Book of Honor: Covert Lives and Classified Deaths at the C.I.A.” and a fellow at Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.