Now is a good time for Americans to pause and consider our progress in what the Bush administration chooses to call the war on terror. Osama bin Laden remains at large three years after the attacks of September 11, the war in Iraq has reached a kind of stasis of escalating violence matched by an erosion of our ability to control events there, new crises loom with other members of the “axis of evil” defined by President Bush in January 2002, and the President’s reelection rules out the likelihood of any sudden change in American policy. With suspense on that point ended for the moment, we ought to weigh what we have learned from the linked disasters of September 11 and the war in Iraq, and what we should fear or expect next as American plans and facts on the ground sort themselves out in the Middle East.
The Central Intelligence Agency finds itself at the center of this unfolding story in a way we have come to expect from its conflicted history as a tool of the White House and as the nation’s principal collector and analyst of secret information. The CIA is not only deeply involved in the day-to-day fighting of the war on terror, but is simultaneously charged with knowing, and with telling those who have a need to know, who our enemies are, what dangers they pose, whether American efforts are working, and how other governments react to what we are doing. Intelligence is a function of the executive branch of government and as such it answers to the president—just as the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the United States Forestry Service do. Like them it is supposed to serve the nation as a whole, but like them it can also be used by the White House to help the president politically—in the case of the CIA, generally by controlling the flow of information to ensure that good news reaches the public while bad news remains secret, compartmented, and codeword-protected beyond the scrutiny of Congress and public alike.
A kind of rough etiquette has evolved around this fact of life—presidents are granted a lot of latitude when it comes to classifying information, but they cross the line when they use the CIA directly against political opponents, as Richard Nixon did during the Watergate episode; or when they use the CIA to do secretly what Congress has forbidden, as Ronald Reagan did during the Iran-contra affair; or when they suborn the CIA to exaggerate, distort, or misrepresent intelligence findings, as I believe the White House of George Bush did during the run-up to the Iraq war. The reports of the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group and the Senate Intelligence Committee do not reach but lend support to this conclusion and thus invite us to consider again, as previous reports have done, the difficulties encountered by democratic governments when they grant national leaders more or less unsupervised control over secret intelligence services.