“There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel that we need to correct it.” President Harry S. Truman wrote those words in an op-ed for the Washington Post on Dec.22, 1963, entitled “Limit CIA Role to Intelligence.”
This was exactly one month after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and a bit more than 10 years before the formation of the Church Committee, chaired by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, to study abuses in the intelligence committee (which was a precursor to today’s permanent Senate Select Committee on Intelligence). Now, more than 50 years after Truman’s op-ed, the intelligence committee has released a report investigating the CIA’s use of torture in the years after 9/11.
In his Post piece, Truman argued that the CIA had been “diverted from its original assignment” (intelligence collection and analysis) and had “become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government.” It is now long past time to heed Truman’s words. There have been many calls over many decades to rein in the CIA and our intelligence agencies.
But, sadly, we seem to slip back into the same old patterns where the executive gives an order, or a wink and a nod, and the CIA goes off in secret to “do its thing.” Whether it was overthrowing governments beginning in the 1950s, the attempted assassination of Fidel Castro in the 1960s or creating secret prisons for torture in the 2000s, the pattern is truly disturbing; in some cases, it was so disturbing that the CIA conducted internal reviews of its own actions.
Before the Church Committee investigated assassination plots, spying on American citizens, drug testing at home and coup attempts abroad, former CIA directors James Schlesinger and William Colby had pulled together a study known as the Family Jewels. This attempted to lay out those areas where the agency had gone beyond its mandate and ventured into areas that were very likely illegal but, in any case, did not live up to the ethical and moral standards of the United States.
Nearly 40 years later, the CIA looked at its enhanced interrogation techniques (aka torture) and secret prisons in the still-classified Panetta Review. Just as with the Family Jewels, this study illustrates how the CIA under general orders from President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney “led to trouble and may have compounded our difficulties in several explosive areas,” as Truman wrote presciently so many years ago.
After the Church Committee investigation in 1975, our intelligence agencies were prohibited from assassinating foreign leaders and illegally spying on Americans, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was created to further ensure prevention of unreasonable searches and seizures. In addition, permanent congressional oversight committees were established to do just what Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s, D-Calif., committee did last year to investigate the CIA on torture.
The problem now is that Congress and President Barack Obama are reluctant to put in force serious remedies that will prevent systematic torture from ever happening again. There is an effort by Feinstein to introduce legislation, but without strong backing by Obama and with a Republican-controlled Congress, there is little likelihood for its passage. It is also doubtful that we will be holding the perpetrators accountable or releasing the Panetta report anytime soon.
We need a new Church Committee or serious presidential commission with staff and subpoena power to examine the roles and responsibilities of the various intelligence agencies and to propose reforms and updated legal remedies. The new world in which we live, one that involves growing terror threats, a sophisticated and unprecedented ability to monitor communications and collect data and the commitment of vast resources to intelligence, demands far greater oversight.
Truman had it right so many years ago when he called for an examination of the CIA’s role. Our modern world makes this even more necessary for all our intelligence agencies. The bottom line is if Congress and Obama continue with politics as usual, Cheney may have the last word when it comes to torture and other actions: “I’d do it again in a minute.”