Did We Handcuff the CIA?

The national security hawks say yes. The CIA says no.   

Before the remains of the World Trade Center had even cooled, national security hawks took to the airwaves to blame CIA reforms for the failure of the intelligence community to detect and prevent the attack.

“We were basically spying with one arm tied behind our back,” said R. James Woolsey, CIA chief in the early 1990s, on CNN’s Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer, citing 1995 CIA guidelines that regulate the recruitment of sources who have a history of criminal activity and human-rights violations. “These restrictive limitations on not being able to recruit people who have some violence in their past as spies were ridiculous.”

On Crossfire, Woolsey claimed these regulations “make it difficult to penetrate terrorists. … It’s like telling the FBI to penetrate the Mafia without putting any criminals on its payrolls.” Ambassador Paul Bremer, who chaired a national commission on terrorism, chimed in, telling CNN that the Church Committee, the Senate panel that investigated CIA misdeeds in the 1970s, did “a lot of damage to our intelligence services. … And the more recent problem was that the previous administration put into effect guidelines which restricted the ability of CIA agents to go after … terrorist spies.” President George Bush the First, a past CIA chief, and Vice President Dick Cheney concurred. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the intelligence committee, blasted the regulations and demanded that the country “take the wraps off” the spies.

The Senate took steps to do just that last Thursday by passing “The Combating Terrorism Act of 2001,” part of which instructs the CIA to rescind the 1995 guidelines. But despite all the vamping, removing the guidelines won’t help the United States wage its new war on terrorism. And there’s no indication the CIA even wants the rules lifted.

The 1995 guidelines were written after the press revealed that a thuggish Guatemalan military official, who had been involved in the murder of an American hotelier and the torture and murder of a rebel leader married to an American, was on the CIA payroll. (By the way, the agency had withheld information from Congress about its relationship with this killer.) The guidelines have never been made public, but CIA officials have described them to Hill staffers and intelligence-watchers. The rules compel CIA case officers to notify headquarters when they recruit a violent brute as a source, and they require the recruitment be reviewed at a senior level. But they don’t prohibit the CIA from working with terrorists to discover what terrorists are doing. CIA case officers are free to seek and pay informants within terrorist outfits. They merely have to alert supervisors back home and receive a go-ahead.

“The fuss about these guidelines is totally a bunch of hooey,” says one government employee familiar with the rules (who cannot be identified any further). “They do not forbid anything.”

In June 2000, CIA spokesman Bill Harlow denied that the guidelines unduly restricted the agency: “The notion that our human rights guidelines are an impediment to fighting terrorism is simply wrong. No one knows better than we do that when combating terrorism it is often necessary to deal with unsavory individuals. But we do so with eyes wide open and appropriate notification to senior officials.”

Harlow noted that the CIA has “never, ever turned down a request to use someone, even someone with a record of human rights abuses, if we thought that person could be valuable in our overall counterterrorism program.” Last year, the CIA did not back an effort in Congress to kill these rules, which can be rescinded by the CIA director or the president without the passage of legislation.

While the hawks argue the guidelines discourage risk-taking in the field, the rules may well enhance derring-do. A case officer who recruits a terrorist as a source under the guidelines is protected from a reprimand from above if the terrorist takes part in, say, a bombing plot.

Penetrations of tightly knit secret organizations, a task that the agency has never done well, won’t be improved by erasing the guidelines. Those who blame the current crisis on intelligence reformers deceive the public by falsely raising expectations—just get rid of these pesky rules, and the CIA will be inside Osama Bin Laden’s tent. And, more importantly, all their huffing distracts the nation from the actual intelligence failures that preceded Sept. 11.