Obama’s Failure to Rein in CIA and NSA

Despite Barack Obama’s promises during the 2008 campaign to reform the U.S. intelligence community, he has continued to tolerate its abuses, enable its excessive secrecy and indulge its bone-headedness, as ex-CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman explains.

By Melvin A. Goodman

The political embarrassments for President Barack Obama coming from the intelligence community, particularly the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, continue to mount, but there is no sign whatsoever that the President is interested in reversing the pattern.

The German government’s unprecedented expulsion of the CIA station chief in Berlin because of the unnecessary recruitment of two German national security officials should have been the kind of shot across the bow that would lead to a response from the Obama administration.  The fact that the President had no early warning of these awkward recruitments from CIA Director John Brennan and that Brennan’s initial forays with the Germans were so clumsy only added to the embarrassment.

CIA Director John Brennan at a White House meeting during his time as President Barack Obama's counterterrorism adviser.

CIA Director John Brennan at a White House meeting during his time as President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism adviser.

Brennan never should have been appointed CIA director in the first place. During his campaign for the presidency in 2007-2008, Obama spoke out against the militarization and politicization of the intelligence community, and promised more transparency in the community and an end to intelligence abuses.

Nevertheless, before his election, Obama appointed an intelligence advisory staff that was headed by former associates of George Tenet, whose failed stewardship of the CIA included the phony intelligence that was used to justify the use of force against Iraq.  Tenet’s deputy, John McLaughlin, who supported CIA programs of renditions and detentions and helped to draft the spurious speech of Secretary of State Colin Powell to

the United Nations in the run-up to the war, was part of the advisory group.  It was McLaughlin who delivered the infamous “slam dunk” briefing to President George W. Bush in January 2003.

Now, Attorney General Eric Holder, doing the bidding of President Obama, has blocked any investigation of the CIA’s obvious criminal behavior in removing sensitive documents from a computer used by the Senate Intelligence Committee to conduct legitimate oversight of CIA’s detention and interrogations policies.

The intelligence committee’s report documents the torture and abuse conducted by CIA staffers and contractors.  President Obama opposed these practices as a presidential candidate and has stated that he wants to make the committee’s 6,200-page report available to the public, but once again he has done nothing to make the report available.

President Obama needs to be reminded that President Harry S. Truman, who created the CIA in 1947 and the NSA in 1952, wrote a memorandum to himself and an Op-Ed for the Washington Post in December 1963 expressing his opposition to the emergence of the CIA as a “Cloak & Dagger Outfit.”

Truman emphasized that he never intended for the CIA to “initiate policy or to act as a spy organization,” but wanted an intelligence community that would keep the “President informed on what was going on in the world at large.” He was particularly appalled with the introduction of covert actions in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations.

The CIA, moreover, is failing to provide the preemptory intelligence that Truman was seeking, failing in recent years to anticipate the Arab Spring in 2010-2011, the Islamist invasion of Iraq, and the Russian seizure of the Crimea.

The German Finance Minister offered the most apt description of CIA clandestine behavior in Germany, calling it “stupid.” After all, the CIA was paying to collect information that would be available to any good Foreign Service Officer serving in Berlin.

“With so much stupidity, you can only weep,” said the Finance Minister.  “And that is why the chancellor (Angela Merkel) is not amused.”

There is little that President Obama can do about the intransigence of Israel, the sectarian fighting in Iraq, or the backwardness of Afghanistan.  But with a stroke of a pen, he could force the resignation of CIA Director Brennan, appoint better leaders throughout the intelligence community, and demand the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s executive summary that documents the brutality of CIA’s interrogation techniques and exposes CIA lies to the White House, the Congress, and the American people about the so-called benefits of its renditions and detentions policies.

If the President wanted to roll back the misdeeds of the Bush administration, restore the rule of law at the CIA, and create the change that is needed, he must stop relying on senior officials such as John Brennan who endorsed the shameful acts of the past.

Melvin A. Goodman (and Carolyn McGiffert Ekedahl) are the co-authors of The Wars of Eduard Shevardnadze (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997). Goodman is also the author of National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism (City Lights Publishers, 2013). [This article previously appeared at Counterpunch and is republished with the author’s permission.]

4 comments for “Obama’s Failure to Rein in CIA and NSA

  1. Meremark
    July 17, 2014 at 00:27

    It can’t be mended. It must be ended. CIA and NSA both. Abolishment. “covert actions” by privileged characters without review is intrinsically undemocatic, anti social, unAmerican. Abolish CIA, NSA. They are good workers, they can get real jobs. Everyone else gets a refund on their taxes for the money not spent, wasted for seventy years.
    Even their anniversary date celebration is covert. 1947. September 11, if that number should ring a bell ….

    Or. How about this proposal? Rotate agents on a two-year cycle. Draft staff for the intel community randomly chosen from the phonebook, or voter registration rolls. Just like the military drafted conscripts for two-year hitches; some stayed after the term expired, some ran away from the bureaucracy as fast as they could get out.. But ALL got to review the acts both overt and covert which their predecessors did. More whistleblowers arise that way. The way of civic duty.

    Proposing lottery democracy. Since it is obvious meritocracy didn’t work, but thanks for the dream, Harry.

    • Christina Jonsson
      July 17, 2014 at 19:04

      Meremark, I think you are right about the CIA and NSA. People need to know what they have been doing in our name, leading to so much trouble, costing life, limb. and national treasure. The FBI needs to have its mouth figuratively washed out with soap too. Talk about rogue hubris. I don’t think President Obama is informed about half of what they do, yet he gets all the blame. Previous administrations and administrators still covertly control the actions of our national security agencies. That must stop. It is killing us and the world. We didn’t vote for a shadow government.

      • john smith
        July 23, 2014 at 04:41

        Lets see, they killed the last president that tried to reign them in (I’m not kidding)…and have been running the show ever since. Doesn’t surprise me to see instant complacency as soon as he enters office….probably afraid for his life.

  2. bobzz
    July 16, 2014 at 14:59

    Is my memory failing here? I recall, perhaps erroneously, perhaps not, that Bush I cut $800K in aid to Israel for adding settlements In Palestinian territory. Israel immediately stopped its building (that time). That is a remedy Israel can understand.

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