The CIA's Not Going Rogue, But...

David Ignatius, who probably speaks to more CIA officers on a daily basis than anyone of his colleagues except for Walter Pincus, channels the view of the agency quite accurately, based on what I've been able to glean.


One veteran counterterrorism operative says that agents in the field are already being more careful about using the legal findings that authorize covert action. An example is the so-called "risk of capture" interview that takes place in the first hour after a terrorism suspect is grabbed. This used to be the key window of opportunity, in which the subject was questioned aggressively and his cellphone contacts and "pocket litter" were exploited quickly.

Now, field officers are more careful. They want guidance from headquarters. They need legal advice. I'm told that in the case of an al-Qaeda suspect seized in Iraq several weeks ago, the CIA didn't even try to interrogate him. The agency handed him over to the U.S. military.

Agency officials also worry about the effect on foreign intelligence services that share secrets with the United States in a process politely known as "liaison." A former official who remains in close touch with key Arab allies such as Egypt and Jordan warns: "There is a growing concern that the risk is too high to do the things with America they've done in the past."

It's easy to say: "screw 'em." These are different times, and case officers ought to be more careful. And -- they'll get over it.  But the last thing a young, inexperienced Democratic president needs is a sluggish CIA that won't respond quickly to threats, that won't take risks, that won't push the line when the national security of the country is at stake.  I know that Obama knows that he risked permanent alienation with the CIA by disclosing the memos in the way he did; my sense is that the White House will do a lot more behind-the-scenes to coach the CIA back into confidence.  (BTW: why would anyone be surprised that Leon Panetta argued against the memo release? If he had sided with the White House, he'd be as good as dead at the agency. Bureaucratic imperatives....)