WASHINGTON D.C.: Detailed revelations of the torture used by George W. Bush-era operatives against Al-Qaeda suspects are only the latest morale-sapping scandal to envelop the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
But the searing US Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA enhanced interrogation techniques is not likely to hamstring the effectiveness of the nation’s premier spy shop or erode its power in the post-9/11 era, lawmakers, experts and former intelligence agents predicted on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila).
Criticism has trailed the CIA for decades, from the Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1961 and the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s, to false intelligence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the humiliating expulsion from Germany of a CIA station chief this year.
But while the CIA’s reputation clearly took a hit with the 500-page torture report that documented extensive abuses and the misleading of Congress and the White House, the agency will remain a vital force for intelligence gathering worldwide.
Funding for the secretive agency has ballooned by billions of dollars in the years since Al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001, and its workforce has grown.
And despite Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein calling the CIA’s actions “a stain on our values and on our history,” Congress for the most part backs the covert operations seen as intrinsic to battling adversaries like the Islamic State.
“This administration and almost surely those to come will continue to rely on the CIA for traditional intelligence work as well as counterterrorism operations around the world,” intelligence expert William Banks, director of Syracuse University’s Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, told Agence France-Presse.
“The agency really is essential to preserve US national security interests now and going forward. The torture episode is abhorrent, I believe, but aberrant,” he added.
The CIA has undertaken risky operations for every US president since its creation in 1947. It was empowered with unique abilities to spy, blackmail and even kill overseas in the goal of prevailing over America’s foes.
The CIA mission’s importance grew after 9/11, when rooting out terror suspects became a critical element of Washington’s strategy for preventing another attack.
It has been dragged away from its purely cloak-and-dagger work and into the theater of warfare, taking command of a deadly fleet of aerial drones.
And while Feinstein and her the torture report argued strongly to the contrary, the CIA insists that its enhanced interrogation techniques yielded crucial information that helped locate terror mastermind Osama bin Laden.
Balancing secrecy and democracy
Even those who most stridently criticized CIA abuses, like Democratic Senator Mark Udall, back its overall goals.
Despite his intense half-hour critique on the Senate floor of a CIA that “refuses to even acknowledge what it has done,” and his demand that director John Brennan resign, Udall predicted that the torture report could have a beneficial impact on the CIA.
“It will make the agency more effective because we will rebuild trust on the part of the American people,” Udall told AFP after his speech.
The Senate report and improved oversight will help America “find that right balance between secrecy and democratic principles.”
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham swept aside suggestions that the CIA’s vast budget would be reined in as a form of punishment.
He said intelligence operations have cleaned up their act in the years. The detention and interrogation program began under president George W. Bush and President Barack Obama halted it in 2009.
“We do have a new way of doing business, and I think this helps us long-term to get the agency in better standing,” said Graham.
Experts said the intelligence community has been swamped by a perpetual state of heightened threats to US interests since 9/11, and that such challenges are unlikely to diminish — reinforcing the necessity for a strong CIA.
“The present flap will enter lore about the CIA that will be repeatedly invoked for years to come, and in that sense will have a lasting impact on the reputation of the agency,” said Georgetown University professor Paul Pillar, a 28-year CIA veteran.
“But the country needs a civilian intelligence service, and so the agency will still be around for years to come,” he added.