President Obama blamed “the system” for failing to stop al Qaeda’s Christmas Day bombing plot. The weakness with that excuse is that Mr. Obama fails to connect the dots between the systemic failure and his administration’s year-long record of destroying the morale of the intelligence community.
The intelligence process works in large part because of trust. A reliable sense of confidence must exist between superiors and subordinates, agents and sources, and the intelligence community and policy makers. Without trust, people will not take the risks needed to do their jobs successfully.
Mr. Obama has destroyed this sense of trust. On his watch, the intelligence community has suffered a year of body blows. He made great theater of signing an executive order closing the terrorist detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In April, the president authorized the release of the so-called “torture memos” on enhanced interrogation techniques used against detainees, and suggested that Congress establish a bipartisan review panel to look into the authorization of extraordinary interrogation methods.
Mr. Obama said, “for those who carried out … these operations within the four corners of legal opinions or guidance … provided from the White House, I do not think it’s appropriate for them to be prosecuted.” He then authorized Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to begin an investigation, even though career prosecutors at the Justice Department already had examined the circumstances and found no CIA violations of law.
Disputes arose with Congress over the extent to which members had been briefed on the enhanced interrogation program, in particular what Speaker Nancy Pelosi knew and when she knew it. The speaker at one point accused the CIA of lying, though she eventually - predictably - had to backpedal. In July, Congress castigated the CIA for allegedly concealing “significant actions” from Congress related to a plan to assassinate terrorist leaders that was not even implemented. Considering the Obama administration has made targeted killings by drones the centerpiece of its counterterrorism strategy, this charge seemed gratuitous and hypocritical.
These and other events helped drive morale in the intelligence community to new lows. Mr. Obama’s actions have created a climate that punishes risk-taking and ensures that dots go unconnected. CIA Director Leon Panetta warned last May, “If they start to use these issues as political clubs to beat each other up with, that’s when we not only pay a price but this country pays a price.” We now have intelligence agencies whose unofficial mottos are “stay in your lane,” and “cover your rear.”
Mr. Obama should be seeking ways to repair the breach, restore trust and make good on the promises he made to intelligence operatives to support them in their dangerous professions. Instead, he brandished a new stick. On Thursday, the president announced he has directed the heads of intelligence agencies to institutionalize “internal accountability reviews” to be monitored by the White House. These ominous-sounding punitive processes may become death panels for intelligence careers.
There is an old saying in intelligence circles: Big operation, big risk; small operation, small risk; no operation, no risk. The president’s proposed “solution” to the failures of the intelligence system will reinforce a climate of mistrust in which it will be difficult to take the risks necessary to make the system work. And next time we may not be so lucky.