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Deja vu intelligence policy [Commentary]

Fifty years ago, Harry Truman wrote an article in the Washington Post expressing his disappointment over what the Central Intelligence Agency had become.

He had established the CIA in 1947 to provide his office with objective information. But it had since "been diverted from its original assignment," Truman wrote, and "become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the government ... injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations."

He wanted the CIA to be restored to its original intelligence function and asked "that its operational duties be terminated or properly used elsewhere."

The irony of Truman's article is that it was Truman himself, via the National Security Council, who repeatedly ordered the CIA to intensify covert operations, despite the reluctance of at least three consecutive CIA directors.

A few years from now, President Barack Obama will likely have similar regrets about not having kept a sufficient degree of separation between operational and informational functions of the intelligence agencies under his control. Beginning with Truman, almost every president has pushed the intelligence community to conduct more and more covert operations. Most of them regretted having done so, including Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan.

They all discovered that covert action comes at a price. Intelligence gathering is hampered as sources are used — and often exposed — to conduct secret operations. The budget and turf of an intelligence agency depend on the perceived success of these operations, putting pressure on the agency's analysts to portray them in the most favorable light. And covert action often fails to achieve its objectives and/or fails to remain covert, as Kennedy painfully learned at the Bay of Pigs, and as the Obama administration learned with its cyber attacks on the Iranian nuclear program.

President Obama now has the opportunity to avoid following in his predecessors' footsteps. Under his tenure, the CIA has become increasingly involved in covert paramilitary operations, greatly expanding its budget in the process. With his speech at the National Defense University in May, Mr. Obama partially reconsidered his decision to have the CIA be the primary agency conducting covert paramilitary operations, but we still do not know precisely what practical effects his speech has had (the recent drone strike that hit a wedding convoy in Yemen gives us reasons to be skeptical).

Mr. Obama also seems to have rejected the recommendation of the presidential advisory panel on intelligence to have two different officials leading the National Security Agency (NSA) and Cyber Command. It would be wise to reconsider this. Even though the NSA does not have a cadre of analysts comparable to the CIA, it is still necessary to have an expert, independent and objective assessment of the value of the covert operations conducted in cyberspace. If the same person is heading both Cyber Command and the NSA, the NSA is more likely to be pressured to present the operations of Cyber Command in the most favorable light. Separating the two increases the chances of obtaining a less biased assessment.

President Obama should also embrace two other recommendations of his advisory panel concerning the organization of the NSA — namely having a civilian confirmed by the Senate as head of the NSA, and designating the NSA as a foreign intelligence organization.

It is easier to control an agency that is less involved in covert operations and that is clearly designated as a foreign intelligence agency. The greatest threat to the civil liberties of the American people would be to have an agency that conducts unauthorized domestic covert operations. If such an agency is not supposed to act domestically nor to conduct covert operations in the first place, it becomes much easier to identify eventual unauthorized operations.

If history is any guide, President Obama should implement the recommendations of his own advisory panel. As Otto von Bismarck once said, "Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others."

Matteo Faini is a Ph.D Candidate and a Bradley Fellow in the Princeton Politics Department, working on the relationship between intelligence agencies and policy-makers. His email is mfaini@princeton.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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