Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? This literally translates to “Who will guard the guards themselves? Or more commonly “Who watches the watchmen?” it is an important question for any democratic government. Force of arms is generally reserved to the State, to a greater or lesser degree, and it is the responsibility of the State as a whole to maintain control of its various armed forces.
One of the things that differentiate a democracy from a dictatorship is the civilian control of its intelligence and armed forces. Anytime these forces become a power onto themselves there is a danger to the idea of democracy.
Which is why today’s article in the Washington Post about the growing Counter Terrorism Center at the CIA is so troubling. Since the 9/11 attacks the CTC has increased 7 fold, from 300 in 2001 to over 2000 today.
If this new “agency within an agency” was merely performing the traditional intelligence gathering of the CIA in a counter terrorism role, it would not be so troubling. However this group is in charge the CIA’s drone program as well as working very closely with the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
Last year the CIA was in command of 118 drone strikes on suspected terrorist targets. Or at least that is the number we think as the CIA never officially acknowledges its drone program, consisting of 30 or so Predator and Reaper drones. Whatever the number of strikes and drones this is a major change in mission for the CIA which is an agency that was created for intelligence gathering rather than operations.
The functions of intelligence analysts have begun to change at the CIA. Now there is a new career path there called “targeters”. While they are still intelligence analysts at the core their primary job is to develop information that allows the CIA to recruit weak links, find meeting places and, of course, find and target so called High Value targets for drone strikes.
While there will be many who don’t have a problem with “killing the bad guys” this is a very troubling development to me. Leaving aside for a moment the legality of assassinating people in other countries who have not been convicted of a crime, even American citizens, the issue for me is one of control.
There are whole and large committees in both Houses of Congress to deal with the Armed Services. This allows many sets of eyes and various opinions to look at the conduct of our military and make policy that then is carried out.
The rules governing the Intelligence Committees assure that there are less eyes on the CIA and that they are less able to talk about what they see and hear from that agency. There is also the Gang of 8, which is briefed on covert matters, but are unable to speak about it. We know that there have been problems with this arrangement during the criminal Bush administration, where Representatives and Senators were briefed on things like torture of detainees and were unable to take notes or even discuss it with their staff.
While this might seem like oversight, as long as there is no ability for the Gang of 8 to exercise any kind of control over the actions means it is the form of oversight without any real power. When we are talking about a group that has a secret budget and is arming itself with high tech drones to carry out what has been military operations that is a real problem.
Our system of government was created to limit the awesome power of the State. It goes out of its way to make the unilateral exercise of power difficult. As annoying as that might be to those in power it is the lynch pin that has kept this nation one that is governed by the consent of the governed for more than 200 years.
Which is not to say that we have not flirted with more or less expediency for the Executive over time. It is just that right now we are at a high point for tolerance of that kind of power and we are seeing a build up of offensive military power in an agency designed to be secretive in its operations and capabilities. That is a very, very dangerous combination.
It is not just Liberals like myself who are concerned about these changes at the CIA. From the Washington Post story:
Senior officials also voice concern about changes in the agency’s analytic branch, where 35 percent are now in jobs where their main function is to support operators and 10 percent are deployed abroad.
If that number is correct, then more than ¼ of all the intelligence analysts at the CIA are now focused on supporting military action of one kind or another. It should be said that we are at war, so that kind of number will climb, but these analysts are not all focused on Afghanistan. They cover a major slice of the world from South Asia to the American Southwest.
One of the reasons that the Obama administration has allowed the continued build up of the CIA’s strike capability is that it offers a way around international conventions. Right now the Yemini government is allowing us to fly drones and carry out strikes in its air space.
If that changed, say by a change of government, and then we would not be able to use our military with committing a very clear act of war there. However, if the drones were flown under the auspices of the CIA that would fall more under the rubric of spying rather than war making. To be clear, it would still be a hostile act but it would have a fig leaf that would allow us to continue to do so even over the objections of the Yemini’s.
This kind of lawless thinking is the other part of this program that really troubles me. It is looking forward to a change in tone from other nations and a way to keep doing what we want to do anyway. This kind of contempt for the previous norms of international relations is a danger sign. Power, when it is not limited by being in the open and by being able to be challenged tends to grow. What was once an exceptionally rare event becomes the new norm, and then things go from bad to worse as there are no penalties for the original violation or the expansion.
This is the argument I most commonly use against torture. It happens is secret, it is never subjected to oversight and the claim is always that it is only carried out against the bad people. The fact is that state sponsored torture might start out that way, but there are no examples in the history of our world where it did not grow and become the go-to tool to oppress.
Having an intelligence agency that has the power to fly anywhere in the world and strike covertly is dangerous enough. Having one where there is little chance of true and effective oversight is a dagger pointed straight at the heart of what it means to be a democratic nation.
The floor is yours.