By David Ignatius
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
The national security structure that the Bush administration created after Sept. 11, 2001, began to crumble this month because of a bipartisan revolt on Capitol Hill. Newly emboldened legislators forced the administration to accept new rules for the interrogation of prisoners, delayed renewal of the Patriot Act and demanded an investigation of warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency.
President Bush has bristled at these challenges to his authority over what has amounted to an undeclared national state of emergency. But the intelligence professionals who have daily responsibility for waging the war against terrorism don't seem particularly surprised or unhappy to see the emergency structure in trouble. They want clear rules and public support that will allow them to do their jobs effectively over the long haul, without getting second-guessed or jerked around by politicians. Basically, they don't want to be left holding the bag -- which this nation has too often done with its professional military and intelligence officers.
I met this week with a senior intelligence official who has spent much of his career pursuing terrorist targets. I asked him what he thought, watching the emergency structure come down around him. "We all knew it would," he said. The interim structure was inherently unsustainable. But he noted that the very fact that the nation is debating rules for interrogation and surveillance of suspected terrorists demonstrates the success the intelligence agencies have had since Sept. 11 in disrupting attacks.
The civil liberties debate is indeed a welcome sign that we are returning to normality. We wouldn't be anguishing over these issues if terrorists were continuing to fly airplanes into our skyscrapers. As we learned after Sept. 11, a frightened nation loses its sense of balance. Now that the nation feels more secure, we insist anew on the rule of law. Presidents may claim extraordinary powers in times of crisis (and Bush is hardly the first), but the checks and balances inherent in our system push us back toward the center line drawn by the Founders.
One little-noted factor in this re-balancing is what I would call "the officers' revolt" -- and by that I mean both military generals in uniform and intelligence officers at the CIA, the NSA and other agencies. There has been growing uneasiness among these national security professionals at some of what they have been asked to do, and at the seeming unconcern among civilian leaders at the Pentagon and the CIA for the consequences of administration decisions.
The quiet revolt of the generals at the Pentagon is a big reason U.S. policy in Iraq has been changing, far more than Bush's stay-the-course speeches might suggest. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is deeply unpopular with senior military officers. They complain privately about a management style that has stretched the military to the breaking point in Iraq. For months they have been working out details of troop reductions next year in Iraq -- not just because such action will keep the Army and Marine Corps from cracking but because they think a smaller footprint will be more effective in stabilizing the country.
A similar revolt is evident at the CIA. Professional intelligence officers are furious at the politicized leadership brought to the agency by ex-congressman Porter Goss and his retinue of former congressional staffers. Their mismanagement has peeled away a generation of senior management in the CIA's Directorate of Operations who have resigned, transferred or signaled their intention to quit when their current tours are up. Many of those who remain are trying to keep their heads down until the current wave of political jockeying and reorganization is over -- which is the last thing you would want at an effective intelligence agency.
The CIA, like the military, wants clear and sustainable rules of engagement. Agency employees don't want their careers ruined by future congressional or legal investigations of actions they thought were authorized. Unhappiness within the CIA about fuzzy rules on interrogation, and the risk of getting clobbered after the fact for doing your job, was a secret driver for Sen. John McCain's push for a new law banning cruel interrogation techniques.
President Bush needs to do what he so often talks about, which is to provide strong leadership. In place of the post-Sept. 11 emergency structure, the country needs clear rules that Congress can debate and finally endorse. It may be, for example, that the NSA does need more agile and more flexible techniques for wiretapping suspected terrorists, like those the president secretly imposed in 2001. If so, it's time to amend our laws. Framing clear rules that meet traditional American legal standards is a sign of the nation's recovery from Sept. 11 -- and it's a process that will serve, above all, the professionals fighting terrorism on the front lines.