Secretive Agency Under the Spotlight

Michael Hayden has tried to improve CIA ties to Congress.
Michael Hayden has tried to improve CIA ties to Congress. (Lawrence Jackson - AP)
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By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 5, 2008

Soon after accepting the post of CIA director two years ago, Michael V. Hayden set an unusual goal for his scandal-beset agency: virtual invisibility.

"CIA needs to get out of the news as source or subject," he said in an internal memo to his staff in 2006.

Two years later, that goal is far from met, as Hayden has tacitly acknowledged. In a retirement ceremony last month marking the end of his military career, the Air Force general stressed the need for the agency to "stay in the shadows" while ignoring what he called the "sometimes shrill and uninformed voices of criticism."

The comment reflected the difficulties that Hayden's CIA faces in trying to turn the corner on six years of controversy at the same time that it attempts sweeping internal changes. While the agency's leadership has sought a return to normal and has launched initiatives intended to improve ties with lawmakers and foreign allies, it finds itself in the cross hairs of a Congress determined to force a reckoning over the agency's past intelligence failures and its conduct in the fight against terrorism.

In recent weeks, both the House and the Senate have intensified their scrutiny of the CIA's treatment of detainees, with Senate investigators launching new inquiries into whether agency lawyers influenced the Defense Department's decision to use harsh interrogation techniques in the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Both Congress and the Justice Department are examining whether top CIA officers broke the law in ordering the destruction of videotapes that recorded the waterboarding of al-Qaeda suspects.

At the same time, lawmakers are attempting to set new limits on how the CIA deals with suspected terrorists in the future, and even who at the agency may interrogate them. One measure would ban the CIA from using contractors to question detainees, while another would require prompt notification of the International Committee of the Red Cross when a new prisoner enters CIA custody. A third would again seek to limit CIA interrogators to a shortlist of Army-approved tactics, a restriction approved last year by Congress but vetoed by President Bush.

The prospect for passage of the measures is unclear, but the attempts have set back relations between Democratic congressional leaders and Hayden, who has been battling proposals that he says would undermine the agency's ability to protect the country.

In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Hayden acknowledged "changed circumstances" since the weeks immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and he noted that the intelligence agencies must operate within the limits set by a democratic society. "We exist in a political context," Hayden said. But he warned that the threat of continual change is making it harder for counterterrorism officers to do their jobs.

"We cannot have an approach to terrorism that only uses the hated words 'renditions' and 'detentions' and 'interrogations' [and] that has an on-off switch every other November," Hayden said. "It has to have stability."

Hayden opposes many of the specific measures sought by lawmakers, adopting a stance similar to that of the White House and Republican congressional leaders. While he says Congress is free to ban specific techniques such as waterboarding, he contends that it would be a mistake to publicly limit the CIA to using only the interrogation tactics spelled out in the Army Field Manual, thus allowing al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups to know in advance what to expect if captured.

He also chafed at the proposal to ban contractors from participating in interrogations. In the early weeks of the CIA's secret detention program, the agency relied on outside experts -- mostly former military and law enforcement officials -- to structure and administer the interrogation of al-Qaeda suspects, because the agency had few experienced interrogators on its payroll.

"The person who does the interrogation is defined by only one thing: the best interrogator available for this subject," he said. "And it is less interesting to us whether the person is currently a government employee or is available as a contractor."

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