Congress and the CIA: Time to Let Go of the Past, Move Forward

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By Leon Panetta
Sunday, August 2, 2009

Last month, at a meeting overseas of intelligence service chiefs, one of my counterparts from a major Western ally pulled me aside. Why, he asked, is Washington so consumed with what the CIA did in the past, when the most pressing national security concerns are in the present? It was a very good question. In fact, I've become increasingly concerned that the focus on the past, especially in Congress, threatens to distract the CIA from its crucial core missions: intelligence collection, analysis and covert action.

In our democracy, effective congressional oversight of intelligence is important, but it depends as much on consensus as it does on secrecy. We need broad agreement between the executive and legislative branches on what our intelligence organizations do and why. For much of our history, we have had that. Over the past eight years, on specific issues -- including the detention and interrogation of terrorists -- the consensus deteriorated. That contributed to an atmosphere of declining trust, growing frustration and more frequent leaks of properly classified information.

In its earliest days, the Obama administration made policy changes in intelligence that ended some controversial practices. The CIA no longer operates black sites and no longer employs "enhanced" interrogation techniques. It is worth remembering that the CIA implements presidential decisions; we do not make them. Yet my agency continues to pay a price for enduring disputes over policies that no longer exist. Those conflicts fuel a climate of suspicion and partisanship on Capitol Hill that our intelligence officers -- and our country -- would be better off without. My goal as director is to do everything I can to build the kind of dialogue and trust with Congress that is essential to our intelligence mission.

In that spirit, on June 24, I briefed the intelligence oversight committees of Congress on a highly classified program that had been brought to my attention the day before. Never fully operational, the program had not, in seven years, taken a single terrorist off the street, and information about it had not been shared appropriately with Congress. For me, this was more than just a simple question of law or legal requirements. Rather, it was a reflection of my firm belief that a straightforward and honest partnership with Congress can build support for intelligence. That's what I want, and I am convinced it's what our nation needs.

Unfortunately, rather than providing an opportunity to start a new chapter in CIA-congressional relations, the meeting sparked a fresh round of recriminations about the past. I recognize that there will always be tension in oversight relationships, but there are also shared responsibilities. Those include protecting the classified information that shapes our conversations. Together, the CIA and Congress must find a balance between appropriate oversight and a recognition that the security of the United States depends on a CIA that is totally focused on the job of defending America.

The time has come for both Democrats and Republicans to take a deep breath and recognize the reality of what happened after Sept. 11, 2001. The question is not the sincerity or the patriotism of those who were dealing with the aftermath of Sept. 11. The country was frightened, and political leaders were trying to respond as best they could. Judgments were made. Some of them were wrong. But that should not taint those public servants who did their duty pursuant to the legal guidance provided. The last election made clear that the public wanted to move in a new direction.

Intelligence can be a valuable weapon, but it is not one we should use on each other. As the president has said, this is not a time for retribution. Debates over who knew what when -- or what happened seven years ago -- miss a larger, more important point: We are a nation at war in a dangerous world, and good intelligence is vital to us all. That is where our focus should be. The CIA has plenty of tools to fight al-Qaeda and its allies. Unlike the effort I canceled in June, our present tools are effective, we use them aggressively to go after our enemies, and Congress has been briefed on them.

When President Obama visited the CIA in April, he told agency officers, "I am going to need you more than ever." The men and women of the CIA truly are America's first line of defense. They must run risks and make sacrifices to acquire the intelligence our country needs for its safety and security. Having spent 16 years in the House, I know that Congress can get the facts it needs to do its job without undue strife or name-calling. I also know that we can learn lessons from the past without getting stuck there. That is what the American people expect. The CIA is ready to do its part. The nation deserves no less.

The writer is director of the Central Intelligence Agency.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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