Ex-Intelligence Officials Cite Low Spirits at CIA

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By Walter Pincus and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 30, 2009

Morale has sagged at the CIA following the release of additional portions of an inspector general's review of the agency's interrogation program and the announcement that the Justice Department would investigate possible abuses by interrogators, according to former intelligence officials, especially those associated with the program.

A. B. "Buzzy" Krongard, the third-ranking CIA official at the time of the use of harsh interrogation practices, said that although vigorous oversight is crucial, the public airing of once-classified internal assessments and the prospect of further investigation are damaging the agency. "Morale at the agency is down to minus 50," he said.

At the same time, former inspector general John L. Helgerson, whose review of the program was largely declassified Monday, said that the release, though painful, would ensure that the agency confronts difficult issues head on, instead of ignoring or trying to bury them.

Helgerson also said it would be "very difficult" to mount a successful prosecution of any of the individuals who participated in the program. The Bush-era Justice Department "approved the program orally and in writing; the agency's chain of command was involved. There would be no jury appeal, and I do not believe there was any criminal intent among those involved," Helgerson said.

Paul Gimigliano, acting director of the CIA's Office of Public Affairs, said the agency remains focused. "Intelligence and espionage are, by definition, high-risk and controversial," he said. "That comes with the territory."

Krongard, one of the few active or retired CIA officers with direct knowledge of the program willing to voice publicly what many officers are saying privately, said agency personnel now may back away from controversial programs that could place them in personal legal jeopardy should their work be exposed. "The old saying goes, 'Big operation, big risk; small operation, small risk; no operation, no risk.' "

"If you're not in the intelligence business to be forward-leaning, you might as well not be in it," Krongard said.

Other officials contended that agency personnel remain committed to their work. "If anyone thinks the CIA has gotten risk-averse recently, go ask al-Qaeda and the Taliban," said one senior official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss publicly the views of agency leaders. "The agency's still doing cutting-edge stuff in all kinds of dangerous places," he said.

A retired former senior CIA official said that since the announcement that the Justice Department would investigate the agency's interrogation tactics, he has received many calls from serving intelligence officers, some in high management positions, seeking advice about new jobs or lawyers. "This is a bad one," he said.

It is impossible to extrapolate from the small sample contacted by Washington Post reporters about the effect the varied inquiries are having on the thousands of agency employees, more than one-third of whom are spread around the world. But among the dozens of officials who were part of the program and either remain active or have retired, feelings run high about how the White House and the Justice Department have handled the issue.

One former senior official said President Obama was warned in December that release of the Justice Department memos sanctioning harsh interrogation methods would create an uproar that could not be contained. "They [the White House] thought that it would be a two-day story; they were wrong," this official said.

A much-discussed question is whether the legal reassurances of one administration carry over to its successor. "When a previous administration says something was legal, and the next says it doesn't matter, the result is hesitancy to take on cutting-edge missions," the former senior official warned.

Another former top official said senior managers detect a double standard. He pointed out that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. supported Obama's decision not to release photos of military abuses of detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq because they would harm military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. "The warning that CIA operations would be made more difficult were disregarded," former official said.

Helgerson's review showed that CIA officials involved in the program anticipated the possibility of disclosure and investigation. "A number of agency officers of various grade levels . . . involved with detention and interrogation activities are concerned that they may at some future date be vulnerable to legal action . . . and that the U.S. government will not stand behind them," the 2004 report reads.

Helgerson now says he received a steady flow of information, questions and encouragement during his inquiry. "Frankly, I could not walk through the cafeteria without people walking up to me, not to complain but to say, 'More power to you.' "

Former senior officials say that they were concerned with what was an unprecedented program and that as reports came in from secret sites alleging improper activities, they took action, including sending reports to Helgerson.

One former official cited the case of an officer who threatened a nude and hooded al-Qaeda member, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, by holding a gun to his head and later a hand drill.

"A security officer reported the gun to head that day," he said. The next day, that officer was flown back home and action was taken, he added.

Also Saturday, intelligence officials took issue with published reports that suggested the CIA had botched the release of documents requested by former vice president Richard B. Cheney to validate claims that harsh interrogation was effective. An item Tuesday on the Web site of the Weekly Standard -- and an online item posted Saturday by Slate -- contended that the CIA released the wrong version of one of the documents Cheney had sought to release.

The two documents indicated that the CIA gained valuable information from interrogating senior al-Qaeda suspects, though there was no firm evidence that imminent attacks were halted, or that waterboarding and other harsh techniques were decisive. The CIA declined comment on the report, but an intelligence official familiar with the incident said the agency did not withhold information favorable to Cheney's viewpoint.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, acknowledged that there were multiple versions of the document, a 2005 report titled, "Detainee Reporting Pivotal for the War Against al-Qaida." But the official said the version released Monday "contained the most information that could be declassified."

"This was a case of the agency trying to be as forthcoming as possible with the materials, in accordance, of course, with the Freedom of Information Act," the official said.

A slightly longer version of the report is being reviewed for release, but its contents contained no material that would significantly change public understanding of the effectiveness of the interrogation program, the official said.

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