Building a 'Citizen-Centric' CIA

By David Ignatius
Thursday, September 17, 2009

PARIS -- The gauzy romance and the gritty political reality of the spy business came into focus in two encounters in Europe this week. If the two can be linked, maybe there's a chance of easing the destructive battles between Congress and the CIA.

What's required is a new approach to intelligence based on the need for political sustainability. This, in turn, will require a degree of transparency with Congress and the public that may make the intelligence community uncomfortable. But frankly, after the torture debate, there's no other way.

First, the romance: I attended a ceremony at the Elysee Palace honoring one of the great spies of World War II, a Frenchwoman named Jeannie de Clarens. She's 90 now and frail after a broken leg. But her eyes still sparkle with the mischievous intelligence that led her, as a young woman of 23, to infiltrate a group of German officers and charm them into revealing the secret of the V-1 and V-2 rocket bombs being built at Peenemunde.

I recounted Jeannie's exploits in a Dec. 28, 1998, piece in The Post. She had never talked to a journalist before, but I made a nuisance of myself, traveling to her summer home near La Rochelle and cajoling her until she told the tale -- how she elicited information about the secret weapons, how she was captured by the Gestapo, how she spent a year in concentration camps without betraying a hint of her espionage activities.

It was a story of raw courage -- and a reminder of what spies can do by daring the impossible. Jeannie still minimizes it. "I wasn't but a music box; I just repeated what I heard," she told me this week. But French President Nicolas Sarkozy praised her on Tuesday as "the woman who saved London" by warning about the secret weapons.

Make no mistake, this is the real thing. Here's what Jeannie wrote in an introduction to a book by Reginald V. Jones, the British spymaster who was receiving her reports: "Those who worked underground in constant fear -- fear of the unspeakable -- were prompted by the inner obligation to participate in the struggle; almost powerless, they sensed they could listen and observe."

Now, the modern-day political reality: When we read about waterboarding and other techniques that shock the conscience, it's easy to lose sight of what intelligence agents like my friend Jeannie do most of the time -- and their importance in protecting the country. The interrogation policies may have been directed by the George W. Bush administration, but it is the CIA and its people who have paid the price.

The question is how to put the pieces back together -- how to restore public trust in intelligence. I heard powerful presentations on that subject last Saturday in Geneva by Gen. Michael Hayden, former CIA director, and Sir David Omand, former coordinator of British intelligence. They were speaking at a meeting of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. (Full disclosure: I am a member of that group's advisory council.)

Hayden drew a Venn diagram to explain where the CIA needs to operate. First, he drew three circles that represent the traditional parameters: An activity must be technically feasible, operationally relevant and lawful. Then he added a fourth requirement. The activity must also be "politically sustainable," through more transparency with Congress and the public. "We need a program that does not have an on-off switch every two years," he said.

Omand argued that the intelligence community must accept a "paradigm shift." The old "secret state," in which intelligence agencies could do pretty much as they liked, is gone. In its place is a "protecting state," in which the public gives the intelligence agencies certain powers needed to keep the country safe. It's a "citizen-centric approach," Omand explained, based on the reality of mutual dependence. The spies need information from the community (especially the large Muslim population in Britain), and the public needs protection.

In this new "grand bargain," Omand stressed, the public must understand that if it decides -- for moral and political reasons -- to limit certain activities (as in interrogation or surveillance techniques), it also accepts the risk that there will be "normal accidents."

The Obama administration should try to strike the kind of "grand bargain" that Omand described. The CIA should become more transparent and "citizen-centric." The president and Congress will set rules for interrogation and the rest, and the public should understand the inherent trade-offs and risks.

Few of us can be heroes like Jeannie de Clarens, but Americans can figure out better rules to help today's intelligence officers do their work.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company