The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Will I ever advise the U.S. intelligence community again?

The CIA seal on the floor of CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. I’ve been on that floor in the past. I don’t know if I’d go back now. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

As the Sunday morning talk shows debated the torture report yesterday, my mind kept wandering back to something Henry Farrell wrote at The Monkey Cage last week about the long-term repercussions of the torture report:

The CIA’s operational activities go together with a less publicly notorious, but arguably more effective community of analysts. These analysts are often loosely involved in broader networks of relationships with policy experts in academia and think tanks (many of them political scientists). Most of the work of the CIA is in analyzing information that is relevant to U.S. interests, and ever more of the information that is useful to the intelligence community is “open source” or publicly available, rather than clandestine. The CIA, like other government agencies, has only limited resources, and supplements its internal expertise with frequent outreach to academic and non-academic experts who might have useful things to say….
In short, the CIA relies on relationships with a variety of people, and in particular with academics and people with semi-academic skills in a broader ecosystem of information. Many of these relationships are likely to be badly damaged by yesterday’s revelations. Academics will be less likely to want to talk to, or work with the CIA than before. Smart and idealistic young people will be less likely to sacrifice other opportunities to work for what is at best likely to seem a flawed and problematic organization.
This will plausibly have a number of consequences. If my argument is right, the CIA will be intellectually weaker and poorer at intelligence analysis than before, especially in areas where it has previously outsourced a lot of its thinking.

This is not an insignificant problem. By their very nature, government officials are always wary and suspicious of outside advice. It is easy to discount, since even well-informed academics and think-tankers might be out of the loop about ongoing operations and assessments inside the government. Even the best academic advice will likely contain one or two statements that reflect some absence of local knowledge, which gives intelligence analysts an easy excuse to discount external criticism and advice. The last thing the CIA needs is an additional barrier to receiving that kind of consultation.

Of course, Farrell’s warning holds only if the policy experts react as he predicted. So is he likely to be correct?

Full disclosure: in the past, I’ve consulted for the Central Intelligence Agency or their contractors. I haven’t received anywhere close to $81 million for my consultations, and I’m quite sure that my advice did not even approach any ethical boundaries. Furthermore, I participate regularly in a long-running academic working group that another Intelligence-Agency-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named has run to think about more systemic challenges to U.S. national security. I’ve done this consulting for the usual list of reasons:  It was interesting work, it felt like I was helping my country, and I like getting paid money for sitting in a room and thinking.

So, in the wake of the torture report, will I do what Farrell predicts I will do?

I’m not sure. It won’t affect what I currently do, because that is with another agency with no operational responsibility in these areas. On the other hand, if the CIA or one of its contractors came calling again, I’d be inclined at this point not to consult for them.

This is frustrating. To a person, everyone I’ve met during these interactions have been professional, curious and receptive. As was pointed out last week in the wake of the Senate’s torture report, most of the CIA had absolutely nothing to do with the inhumane treatment of detainees. Why should those analysts be punished because of the abuse of one operational program?

The answer is that the organization’s response to this comes from the top, and CIA Director John Brennan’s response to the Senate investigation has been pretty appalling. As much as he wants to bolster morale at the agency, his news conference last Wednesday was way too chary with contrition:

According to agency officials, Brennan spoke to the CIA’s work force on Wednesday, trying to quell concern about the Senate report’s impact on the agency’s personnel, their reputations and morale. Thursday’s press conference was clearly intended as an effort to convey a similar message of support to a wider audience.
Projecting an image of solidarity, about 30 senior agency officials sat directly in front of the director as he spoke. They also served as a buffer of sorts between Brennan and a larger number of reporters who traveled to the Langley, Va. complex to question the director about the report that rocked the agency this week and the conduct it details, including tactics President Barack Obama has banned and described this week as “brutal.”….
Throughout his remarks, Brennan described his agency’s conduct as enhanced interrogation techniques or EITs, and not as “torture” — the term that Obama has used. Pressed on his avoidance of that characterization, Brennan said he “will leave to others how they might want to label” the CIA’s practices.
He also declined to say whether he supported the release of the Senate summary report on the interrogation techniques, but indicated that he believes too much been revealed.
“I think there is more than enough transparency that has happened over the last couple of days,” he said, in what seemed to be an exasperated and heartfelt aside. “I think it’s over the top.”

I have no doubt that Brennan strongly believes what he’s saying here. But since I believe that there is no moral or utilitarian justification for what the CIA has done, I don’t see why I should do anything that helps Brennan at his job. So I don’t think I’ll be helping out the CIA as long as Brennan is occupying his current position.

When it comes to aiding the intelligence community, I’m small potatoes. There are area experts, regional experts and other academics whose advice is far more important. I have no idea how they will respond to the information revealed last week. But if their response is similar to mine, then the CIA will face the possibility of epistemic closure going forward.

A coda: If the CIA reorganizes along the lines that Brennan has suggested, then it’s possible that Farrell’s prediction would need to be revised for better and for worse. I could easily see experts not involved with terrorism being willing and able to advise the CIA’s non-Middle East terrorism centers. So the fallout from the Senate’s torture report might not be that bad in non-terrorist related matters. On the other hand, any successor to the CIA’s CTC would likely face a much more drastic decline in outside consultation and feedback. That would be problematic for both the CIA and American foreign policy.