The release of a searing report by the Senate Intelligence Committee on the CIA’s interrogation program Tuesday was the latest morale-sinking moment for an agency that has been buffeted repeatedly throughout its history, from the Bay of Pigs fiasco to the Nixon-era domestic abuses to the 1980s scandals tied to Iran and Latin America.
If anything, the cycle has only been compressed in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, with at least four major investigations, not to mention criminal probes, during a frenetic 13-year span. That collection now includes a 528-page account of alleged CIA abuses and dishonesty in its brutal treatment of terrorism suspects.
The Senate report is a substantial blow to the CIA’s reputation, one that raises fundamental questions about the extent to which the agency can be trusted. And yet, as in those previous instances of political and public outrage, the agency is expected to emerge from the investigatory rubble with its role and power in Washington largely intact.
Indeed, the CIA is in many ways at a position of unmatched power. Its budgets have been swollen by billions of dollars in counterterrorism expenditures. Its workforce has surged. Its overseas presence has expanded. And its arsenal now includes systems, including a fleet of armed drones, that would have made prior generations of CIA leaders gasp.
In part, that is because despite the deep fissures between the CIA and the Senate panel that issued the excoriating interrogation report, the two sides have largely compartmentalized their differences, giving the agency deep congressional backing on a range of covert programs.
More broadly, it is also because as much as Washington struggles to reconcile its democratic ideals with the CIA’s cloak-and-dagger mission, U.S. leaders are repeatedly drawn to the agency’s mystique and capabilities as they face new threats. And the operators say they have long grasped the imperatives of politics when things go sour.
“Folks at CIA are often asked to do risky and difficult things,” said a U.S. intelligence official. “If it were easy to do, someone else would do it. So I think that they understand that being second-guessed when something goes wrong comes with the territory.”
Since its founding in 1947, every president and every Congress have relied on the CIA to do what no other agency of government is empowered to do: conduct covert operations overseas that can include killing, spying, theft, bribery, blackmail and a host of other dark arts intended to weaken the country’s adversaries.
This dependency on the CIA became greater than ever after the terrorist attacks in 2001, when President George W. Bush turned to the agency to strike back at al-Qaeda and its allies. The CIA’s central role in counterterrorism operations has been maintained under President Obama.
“What’s happened has already happened,” said William Banks, director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University. “No, nothing will change. The CIA is right there, in every place the United States is in,” conducting lethal drones strikes and paramilitary operations and gathering intelligence.
Most public controversies have involved leaders at the top of the CIA and a small cadre of officers directly involved in the questionable operations, as is the case involving the interrogation of terrorist detainees at secret prisons around the world. Usually, high-profile scandals have prompted some management changes, increased outside oversight by Congress and the White House, and prohibitions of the most unconventional activities.
Investigations by Congress in the 1970s, for instance, led to a ban on assassinations and domestic spying. It also led to the establishment of House and Senate congressional oversight committees, the same Senate committee that produced Tuesday’s report. The 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon prompted more sharing of intelligence between competing intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The bungling of intelligence on Iraq led to improvements in the way National Intelligence Estimates — a document that includes data and analysis from all intelligence agencies — is produced, as well as how intelligence is verified.
“Every 10 years or so, the dark side of government goes off track,” said Loch Johnson, who during committee hearings in the 1970s was a special assistant to Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) and is now a scholar of the CIA and intelligence. “Periodically the CIA and other agencies end up doing things they should not” and are much more hesitant to do it again. I suspect in the future, if some president asks the CIA to interrogate prisoners, they will say, ‘No thanks, we’ve already been there.’ ”
The programs the CIA gets in trouble over are always shrouded in so much secrecy that even supporters of the agency who might have doubts about a program’s legality or ethics are cut out. “Secrecy enables bad policy choices,” said Thomas S. Blanton, director of the nonprofit National Security Archive and an expert on CIA covert operations. “It gets the agency over and over again.”
CIA veterans said the latest investigative barrage has come at a substantial cost. Former CIA director Michael V. Hayden said the constant scrutiny has given CIA employees reason to resist assignments that carry political risk.
“How many man-years have been consumed at the agency in responding to this report,” Hayden said. “We have first-round draft picks doing nothing but this, rather than chasing [the Islamic State].”
Even so, the cycle of investigations has coincided with an era of dramatic expansion of authority and resources for the agency. Much of that CIA windfall has gone directly to the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, the entity that ran the secret prisons and interrogation program. The CTC’s workforce went from a few hundred to more than 2,000. Its expanded resources and authorities have enabled it to launch an array of covert programs, including the drone campaigns in Yemen and Pakistan.
Even in recent months as tensions over the interrogation report mounted, U.S. officials said, senior CIA officers who were involved in the discredited interrogation program routinely took part in classified briefings on Capitol Hill where they were congratulated on their counterterrorism work.
In all previous CIA scandals before Sept. 11, 2001, the agency tended, for some time, to keep a lower profile after its public censuring. That is unlikely to happen this time. The criticism over interrogations has gone on for years and is occurring while the pace of foreign operations has grown ever more demanding, most recently with the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
“Intelligence agencies have been whipsawed non-stop for 13 years,” said Stanford University professor Amy Zegart, an expert on the intelligence community. “The new reality is that intelligence officials are working in a perpetual state of crisis while being asked to confront the most complex threat environment in history.”
Joby Warrick contributed to this report.