U.S. intelligence agencies recently fought off a move by Congress to require the CIA and other spy services to disclose more details about high-ranking employees who have been promoted or fired, despite pledges to be more open and accountable.
The disputed measure was designed to increase scrutiny of cases in which senior officers ascend to high-level positions despite problems ranging from abusive treatment of subordinates to involvement in botched operations overseas.
The CIA in particular has come under sharp criticism in recent years for promoting operatives who faced investigations by the agency’s internal watchdog or the Justice Department for their roles in the brutal interrogations of prisoners or badly mishandled operations to capture terrorism suspects.
Under a provision drafted by the Senate Intelligence Committee this year, intelligence agencies would have been required to regularly provide names of those being promoted to top positions and disclose any “significant and credible information to suggest that the individual is unfit or unqualified.”
But that language faced intense opposition from Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., according to officials involved in the matter. As a result, the wording was watered down by Congress this month and now requires Clapper only to furnish “information the Director determines appropriate.”
U.S. officials offered multiple explanations for Clapper’s objections. Several said that his main concern was the bureaucratic workload that would be generated by legislation requiring so much detail about potentially hundreds of senior employees across the U.S. intelligence community.
But others said that U.S. spy chiefs chafed at the idea of subjecting their top officials to such congressional scrutiny and went so far as to warn that candidates for certain jobs would probably withdraw.
Lawmakers were told that “some intelligence personnel would be reluctant to seek promotions out of concern that information about them would be presented to the Hill,” said a U.S. official involved in the discussions.
Brian Hale, a spokesman for Clapper’s office, declined to comment on specific objections to the provision, except to say that senior officials “had some concerns with the original language” but “worked them out to a mutually agreeable solution.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Senate committee, had inserted the initial provision in the intelligence authorization bill that was passed by the panel earlier this year, officials said.
The modified language will ensure that oversight committees “know the names of senior intelligence community leaders,” Feinstein said in a statement provided to The Washington Post. The original version “would have provided additional information, but the language in the omnibus is a good first step.”
She was referring to a broad budget and tax deal that cleared Congress on Dec. 18 and included the intelligence provision. Feinstein had served as chairman of the Senate panel before being replaced by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) this year.
Feinstein clashed with the CIA repeatedly over personnel moves and accountability issues as the committee finished an exhaustive investigation of the secret prison and interrogation program the agency launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The committee’s report, which was released last year, cited multiple instances in which employees with troubled backgrounds were nevertheless given key roles in sensitive operations.
The report concluded that “numerous CIA officers had serious documented personal and professional problems — including histories of violence and records of abusive treatment of others — that should have called into question their suitability to participate in the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.”
One passage noted that the head of a CIA prison had complained in an email that headquarters “managers seem to be selecting either problem, underperforming officers, new, totally inexperienced officers or whomever seems to be willing and able to deploy at any given time.”
The CIA issued a lengthy response that outlined its objections to the Senate report, although CIA Director John Brennan acknowledged problems in the interrogation program and said that the agency “fell short when it came to holding individuals accountable for poor performance and management failures.”
Brennan’s vow to correct those shortcomings was one of multiple instances over the past few years in which he, Clapper and others have pledged to improve transparency in personnel matters and other issues that don’t involve sensitive operational information.
One of the most controversial CIA cases centered on an analyst who was widely blamed for a 2003 operation in Macedonia that captured a German citizen, Khaled el-Masri, and whisked him to a secret prison in Afghanistan before agency operatives realized they had detained the wrong man.
The analyst was never punished and went on to hold a series of high-level jobs at CIA headquarters, including in its Counterterrorism Center.
More recently, a top CIA manager who had been removed from his job for abusive treatment of subordinates was reinstated this year as deputy chief for counterintelligence at the Counterterrorism Center.
Congressional officials emphasized that the recent personnel reporting measure would apply to all U.S. spy agencies and that while intelligence committees have always been able to request personnel information, there has been no mechanism by which the names of senior officers are routinely shared with Congress.
The earlier draft would have required quarterly reports from Clapper’s office on “each appointment of an individual to or separation from a senior level position during the previous 3-month period.”
Former CIA director Michael Hayden said he would have opposed such language “for simply being too invasive” and undermining the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government.
“It would create a chill for people being willing to accept particularly challenging positions,” Hayden said. “Then there is the whole question of opening up agency officers for attacks from the Hill, not all of them highly motivated.”
The final version no longer links disclosures to promotions or firings, and instead only requires the nation’s spy chief to provide “the identities of individuals occupying senior level positions within the intelligence community.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.