DEC. 26, 2014
After Scrutiny, C.I.A. Mandate Is Untouched
By MARK MAZZETTI
WASHINGTON -- Over a lunch in Washington in 1976, James J. Angleton, for years the ruthless chief of counterintelligence at the C.I.A., likened the agency to a medieval city occupied by an invading army.
"Only, we have been occupied by Congress," he told a young congressional investigator. "With our files rifled, our officials humiliated, and our agents exposed."
The spymaster had cause for worry. He had endured a public grilling about his role in domestic spying operations by a select committee headed by Senator Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho, that spent years looking into intelligence abuses. And the Central Intelligence Agency, used to doing what it wanted while keeping Congress mostly in the dark, was in the midst of convulsions that would fundamentally remake its mission.
Nearly four decades later, another Senate committee's allegations that the C.I.A. has engaged in torture, lying and cover-up have stirred echoes of the Church era -- raising the question of whether the agency is in for another period of change.
But the scathing report the Senate Intelligence Committee delivered this month is unlikely to significantly change the role the C.I.A. now plays in running America's secret wars. A number of factors -- from steadfast backing by Congress and the White House to strong public support for clandestine operations -- ensure that an agency that has been ascendant since President Obama came into office is not likely to see its mission diminished, either during his waning years in the White House or for some time after that.
The Church Committee's revelations about the abuses committed by the intelligence community -- and a parallel House investigation led by Representative Otis G. Pike of New York -- came at the end of America's wrenching military involvement in Vietnam, and during a period of détente with the Soviet Union. The disclosures of C.I.A. assassination schemes and spying on Vietnam War protesters fueled a post-Watergate fury among many Americans who had grown cynical about secret plots hatched in Washington.
The grim details, shocking at the time, led to a gutting of the agency's ranks and a ban on assassinations, imposed by President Gerald R. Ford. They also led to the creation of the congressional intelligence committees and a requirement that the C.I.A. regularly report its covert activities to the oversight panels.
By contrast, the Senate Intelligence Committee's recent report on C.I.A. excesses since the Sept. 11 attacks arrived in the midst of renewed fears of global terrorism, the rise of the Islamic State and grisly beheading videos of American hostages.
Loch K. Johnson, a professor at the University of Georgia and a former Church Committee investigator, said that the committee did its work "in a semi-benign period of international affairs."
"There wasn't the same kind of fear in the air," he said.
A CBS News poll released last week  found that though 69 percent of those asked consider waterboarding to be torture, 49 percent think that brutal interrogation methods are sometimes justified. More than half, 57 percent, believe that the tactics are at least sometimes effective in producing valuable intelligence to help stop terrorist attacks.
Senator Angus King, a member of the Intelligence Committee, said that Hollywood depictions of torture have distorted the public's view of its efficacy.
"Every week, Jack Bauer saves civilization by torturing someone, and it works," said Mr. King, the independent from Maine, referring to the lead character of the television show "24."
Mr. King said that he was initially skeptical about the need to release the torture report, but when he spent five straight evenings reading it in a secure room on Capitol Hill he decided that the C.I.A. abuses needed a public airing.
"It went from interest, to a sick feeling, to disgust, and finally to anger," he said.
But the Obama administration has made clear that it has no plans to make anyone legally accountable for the practices described by the C.I.A. as enhanced interrogation techniques and the Intelligence Committee as torture. The American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch sent a letter  to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. this week asking him to appoint a special prosecutor to examine the report's allegations, but the request will almost certainly be rejected.
And while Senator King called the Intelligence Committee's report "Church Committee II," he, like many other Democrats on the Intelligence Committee, remains a broad supporter of the C.I.A.'s paramilitary mission that Mr. Obama has embraced during his time in the White House.
During the presidential campaign in 2008, Mr. Obama railed against the agency's use of torture and secret prisons during the Bush administration, and shuttered the detention program during his first week in office. But he has empowered the agency in other ways -- including allowing its director, not the White House, to make the final decisions about drone strikes in Pakistan.
"Many presidents tend to be smitten with the instruments of the intelligence community. I think Obama was more smitten than most," said one former senior Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified intelligence matters. "This has been an intelligence presidency in a way we haven't seen maybe since Eisenhower." The C.I.A. had shifted from capturing and interrogating terrorism suspects to targeting them with armed drones even before Mr. Obama came to office. It was a tactic championed by Congress at the same time that lawmakers were beginning to criticize the agency's detention and interrogation program.
The agency carried out its first drone strike in Pakistan in June 2004, weeks after a draft of a damning C.I.A inspector general report about abuses in the agency's secret prisons began circulating in Washington. In the months that followed, the agency began to refashion itself not as a long-term jailer, but as a secret paramilitary force that could kill terrorism suspects with little controversy.
For the C.I.A., there were far fewer political costs associated with killing terrorists than with capturing and interrogating them. There have now been more than 400 drone strikes in Pakistan, according to statistics compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and the operations have had broad support among Democrats and Republicans. And the C.I.A. continues to carry out drone strikes in Yemen, despite the Obama administration's declared intention in May 2013 that the drone program be transferred to the Pentagon.
John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director, said during his confirmation hearing in 2013 that he wanted to refocus the agency on traditional missions like espionage and analysis. But the effort has been slow going for a number of reasons. For instance, the congressional intelligence committees have vigorously tried to block transferring drone operations to the Pentagon -- fighting to keep the C.I.A. in control of aspects of the program.
Mr. Johnson, the University of Georgia professor, was the Church Committee staff member who was eating lunch with Mr. Angleton in 1976 when he fulminated against an interfering Congress. In the years since then, he said during a recent interview, he has often met senior C.I.A. leaders who took a dim view of congressional oversight.
During one dinner he had with William J. Casey, the agency's director during the Reagan administration who became enmeshed in the Iran-contra scandal, he said that Mr. Casey told him that the role of Congress was to "stay the [expletive] out of my business." But as much as America's spies might still complain about their overseers, the years since the Sept. 11 attacks have been an era of broad license -- and hefty budgets -- not just for the C.I.A., but also for the National Security Agency and other intelligence services. Neither the White House nor the American public has shown an inclination to change that.
And as America's spying apparatus has grown larger, richer and more powerful than during any other time in its history, it has become ever harder for those keeping watch over it.
"We are 15 people overseeing a $50 billion enterprise," said Senator King, speaking of his fellow members on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"I can't tell you I know with certainty every intelligence program this enterprise is engaged in."