CIA Director Leon Panetta must be President Obama’s loneliest lieutenant.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has accused the CIA of misleading Congress, forcing Panetta to publicly defend his agency against not only a leader of his own country but of his own party.
Meanwhile, President Obama has not defended either his CIA director or the CIA itself.
At White House press briefings Friday and Monday, White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs declined to rebut Pelosi’s attack on the CIA or endorse Panetta’s defense of the agency.
At her May 14 press conference, Pelosi accused the CIA of giving her "inaccurate and incomplete information" at a September 2002 briefing and of "misleading the Congress of the United States." In fact, she said, "They mislead us all the time."
The specific issue was whether the CIA had informed Pelosi in its 2002 briefing that "enhanced interrogation techniques" — including waterboarding — had been used on the al-Qaida terrorist Abu Zubaydah.
"The only mention of waterboarding at that briefing was that it was not being employed," said Pelosi. "Those conducting the briefing promised to inform the appropriate members of Congress if that technique were to be used in the future."
The day after Pelosi said this, Panetta contradicted her.
"Let me be clear: It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress," Panetta said in a statement to CIA employees. "That is against our laws and our values. As the Agency indicated previously in response to congressional inquiries, our contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, describing ‘the enhanced techniques that had been employed.’"
So who is telling the truth? Pelosi or Panetta?
On Friday, citing Panetta’s rebuttal of Pelosi, a reporter asked Gibbs: "Does this White House agree with the speaker that the CIA lied to her? Does it have any opinion on the propriety of airing that kind of accusation publicly?"
"I think you’ve heard the president say this a number of times: The best thing that we can do is to look forward," said Gibbs. "The president is spending his time on any number of issues, including keep the American people safe, by looking forward."
When the reporter pressed for an answer, Gibbs said, "I appreciate the invitation to get involved in here, but I’m not going to RSVP."
At Monday’s press briefing, reporters tried again. "Does the president agree with Panetta that the CIA is not in the business of misleading members of Congress?" one asked. "I would point you to my remarks from Friday," said Gibbs.
Later in the same press conference, a reporter asked, "Does the president believe his CIA chief was right or wrong?"
"We did this earlier. You can do that from earlier," said Gibbs.
What Americans should examine from "earlier" is what happened to the CIA in the 1990s, when we had a Democratic president who did not think intelligence-gathering was important — and a Republican Congress ready to accommodate that view in the interest of saving money.
In 1999, I interviewed then-House Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss along with other editors of Human Events. Goss told us he could get "emotional about how bad we’ve crippled our intelligence capabilities."
"It’s outrageous what we’ve done," Goss said. "We’ve got singletons (lone intelligence case officers) out there with no one protecting their back because we haven’t got the money and have basically dried up the well. We’ve got case officers out there exposed and alone who should have backup in dangerous countries."
Goss said: "It’s common knowledge that the president pulled back most of our assets out of Africa … three or four years ago. I think his rationale was nice people don’t spy, these people are our friends."
After we had stripped our intelligence-gathering capability in Africa, Islamist terrorists surprised us by bombing our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Then al-Qaida surprised us on Sept. 11, 2001. Then we discovered we had no idea what was going on inside Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
The CIA told the Senate Select Intelligence Committee it lacked the resources to spy on Iraq. The committee said the agency was too risk averse.
"Senior CIA officials have repeatedly told the committee that a significant increase in funding and personnel will be required to enable the CIA to penetrate difficult HUMINT (human intelligence) targets similar to prewar Iraq," said the committee’s 2004 report on prewar intelligence on Iraq. "The committee believes, however, that if an officer willing and able to take such an assignment really is ‘rare’ at the CIA, the problem is less a question of resources than a need for dramatic changes in a risk averse corporate culture."
In the nearly eight years since September 2001, CIA personnel have taken assignments in many dangerous places. They have helped captured top al-Qaida terrorists. And, yes, they have waterboarded exactly three of them — including Zubaydah and 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad — to get the information that has kept us safe. Al-Qaida, meanwhile, has failed to attack us again.
Can Americans count on an equally excellent "risk averse" performance from the CIA over the next eight years? It’s hard to imagine if the CIA director cannot count on the president who hired him to defend his public statements about the agency’s credibility.