We need more aggressive, less risk-averse spy agencies. This was the mantra we heard in the wake of our being blindsided by Osama bin Laden on Sept. 11, 2001. The CIA’s emphasis on high-tech, spy-in-the-sky gadgetry has led to a withering of the nation’s human intelligence capabilities, critics (ourselves included) said. We must re-energize covert operations if we’re going to win against terrorists.
Being an international Boy Scout has advantages, especially in the realm of international public relations. But we’ll have to fight a little dirty if we’re going to mix it up with the dirtiest fighters in the world. Such was the hard-nosed, no-more-Mr.-Nice-guy rhetoric heard after the twin towers came tumbling down.
In response to such sentiments, Congress and the Bush administration approved a sweeping overhaul of the intelligence community. New CIA Director Porter Goss came aboard pledging a renewed emphasis on human intelligence operations. And the firewalls that traditionally divided federal law enforcers from intelligence collectors were breached in an effort to better coordinate the response to the terror threat. U.S. Special Forces were tasked with hunting down and killing bin Laden and his ilk wherever they lurked.
But the first real test of America’s renewed commitment to covert action is in how the public, punditry and politicians react when such operations are blown or go bad, resulting in controversy or casualties. As in Italy, for instance, where a court has issued arrest warrants for 19 Americans implicated in the 2003 kidnapping of the radical Egyptian cleric, Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr. Allegedly, Nasr was snatched off a Milan street by American agents and flown by CIA aircraft to interrogations in Egypt, as part of an “extraordinary rendition” operation. Italian authorities have pieced together clues pointing to CIA involvement.
How Americans respond to the indictments will show whether we’re ready to live with the consequences of more aggressive covert operations, or whether we want the impossible — an aggressive, risk-taking intelligence community that never gets caught or makes embarrassing mistakes. An uproar about the indictments will send a mixed message to the spy community, that we want them to get aggressive … but to never get caught. And that will result in a return to the kind of risk-averse posture that helped chip away at our human-intelligence capabilities in the first place.
We’re not arguing that Americans should shrug it off when our (alleged) spies snatch suspects off foreign streets and hand them over to third countries for interrogation and possible torture, or that we should grant intelligence agencies carte blanche to run amok. Obviously, certain activities would blur the distinction between the good guys and the bad guys, so independent oversight of such operations by the White House and Congress is in order.
But we are reminding readers that covert operations, by definition, frequently involve the bending, if not breaking, of conventional rules, and that Americans can’t expect the CIA and other agencies to infiltrate, thwart and combat terror networks and hostile governments by strictly abiding by the Boy Scout Handbook. Some call that cynical; we call it realism.