One of the more futile rituals of accountability, US-style, played out last week, as General Michael Hayden, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, went to Capitol Hill to explain why the CIA had destroyed videotapes of the interrogation of two captured al-Qa'ida operatives, one of whom was subjected to waterboarding.
Hayden emerged to face a battery of reporters and TV cameras there is no hotter topic in Washington these days than "waterboarding", the odious technique of simulated drowning, which is torture by any other name. But precisely what he told the closed-door meetings of the House and Senate Congressional intelligence committees, he would not say. Nor were the panels' members, sworn not to reveal the slightest details of such testimony, any more forthcoming.
What we do know, however, is that the tapes were made in 2002, and that in 2003 two senior members of each committee were told by the CIA that the tapes existed. In 2005, lawyers for Zacarias Moussaoui the one-time "20th hijacker" of 9/11 who was arrested a few days before the attacks asked to see any interrogation tapes of al-Qa'ida suspects, claiming that these might prove their client was not involved in the conspiracy. The CIA first denied there were any such tapes. Then it got rid of them.
Earlier this month, however, The New York Times broke the news that the tapes had indeed existed, but had been destroyed. Given the controversy over waterboarding, an almighty row was guaranteed, even though the CIA appears to have stopped the practice back in 2003. Congress, the Justice Department and the agency itself all announced investigations into whether the CIA had lied to the courts, and whether it had illegally destroyed evidence that it might have engaged in torture.
Almost certainly, though, the huffing and puffing will lead nowhere. The CIA says the videotapes contained nothing illegal, and no one can now prove otherwise. But one result is guaranteed: a further blow to what remains of the morale and prestige of the most famous US espionage agency. There may be no fewer than 16 such organisations, but when you think America and spies, the three letters that come to mind are C-I-A. And when this fracas has subsided, the problem that has bedevilled the country for half a century will still remain. How, in a system founded on openness and checks and balances, are spies and intelligence officers supposed to do their job?
The fact is that the US is simply not very good at spying. Maybe that has something to do with the mostly cheerful and straightforward nature of its citizens undevious optimism is not normally a passport to success as a spy. A second reason is, or at least used to be, complacency after the Soviet Union, the lone global challenger of the US, was no more. None other than Richard Helms, a former director of the CIA (of whom more in a moment), scornfully declared after the end of the Cold War that the US "doesn't have enough interest in what's going on in the world to organise and run an espionage service".
After the deafening wake-up call of 9/11, you can't say that any more. Whatever else, the US government is interested in what happens abroad. But to judge by the fiasco over Saddam's WMD, and now the abrupt reversal over Iran's nuclear programme, the spies don't seem to have got much better. But, then again, maybe the system won't let them. For the CIA is trapped between America's ideals and the grubby reality of its trade. The country wants an effective spy service, and one that believes in itself. But Americans also want to know exactly what it's up to, and are outraged when the spies transgress America's image of itself. So far no one has managed to square the circle.
So the CIA falls between two stools. When it would be better off being more open, it's too private for instance, the stonewalling secrecy that surrounded Hayden's visit to Capitol Hill. But when secrecy seems the obvious course, the CIA isn't secretive enough. Take the waterboarding controversy. The strangest part is not that the CIA destroyed the tapes, nor even that it made them in the first place. It is that it felt obliged to reveal their existence to the four members of Congress.
Whether MI5 or MI6 have subjected people to waterboarding or other proscribed "enhanced interrogation techniques" to extract information, I have no idea. But if they did, and if they chose to videotape what they were doing, I can't imagine they would ever inform any outsider of the fact. Nor, I suspect, would most outsiders want to be informed. One of the biggest attractions of intelligence services for governments is "deniability". If they help to keep us safe, we don't want to know how and don't ask how. In other words, don't ask, don't tell. That happens to be the unwritten rule here for gays in the military. If the CIA had a better track record, it would be a perfect formula for the spooks, too.
But Americans can't bring themselves to trust their spies, and, given the CIA's history, why should they? The proximate villains are the familiar ones of Vietnam, Richard Nixon and Watergate, and the revelations at the time that the intelligence agencies had been gathering political information on American citizens. As the scandal grew, so did the evidence of a White House and CIA seemingly out of control.
No one epitomises this contradiction between ideals and reality better than Richard Helms. He was CIA director between 1966 and 1973 and, unlike most of those who preceded and followed him, was an intelligence professional. He spoke fluent French and German, and had served with the agency's forerunner, the OSS, in special operations in central Europe during the Second World War.
He went on to become CIA station chief in Vietnam during the 1963 coup that toppled President Diem. Promoted to director by Lyndon Johnson, he supervised the covert US efforts to overthrow President Allende in Chile (which actually happened a few months after he was fired in 1973 by Nixon for disloyalty, of all things, after Helms had skilfully kept the CIA out of the worst of the Watergate mess).
He then gained the distinction of becoming the only CIA chief to be convicted of lying under oath to Congress, over the agency's secret activities in Chile. For the public, he was the personification of an agency run amok. But his conviction made him proud, and his colleagues loved him so much for his omerta, that they had a whipround to pay the fine that went with the two-year suspended jail term.
For the CIA it has been downhill ever since. After failing to prevent 9/11 and getting Iraq so wrong, it has been demoted. No longer does it sit atop the US spy community, but must now report to the Director of National Intelligence, a post created in 2004. But some would argue that what the CIA needs is not demotion, but abolition. That way at least, it wouldn't have to be accountable.Reuse content