Leading article: America's unaccountable intelligence services

Radical solutions are needed to end this war of attrition with Congress

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So that was what all the fuss was about. The super-secret programme that the CIA withheld from Congress, apparently on the instructions of former Vice-President Dick Cheney, was a plan that would have set up hit teams to assassinate leaders of the al-Qa'ida terrorist group that carried out the horrific 9/11 attacks.

No matter that the scheme was never put into action. No matter that the CIA is regularly assassinating suspected terrorists by means of unmanned drones, without a squeak of protest from Capitol Hill. No matter even that Congress had in fact been informed about the thinking behind the programme. Yes, after revelation of previous such CIA misdeeds, President Gerald Ford in 1976 issued a presidential order banning assassination of foreign individuals. But President George W Bush in late 2001 partially rescinded this order with one of his own, that authorised the agency to pursue such efforts against al-Qa'ida.

However a wearily familiar ritual seems about to unfold. A Congressional committee has demanded documents from the CIA and a full-blown investigation seems likely. If so, the near certain result will be further confrontation between the agency and the politicians, further blows to CIA morale and, in all likelihood, further constraints on its operations.

In fact this affair is both a red herring and a symptom of far deeper problems that raise the issue of whether the US needs the CIA at all, at least as presently conceived. It is a red herring because a far more important investigation is the criminal one that Eric Holder, the Attorney General, may mount into whether CIA operatives broke the country's laws against torture in their interrogations of terrorist suspects. Such a probe would tackle a controversy that has sullied America's name around the world.

But it would also be a cop-out. The Obama administration has already made clear it will not go after the people ultimately responsible for these savage practices – not just the enabling apparatchik lawyers at the Bush Justice Department, but the top officials who most strongly advocated them, among them Mr Cheney. It would be manifestly wrong for these individuals to escape scot free if minions at the CIA are to be punished.

Yet the row over whether the agency illegally kept Congress in the dark over the assassination programme raises the even more basic question of how an intelligence service, whose activities by definition are secret, should be held accountable. That question is especially thorny in a system as open as that of America, when the intelligence service involved is as large and powerful as the CIA, and when the abuses – including torture and the uncharted "ghost camps" where the torture was often carried out – were as egregious as during the previous presidency. These latter have shamed the country. Equally undeniably, meddling by Congress has interfered with the CIA's ability to do its job.

The truth is that America has never come to terms with the CIA as currently constituted and probably never will. The country could do worse than take a fresh look at the proposal of the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York in the 1990s that the CIA should simply be abolished. Mr Moynihan argued that the State Department could be placed in charge of its intelligence gathering and analysis functions, while the CIA's paramilitary operations would be merged into the Pentagon's special operations side. This is a radical solution, but one surely preferable to the endless war of attrition between Congress and the CIA that nobody wins.

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