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07.22.09

America's Unhappy Spies

Morale at the CIA is approaching 30-year lows, six insiders tell The Daily Beast’s Gerald Posner, as spies perceive that Barack Obama and Director Leon Panetta are hanging them out to dry.

Morale at the CIA is the lowest it’s been since the Jimmy Carter administration three decades ago, according to six current and former intelligence officials. These insiders paint a picture of an agency that, after eight years of a broad Bush-era mandate to take the covert lead in the war against terror, now collectively feels the Obama administration unfairly puts them under fire.

“We’ve gone from chasing the bad guys,” says one retired case officer, “to being portrayed as the bad guys ourselves.”

The officials, who all spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity due to fears of retribution and the continuing criminal investigation into the destruction of 92 al Qaeda interrogation videotapes, spent an average of 20 years at the Agency, with two having served during the Carter administration. All had expected that the election of a Democratic president would mean less free rein than the virtually unprecedented tenure under Bush. But a series of administration actions have amplified the early fears, not just sending the message that the good times are over, but making many in Langley feel the Agency has become a political football and that some senior officials might pay a criminal cost for the hard interrogation techniques authorized under Bush.

“We’ve gone from chasing the bad guys,” says one retired case officer, “to being portrayed as the bad guys ourselves. As other countries watch the government eviscerate its intelligence service, they just think we are crazy.”

My sources stressed the parallels to the Carter administration. After Carter’s election in 1976, he selected Admiral Stansfield Turner as the CIA chief, someone who shared the president’s skeptical view of the spy service. Turner conceded later years that he had been consistently outmaneuvered by an entrenched bureaucracy that treats hostile outsiders like a foreign enemy.

President Obama’s choice to head the CIA, Leon Panetta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff and director of the Management and Budget Office, is similarly suspect, according to those interviewed, both for his lack of experience and previous public criticism of the CIA. Even Senator Dianne Feinstein, the incoming chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, initially questioned Panetta’s qualifications when it turned out she was not briefed by the president on the selection and instead learned about it through news reports. "My position has consistently been,” said Feinstein, “that I believe the Agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time."

The six officials interviewed say uniformly there was hope early on when Obama had retained Stephen Kappes as the Agency's second-ranking official. Kappes had direct oversight of the Agency's network of secret prisons when he held, in succession, the top two jobs at the covert section from 2002 to 2004. But Panetta has not relied on Kappes and has sought his counsel infrequently. As the CIA has been pummeled by congressional attacks—especially House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s pointed charges that the Agency lied repeatedly to her and to Congress over what it was doing after the 9/11 attacks—insiders are upset that Panetta has not rushed to defend them.

The most-cited source of low morale: possible criminal prosecution of those involved in interrogating terror suspects. President Obama visited the Langley headquarters on April 20 and gave a pep talk to the Agency’s employees, promising that his administration wanted to put the issue of the Bush interrogation practices behind it, and no one at the CIA would be held accountable for following legal guidelines approved by the Justice Department under the Bush administration.

“Almost no one believed him when he said that,” says one officer. “And the next day proved he wasn’t to be trusted.”

The following day, Obama said that Attorney General Eric Holder would make the final decision about whether there would be any prosecutions. And against the advice of Panetta and other intelligence professionals, Obama released the text of Justice Department legal memos about interrogations, which revealed in brutal detail the legal authority the Agency had been given to torture terror captives.

And despite the president’s promise that CIA officers who relied on the Justice Department's advice wouldn't face prosecution, the worst fears of those in the Agency might be realized: Holder is now debating whether to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether the CIA operatives who questioned ranking al Qaeda operatives exceeded the legal guidelines that had been developed by the Justice Department. Holder is considering whether, for instance, the CIA interrogators used waterboarding with a greater frequency and a larger volume of water than what was approved by the Justice Department.

“This is precisely the type of shit that makes you want to do nothing,” says one of the current employees. “You get people coming in afterward, who are suits sitting at desks in Washington, and trying to judge what was happening in the field under conditions of extreme stress and pressure. Everyone seems to have forgotten what it was like after 9/11, how we all thought the next capture had information about where the follow-up attack to 9/11 would be.”

“What would be accomplished by appointing a prosecutor in a case where criminal intent would be so hard to prove,” asks a retired officer. “Will anyone go to jail? Probably not. But the only certain result is that it would damage some top careers and ensure that the Agency steers clear of areas like counterterrorism, where what is right or wrong depends on who is in charge of the politics.”

Although the number of employees who would be targets of such an inquiry would be small, and some within the CIA were never comfortable with Agency operatives acting as prison guards, any public fact-finding inquiry would be seen within the CIA as an unnecessary witch hunt. “Since some officers had to give testimony to the grand jury,” says a current officer, “that question of punishment looms over us every day.”

'If Panetta starts trying to feed people to that commission [special prosecutor], his tenure at CIA will be over,'' says Mark Lowenthal, a former assistant director of Central Intelligence for Analysis and Production, who was willing to talk on the record. ''If it happens, CIA people are not going to start plotting against the president, but they are going to withdraw from taking risks, and then the CIA becomes useless to the president.”

Critics inside the Agency point to the last member of Congress to hold the CIA director's job, Porter Goss, who caused an uproar when he hired several former Republican staff members to key Agency positions. So far Panetta hasn’t stacked his staff with outsiders, but he is hobbled by not having a particularly close relationship with the president.

“We got stuck with another Woolsey,” says one current intelligence analyst, referring to R. James Woolsey, Bill Clinton's first CIA director, who was so rarely asked into the Oval Office that he once joked that the small plane that crashed in 1994 on the White House lawn was just him trying to get a meeting with the president.

And Panetta has an additional obstacle that Woolsey never faced: He will have to answer to Admiral Dennis Blair, Obama’s choice as director of national intelligence, and someone who has let it be known that he does not consider the CIA to be the superstar of U.S. intelligence agencies.

Besides the view that Panetta is an outsider, with a weak connection to the president, and a less-than-enthusiastic view of the place he now runs, he’s also taken his own action that has caused great internal dissension: revealing to Congress last month the details of an eight-year-old program (that was never activated) to target and kill al Qaeda leaders. Senior CIA officials were so disturbed by Panetta’s disclosures and cessation of the program, that in a rare display of displeasure with a sitting director, Blair publicly defended the canceled operation.

In 2001, the CIA's then-Directorate of Operations considered using special teams to track down and kill al Qaeda leaders. The model was “Operation Wrath of God,” in which Israel's Mossad hunted down and killed the Black September terrorists that murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. But the CIA version never made it past the planning stages and was officially shelved in 2004. Five years later, Panetta officially killed it. He told Congress about it on June 24, only a day after learning about it. According to two current officers I interviewed, Panetta did not consult with Kappes before appearing before Congress, although Panetta’s defenders say Kappes was informed beforehand of what Panetta planned to disclose. What is indisputable is that some top officials inside Langley were steaming.

“Panetta could not have handled this worse,” says one Agency employee.

“Since I’ve been here,” adds a 16-year veteran, “morale has never been worse. We’re just being held hostage to politics. When did we become the enemy?”

My accounts of low morale hit a nerve when I asked for a response from the normally restrained Agency, whose answer to internal controversies is often a blunt “no comment.” In this case, a CIA spokesman, George Little, spent several hours before getting back to me and making a spirited defense for Panetta, saying that, “he has stood up for this Agency’s officers. He has done so strongly and consistently. He has earned tremendous respect from rank-and-file officers by standing up to those who have questioned their integrity and their adherence to American law." The spokesman also denied that morale is low, contending that “a leading indicator of high morale” is an “attrition rate just over 2 percent, a historic low.” Little also cited 2008’s 120,000 job applications and this year’s expected 180,000 as further evidence that the CIA remained popular.

As for the specific criticisms from the six former and retired officials, Little says, ”Any suggestion that this Agency isn’t looked to for leadership on the terrorist threat is patently incorrect. When the director needs to talk to the president about unfolding counterterror operations or other pressing matters, it happens quickly.”

A U.S. official also went out of his way to point out that, “Panetta and Blair talk often—as you would expect—about a variety of national-security topics, and there’s no daylight between them in their shared commitment to protect the national security. When they’ve had differences, Panetta has helped work through them in a strong, rational way. That’s what the head of an independent federal agency should do, and CIA officers have taken notice.”

When I ran the CIA’s comments past one of the retired senior officers, he was not surprised. “This is the siege mentality in place,” he says. “They are circling the wagons to say there’s nothing wrong while those who actually are making the decisions and carrying out policies are as low as I’ve seen them in years.”

Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.