The WPost’s David Ignatius Pens Another Exculpatory Brief for CIA
[cross-post submitted Jul 23rd, 2009: The Public Record ]
By Melvin A. Goodman
David Ignatius, the mainstream media’s leading apologist for the Central Intelligence Agency, has written another exculpatory brief for the CIA. In today’s Washington Post, Ignatius defends the CIA’s assassination program and implies that no investigation is needed since “nobody had been killed.”
A week ago, Ignatius argued that it was “just plain nuts” to have an investigation and that CIA operatives would refuse assignments in counterterrorism in the wake of any investigation. What Ignatius doesn’t do is discuss the legal and moral implications of a secret assassination program or the CIA’s tortured history in this field.
The CIA is no stranger to the field of assassination where they have contributed to numerous disasters. Revelations of assassination plots in Cuba, the Congo, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam in the early 1960–at the direction of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations–led to a ban on CIA political assassinations in the mid-1970s. None of these assassination attempts helped U.S. national security interests, and all of them led to increased violence, even terrorism.
An assassination plot against Patrice Lumumba in the Congo led to the emergence of Mobutu Sese Seku, the most evil tyrant in modern African history. CIA’s covert actions against the democratically elected Salvador Allende led to the emergence of Augusto Pinochet.
Ignatius discusses CIA training of a Lebanese assassination team after the 1983 bombings of the U.S. embassy and the Marine barracks, but fails to mention the team’s only operation. In 1985, the CIA-trained team set off a car bomb that killed 80 innocent people in Beirut and wounded 200. The devastation, fires, and collapsed buildings from the bomb killed, hurt, or terrorized anyone who happened to be in the immediate neighborhood.
The target of the bomb, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, escaped without injury, and his supporters placed a “Made in the USA” banner in front of a building that had been blown out. In that same year, despite the ban on political assassination, the CIA demonstrated its contempt for the ban and produced a manual for the Contras that discussed “neutralizing” officials in Nicaragua.
Ignatius does not discuss the Phoenix operation in Vietnam, where the CIA ran a paramilitary campaign of arrest, interrogation, torture, and assassination that targeted many innocent victims. William Colby ran this program from 1968 to 1971 and, when he became CIA director in the mid-1970s, he decided to share sensitive intelligence on the assassination plots with the Church Commission because of his regrets over the Phoenix program.
Nor does Ignatius mention the CIA training of death squads in Central America, including Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. The CIA misled the congress about most of these actions, and we still lack complete information on CIA support for the repressive regime in Guatemala over a forty-year period. All of these activities raised serious questions about the judgment and objectivity of high-ranking CIA officials and demonstrated that these illegal covert activities are addictive to some operational officers.
It is noteworthy that Ignatius relies on his information from retired and active clandestine operatives who seem to have no difficulty in passing sensitive information, including operational code names, to a sympathetic journalist like Ignatius. Three years ago, however, an officer in the Office of the Inspector General was fired and frog-marched out of CIA headquarters for having unauthorized conversations with journalists.
Her name was Mary McCarthy, and she accused senior Agency officials of lying to congress about detentions and interrogations, the very abuses that cause Ignatius no concern. CIA director Leon Panetta must understand that such a double standard exists at the CIA and he should wonder why it took him five months to learn about the secret assassination program. And perhaps he should make sure that a new statutory Inspector General is named at the CIA to replace the one who announced his retirement five months ago.
Even democracies must rely on secret intelligence for their survival, but the role of a secret intelligence agency in a democracy will always be difficult and occasionally controversial. The CIA’s role in torture and abuse, secret prisons, and extraordinary renditions is an example of the illegal and immoral activity that can take place without proper leadership.
These activities must be investigated, and CIA director Panetta was certainly correct to report any assassination program to the congress, even one that had not conducted any assassinations. When the CIA oversteps its moral and legal boundaries, it must be stopped.
Just as illicit CIA actions during the Vietnam War and Iran-contra led to the introduction of reforms, the CIA’s unlawful activities in the wake of the Iraq War must be examined and never repeated. Unfortunately, Ignatius believes that such a period of discovery will weaken the CIA; it is more likely to strengthen the CIA. The creation of a congressional oversight process in the 1970s was an important reform; the creation of a statutory Inspector General in the 1980s was another.
Ignatius may be a Robert Ludlum wannabe, but he should realize that there are no Jason Bournes at the Central Intelligence Agency.
Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, is The Public Record’s National Security and Intelligence columnist. He spent 42 years with the CIA, the National War College, and the U.S. Army. His latest book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA.