I am about to break some news here, people. Brace yourselves, America.
The CIA breaks laws. All the time. All over the world.
It does so pretty much every single day of the year. It breaks any laws it needs to, with the exception of U.S. laws, to get its job done. The CIA does not break American laws. That would be illegal for the CIA, and against its charter. Every other country’s laws, though? Oh yes. Those are merely roadblocks to the collection of valuable intelligence.
Now, despite my tongue-in-cheek opening sentence, I am not saying anything new here, hopefully. This is as well-known a fact as saying that members of the military (any military, anywhere) commit the act of killing—usually an illegal act—in the course of war. It is expected, and really, kind of the point once you strip away all of the political reasoning and geopolitical fluff from the execution of warfare.
The same is true for the CIA. CIA officers routinely and regularly break the laws of the countries in which they operate to steal secrets. Yes, steal secrets. They acquire information (intelligence) that is clandestine in nature, and by design meant to be kept secret from the government of the United States. They do it at the direction of the U.S. government, to further the aims and interests of the U.S. government. To paraphrase a classic movie, you want the CIA on that wall, you need them on that wall, collecting information that will keep America safe and aid her in the pursuit of her goals.
You might be asking me, rhetorically or even explicitly, “Fru, why are you telling us this? We know this.” To which I would probably have answered two weeks ago, “good point.” However, I am being forced to re-state this obvious fact on account of recent comments made by CIA Director John Brennan, to NPR, in the course of a wide-ranging interview. The exchange in quesiton, which has prompted me to restate the obvious, follows:
[Interviewer]: Let me turn you, as we start to wind our way toward the finish line here, toward a couple of big-picture, mission-of-the-agency questions. President Obama has signaled that one of his remaining ambitions is returning the CIA to its traditional roots—espionage, stealing secrets—reversing this trend we’ve seen toward a paramilitary force.
BRENNAN: We don’t steal secrets. Everything we do is consistent with U.S. law. We uncover, we discover, we reveal, we obtain, we elicit, we solicit. All of that.”
This brief exchange between interviewer and subject, and Brennan’s cute choice of words—his emphatic denial that the CIA “steals” secrets—has put many former agency employees into an uproar. An NBC news story laid out some of the criticism:
“Is he joking?” commented one former CIA operative.
“Every aspect of what the CIA does overseas is illegal,” commented another.
Underlying this exasperation on the part of many former CIA case officers is the belief that Brennan is somehow “anti-DO” (Directorate of Operations), referring to the agency’s clandestine, human intelligence-gathering directorate. Many think Brennan favors the CIA’s analytical side, from which the director came up through the agency, and wants the agency’s focus more on that side of agency activities.
While this author finds it hard to believe that Brennan does not appreciate the CIA’s operations arm, nor value its unmatched contributions to America’s intelligence collection, this minor brouhaha does illustrate that many former officials, and some still working at the agency, see Brennan’s efforts to reorganize the agency as harmful to its mission. They see him as trying to dilute the DO’s control over intelligence collection, even going so far as to appoint non-operations-certified officers as managers in overseas posts, overseeing intelligence collection operations.
Those CIA officers who run operations overseas have historically been trained in agency tradecraft, and certified as operations officers (otherwise known as case officers). These officers have been through The Farm, or an equivalent shorter ops course, and work for the DO throughout the majority of their careers. This is reportedly changing (slowly), such that analysts and non-operations-qualified personnel are being given those leadership roles more and more frequently. Many in the DO resent this fact on the grounds that those personnel are not qualified to oversee clandestine operations.
Regardless of this internal struggle over who should run CIA operations overseas, Brennan’s “we don’t steal” comment is clearly wrong, no matter what its intention. Yes, he might simply have meant to pour cold water over the idea that the CIA breaks U.S. laws, but he should not have denied that it steals secrets. Brennan should have instead emphasized that the agency collects secret information—steals it—on behalf of America, and at the direction of her government. Agency employees are proud to do so, and most have no doubt whatsoever that what they are doing, while illegal in the countries in which they operate, is nonetheless of immeasurable benefit to the republic and her citizens.
You can call it by any euphemism you want, but it is stealing secrets, plain and simple. Why try to rephrase it to make it sound less sinister? That does not fool anyone, nor help the intelligence collection mission in any way. Embrace it. Revel in it. Be thankful we do it. Despite what Bernie Sanders may think about the CIA, America needs the agency, and always will.