CIA: Flouting The Law Or Enforcing It?

When Central Intelligence Agency historians sit down to write the chapter on events of this spring, they'll have a lot of ground to cover.

Newly declassified Justice Department memos have reignited the debate over whether CIA interrogation practices were legal and moral and whether they worked. At Wednesday's Judiciary Committee hearings FBI interrogators were questioned about whether the techniques worked as well.

As investigations into those questions proceed, the CIA finds itself in the center ring of what's become a Washington political circus.

That's a familiar spot for the spy agency.

Former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke sees it as just another chapter in the CIA's "bipolar" history.

"They're either very, very aggressive and in historical terms go overboard," he says. "Or they're in one of these periods where they're recovering from an investigation. And then they go into five, 10 years of being risk averse. It's a pendulum swinging from one extreme to the other. They can never seem to get it right."

The CIA doesn't agree.

Back in 1947 when the CIA was created, its job was clear and simple: fight the Soviets. The agency worked largely in the shadows, out of the view of the prying eyes of Congress. The big issues then were revelations of domestic spying and rumors of assassination plots against foreign leaders.

Finally on Jan. 27, 1975, the Senate voted to establish what came to be known as the Church Committee.

Sen. Frank Church was a liberal Democrat from Idaho. He presided over 21 public hearings. At the first hearing, he pulled out a poison dart gun — evidence, he said, that the CIA was violating a presidential order by keeping a stock of shellfish toxin that could kill thousands.

As a result of the Church investigation, both the Senate and the House created permanent committees to monitor the CIA.

The White House stepped up oversight. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was born, to help prevent unauthorized spying on Americans.

And some, like Richard Clarke, argue that the Church investigation also gave birth to a cycle — that persists today.

Clarke tracks the cycle like this: After the Church Committee came years when the CIA was reluctant to take risks.

Then came the 1980s, and the Iran-Contra scandal — an illegal operation selling weapons to Iran and funneling the profits to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

CIA officials hold a different view of the agency's history.

George Tenet, who led the CIA from 1997 until 2004, told the 9/11 Commission, "The idea that they're risk averse, couldn't get the job done, weren't forward-leaning ... I'm sorry, I've heard those comments and I just categorically reject them."

What is beyond dispute, says Richard Armitage, is that in those first few years after Sept. 11, the CIA was under "almost unbelievable" pressure. Armitage, who was deputy secretary of state from 2001 to 2005, says the agency was racing to deliver intelligence that would prevent another attack.

"They wanted to be in a position, I believe, of leaving no stone unturned," he says. "But they also wanted to stay inside the law. Because they realized that if history is a guide, they're the ones left holding the bag."

The torture memos that have caused such a stir represent the views of top Bush administration lawyers in response to requests from the CIA for guidance on how far it could go to get suspected terrorists to talk.

Loch Johnson, a former Church Committee staffer, disagrees with the picture of a rogue agency that swings back and forth between flouting the law and cowering behind it.

Johnson, who is now a professor at the University of Georgia, sees instead a nation conflicted over what it wants from its spies, and presidents who change the rules.

"I would fault the Bush administration for not being a little better in clarifying what those boundaries were," Johnson says. "And indeed sometimes inventing new boundaries. So I think we unfortunately, in responding to the 9/11 crisis, entered a domain in which we began to erase some of the boundaries that the Church Committee had established — much to the detriment of the country's reputation around the world."

For CIA officers working in the field today, the debate over whether Bush administration attorneys pushed the agency to become more aggressive, or whether it was the other way around, are somewhat academic.

Bob Baer, who worked undercover for the CIA for 21 years, says his takeaway from recent events is this: "It's always the CIA that gets the blame at the end of the day. You go back to the Bay of Pigs. And the CIA always salutes and says, 'Yes, we'll do it.' And then they get the blame. And it's unfortunate because the CIA, I still believe, is one of the few organizations in Washington that will tell a president the truth. And if we destroy that through this process, we're going to be sorry for it."

On Capitol Hill, the Senate Intelligence Committee is in the middle of a yearlong investigation of CIA interrogation practices.

The chairwoman of the committee, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, is asking the very same question that Church posed back in 1975 when he asked "whether the CIA, together with other intelligence agencies, have been adhering strictly to the law."

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