Is the CIA Entitled to Complete Secrecy? New York Times reporter Tim Weiner, who has written about the CIA's history of avoiding responsibility, discusses the balance between the needs of the agency and a democratic society.
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Is the CIA Entitled to Complete Secrecy?

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Is the CIA Entitled to Complete Secrecy?

Is the CIA Entitled to Complete Secrecy?

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.


I'm Madeleine Brand.

The news about the CIA destroying interrogation tapes and the battles in Congress and the courts to find out why - all that got us thinking: Hasn't the CIA been keeping secrets like this since it was created?

CHADWICK: Tim Weiner of the New York Times wrote a history of the CIA out this year. It's called "Legacy of Ashes."

Tim, welcome to DAY TO DAY.

And this whole debate about the destroyed videotapes centers on really a question of accountability. The agency has been accused of obstructing justice or refusing to cooperate for years, as far back as the Warren Commission, really, that investigated the assassination of President Kennedy. How does this go on?

Mr. WEINER: Well, the CIA has two instruments at its disposal when it wants to resist requests for information from Congress or the courts or presidential commission. And those weapons are secrecy and power. The CIA has secrecy that surrounds it, and the president has the power to shield the CIA from disclosing its secrets.

CHADWICK: In the '70s - now, this is 30 years ago - you had a whole series of questions about what the agency was doing. You had a series of reforms as well. That's when the congressional oversight committees were formed. And I mention the Warren Commission specifically because Gerald Ford was on that when he was a congressman. He later became president after Mr. Nixon resigned. And then as president Gerald Ford found out that the CIA had lied to him, had lied to the Warren Commission. Why couldn't he fix it? He's the president of the United States.

Mr. WEINER: Well, the problem was that Allen Dulles, the former director of Central Intelligence, was a member of the Warren Commission. And he made good and damn well sure that the Warren Commission never found out that at the time of the Kennedy assassination the CIA, on orders from presidents, had been trying to kill Fidel Castro.

The creation of the congressional intelligence committees, which was a big struggle and took years, was supposed to move the CIA kind of equidistant between the White House and the Capitol so that those two branches of government, as well as the courts, would have some control over what the CIA did and how it did it. And oversight has two meanings: to oversee and to oversleep. And in recent years, the CIA has been, shall we say, neglected by the congressional intelligence oversight committees.

CHADWICK: Is the CIA truly accountable? Can it truly be accountable to Congress, or is it accountable just to the president?

Mr. WEINER: It must now, under law, be accountable to both, and to the courts, and to commissions like the 9/11 Commission. And this latest struggle over the videotaping of prisoners who were waterboarded is the latest tug of war between secrecy on the one hand and openness on the other. We've been doing this for 60 years now, trying to run a secret intelligence service in an open American democracy. And we can't quite get it straight.

CHADWICK: We can't quite get it straight. But in your book, I think you would say that in this struggle that's been going on for 60 years, the CIA has won, secrecy has won every single one of those encounters.

Mr. WEINER: Not everyone. The CIA has been compelled to give up a lot of its secrets. We are trying to run a secret intelligence service and hold it accountable. The problem is this. Everything the CIA does overseas is illegal. Snatching people and grabbing them and putting them in prison and interrogating them outside Geneva Conventions and other conventions is illegal, but that's what intelligence services do overseas. The CIA officer overseas is a species of legal criminal, and that's okay. That's how the game is played. The problem is that when they come back to Washington, old habits die hard, and they keep secrets from their fellow Americans, who have the right to know.

CHADWICK: Is there a case in the history of the CIA that is analogous to these interrogation videotapes that have been destroyed, perhaps contravening a specific order from a judge not to destroy this kind of material?

Mr. WEINER: There is nothing precisely on point. There are a lot of cases where the CIA and CIA directors have destroyed documents that nowadays they would probably think twice about destroying. There have been a lot of cases where senior CIA officers have been indicted, in one case convicted, for obstructing justice. This was in the Iran-Contra case. All those folks were pardoned the day before Christmas 1992 by President Bush the elder.

CHADWICK: Who is the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the man for whom the Central Intelligence Agency buildings there in Langley, Virginia are named.

Mr. WEINER: And fiercely loyal to it to this day. Now, back in 1973, when the director of Central Intelligence, Richard Helms, was about to leave office to become the ambassador to Iran, he confronted a number of situations; two decisions he made to destroy everyone of the documents that he could find pertaining to the CIA's experiments with mind control, with the use of LSD on unsuspecting guinea pigs back in the '50s.

But then Helms was asked under oath in an open hearing: Have you all in the CIA been trying to overthrow the government of Chile? No, senator, he said, no sir. Helms was caught between two oaths, his oath to keep the secrets and his oath to tell the truth.

CHADWICK: Well, he was caught. That was a misdemeanor. He didn't have to go to jail or anything. But it does point up what you note again and again in the book. There's a very good argument that this country needs people to gather intelligence and protect the secrets, as Mr. Helms said he was doing. But you're skeptical that the CIA can actually function in this open democratic society, function successfully as an intelligence agency because, as you report in your book, it gets beat by other intelligence agencies regularly.

Mr. WEINER: Well, also, you cannot run a superpower without an intelligence service. What we do is project our power overseas. You want an intelligence service to look over the horizon for you. But here we have a situation with these videotaped interrogations that is a classic dilemma for CIA and for American citizens.

The CIA was ordered by the president of the United States to go grab suspected terrorists, throw them in secret prisons, and interrogate them roughly. But it was acting under what it believed to be lawful orders from the president of the United States. It videotaped these interrogations, probably not a good idea, but at the time it seemed like the right thing to do, and then finds itself in this dilemma. If those tapes had ever gotten out, the reputation of this country would suffer. And the decision to destroy them, I think, was less a decision about keeping secrets than it was to protect the reputation of this nation.

CHADWICK: Tim Weiner of the New York Times. His history of the CIA published this year is "Legacy of Ashes."

Tim Weiner, thank you.

Mr. WEINER: Thank you, Alex.

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