CIA Partisans and White House

Up until the nineteenth century, federal jobs were patronage positions awarded on the basis of a spoils system. When a president took office, he filled federal positions with those who had supported him. The result was that jobs could be filled with incompetent, yet politically loyal partisans. As the government grew, this lack of professionalism became a greater and greater disadvantage. To alleviate this situation, Congress passed the Pendleton Civil Service Act in 1883 to protect federal workers from political influence and to create a Civil Service that hired and promoted on the basis of merit rather than political connection.

The Civil Service System protects both federal workers and politicians. While political appointees are responsible for representing the policies of elected officials, the bulk of the Civil Service can provide professional, non-partisan support. Of course, most federal positions do not require any particular political perspective. The day-to-day operations of most aspects of government are apolitical.

However, at the higher echelons of government the distinction between the political and the professional begin to blur. Policy and the implementation of policy are so intertwined that non-political appointees may influence policy. Nonetheless, whenever civil servants believe that it is within their prerogative to deliberately circumvent policy from elected officials, they begin to undermine both democracy and the Civil Service. This becomes particularly dangerous when this happens in intelligence agencies. A Commerce Department that strays is not nearly as dangerous as an intelligence agency that seeks to directly circumvent the direction of elected officials. This is what makes the most recent actions by individuals in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) so worrisome.

Some of the current problems began with Ambassador Joseph Wilson. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, on the basis of his wife’s recommendation, Wilson was sent to Niger to look into the extent that Iraq was seeking uranium yellow cake. This might indicate Iraq intentions with regard to Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The selection of Wilson for the trip was peculiar at best given that he had no background in investigation or nuclear technology. When he returned, he was not required to file a written report on this sensitive issue. Even more abnormal was the fact that Wilson was not, as is the usual practice, compelled to sign a confidentiality agreement. This left him free to pen a Bush-bashing piece in the New York Times. Over time, the 9/11 Commission Report debunked much of what Wilson wrote. However, given all the irregularities, as Victoria Toensing, former Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Reagan Administration explains, the “CIA conduct in this matter is either a brilliant covert action against the White House or inept intelligence tradecraft.”

Before the 2004 election, the book Imperial Hubris, critical of the Bush Administration was published anonymously by a CIA employee. Ultimately, Michael Scheuer revealed himself as the author. CIA employees sign a confidentiality agreement which requires that any open publications be vetted by the CIA. Usually such vetting is a pull-and-tug affair with disagreements at the single-word level. Scheuer first had problems when speaking publicly about the book when the CIA thought it was being criticized, but according to Scheuer, “As long as the book was being used to bash the president, they gave me carte blanche to talk to the media.”

Most recently, Mary McCarthy was fired from the CIA for leaking highly-classified information. The popular assumption is that she was the source of the leaks about the CIA detention of high-level Al Qaeda operatives in East European facilities. McCarthy was on the Clinton Administration National Security Council under Sandy Berger who was last seen pleading guilty to the unauthorized removal of classified documents. After the Clinton Administration ended, McCarthy found her way back to the CIA, but remained politically active, contributing substantially to the John Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee. There is some suspicion that her leaks were politically motivated to embarrass the Bush Administration.

The leaks from McCarthy were especially troublesome because it revealed an ongoing covert operation and identified companies that were involved. This certainly added risk to individuals acting on behalf of the United States.

Some argue that Mary McCarthy was a whistle blower nobly revealing inappropriate and perhaps illegal government activity. However, such an argument ignores the special and unique position of trust Mary McCarthy held. She was entrusted with classified information, upon which perhaps people’s lives and intelligence sources depend.

If McCarthy was acting on the basis of conscience, there are a number of honorable actions she could have taken. She could have vigorously fought within the CIA for her position. She could have gone with her concerns to members of the Senate or House Intelligence Committees who had the appropriate clearances. Finally she could have resigned in protest. By not following this route she undermines her case for conscientious objection. Instead, she hid in anonymity and selectively leaked to the press. Perhaps she was brave in risking exposure, but certainly her acts were not principled, noble, or honorable.

One can measure the transformation of the Left over during the Bush Administration. The Left once considered the CIA the embodiment of evil, but now is happy if certain members of the CIA deliberately undermine civilian leadership, so long as that leadership is President George W. Bush.

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