Security Before Politics
May 7, 2009
Since leaving my post as CIA director almost three
years ago, I have remained largely silent on the
public stage. I am speaking out now because I feel
our government has crossed the red line between
properly protecting our national security and trying
to gain partisan political advantage. We can't have
a secret intelligence service if we keep giving away
all the secrets. Americans have to decide now.
A disturbing epidemic of amnesia seems to be
plaguing my former colleagues on Capitol Hill. After
the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, members of the
committees charged with overseeing our nation's
intelligence services had no higher priority than
stopping al-Qaeda. In the fall of 2002, while I was
chairman of the House intelligence committee, senior
members of Congress were briefed on the CIA's "High
Value Terrorist Program," including the
development of "enhanced interrogation techniques"
and what those techniques were. This was not a
one-time briefing but an ongoing subject with lots
of back and forth between those members and the
Today, I am slack-jawed to read that members claim
to have not understood that the techniques on which
they were briefed were to actually be employed; or
that specific techniques such as "waterboarding"
were never mentioned. It must be hard for most
Americans of common sense to imagine how a member of
Congress can forget being told about the
interrogations of Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik
Mohammed. In that case, though, perhaps it is not
amnesia but political expedience.
Let me be clear. It is my recollection that:
▪ The chairs and the ranking minority members of the
House and Senate intelligence committees, known as
the Gang of Four, were briefed that the CIA was
holding and interrogating high-value terrorists.
▪ We understood what the CIA was doing.
▪ We gave the CIA our bipartisan support.
▪ We gave the CIA funding to carry out its
▪ On a bipartisan basis, we asked if the CIA needed
more support from Congress to carry out its mission
I do not recall a single objection from my
colleagues. They did not vote to stop authorizing
CIA funding. And for those who now reveal filed
"memorandums for the record" suggesting concern,
real concern should have been expressed immediately
-- to the committee chairs, the briefers, the House
speaker or minority leader, the CIA director or the
president's national security adviser -- and not
quietly filed away in case the day came when the
political winds shifted. And shifted they have.
Circuses are not new in Washington, and I can see
preparations being made for tents from the Capitol
straight down Pennsylvania Avenue. The CIA has been
pulled into the center ring before. The result this
time will be the same: a hollowed-out service of
diminished capabilities. After Sept. 11, the general
outcry was, "Why don't we have better overseas
capabilities?" I fear that in the years to come this
refrain will be heard again: once a threat -- or God
forbid, another successful attack -- captures our
attention and sends the pendulum swinging back.
There is only one person who can shut down this
dangerous show: President Obama.
Unfortunately, much of the damage to our
capabilities has already been done. It is certainly
not trust that is fostered when intelligence
officers are told one day "I have your back" only to
learn a day later that a knife is being held to it.
After the events of this week, morale at the CIA has
been shaken to its foundation.
We must not forget: Our intelligence allies overseas
view our inability to maintain secrecy as a reason
to question our worthiness as a partner. These
allies have been vital in almost every capture of a
The suggestion that we are safer now because
information about interrogation techniques is in the
public domain conjures up images of unicorns and
fairy dust. We have given our enemy invaluable
information about the rules by which we operate. The
terrorists captured by the CIA perfected the act of
beheading innocents using dull knives. Khalid Sheik
Mohammed boasted of the tactic of placing explosives
high enough in a building to ensure that innocents
trapped above would die if they tried to escape
through windows. There is simply no comparison
between our professionalism and their brutality.
Our enemies do not subscribe to the rules of the
Marquis of Queensbury. "Name, rank and serial
number" does not apply to non-state actors but is,
regrettably, the only question this administration
wants us to ask. Instead of taking risks, our
intelligence officers will soon resort to
wordsmithing cables to headquarters while
opportunities to neutralize brutal radicals are
The days of fortress America are gone. We are the
world's superpower. We can sit on our hands or we
can become engaged to improve global human
conditions. The bottom line is that we cannot
succeed unless we have good intelligence. Trading
security for partisan political popularity will
ensure that our secrets are not secret and that our
intelligence is destined to fail us.