Last Updated: 8/3/10


President Obama's Most Inexplicable Failure

by: Melvin A. Goodman
July 15, 2010

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President Barack Obama has been a major disappointment to a liberal community that rallied to his call for genuine change. His administration has made no attempt to investigate the crimes that were committed by the Bush administration, including torture and abuse, secret prisons and renditions. President Obama rescued Wall Street, but not Main Street. And he has expanded the self-destructive war in Afghanistan, where there is no end in sight. President Obama cannot be blamed for the failure to close Guantanamo, but he continues to favor preventive detention. But the president's most inexplicable failure, in view of his Harvard Law School background and commitment to constitutional rights, is his unwillingness to name a statutory inspector general (IG) at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

First, some background. The CIA's transgressions in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s led to the creation of a statutory and independent IG, appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. A powerful IG was required because the CIA's internal investigations of its role in the sale of arms to Iran were inadequate in comparison with the investigations of Congressional and independent counsels. Until the creation of the statutory IG, Congressional oversight committees were not given full access to the CIA investigations, and not even the Justice Department received reports detailing suspected illegalities. The efforts of CIA director William Casey to prevent the attorney general from receiving reports on illegalities led Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) and David Boren (D-Oklahoma) to sponsor a bill to create an independent IG.

The most recent IG, John Helgerson, proved to be an effective watchdog. This earned him the ire of the last four CIA directors, who mounted an unprecedented attack on the the CIA's only genuinely independent watchdog. Helgerson retired in February 2009 and has not been replaced. Clearly, CIA management prefers to operate without oversight. But it is less clear why President Obama, apparently with the shocking support of Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-California), has chosen to name no successor to Helgerson.

It is essential to understand the important work of the CIA's IG. In 2004, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) produced the only official and authoritative study of the abuses of the CIA detentions and interrogations program. It also produced seminal studies of accountability for the 9/11 attacks as well as the CIA shooting down of a missionary plane in Peru in 2001 and its subsequent coverup of the shooting down. A former Deputy Director for Intelligence and Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, John Gannon, has labeled this work "vindictive," but it is simply the IG doing his job. The current CIA Director, Leon Panetta, has continued the policies of his three immediate successors (George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden), ensuring the absence of aggressive internal investigations. These directors have ignored provisions in the 1989 law that required them to inform Congress of attempts to hinder the IG in the execution of his duties.

President Obama is also continuing, if not intensifying, the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush. He is moving aggressively to punish unauthorized leaks to the press and to limit the actions of government whistleblowers. At the same time, the president and the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee have made sure that there are no outlets for legitimate whistleblowers. The Obama administration has resorted to a state security defense to prevent revelations of renditions policies in US courts and has threatened to cut off sensitive intelligence to Britain if a British court reveals details of the CIA renditions in Europe.

The current case of Thomas Drake, formerly with the National Security Agency (NSA), demonstrates President Obama's repressive approach. Drake appears to be a classic whistleblower; his revelations to the media were designed to strengthen NSA's capabilities in the exploitation of email and cell phone information. He did not reveal secret intelligence and did not go to the press until he failed to elicit responses from the IGs at the NSA and the Department of Defense as well as the Congressional intelligence committees. Nevertheless, Drake has been indicted for illegal "retention" of classified information and faces years in prison.

Neither President Obama nor Senator Feinstein has shown any interest in the criminal investigation of the CIA's destruction of videotapes five years ago that documented sadistic interrogations in CIA prisons. They are also fighting the use of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to strengthen Congressional oversight of the intelligence community, which was favored by CIA Director Panetta in the 1980s when he was a Congressman. Today, of course, Panetta opposes the use of GAO in oversight of the CIA.

Currently, the only entity with real oversight capability over the CIA is the OIG. President Obama's failure to name a statutory IG ensures that there will be neither oversight nor accountability in the intelligence community. The president is unwilling to address the CIA's controversial, possibly illegal, actions and is making sure that no internal oversight body does so. President Obama seems to have succumbed to what his favorite philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr termed the "false security to which all men are tempted" - the security of power.


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Melvin A. Goodman is national security and intelligence columnist for Truthout. He is senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.

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