Who watches over those who watch over us? In the war on terrorism, its the CIAs inspector general, or IG. His name is John Helgerson. Yet who watches over him? That would be his boss, Michael Hayden, who has reportedly launched a review of Helgersons work. President George W. Bushs critics are using the episode to accuse him of trying to kill Helgersons probes into the CIAs overseas prisons. Perhaps, recalling Watergate, they hope to nail the president on an illegal cover-up. They wont succeed, however, and in trying, theyre betraying long-cherished liberal ideals.
On Friday, for example, Democratic senator Ron Wyden of Oregon went over Haydens head and asked the director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, to stop the inspection of the inspector general. After all, Wyden told the New York Times, People who know theyre doing the right thinglike conscientious CIA agentsare not afraid of oversight. Thats a strange thing for a liberal Democrat to say. Are people who know theyre doing the right thing also not afraid of having their mail read, their phones tapped, or their web-surfing watched? Weve heard that idea from defenders of the presidents surveillance policies on occasion, but never from his critics. Instead, the critics have warned us that unscrutinized scrutiny is un-American.
Contrary to what Wyden says, people doing the right thing do fear oversightif they think that theyre not being overseen fairly. As the Left itself has often contended, federal inquisitors like Helgerson arent infallibly fair. To judge from the press accounts, senior agency officers have been crying foul since 2005, when Robert Richer, assistant deputy director for operations, fired off a memo to then-director Porter J. Goss, requesting that he review Helgersons impartiality. The basis of it was the 9/11 report, Richer told the Los Angeles Times, referring to the IGs review of missteps before the September 11 attacks. Since then, the list of grievances against the IG has only grown.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Helgerson is accused of treating career officers unfairly and letting personal biases undermine his objectivity. A former high-ranking CIA officer told the paper about across-the-board distrust with the IG function and disrespect for Helgerson, who many believe has a personal agenda on issues and who always went in with a presumption of guilt. In response to these complaints, Hayden has asked a specialist in national security law, former National Security Agency general counsel Robert L. Deitz, to review the IGs reviews. Among the issues that Deitz will examine are whether CIA officers were allowed to explain their actions and whether Helgersons findings truthfully depicted the officers roles.
Whats wrong with that? When were accused of workplace malfeasance, shouldnt we all have the chance to defend ourselves to our employers, and shouldnt their verdicts on our actions be truthful? Were those questions asked in other inquiries, even within the CIA, the press would likely be clamoring for answers. If, for example, the IG faced accusations of bias against Muslim translators, female station chiefs, or gay code clerks, the presidents critics would be praising Haydens probe, not protesting it.
Instead, theyre playing politics. In its lead editorial on Sunday, the New York Times made the affair Exhibit A in its case that President Bush cannot be trusted. The Times fumed that Hayden was investigating the office of his agencys inspector general after it inquired into policies on detention and interrogation. This improper, perhaps illegal investigation sends a clear message of intimidation.
Those two sentences mislead on at least three counts. First, they imply that Hayden is investigating the IGs office because it inquired into policies on detention and interrogation. In fact, as the Times itself reported on October 12, Hayden is investigating the office because it has frustrated and angered senior officers . . . with what they consider to be unfair and drawn-out investigations, which have derailed careers and generated steep legal bills for officers under scrutiny. The impetus for the investigation, as Richer has emphasized, is not the IGs probe into the CIAs overseas prisons, but its 9/11 inquiry.
Second, the Timess editorial board will not find in this affair the article of impeachment that it seeks. Fudge-words aside, is not even perhaps illegal for the CIAs director to assess whether his inspector general is inspecting fairly. The 1989 legislation governing the IG says nothing of the kind. To the contrary, the law makes clear that the CIA director can ride herd on the IGnot only by ignoring his recommendations, but by prohibiting him from launching probes. Though Hayden can ask the president, or the Presidents Council on Integrity and Efficiency, to probe the IG, he isnt compelled to outsource the work to either party.
On the Timess own terms, sending this issue higher up the executive ladder for resolution would seem the worst option of all. For if the president long ago showed he cannot be trusted, then one would think that turning this inquiry over to the president or his council would be the greater evil. Yet the Times blithely says that doing so would preserve the independence of the inspector generalan editorializing judgment that an October 11 article, allegedly a piece of reporting, states as fact.
Finally, as the Times originally reported, it is the inspector general himself who stands accused of intimidation. Thats the reason for Haydens probe. As one former CIA official told the paper: These are good people who thought they were doing the right thing. . . . And now they are getting beat up pretty bad and they have to go out and hire a lawyer.
The history of the CIA brims with inquiries that cowed our spies and ruined their careers. During the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy red-baited CIA officials like Cord Meyer for keeping the company that helped them penetrate the international labor movement. In 1961, then-IG Lyman Kirkpatrick used the agencys failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs to settle scores with bureaucratic rivals who, he thought, had stymied his path to the top slot. Less than a decade ago, the FBI tore the CIA apart looking for a Russian mole who, in the end, turned out to be an FBI agent, Robert Hansen.
Critics of Haydens inquiry may say that the administration has left itself open to the appearance of interference. But appearance is not reality, except in Washington. In the real world, even in the secret world, we quality-control justice by appeal. CIA officers have accordingly appealed to Hayden, and he has decided to hear their case. That some of these officers have may carried out the presidents policies, in Iraq or Guantánamo, is irrelevant to whether they deserve a fair shake. The presidents opponents should stick to criticizing his policies, and let the CIA watch its watchman.
Mark Riebling, director of the Book Program at the Manhattan Institute, is the author of Wedge: The Secret War between the CIA and FBI (Knopf).