Who watches over those who watch over us? In the war on terrorism, it’s the CIA’s 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 Helgerson’s work. President George W. Bush’s critics are using the episode to accuse him of trying to kill Helgerson’s probes into the CIA’s overseas prisons. Perhaps, recalling Watergate, they hope to nail the president on an illegal cover-up. They won’t succeed, however, and in trying, they’re betraying long-cherished liberal ideals.

On Friday, for example, Democratic senator Ron Wyden of Oregon went over Hayden’s 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 they’re doing the right thing”—like conscientious CIA agents—“are not afraid of oversight.” That’s a strange thing for a liberal Democrat to say. Are people who know they’re doing the right thing also not afraid of having their mail read, their phones tapped, or their web-surfing watched? We’ve heard that idea from defenders of the president’s 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 oversight—if they think that they’re not being overseen fairly. As the Left itself has often contended, federal inquisitors like Helgerson aren’t 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 Helgerson’s impartiality. “The basis of it was the 9/11 report,” Richer told the Los Angeles Times, referring to the IG’s 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 IG’s reviews. Among the issues that Deitz will examine are whether CIA officers were allowed to explain their actions and whether Helgerson’s findings truthfully depicted the officers’ roles.

What’s wrong with that? When we’re accused of workplace malfeasance, shouldn’t we all have the chance to defend ourselves to our employers, and shouldn’t 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 president’s critics would be praising Hayden’s probe, not protesting it.

Instead, they’re 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 agency’s 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 IG’s 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 IG’s probe into the CIA’s overseas prisons, but its 9/11 inquiry.

Second, the Times’s 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 CIA’s 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 IG—not only by ignoring his recommendations, but by prohibiting him from launching probes. Though Hayden can ask the president, or the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency, to probe the IG, he isn’t compelled to outsource the work to either party.

On the Times’s 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 general”—an 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. That’s the reason for Hayden’s 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 agency’s 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 Hayden’s 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 president’s policies, in Iraq or Guantánamo, is irrelevant to whether they deserve a fair shake. The president’s opponents should stick to criticizing his policies, and let the CIA watch its watchman.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next