Ever since 9/11, the biggest epithet an outsider can hurl at the CIA is that it’s “risk-averse.” Nothing, but nothing, rankles agency officials and operatives more than hearing that they’re not willing to do whatever it takes to defend the country. So when agency officials start throwing knives at one another, it’s the charge that someone has contributed to risk-aversion, real or perceived, that cuts the deepest. Looking back, that’s exactly what Mike Hayden did when he released Inspector General John Helgerson’s report into the CIA and 9/11 in August.
Helgerson found compounding layers of incompetence and fault among senior agency officials, especially then-Director George Tenet, in a Congressionally-mandated review he completed in 2005. The report was only released to the public after Congress placed a provision mandating disclosure in this year’s bill compelling the implementation of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations. In releasing the report, Hayden blasted Helgerson for unfairly maligning the agency, and suggested that excessive criticism like Helgerson’s would have a “chilling effect” on energetic CIA action against terrorism:
I thought the release of this report would distract officers serving their country on the frontlines of a global conflict. It will, at a minimum, consume time and attention revisiting ground that is already well plowed. I also remain deeply concerned about the chilling effect that may follow publication of the previously classified work, findings, and recommendations of the Office of Inspector General.
Helgerson criticized Tenet for failure to properly manage what he considered, in many cases, competent and innovative work against al-Qaeda. His chief recommendation, the creation of an accountability board to recommend potential punishment for Tenet and his top deputies, was declined by both Hayden and his predecessor, Porter Goss.
Now it’s the turn of critics of Hayden’s investigation into Helgerson to accuse someone of having a chilling effect — in this case, a chilling effect on internal investigations of potential wrongdoing. Perhaps that’s a counter-chilling effect, since outside or inside inquiry seems to be, to many at CIA, what’s responsible for causing perceived aversion to risk. Either way, Hayden’s move is likely to chip at one of the most powerful bulwarks against CIA misconduct. “The role of CIA IG is extremely important, at least potentially, because it entails a degree of access that surpasses even that of Congressional oversight committees,” explains Steven Aftergood, an intelligence expert with the Federation of American Scientists. “In principle, the IG can go anywhere and see anything. If he is so inclined, he can be a voice of law and sanity in places where these are otherwise absent.”
It’s hard to know how powerful Helgerson is, Aftergood continues, “since almost all of his work product is classified and leaves no public trace.” But one thing’s for sure: after Hayden’s inquiry, the inspector general is sure to be diminished. Whether that leads to a less risk-averse CIA remains to be seen.