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Mary McCarthy's Tough Choice

With officials refusing to fulfill their oversight duties, the CIA officer was likely forced to choose between a silence she would regret and being punished for speaking out.
 
 
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As a 27-year-veteran of the CIA, I have one overwhelming reaction to the news that senior intelligence analyst Mary McCarthy has been fired for leaking information to the press on CIA's network of secret prisons abroad: She must have seen no alternative to stop the abuses.

It appears that McCarthy was one of the sources upon which Washington Post reporter Dana Priest relied for the prison scoop that won her a Pulitzer. The Post quoted an unnamed "former senior intelligence official" yesterday saying he thought a majority of CIA officers would probably agree with the firing of McCarthy. "A small number might support her, but the ethic of the business is not to leak," said the former official, adding that one should stay within official grievance channels.

That's what my colleague, CIA analyst Sam Adams, did 40 years ago--and came to rue the day. Through painstaking research, Adams discovered that Gen. William Westmoreland's staff in Saigon had been ordered to keep Communist force figures artificially low--about half the actual strength--in order to project a picture of progress. When the countrywide offensive at Tet in early 1968 gave the lie to Westmoreland's figures and vindicated Adams, Sam tried manfully to hold the culprits accountable by going to the CIA's and the Pentagon's inspectors general. He got the proverbial run-around, and some 30,000 additional U.S. troops and a million more Vietnamese fell before the war was over six years later. Adams was never able to shake his nagging remorse at the thought that he might have helped prevent further carnage, had he gone out of "official channels" and briefed his findings to the then-free mainstream press. He died at 55 when his heart gave out.

The tragedy of Sam Adams is well known, even to those, like Mary McCarthy, who joined the CIA many years after Sam left. From his present perch, I relish the thought that he is pleased that Mary may have learned a valuable lesson from the frustration he encountered by "staying within official grievance channels."

Like Sam, Mary McCarthy was an independent thinker, which she proved during her tenure as senior director for intelligence programs at the White House from 1998 to 2001. There she achieved some notoriety for the personal letter she sent President Bill Clinton, criticizing the flimsiness of the "intelligence" that led to the cruise missile strike on the Sudanese pharmaceutical plant that some suggested might be producing chemical warfare agent. She was correct, but then-CIA Director George Tenet vouched for the "evidence;" testosterone won the day; and they blew the place up.

Those paying attention to the issue of torture by the CIA and the Army will recall the tortured memorandum of January 25, 2002, authored by David Addington (then counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney and now Cheney's chief of staff) and signed by then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. That memo argued that "Geneva 's strict limitations on questioning enemy prisoners" were "obsolete" in the new war-on-terror paradigm. Still, Addington/Gonzales felt compelled to remind the president that U.S.criminal code--specifically the War Crimes Act (18 U.S.C. 2441), with its draconian penalties (including death)--could come into play.

That statute pins the "war crime" label on any grave breach of Geneva, like "outrages against personal dignity," regardless of whether the detainee qualifies as a prisoner of war. Addington and Gonzales warned the president of the danger that he could be prosecuted under that law by a future independent counsel, but reassured him that there is a "reasonable basis in law that Section 2441 does not apply, which would provide a solid defense to any future prosecution." That was good enough for President George W. Bush, who on Feb. 7, 2002, signed a memorandum saying that detainees should be treated humanely, "as appropriate and consistent with military necessity." And that is the loophole through which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld drove a Mack truck.

That infamous memorandum of Jan. 25 was leaked to Newsweek, which published it and others like it in May 2004. The reasoning was greeted with widespread scorn by the U.S. legal profession and in August 2004 roundly condemned by the American Bar Association, 12 former federal judges, former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, former FBI Director William Sessions and many others. The ABA formally condemned the administration's treatment of detainees and called upon it to "comply fully" with the U.S. Constitution and intern ational laws and conventions ratified by the U.S. that outlaw torture. It was that same year, 2004, when the torture of prisoners was depicted in the leaked photos from Abu Ghraib, that Mary McCarthy returned to the CIA from a sabbatical that followed her stint at the White House.

Those who have worked with her testify to her respect for law and regulation. That she had more than passing interest in, and respect for the law is suggested not only by her decision several years ago to attend law school at night, but also by the hackles she reportedly raised among operatives who saw her, in her White House role, as an annoying hindrance to aggressive tactics against terrorists.

Back at the CIA, Mary McCarthy assumed a position in the office of CIA Inspector General John Helgersen, who is responsible for intern al investigations of wrongdoing by the agency and has extraordinary access to secrets deprived to others under the need-to-know principle. It is well known that agency personnel who witnessed torture by the U.S. military in Guantanamo, for example, complained to superiors and to the White House. It is a safe bet that some agency officers also registered objections to "extraordinary rendition," including kidnapping and transporting "terrorist suspects" to so-called black prison camps for interrogation--"with the gloves off," in the swaggering words of then CIA chief counter-terrorism official Cofer Black (now a vice president with the defense contractor Blackwater USA). In addition, some CIA officers may have learned of the warrantless eavesdropping in violation of NSA's "eleventh commandment"--thou shall not spy on Americans. In any event, it is certainly safe to say that Helgersen's IG account had become a growth industry, with a requirement for all the professional help it could muster. When Mary McCarthy came on board, she became privy to complaints of a variety of abuses.

Sadly, common practice in such circumstances for someone at retirement age, as McCarthy was, is to hunker down, retire quietly with a healthy annuity, and then become something of a celebrity by writing a tell-all book and going on "60 Minutes." Not McCarthy. Given the courage and independence she showed in her earlier professional life together with her sensitivity to the law, it is a safe bet she tried hard to get management to address the more egregious abuses--torture and rendition, for example. It is an equally likely that she got no help from former Director George Tenet or current Director Porter Goss, both of them on the end of a tight leash held by Vice President Dick Cheney.

But couldn't McCarthy appeal to "independent" Inspector General Helgersen? As statutory IG, Helgersen does enjoy some unique prerogatives and autonomy, should he choose to exercise them. Those familiar with his longstanding penchant for sniffing the breezes from the White House and director's office and trimming his sails accordingly would be shocked to see him actually exercise those prerogatives. Rather, he has obediently acquiesced in denying Congress the particulars of his investigations--the one on the performance of CIA officers before 9/11, for example, which reportedly heaped criticism on Medal of Freedom awardee Tenet and other senior agency officials. And according to today's New York Times, "independent watchdog" Helgersen recently let himself be talked into submitting to a polygraph exam by those he is supposed to be "watch-dogging." Remarkable.

It seems likely that Mary McCarthy quickly saw the lay of the land and decided the Helgersen-Goss route held no promise for success in addressing the abuses of torture and rendition. Had she any doubts on that score, they were presumably dispelled as she watched Director Goss trot off with Cheney to the office of Sen. John McCain to plead for an exception for the CIA from his draft amendment banning torture. This particular mission was not accomplished, but the president appended a "signing statement" saying, in effect, that he feels free to disregard the McCain amendment banning torture.

Where else to turn? The intelligence committees of Congress? A fool's errand. Indelibly imprinted on my mind is a remark made by CIA darling former Congressman Charlie Wilson, D-Texas, when he took the reins of the House Intelligence Committee during the war with the USSR in Afghanistan. Wilson wrote to his CIA friends, "Well, gentlemen, the fox is in the hen house. Do whatever you like." Some 20 years later, the committee's current chairman, Pete Hoekstra, R-Mi., has proven a worthy successor, occasionally sniping--as he did yesterday on TV--at National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, but essentially giving the intelligence agencies free rein as long as they remain harnessed tightly to White House policy.

For example, late last year, having bowed for over a year to White House pressure to suppress New York Times journalist James Risen's Pulitzer-winning scoop on warrantless wiretapping by NSA, the Times management suddenly awoke to the fact that Risen's book was about to appear. In order to avoid the embarrassment of not having carried such a critical story by one of its own writers, the Times told the White House that the story was about to be published. On Dec. 5, 2005, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman were summoned to an oval office meeting with President Bush, who tried--this time in vain--to dissuade the Times from publishing the warrantless eavesdropping story, which then appeared 11 days later (and six weeks after Dana Priest's expose in the Post regarding secret CIA prisons for interrogating suspected terrorists).

The White House, however, forgot to inform NSA Director Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander that a new die was cast. The next day, Dec. 6, the blindsided Alexander--still following the old talking points--assured visiting House intelligence committee member Rush Holt, D-N.J., that the NSA did not eavesdrop on Americans without a court order. When Holt later learned he had been purposely misled about the NSA eavesdropping program, he wrote a blistering letter to Alexander. Nothing has been heard from Hoekstra, though, and there is not the slightest sign he cared very much that his colleague was lied to on a key aspect of his oversight responsibilities.

This fits in well with a pattern long familiar to senior intelligence officers. And, as Mary McCarthy watched this latest charade, she must have felt affirmed in her apparent conviction that turning to the House "oversight" committee, in present circumstances, would be a feckless enterprise. And who more than she could see the high farce attached to Hoekstra's hyperbole yesterday on FOX as he parroted (twice) the "McCarthy talking points" from the White House:

"This person in the CIA thought that they were above the law (sic). They thought that the law did not apply to them. They have put America at risk. They have put our troops on the front lines at risk because they broke the law."

With all due respect, Congressman Hoekstra, if you would exercise your oversight responsibilities, the system of checks and balances could work, and folks like McCarthy would not have to go to the press.

Equally feckless would be recourse to the Senate intelligence committee chaired by Pat Roberts, R-Kan., patsy for the White House since day one of his tenure. No need to rehearse the evidence here. You may wish, though, to check out Scott Ritter's comments on the Semper Fi senator from Kansas.

And so, assuming there is substance to press allegations that McCarthy has admitted she talked with the press, small wonder. I was intrigued by a remark the press has attributed to former CIA deputy director Dick Kerr: "I have no idea what her motive was." Kerr added that McCarthy was a "good, substantive person."

Well, Dick, it's a no-brainer. Is it not clear that she thought the American people should be given the chance to know of the kidnapping, rendition, torture and other indignities being carried out in their name? Is it not clear that Mary McCarthy is one of those unusually courageous officers willing to take considerable personal risk in order to help democracy work, information being the oxygen of democracy?

But what about her secrecy agreement? I have not spoken with Mary McCarthy in 10 years, but it seems clear to me she realized that she was confronted by an unwelcome choice between her oath to defend the Constitution of the United States and the secrecy agreement. Her entire record shows that she did not take such restrictions lightly. None of us did; none of us do.

But agency alumnae, at least those of my vintage, believe we must always give priority to the Constitution. Mary chose well and, in so doing, offers an example to emulate.

Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.