Paul Greenberg

Dana Priest of The Washington Post sounds shocked - shocked! - to discover that George W. Bush ordered a complete remobilization and reinvigoration of the CIA immediately after September 11th:

"The effort President Bush authorized shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, to fight al-Qaida has grown into the largest CIA covert-action program since the height of the Cold War, expanding in size and ambition despite a growing outcry at home and abroad over clandestine tactics . . . ."

This is news? Isn't this just what W. told the country he would do in the aftermath of September 11th?

"Ours will be a broad campaign, fought on many fronts. It's a campaign that will be waged by day and by night, in the light and in the shadow, in battles that you will see and battles you won't see. It's a campaign waged by soldiers and sailors, marines and airmen; and also by FBI agents and law-enforcement officials and diplomats and intelligence officers. . . . Our campaign will be difficult, and it will take time. But I can promise you this: It will be waged with determination, and it will be waged until we win. We will do whatever it takes to protect our country." - George W. Bush, Oct. 17, 2001.

Apparently W. meant it. According to the Post's Ms. Priest, the president signed an order six days after September 11th empowering American intelligence agencies in a way not seen since the Second World War.

Gosh, just as if we had suffered a surprise attack and thousands of our people had been killed in a second Pearl Harbor.

Do you think maybe the president decided to fight this like a world war because, far ahead of his critics, he realized we were in one? The result: A moribund CIA was suddenly brought to life, just as the FBI and OSS were during the last great world war.

To quote Ms. Priest: "The CIA faced the day after the attacks with few al-Qaida informants, a tiny paramilitary division and no interrogators, much less a system for transporting suspected terrorists and keeping them hidden for interrogation."

A lot has changed since then. The CIA proved instrumental, if not decisive, in winning a war in Afghanistan. It is helping to win another in Iraq. It has made covert alliances with foreign intelligence services across the globe, has been given billions of dollars to set up counter-terrorism operations in two dozen countries, and is reported to have set up secret prisons - excuse me, ahem, detainment centers - in at least eight other friendly countries. And inevitably, to borrow a phrase Ronald Reagan used a couple of decades ago, Mistakes Were Made. Just as they are in every war.

And yet this president has persisted even as his critics at home and abroad profess to be shocked at his having carried out his promise to the American people.

Other presidents have been careful to arrange political cover when they authorize a covert war; this one proclaimed his. What ever happened to deniability, a phrase that grew familiar during the Nixon presidency and debacle?

This president not only gave the order to launch this campaign but has taken responsibility for it. What's more, he apparently wants to know just how his orders are being carried out. As if he were commander-in-chief. Goodness. Some of us thought they'd stopped making presidents like that after Harry Truman.

John Radsan, a former counsel with the CIA, seems unhappy with the president's insistence on knowing just what's going on: "In the past, presidents set up buffers to distance themselves from covert action. But this president, who's breaking down the boundaries between covert action and conventional war, seems to relish the secret findings and the dirty details of the operations."

Gosh, just as if we were engaged in a new, unconventional world war that needs to be fought in a new, unconventional way. It's called asymmetrical warfare, one in which an aggressor without a national base can use a worldwide network of terrorists to wreak havoc on an unprepared country.

In this new kind of warfare, an ever-surprised, ever-vulnerable America, was supposed to be easy pickings for these new kamikazes. This country was going to be reduced to cowering behind defenses full of holes.

Instead, this president and this country have taken the offensive - "in battles that you will see and battles you won't see." And at home and abroad, those unhappy with the results are joining in a single chorus: Unfair!

And the unfairest thing of all is the way the CIA has been conducting this secret war - well, mostly secret till The New York Times reveals still another classified document.

Naturally the new, reborn CIA would rile our enemies most; it has been the most successful of American agencies in this war on al-Qaida. To quote Ms. Priest, "The CIA, working with foreign counterparts, has been responsible for virtually all of the success the United States has had in capturing or killing al-Qaida leaders since Sept. 11, 2001."

What's more, the CIA apparently intends to continue tracking down every one of these killers. It seems to feel it's engaged in defending the country, as when it uses predator drones to dispatch al-Qaida leaders with the help of a Hellfire missile or two. Instead of first reading the suspect his rights.

To quote the deputy director of national intelligence, a general named Michael Hayden: "We're going to live on the edge. My spikes will have chalk on them. . . . We're pretty aggressive within the law. As a professional, I'm troubled if I'm not using the full authority allowed by the law."

Yes, shocking. Some of us had no idea they made American intelligence agents that way anymore. And we're much assured they still do.

Why not treat the attacks on this country as a problem in civil law enforcement and escape all the criticism now being directed at this administration?

Because, to quote a former CIA agent named Dewey Clarridge, "You have a spy agency because the spy agency is going to break laws overseas. If you don't want it to do those dastardly things, don't have it. You can have the State Department." Yes, just leave national security to the State Department. Now that's frightening.

But what, in the end, do we have to show for these tactics that have raised eyebrows in every law school in the country? Only that Americans haven't experienced a terrorist attack on our shores since September 11, 2001.

I know the folks responsible for the CIA's secret successes aren't interested in public recognition. Quite the contrary. But let's hope they all get medals. In a secret ceremony.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.