By Jeff Stein, CQ Staff
Let’s say that on Jan. 21 a massive car bomb meant for Osama bin Laden goes off in a Pakistani village, killing 120 local citizens but missing the elusive al Qaeda leader, who was riding in another vehicle.
In an elaborate press conference, the president of Pakistan blames the CIA. On an easel next to him is a three-by-five foot photo of the CIA’s station chief in Islamabad, who is sent packing.
President Obama, in office for mere hours, finds out that the CIA did, in fact, plant the bomb, based on what it thought was solid intelligence that bin Laden was in the car.
How will the new president react?
That’s much on the mind of intelligence officials awaiting the Jan. 20, 2009, inauguration of Obama, a short-time U.S. senator with no discernable record and little demonstrated interest, so far, in intelligence issues.
“I was with a group of intelligence officers today,” Roger Cressey, a counterterrorism official in the Clinton White House, said on MSNBC Thursday night, “and I think the most important thing for the president to say is, ‘We’ve got your back.’ That ‘we want you to take risks — risks that conform with our law and our values as a country.’
“What the intelligence community is afraid of more than anything is the game of ‘Gotcha,’” Cressey said. “Which is, if they make a mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, the White House doesn’t support them, they’re left out to dry, and Congress crushes them. And then you get into that risk-averse mentality, which we saw for awhile. So that is what they want. They want support, so they know that the president is going to be behind them. But also that he’s going to lead them.”
CIA spokesman George Little parried a query about the agency’s expectations of Obama, but said, “Risk-taking is, of course, an essential and inherent part of what we do.
“CIA officers work hard every day to confront national security challenges, such as terrorism and weapons proliferation, with a level of creativity, agility, and sense of mission that the American people undoubtedly expect — and do so in accord with U.S. law,” Little said.
The bin Laden car bomb scenario, of course, isn’t far fetched.
In Beirut in 1985, the CIA hatched a plot to kill Sheikh Fadlallah, a leading figure in the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement of Lebanon, with a car bomb, according to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. The bomb killed 80 people, but not Fadlallah.
But the CIA, at least back then, wasn’t adverse to hiring killers.
In 1969, CIA Beirut station chief Robert Ames recruited a spy at the highest levels of the Palestine Liberation Organization, a charismatic terrorist by the name of Ali Hassan Salameh, AKA The Red Prince.
Three years later Salameh was an architect of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of Israeli athletes.
How would it play out today if something like that came out? Will Obama permit his CIA to recruit a stone-cold al Qaeda killer, not to mention stand by it if something goes wrong?
(The Israelis took care of the Salameh problem by killing him, according to various accounts.)
Or how about this scenario: The CIA, which has been trying to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program, gets caught shipping centrifuges to Iran?
How will the new president react?
Such questions will only be answered when the new president enters the White House and “takes off the gloves,” in one of those tiresome post-9/11 phrases, with the world’s nasty boys.
I have no doubt the Chicago-made man will do it, and be smarter at it than his feckless predecessor.
And when something goes wrong, as it inevitably will, that he’ll stand up and take it like a man, as John F. Kennedy did in April 1961, after he green-lighted his predecessor’s ridiculous plan for the CIA to invade Cuba with a force of 1,511 men.
“There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan,” Kennedy said at a White House press conference, adding, “I am the responsible officer of the government.”
But the best favor a President Obama could do for the CIA is to nix such hare-brained schemes before they hatch, as Kennedy later wished he’d done with the Bay of Pigs caper.
For inspiration, he could take a page from the late Sen. Barry Goldwater. In 1985 the colorful Arizonan was presiding over the Senate Intelligence Committee when a CIA official mentioned the agency was thinking about overthrowing the leftist government of Suriname.
Goldwater was incensed. The CIA should be worrying about bigger things than a tiny country in South America.
“That,” Goldwater said, “is the dumbest f***** operation I’ve ever heard of in my life.”
“Do you really need this?” he asked President Reagan.
The idea was dropped.
Obama will need such friends of his own.
Jeff Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.