David Ignatius starts off his Washington Post column today ("A New Deal for the CIA," 9/17/09) with a story about Jeannie de Clarens, a 90-year-old Frenchwoman who infiltrated the Nazi army, discovered information about German rockets that "saved London," was captured by the Gestapo and survived a year in a concentration camp without betraying her secrets.
De Clarens sounds like a real hero with a great story. But the moral Ignatius draws from it is not so great: "When we read about waterboarding and other techniques that shock the conscience, it's easy to lose sight of what intelligence agents like my friend Jeannie do most of the time–and their importance in protecting the country."
Somehow I suspect, contrary to Ignatius, that CIA employees in recent years have been more likely to be engaged in waterboarding and other forms of torture than to have performed death-defying, world-saving undercover work like de Clarens. In any case, we admire someone like her because she stood up to a ruthless force that used torture routinely; to suggest that her example should make us pay less attention to torturers working for our own government is rather perverse.
Ignatius goes on to endorse the proposal of David Omand, former coordinator of British intelligence, for a "paradigm shift"–replacing the old system "in which intelligence agencies could do pretty much as they liked" with a new system where "the public gives the intelligence agencies certain powers needed to keep the country safe." Well, the latter certainly sounds preferable to the former–but as far as the public is concerned, we've always been living under the second system, passing laws through our elected representatives that limited the powers of intelligence agencies. If the agencies decided to act as though they lived under the other system, that's called "breaking the law."
But for Ignatius, expecting that intelligence agencies will follow the law is a new, rather radical idea, and it will require concessions on the part of the citizenry:
In this new "grand bargain," Omand stressed, the public must understand that if it decides–for moral and political reasons–to limit certain activities (as in interrogation or surveillance techniques), it also accepts the risk that there will be "normal accidents."
Ignatius really ought to understand that the U.S. public made that decision a long time ago–back in 1791, when it ratified the Bill of Rights.