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CIA inquiry targets its own watchdog

Times Staff Writer

CIA Director Michael V. Hayden has mounted a highly unusual challenge to the agency’s chief watchdog, ordering an internal investigation of an inspector general who has issued a series of scathing reports sharply critical of top CIA officials, according to government officials familiar with the matter.

The move has prompted concerns that Hayden is seeking to rein in an inspector general who has used the office to bring harsh scrutiny of CIA figures including former Director George J. Tenet and undercover operatives running secret overseas prison sites.

The inquiry is focused on the conduct of CIA Inspector General John L. Helgerson and his office. Officials said it was aimed in particular at evaluating whether his office was fair and impartial in its scrutiny of the agency’s terrorist detention and interrogation programs. But officials said the probe also spanned other subjects and had expanded since it was launched several months ago.

U.S. intelligence officials who are concerned about the inquiry said it was unprecedented and could threaten the independence of the inspector general position. The probe “could at least lead to appearances he’s trying to interfere with the IG, or intimidate the IG or get the IG to back off,” said a U.S. official familiar with the probe.

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Frederick P. Hitz, who served as the CIA’s inspector general from 1990 to 1998, said the move would be perceived as an effort by Hayden “to call off the dogs.”

“What it would lead to is an undercutting of the inspector general’s authority and his ability to investigate allegations of wrongdoing,” Hitz said. “The rank and file will become aware of it, and it will undercut the inspector general’s ability to get the truth from them.”

But other officials described the probe as a chance to turn the tables on an inspector general who has been accused by some of his targets of treating career officers unfairly and letting personal biases undermine his objectivity.

“There is across-the-board distrust with the IG function and disrespect for Helgerson, who many believe has a personal agenda on issues,” said a former high-ranking CIA official who, like others interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the inspector general’s work.

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Helgerson, the former official said, “always went in with a presumption of guilt.”

Helgerson oversees a large staff of investigators whose activities include detailed examinations of highly classified programs and routine audits of mundane agency functions. He has served as inspector general at the CIA since 2002.

The CIA probe comes at a time when the powers of inspectors general in agencies throughout the federal government are under renewed debate. This month, the Bush administration threatened to veto a House bill that would strengthen the independence of inspectors general by giving them seven-year terms and permit the White House to fire them only for cause.

Hayden, an Air Force general who became CIA director last year, has not been involved in any public clashes with Helgerson. But Hayden has been a staunch defender of the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism programs and has publicly lamented what he describes as a tendency by outside observers and critics to second-guess the activities of the nation’s intelligence agencies.

In response to questions about the unusual arrangement, CIA spokesman George Little said Hayden “firmly believes that the work of the office of inspector general is critical to the entire agency, and, since taking the helm at CIA, he has accepted the vast majority of its findings.” However, Hayden’s goal is to “help the office do even better,” Little said.

The CIA’s review is being led by Robert Deitz, an attorney with long-standing ties to Hayden who was brought in to serve as a senior counselor to the director. Deitz, who served as general counsel at the National Security Agency when Hayden was director there in the 1990s, has assembled a small team of investigators to conduct the probe.

Little, the CIA spokesman, said Deitz came to the post with “an absolute belief in the value of an independent, rigorous Office of Inspector General.”

The inquiry has been driven in large part by senior operations officers who have complained to Hayden that they were unfairly criticized by Helgerson in classified reviews of the CIA’s secret prisons programs.

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The probe is set up to examine “how those people were treated, how the investigations were conducted,” said an official familiar with it.

The official declined to discuss the conclusions of the internal investigations, which are classified, but said that “the people who are upset didn’t think they were glowing reviews.”

Among the issues being explored are whether agency officers were given adequate opportunity to defend their actions, and whether the inspector general’s conclusions accurately represented their roles.

Officials declined to name the CIA officers behind the complaint. One former official said, “We’re talking about undercover people at mid- to senior-grade ranks.”

The CIA created a network of secret overseas prisons shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, and it has faced severe international criticism for employing harsh interrogation tactics as well as a program known as “extraordinary rendition,” in which prisoners have been transferred to countries known to use torture.

To date, officials said, the inquiry has largely involved gathering information and statements from CIA officers who came under scrutiny in Helgerson’s review.

But officials expressed concern that the probe would also involve reviewing the inspector general’s files. Such a step could have a dramatic chilling effect, officials said, making agency employees reluctant to cooperate with future investigations for fear that their involvement and the information they provide would be exposed.

The focus on the prison program represents an expansion of a probe that officials said began several months ago into the relationship between Helgerson’s office and that of the CIA general counsel.

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Officials said Hayden was concerned about friction between the two offices and tapped Deitz to explore the matter. The nature of the friction was unclear but involved complaints that Helgerson had overstepped his role by offering legal opinions on agency programs.

One former high-ranking CIA official said Helgerson has not shied away from taking positions in heated internal policy debates. The former official recalled attending staff meetings in which Helgerson expressed opposition to agency involvement in handling detainees as part of the war on terrorism.

A career CIA officer who holds degrees in political science, Helgerson had previously served as chief of the agency’s analytic branch as well as head of the National Intelligence Council, which produces authoritative reports on key national security issues.

Helgerson has become an unusually high-profile occupant of the position largely because his tenure has coincided with a series of historic intelligence blunders.

An examination of failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks was sharply critical of Tenet and other senior CIA officials, saying they “did not discharge their duties in a satisfactory manner,” and calling for the creation of special in-house panels to determine whether they should be reprimanded.

The CIA had fought to keep that report secret. But Hayden reluctantly released its key findings in August after Congress passed legislation requiring the CIA to declassify the document’s executive summary.

The conclusions were denounced by many targets of the probe, including Tenet, who issued a statement saying, “The IG is flat wrong.”

The tone of the report also angered officials who were not singled out for criticism. Robert Richer, who was the assistant deputy director for operations at the CIA before retiring in 2005, said that shortly before he left the agency, he sent a memo to then-Director Porter J. Goss requesting that the inspector general be reviewed for his impartiality.

“The basis of it was the 9-11 report,” Richer said in an interview, referring to Helgerson’s examination of Sept. 11-related failures. Goss did not act on that request, and it is unclear whether it played any role in Hayden’s decision to initiate a review of Helgerson’s conduct.

Because of its role, the inspector general’s office is viewed with distrust and suspicion by other parts of the agency, particularly case officers who operate overseas and “feel they’re being investigated by people who don’t fully understand their business,” said one former CIA official.

Helgerson’s office has also been accused of leaks to the press. Goss in 2006 fired CIA officer Mary O. McCarthy, who worked in the inspector general’s office, after she was accused of inappropriate contacts with journalists, including a Washington Post reporter who wrote articles about the CIA’s secret overseas prisons.

The relationship between the CIA director and the inspector general is complicated. The law creating the position specifies that the watchdog “shall report directly to and be under the general supervision of the director.”

The law also makes clear that the CIA director can ignore recommendations from an inspector general and even prohibit the office from initiating investigations.

But Hitz, the former CIA inspector general, and others said that the position has traditionally operated with a great deal of autonomy, and that there are other mechanisms for holding an inspector general accountable. In particular, a 1992 executive order established what is known as the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency and gave it authority to evaluate the work of inspectors general in agencies across the government.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for the IG to be in an offline way investigated by his superior,” Hitz said. “If the director has a problem with the way the IG is performing his job, he can go to the Congress, to the president’s intelligence oversight board, or he can go to the president himself.”

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greg.miller@latimes.com

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The back story

Congress created the job of inspector general as a watchdog for federal agencies in 1978, a move spurred by concern over government inefficiency and combating waste and fraud.

Virtually every federal agency has an inspector general. There now are 64 inspectors general who have dedicated staffs and budgets to conduct audits, inspections and investigations; review agency procedures; and then report their findings to Congress and to the agency heads for action.

IGs also must report any official who unreasonably refuses their requests for records and documents and are required to notify the Justice Department if they uncover criminal violations.

Inspectors general of major agencies are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Inspectors general of smaller agencies are appointed by the department director. Only the president can remove the IGs he appoints. Some advocates have proposed further protection for the watchdogs, such as fixed seven-year terms.

By law, IGs are independent. Although they are generally supervised by the director of their agency, the directors are not allowed to dictate their work or prohibit any investigation. The CIA director, however, may restrict some activities out of national security concerns.

Source: Times research


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