Q&A: James Bamford

James Bamford, author of The Puzzle Palace, on the CIA's brain drain under Bush.

Mother Jones: Of all the things the Bush administration leaves behind, what's the hardest one to fix?

James Bamford: The hardest thing to fix will be the reputation of the United States around the world. It'll probably take a generation before it gets back to where it was in the pre-Bush years. The US is now seen by a lot of people as the Soviet Union of the 21st century, and undoing that will be key. If we want to prevent terrorism in the future we've got to change the image of the US as a country that doesn't regard anybody else's views around the world and answers every question with evasion. If we get an Obama presidency, it might speed things up a bit.

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MJ: Are any easier to fix?

JB: There are a couple fairly easy fixes if the new president decides to work with Congress, and Congress decides to work with the president. There's a number that can be fixed simply by revoking laws that were enacted during the Bush administration. Recently, for example, the court ruled against the administration on detainee rights in Guantanamo. The Congress under the Republicans had passed a law taking away the right of habeas corpus to those people. An easy fix: Restore the right of habeas corpus by throwing out the previous Congress' law and bringing it back to the way it was pre-Bush administration. A number of these things were done by the Bush administration, and if the new president cooperates with a like-minded Congress, they could get rid of the bad laws and reinstate the good laws.

MJ: How will this help restore the US's reputation?

JB: It shows that the philosophy of the old administration is out; there's a new philosophy in town, and it's rejecting all these bad ideas from the past. It actually may be more difficult to change some of the other legislation—Congress has made a mess of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the FISA court. The Protect America Act, which expired in February, was only supposed to last six months, and now they're trying to get a new one. It'd be best to hold off until there's a new president and a new Congress. Then they should work out a new law, rather than try to pass something quickly by August, like they did last year.

MJ: What would you say have been Bush's most noticeable policy failures?

JB: Well, how much time do we have here? Noticeable policy failures start from the day he took office. His very first National Security Council meeting was all about ways to go after Iraq. From the time he took office, he had policy failure after policy failure, starting with the war in Iraq. His policies involving Iran have simply made things a lot worse, and his policies on the economy. Every single policy. It might be useful for the president to establish somebody to catalogue everything the Bush administration did, and then spend the next four years doing the complete opposite.

MJ: Have there been noticeable failures in intelligence gathering?

JB: It has been total failure. The whole idea of the CIA using torture, waterboarding, the secret hidden prisons in foreign countries, Abu Ghraib, which was more military intelligence than CIA although intelligence people were still involved, and Guantanamo. It has been a total disaster for intelligence and the intelligence community. The NSA and warrantless eavesdropping—it's anybody's guess as to what they're doing right now. It could still be going on today without anybody knowing it. What actually is going on in there, nobody knows. It was so secret, you wouldn't have known about it in the first place if the New York Times hadn't broken the story. They don't tell the Congress, and Congress is less than aggressive in going after these agencies. We've only seen the tip of the iceberg. You've got to be able to drain the tank to see the entire iceberg. The best thing would be a commission set up to look into all these things that have taken place in regard to both intelligence and the departments of defense and justice in the past four years, like the Church Committee back in the 1970s where they looked at all the horror stories that took place and tried to correct them. President Ford also set up an executive branch investigation into the intelligence community, the Rockefeller Commission [officially the United States President's Commission on CIA Activities Within the United States]. We didn't fall apart as a country afterward. We went on to correct the problem. We could have a similar thing set up by both Congress and the executive branch when a new president takes office. The new president will have access to all the old records. The press can't get access to them. Congress can't get access to them. The only person who has access to them is the new president.

MJ: Are any of Bush's failures irreparable?

JB: Our reputation, maybe. I think part of it is truly irreparable. There are people who never suspected the United States would engage in such things, and now until the day they die they'll have an opinion that will be cynical of the United States. No matter what the next president does, the person can think, "Well, who's going to be elected after him?" We had a Richard Nixon and we've still got a George Bush. And we're still going to have somebody after that. So there are aspects that are truly irreparable. Obviously all these people who've died in Iraq—that's irreparable. Over 4,000 Americans, and maybe 100,000 Iraqis.

MJ: Which of our problem is the most urgent?

JB: The most urgent is ending the Iraq War, figuring it out. There's never going to be an easy way out; there wasn't an easy way out of Vietnam. But Vietnam today is in far better shape than it was before. It just had to go through the catharsis of the US getting out. If we shouldn't be in Vietnam today then we shouldn't be in Iraq 25-30 years from now.

MJ: Besides cataloging the Bush administration's failures and doing the exact opposite, what specifically do you think the next president should glean from the past eight years?

JB: On the area that I write most about, the NSA, the warrantless eavesdropping issue has been an abject failure. I think the next president will have to change the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. There are enormous changes in technology that aren't reflected in the current language; it should probably be technology neutral. The key thing is filtering the information and who oversees the names that go into the computer, through the filter. The Bush administration wants to put the FISA corps on the sidelines and have all those decisions be made by NSA shift supervisors. I think we've got to have a neutral third party—a court system to oversee what names actually go in there. That's one of the critical things the new administration's got to do. They've got to reinstate the FISA corps to oversee the names that go into the NSA's eavesdropping. That's one of the first things they should do. They've got to resolve everything in Guantanamo. Even the Supreme Court, for the third time now, has said the Bush administration is violating the law with what they're doing with the detainees.

MJ: I read recently in Harper's that you advocate shifting the center of gravity from the Pentagon back to the CIA. How would that affect intelligence gathering as we've come to know it under the Bush administration?

JB: Under Bush, there has been a shift to the Pentagon. They should be going after terrorists. They should put that back in the hands of the intelligence and the law enforcement people as opposed to the Army. The Army fights wars with tanks and bombers and that's not how you catch terrorists. The FBI actually did a better job of capturing terrorists long before the war in Iraq. The FBI caught the people who were involved in the first World Trade Center and put them on trial. They caught the people who were involved in the embassy bombings and put them on trial. So it's slower and it's less spectacular because they do it with more subtlety and stealth, but it's far more effective than this administration's idea of using the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines to go after these terrorists around the world.

MJ: What's your opinion on the trend toward privatization in the intelligence industry?

JB: I've been following the intelligence community for decades, and this is one of the worst changes in the intelligence community, because there's no accountability. Some of these people work for companies that no one's ever heard of and Congress doesn't know exist. These people are not government employees. There are two major problems. One is the lack of real oversight over the contractors going to Iraq. In the CIA there are contractors doing everything from running agents to counterintelligence, everything. One problem is the lack of oversight, accountability, and the other is brain drain. Taxpayers pay a lot of money to recruit somebody out of college and send them through this elaborate training procedure down at the "farm," as they call it. They're less than fully productive for the first five years, and then finally, maybe in their eighth year, they start being productive. That's when they start getting recruited by contractors who offer them twice as much money. The irony here is that, again, it's the taxpayers' money. Just one example: The other day I noticed a company recruiting, with an ad in an intelligence newspaper, people with high clearances and intelligence experience. There is not a single reference to this company on Google, not a single reference to it. So who are these companies? Where are they coming from? Nobody has any idea who these people are or where they're working. It's a terrible problem.

MJ: What about the "revolving door"—the people at the highest levels of our intelligence agencies who go to work for private intelligence firms and then come back to the government?

JB: John McConnell, the former director of the NSA, went to be the director of the intelligence section at Booz Allen [Hamilton], and now he's the director of national intelligence. It's the revolving door. There is something useful to having some revolving door, but 80 percent of the agency is now working for companies nobody has any control over and nobody's ever heard of. That is certainly not the way it was designed to be.

MJ: What's the best way to fix this?

JB: Go back to the old model. Congress has to step in by cutting out the ability of these contractors to recruit from the CIA. They're only able to do so because they get these enormous contracts—taxpayer-money contracts—from the CIA. The CIA outsources to Abraxas Corporation, or one of these other little companies, and gives them $100 million, and they use that $100 million to recruit CIA agents. Well, if they didn't have that $100 million, they wouldn't be recruiting. They'd have to start training them themselves. There was more of an argument for this just after 9/11, when the agencies had more money than they had people so they had to go outside the community. But it's seven years since 9/11 now, and it's just gotten worse.

MJ: Does reliance on all of these unaccountable, decentralized little companies negatively affect our ability to track terrorist activities?

JB: Yes, as I wrote about in Pretext for War. Some of the companies were hiring people to analyze hard drives captured in Iraq. Sometimes they hire companies that hire private contractors, and I interviewed some of these people. There's a total lack of accountability. There's so much money going out, nobody knows if it's being wasted or what. So much of it's being wasted. And after all this we still haven't caught either Osama bin Laden or his deputy? What are we paying all this money for? And all we have is a disaster—the war in Iraq—to show for all the money.

MJ: What aspect of the Bush legacy will still be prominent 50 years down the road?

MJ: It's been 40 years since we started the Vietnam War, and that's still a huge scar for the United States. You can't go anywhere where people don't point to Vietnam as being one of the biggest disasters for the United States. Forty years since it began, 30 years since it ended. To some degree Iraq has been even more traumatic since it involved so many other things. I think 50 years from now Iraq will still be a scar, like Vietnam's a scar.