What is the nature of the CIA and its role in American security? Washington Post columnist David Ignatious and Think Progress blogger Matthew Yglesias have presented clashing interpretations for months. Whether it was over whether to prosecute CIA officers for torture, as in April, or whether the debate was pegged to long-term CIA restructuring, as it is today, the two have clearly different existential senses of the CIA. Ignatious sees it is a body empowered to judge best how to protect security, Yglesias argues it's subservient to civilians.

  • Ignatious, in April: For a taste of what’s ahead, recall the chilling effects of past CIA scandals. In 1995, then-Director John Deutch ordered a "scrub" of the agency's assets after revelations of past links to Guatemalan death squads. Officers were told they shouldn’t jettison sources who had provided truly valuable intelligence. But the practical message, recalls one former division chief, was: "Don’t deal with assets who could pose political risks." A similar signal is being sent now, he warns.
  • Yglesias, in April: If the CIA had a sterling track record as a hugely effective agency that had made one random slip-up, I'd be sympathetic to this view. But the evidence is overwhelming that that’s not the case. Instead, alongside occasional doses of incompetence, the CIA veers between out-of-control behavior (death squads, torture) and whining that past efforts to prevent it from going rogue are the reason that it can’t do its job.
  • Ignatious, yesterday: The question is how to put the pieces back together -- how to restore public trust in intelligence. [...] The old "secret state," in which intelligence agencies could do pretty much as they liked, is gone. In its place is a "protecting state," in which the public gives the intelligence agencies certain powers needed to keep the country safe. It's a "citizen-centric approach," Omand explained, based on the reality of mutual dependence. The spies need information from the community (especially the large Muslim population in Britain), and the public needs protection. [...] The Obama administration should try to strike the kind of "grand bargain" that Omand described. The CIA should become more transparent and "citizen-centric." The president and Congress will set rules for interrogation and the rest, and the public should understand the inherent trade-offs and risks.
  • Yglesias, today: How is it that we’re having this conversation? This isn't East Germany. Of course intelligence services are supposed to be "citizen-centric" rather than have the ability to "do pretty much as they liked." But what’s the bargain here? My general understanding of the bargain between the law and citizens is that citizens are supposed to follow the law and in exchange they don’t get subjected to criminal penalties. That’s the bargain I have. And people who work at the CIA are also American citizens, right? Subject to the law, right?