In regard to the War On Terrorism, the CIA has specific responsibilities as regards overseas intelligence, counterintelligence, covert operations, and/or special operations designed to defeat terrorist organizations known to threaten U.S. national security interests. In the area of covert operations, CIA acts under direct orders of a U.S. President. Covert operations are usually secret actions that are illegal, or actions that compromise U.S. policy. CIA has the duty to achieve plausible denial for the U.S., as a sponsor of any counterterror effort. But actual concealment of any covert operation is seldom an objective. Over the years, many of these operations fail due to the fact that our U.S. Presidents have direct command control of such covert actions (in the absence of prior training and experience in such matters). Our Presidents do receive advice, but they must have the wisdom to make good final decisions. In many cases, a President's counterterrorism policies are flawed. However, the CIA will eventually take the blame for any failure for one of its covert counterterrorism operations.
To better understand the CIA's role in counterterror, it is necessary to first look at all the other U.S. agencies having some part in our counterterror efforts. The U.S. Dept. of State has a Coordinator for Counterterrorism, and a Bureau of Intl. Security & Nonprofileration (focused on weapons of mass destruction). DOD, DIA, NSA, Treasury, TSA, USAID, and several other federal agencies have a role in combating international terrorism. In the U.S., the major counterterrorism efforts are primarily conducted by the FBI, DOJ, Homeland Security, and some special groups such as the Center for Veterinary Medicine, and CDC (for bioterrorism matters). Some of our many horrific counterterrorism failures, such as 9/11 (09/11/2001), have been due to the poor communication and coordination between all these groups. Too many Americans see the CIA as being totally responsible for all counterterrorism efforts, so the CIA has taken the blame for more than its fair share of failures.
The U.S. has, and has had, a near total leadership failure in almost every category. At times, the many failures have been very obvious as seen in the lack of effective government response to hurricane Katrina and the subprime mortgage/banking crises (all good domestic examples). In the counterterrorism area, there have been significant failures related to intelligence, counterintelligence, covert operations, and special operations (as seen by 9/11, and five years of one disaster after another in Iraq and Afganistan). We have had some successes, but the failures we have had have damaged the U.S. image, worldwide. The final policy decision to torture terrorist suspects was made by President George W. Bush, with CIA taking the blame because President Bush ordered CIA to undertake this task. In Iraq and Afghanistan, covert operations and special operations were not supported or used effectively because President Bush directed that our military commanders to use conventional tactics to fight two very unconventional wars. It took nearly five years for President Bush to admit these mistakes, and then finally change our basic approach to U.S. counterterrorism.
Over the years, the U.S. has been slow to learn from past mistakes and even slower to take effective corrective action(s). We have long had very few people well trained and fully experienced in the art of counterterrorism. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy directed the U.S. Army to create Special Forces. At the time, Kennedy was concerned that our conventional military forces did not provide a flexible response to communist wars of national liberation. At the same time, President Kennedy directed the CIA to expand its capabilities to covertly combat the terrorism and insurgency typical of such wars of national liberation. Our early (1961-62) counterterror and counterinsurgency efforts, in South Vietnam, were very successful due to joint operations by CIA and U.S. Army Special Forces. This success was documented in a 1963 study, entitled the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) Project, prepared and published by RAC (Research Analysis Corporation). After President Kennedy was shot (22 Nov 1963), VP Lyndon B. Johnson became President, and soon decided to return primarily to conventional military tactics in Vietnam. Johnson then imposed so many restrictions on our conventional forces, that they could not win by conventional alternatives.
To fully understand the CIA's role in counterterror, it would be necessary to study each of the intelligence, counterintelligence, covert operations, and special operations missions of the CIA since its founding in 1946. It is also helpful to look at the operations of OSS (the Office of Strategic Services), the predecessor organization to CIA founded in June 1942. Such an effort is now being undertaken by a history Professor, Randall Woods, at the University of Arkansas, in his "History of U.S. Counterterrorism." In general, most of the other people writing about the CIA's role in the War on Terrorism do not have the facts needed to really be helpful in understanding this subject.
As a former GS-14 CIA Special Operations Officer, with over a decade of counterterror and counterinsurgency experience (to include 5 years in SE Asia), I know that the kinds of abuses and errors blamed on CIA, and reported by some individuals, did not occur when I was there. All of the intelligence, counterintelligence, covert operations, and special operations I directly participated in resulted in very successful counterterrorism results. Due to my having a secrecy agreement, still in force, I cannot dicuss any details regarding these operations. I have been told, by reliable sources, that some CIA failures were evident before I came and after I left. All the causes of these problems are complex, and probably will not be disclosed to the public given the fact that terrorist groups could benefit by having such information. A secret review panel, with appropriate counterterrorism experts, would be required to fully determine and evaluate CIA's role during the War on Terrorism. Anything less than such a full review will result in too much speculation, and we are seeing some of that speculation now.