CIA rewards mistakes with big promotions

In most careers mistakes are rarely rewarded with promotions and commendations – but, that is not the case in the CIA.

In December of 2003 the CIA snagged Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen, and held him for five months in secret. Few people knew where he was or why he was there. It was later learned he was being held and interrogated in a secret prison in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, the CIA caught the wrong man.

The mistake was huge, the intelligence error and diplomatic debacle that followed was highly embarrassing for the United States.

Strangely however, the analyst responsible for the mistake was not fired. She was not punished. She wasn’t even reprimanded. In fact, she was promoted.

Following a grave mistake, the analyst was awarded the prestigious opportunity to lead President Barack Obama’s CIA Counterterrorism Center aimed at interfering with al-Qaeda operations.

This is not the only case of dangerous mistakes being met with reward in the CIA, as AP discovered in an investigative study.

In the past few years since the 9/11 attacks, CIA officers responsible for major mistakes, including serious threats or the death of others have received little to no punishment. The process of accountability in the CIA is limited, at best.


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Obama has attempted to put Bush era tactics behind him; it has become clear not everything has change. Those who were of lower grades and made mistakes are now senior managers in Obama’s CIA.

The AP investigation showed a CIA disciplinary system that is both lack luster and inefficient. It takes years to make official decisions, and most of those decisions are often tainted by favoritism. In addition, when disciplinary actions are put in place, senior offices, even when directly responsible, are often spared while others may face punishment.

According to the report, officers responsible for the death of a prisoner in Afghanistan received no punishment and have been promoted consistently to other positions in the Middle East.

Those who do receive punishment and eventually leave the CIA often return as contractors elsewhere in the US intelligence community; which is exactly what happened in the cases of officers participating in a mock execution in Poland and others who played a role in the death of a prisoner in Iraq.

Legislators, recognizing the lack of accountability in the intelligence community, created an oversight investigative position in the CIA last year. The inspector general position was granted broad authority to investigate errors within the CIA and elsewhere in the US intelligence community.

The instances of CIA mistakes and failures are not isolated. There is a collective lack of accountability which intensifies the rewarding of mistakes. CIA Director Leon Panetta admitted to AP that there are widespread problems that need addressing.

Even so, with no one held accountable it is hard to know whether those failures will actually be addressed.