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ADVICE+DISSENT:Intelligence File Lost Generation

Young CIA employees learn a lesson about scandal.

Young CIA employees learn a lesson about scandal.

It's been a rough few months for the CIA, a rough few years, really. The ferocious debate over the agency's covert counterterrorism activities-interrogation and targeted killings chief among them-has roiled the spy service and prompted defenders to warn ominously of "low morale" among employees. They also note the dangers of "politicizing" intelligence operations, and of the "chilling effect" that public recriminations have on the risk-taking spirit that intelligence demands.

This is a dependable narrative. It's been well-worn through the intelligence fiascoes of the 1970s, which gave rise to the congressional oversight committees; to the Iran-Contra Affair of the mid-'80s, which brought Ronald Reagan uncomfortably close to the brink of impeachment hearings; to the nomination of Robert Gates to be CIA director in 1991, which reopened the wounds of scandals past. Whenever the CIA's private deeds become the subject of public scrutiny, the unwanted attention shakes the agency from within. During Gates' confirmation hearing, historian John Prados wrote, "Work at [headquarters] ground to a halt as CIA officers watched every minute on television, much like Americans riveted by the O.J. Simpson murder trial did."

Into the chasm of uncertainty usually stepped a generation of older employees. They reassured their anxious younger colleagues, reminding them that this kind of thing happens from time to time. It's just the cyclical nature of Washington. It will pass, they said, and they knew, because they had been through it.

But times have changed. Many in that older generation have left, riding a wave of retirements. And they haven't all been replaced. Today, the majority of the CIA's workforce is made up of people who joined after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. These millennials have less than a decade of on-the-job experience. There are fewer old hands to assuage their fears, and for this reason, there just might be a chilling effect on the younger cohort.

That's the fear, at least, of a number of former senior intelligence officers who are looking in from the outside now. And along with the generational difference, they sense another unfamiliar dimension to this latest affair. In years past, the CIA was excoriated as a "rogue elephant," engaging in covert operations and dangerous liaisons without clear direction from the president or Congress. But this time around, the agency is on the hook for actions it took with explicit approval from the Bush administration. Indeed, CIA officers who managed the terrorist detention and interrogation regime got legal assurances from the Justice Department that various "enhanced" techniques, most notably waterboarding, didn't violate U.S. laws or international treaties prohibiting torture. Those assurances now seem as thin as the paper on which they were printed.

What message does that send to a younger workforce? Human capital officers have been publicly fretting for years that millennials suffer from a kind of careerist wanderlust: They'll spend five or 10 years in the intelligence community, then move on to more lucrative pastures as contractors, or perhaps leave the business altogether. It's possible that the lessons of interrogation will only hasten their departure, particularly if it turns out those CIA officers who were told they'd be legally protected end up indicted or publicly exposed.

This is to say nothing of the morality and legality of torture. Even if the officers now under scrutiny are vindicated, the institutional damage to the CIA will last for a long time. If the younger generation does stick around, it will inherit an agency in tatters. And when the next scandal comes around, which it surely will, these officers will have little more advice to offer their juniors than this hollow reassurance: "Don't worry. This kind of thing happens all the time."

Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.