CIA in the Crosshairs

A man crosses the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on August 14,
A man crosses the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on August 14, 2008. AFP PHOTO/SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

"The world is on the edge of eruption," former CIA Director George Tenet recalls as he arranged for an emergency meeting at the White House with National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice on July 10, 2001. Cofer Black, the Director of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center and Rich Blee, accompanied Tenet. Tenet recounts Blee's warning to Rice, "There will be significant attacks against the United States in the coming months." He continued, "Al Qaeda's intention is the destruction of the United States." Black then adds, "This country has got to go on a war footing now," as he slams his hand on the table.

Following the meeting Black tells Blee, "I think we've finally gotten through to these people." But later he realizes that essentially nothing happens. Rice later said she did not recall the meeting and wrote, "My recollection of the meeting is not very crisp because we were discussing the threat every day." Having raised the alert levels for personnel abroad, she added, "I thought we were doing what needed to be done." But on September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda struck a coordinated blow against the United States, killing nearly 3,000 people.

This dramatic episode in the CIA's history is told in detail in the Showtime documentary, "The Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs," which will air Saturday night. The program pulls the curtain back on America's most secret agency and sheds light on its successes and failures. Actor Mandy Patinkin, who plays CIA operative Saul Berenson in the series Homeland on Showtime, narrates it.

The Spymasters includes interviews with all 12 living CIA directors and their operatives. They talk about their convictions, "and, for the first time, their passionate disagreements about the agency's past, its current mission, and its future." The documentary lays out the complexities, the growing threat, and the controversies that have been laid at the doorstep of the CIA. Did the CIA fail in 2001? Did the White House ignore the CIA's warnings about 9/11? The 9/11 Commission Report, released in July 2004, concluded, "This was a failure of policy, management, capability, and, above all, imagination."

The failure for the U.S. government to keep America safe led to a series of controversial decisions. Rendition was an intelligence-gathering program involving the transfer of foreign nationals suspected of involvement in terrorism to countries for interrogation and detention in "black sites" in countries where U.S. safeguards did not apply. The use of torture, known as the enhanced interrogation program, used techniques like waterboarding, in order to gain crucial information from suspected terrorists. Former director Stansfield Turner says, "I don't think a country like ours should be culpable of conducting torture." Tenet, on the other hand, says the U.S. Justice Department ruled the techniques were not torture, and President George Bush approved them.

Another consequence of the 9/11 attacks is the use of drones to strike back at terrorists. The Pentagon's use of drones is public, but the CIA has never acknowledged it also uses them. Yet President Barack Obama's former CIA Director Leon Panetta recounts a time the CIA had located a "bad man" who was responsible for killing American soldiers in Afghanistan. But the terrorist was with his family, which made the use of a drone strike problematic. "One of the tough questions was what should we do?" Panetta recalled. He said he called the White House and they said, "Look, you're going to have to make a judgment here." Panetta said, "I found I was making decisions on life and death as director, and those decisions are never easy, and frankly they shouldn't be easy." He added, "I thought it was really important in that job to do what I could to protect this country." The CIA struck, "And it did involve collateral damage, but we got him," Panetta concluded.

Following 9/11 the CIA scored an early victory in Afghanistan driving the Taliban out and destroying Al Qaeda's sanctuary, but Osama Bin Laden escaped. This victory was followed by one of America's most controversial wars. "Neither the CIA or any other or any other government agency ever found any evidence that Iraq played any role at all in 9/11," former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell recalled. Yet former Vice President Dick Cheney was speaking out publicly about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's connection to Al Qaeda. Tenet told the President Bush that Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction was a "slam dunk." The U.S. invaded Iraq and more than a decade later it is still paying the price for this bad decision.

CIA in the Crosshairs is directed by Gedeon and Jules Naudet, who were responsible for the most powerful documentary ever produced on the 9/11 attacks. It is written by Chris Whipple, a skilled investigative journalist, and the executive producer is CBS News' Susan Zirinsky. She is also my wife.

Americans are on edge following the horrifying November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. Questions are being raised about where the line is drawn between what techniques the CIA can use to defeat the terrorists, especially those that are home grown, and every American's right for privacy.

Panetta says, "We may have to use these kinds of weapons. But let me tell you something, if we fail to do this, and God forbid this country faced another 9/11, you know what the first question would be, 'Why the hell did you let this happen?'"