Why the CIA Is Airing Its Dirty Laundry

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

CIA director Michael Hayden

The CIA is about to publish its "book of skeletons," as former director Bill Colby called the CIA's history of abuses. Coups, assassinations, kidnappings, domestic spying, break-ins, illegal telephone taps — all of it past works, and mostly dribbled out in the press over the last 30 years.

So while I wouldn't count on any major revelations, CIA Director Michael Hayden's declassifying this stuff is news, and good news at that. Hayden's plan is not only to draw a line under the past but make a point to this and future White Houses: Politicize intelligence and you'll find your name on the front page of the newspaper.

The CIA never had any business tapping the telephone of columnist Jack Anderson, reading Jane Fonda's mail, or tailing a Washington Post reporter. If there had been evidence of someone breaking the law, it was the FBI's problem. And if the FBI didn't have enough authority to open an investigation, then a President can always go to Congress and ask for stricter laws. Britain's Official Secrets Act, for instance, has kept Britain's secrets off the front pages of its newspapers. Any journalist who knowingly publishes a secret goes to jail. Harsh, but better than making the CIA break the law.

Another way the White House used the CIA to skirt the law has been to secretly order it to assassinate foreign leaders. For a start, we don't do assassinations well. As Colby told President Ford in 1975, "We have run operations to assassinate foreign leaders. We have never succeeded." If the White House has a problem with a foreign leader, it has other legal recourses, from sanctions to war.

Not all the CIA's failures can be laid at the White House's front door. But Colby's book of skeletons tells a story of a CIA misused, ordered to do things it can't and shouldn't be doing. And all at an enormous waste of CIA resources and credibility. If the White House were less worried about threats inside Washington's Beltway and more about ones outside our borders, the CIA and the rest of us would be a lot better off.

Which brings us to today. A day doesn't pass that I don't get a call from someone who asks me what really happened on 9/11. My initial reaction is, Read the 9/11 Commission report — Osama bin Laden did it. But then again, we hear more and more that key evidence in the 9/11 Commission Report is based on abusive interrogation tactics. We have no idea whether the 9/11 suspects were telling the truth or telling someone else's truth to please their interrogators. I hope Hayden puts a line under this one too, although no doubt he's going to have to wait until the next Administration.

Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down.