There has always been a tacit understanding that organizations such as the CIA are inescapably in the moral-compromises business, and that they would occasionally do things that were unsanctioned. In a perverse sense, the whole point of the CIA is to sanction the unsanctioned — we create a limited license while keeping those necessary acts of coloring outside the lines contained in an intelligence community that could be counted upon for its discretion, professionalism, and competence. We created a monster, probably a necessary monster, and put it on a leash. That leash was not a body of laws so much as a tradition of good judgment: When the lines of demarcation are murky, we must perforce place our trust in the judgment of men rather than in codes and statutes. The assumption was that they were good men who were good at what they did.
Both of those assumptions have been put to the test in recent years. The real scandal of the Bradley Manning affair is that the mighty, mighty national-security and intelligence apparatuses of the United States and our allies were circumvented by a nobody private first-class and some oleaginous self-promoter with a website. Likewise, the Edward Snowden affair suggests very strongly that the cloak-and-dagger gang simply is not very good at what it does these days. A competent intelligence community would not see its secrets splashed across the pages of the New York Times quite so often. We probably would be willing to forgive our various spook agencies a great deal if we thought they were good at their jobs. But they don’t seem to be.
As for whether we can trust their moral judgment, the fact that we now have a national policy of carrying out extrajudicial executions of U.S. citizens without anything so plebeian as a vote in Congress on the matter means that the judgment of everybody from the president on down is in question.