If President Barack Obama really meant what he told CIA officers on April 16 — “this is a time for reflection, not retribution— — then he needs to snuff out the witch-hunt atmosphere that his subsequent actions have created over the issue of “torture.—
[IMGCAP(1)]“Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past,— he added in his letter to CIA employees.
When he wrote the letter, Obama already had decided on the first step that has led to an orgy of demands for retribution against former officials of the Bush administration — the release of top secret Justice Department memos justifying use of “enhanced interrogation techniques— on selected high-level terrorists.
Obama stipulated that CIA personnel who followed Justice’s legal advice would not be prosecuted. And on April 19, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel stated on TV what should have been administration policy: “Those who devised policy ... should not be prosecuted either.—
But two days later, Obama opened the door to prosecution of “those who formulated those legal decisions,— saying the matter was in the hands of Attorney General Eric Holder.
Actually, he opened a floodgate of recrimination. Now, one danger is that the dispute will further inflame partisan passions that Obama has utterly failed to dampen in his first 100 days, even though doing so was one of the chief promises of his campaign.
But the greater danger is that investigations, public hearings, grand jury proceedings and potential prosecutions will damage the morale and diminish the effectiveness of the intelligence community that Obama acknowledges is essential to keeping America safe.
Even as he allowed for possible prosecutions, Obama said, “I do worry about this getting so politicized that we cannot function effectively and it hampers our ability to carry our critical national security operations.—
He ought to worry. Thanks to him, the questions of whether “enhanced interrogation— really constitutes “torture,— whether it was or wasn’t effective in stopping terrorist attacks and who knew about the policy all are now intensely politicized.
MoveOn.org and others on the left are demanding appointment of a special prosecutor to go after Bush administration officials.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) want a bipartisan “truth commission— appointed, although they make it clear that they already know the “truth—: that “torture— was committed, was not effective and violated the law — though, which law is not entirely clear.
In the meantime, there’s intense pushback from Republicans, former Vice President Dick Cheney in the lead, charging that the Obama administration failed to release memos demonstrating that waterboarding, sleep deprivation, slapping and uncomfortable confinement produced intelligence that saved American lives.
The memos themselves assert that the waterboarding of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed led to the capture of the ringleader of a plot to fly an airplane into the Los Angeles Library Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast.
But former Bush aides and their media supporters assert that documents withheld by the Obama administration would reveal significant other intelligence gains.
Even Obama’s national intelligence director, Dennis Blair, acknowledged in an internal memo — but then redacted for public consumption — that “high value information— came from the interrogations.
Moreover, Bush supporters say top Congressional leaders — including Pelosi, a former ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee — were fully briefed on the interrogation techniques and did not dissent from them.
Conceivably, a truly bipartisan 9/11-style commission headed by the likes of former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) could conduct an investigation and deliver a credible report on the extent of harsh interrogations, their intelligence product, the effectiveness of tamer questioning techniques and the Congressional clearances involved.
The problem is that a “truth commission— created by this Congress is likely to hold public hearings in which CIA officers are called as witnesses and required to hire lawyers to counsel them even if they are granted immunity.
It likely would turn into a “witch hunt— commission that does as much damage to U.S. intelligence as the Senate investigation headed by former Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) did in the 1970s.
Already, according to former CIA director Mike Hayden, “officers are saying, the things I’m doing now — will this [investigation] happen to me in five years because of what I’m doing now?’—
In his own April 16 letter to his employees, CIA director Leon Panetta — who opposed Obama’s release of the Justice memos — warned that “this is not the end of the road on these matters. More requests will come — from the public, from Congress, from the courts — and more information is sure to be released.—
The administration has announced that it plans to release interrogation photos, which will further inflame the issue.
So what should Obama do to limit the damage, assuming he really wants to? He can’t say a lot — like ruling out prosecutions — because he would be accused of politically influencing the Justice Department.
But he can say, whenever asked, “I’ve discontinued harsh interrogations. My administration is conducting a review of interrogation procedures. Legal action is in the hands of the Justice Department.
“I’m opposed to public hearings and a vindictive inquiry that will jeopardize the effectiveness of the intelligence community. The Senate Intelligence Committee is the proper place for an inquiry.—
Actually, his internal review just might conclude — in secret — that some high-value terrorists should be subjected to harsh questioning in rare circumstances.
And, with luck, the Justice Department will conclude that prosecutions are not called for — certainly not of lawyers who gave their best opinions or of high-ranking Bush officials determined that a 9/11-style attack should never occur again.
And the Senate Intelligence Committee is the right place for a closed-door inquiry leading to a sober public report months from now — in the meantime, cooling the fevered atmosphere.
Obama said that “keeping America safe— is his top priority, the one concern that keeps him awake at night. America is not made safer by partisan witch hunts.