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Pity Leon Panetta. The CIA director counseled the Obama administration against releasing classified interrogation memos from the Bush years. And got ignored. Then, Nancy Pelosi said his agency lied to her about post-9/11 interrogations, and Democrats rushed to try to back her up. Now, Attorney General Eric Holder has tasked a prosecutor with looking into reopening criminal cases against CIA employees and contractors.
Such is life at Langley under an administration exhibiting liberalism’s typical contempt for covert action and its inevitable moral complications. No wonder ABC News is reporting that Panetta recently uncorked a profanity-laced tirade about the Justice Department at the White House and is contemplating quitting (the CIA denies it). If Panetta were shrewd, he’d make a play for a position that would command more respect — say, assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Panetta has had to write another letter to CIA employees meant to keep their morale up. For those keeping count, it’s his sixth. No matter how many missives he writes earnestly committing himself and his agency to looking ahead, the rest of his administration and party drags him back into the past. As far as they are concerned, he’s merely a frontman for Bush-era criminality.
In response to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, a judge ordered the administration to release a 2004 CIA inspector general report about interrogation practices. Although often uncomfortable reading (one incident involved a power drill), the report also outlines the CIA’s nearly obsessive quest for legal guidance and its intolerance for unauthorized methods as piddling as blowing cigar smoke at detainees.
Consider the fate of the CIA officer who used a gun to frighten Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the USS Cole bombing. He did it in 2002. The agency immediately called him back to headquarters. He faced an internal accountability board, suffered a reprimand, and eventually resigned. The Justice Department looked into the case because threatening a detainee with “imminent death” is torture, but declined to prosecute. Proving torture in a court of law, where seemingly mincing legal distinctions matter, is much harder than braying about it on op-ed pages.
The CIA certainly didn’t act like an agency with a guilty conscience. It didn’t try to cover up any abuses, but undertook the inspector general investigation and forwarded the report on to Congress and the Justice Department. In one case, Justice got a conviction against a contractor who — in an obvious crime — beat a detainee to death. But what possible public interest can be served in reopening murkier cases years after the fact, when the CIA already took internal action and career prosecutors already examined them?
The next time CIA officers are told that they have to be more aggressive in protecting their country, they could be forgiven for saying, “No thanks.” One prescient officer quoted in the report said he knew interrogators would be hounded for their work, but unfortunately, it had to be done. Indeed, human-rights activists have tracked down and taken secret photographs of interrogators, some of which the lawyers for Guantanamo Bay detainees may have shown to their clients in violation of the law.
Of course, no one wants to hear the words “power drill” and “interrogation” in the same sentence, except perhaps in a review of a Quentin Tarantino movie. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we struggled to get the balance right between our safety and our values as an open, liberal society. It’d be nice to pretend otherwise, but there is indeed such a balance. As the IG report makes clear, the interrogations rendered important intelligence about other terrorists and other plots. “Whether this was the only way to obtain that information will remain a legitimate area of dispute,” Panetta writes in his latest letter.
That dispute rightly belongs in the political arena, not the courts. But who wants to listen to the CIA director, a shill for torturers almost by definition?
– Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. © 2009 by King Features Syndicate.