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Spooks of the Senate

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The Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA interrogations is a moment for reflection, but not for the reasons you’re hearing. The outrage at this or that ugly detail is politically convenient. The report is more important for illustrating how fickle Americans are about their security, and so unfair to those who provide it.

“The report’s greatest offense is its dishonest treatment of political accountability. The authors portray a rogue CIA operating without legal authority and hiding information from Congress, the public and even President Bush. This charge is rebutted even by current CIA director John Brennan , who otherwise dries his predecessors out to hang.”

After the trauma of 9/11 and amid the anthrax letters in 2001, Americans wanted protection from another terror attack. The political class fired up a commission to examine what went wrong so it “would never happen again.” So the CIA, blamed for not stopping 9/11, tried to oblige. It captured the plotters, detained and interrogated them—sometimes harshly. There hasn’t been another successful al Qaeda plot on the homeland.

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“Ms. Feinstein has had an admirable career, so it is a shame to see her mar her legacy with this one-sided report. Mr. Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper are also not profiles in courage, issuing everyone-has-a-point statements while endorsing release of the report. Better leaders would have resigned for the morale of their agencies…”

But political memories are short. As the Iraq war became unpopular, the anti-antiterror left fought back. Democrats who sensed a political opening began to fault the details of how the CIA and Bush Administration had protected the country—on surveillance, detention and interrogation. Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin, the lead Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, unleashed their staff to second-guess the CIA.

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“Then there is President Obama, who issued his own have-it-both-ways statement that condemned the Bush-era practices but extolled our intelligence services. He could have taken executive responsibility by having Mr. Brennan issue his own report or release the one done by former CIA director Leon Panetta , but that would have meant more personal political risk. Better to leave the public wet work to Senate staff.”

That’s the context in which to understand the Senate report, which reads like a prosecutor’s brief. It devotes 6,000 pages to marshalling evidence to indict the CIA program, and nothing was going to interfere with its appointed verdict.

Not former CIA directors, who weren’t even interviewed (see the op-ed nearby). Not the virtues of bipartisanship, as the GOP minority staff were reduced to bystanders (see the minority report). And not the requirements of future security, which have been sacrificed to the immediate need to embarrass the agency to prove that Democrats were right.

The worst CIA failing in the report is poor management and a lack of adequate oversight. Junior officials were put in charge of detainees when wiser hands were needed, and in one case a detainee died from hypothermia. This may have resulted from the rapid CIA recruitment after 9/11, but it is a major failing, especially given the political backlash that CIA leaders knew was inevitable.

The report also uncovers rough methods that are now barred, though how shocking those are may depend on how you view the terrorist threat. The executive summary scores the CIA for using “in many cases the most aggressive techniques” immediately, in combination and nonstop….(read more)

WSJ

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2 Comments on “Spooks of the Senate”


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