In the Arena

Torture Memos Released

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First the FISA violations, now news that the Obama Administration will release the so-called “torture memos” written by the Bush Administration’s Department of Justice from 2002 to 2005. This is the right thing to do, but with a few caveats. Obama’s decision to renounce torture, upon taking office, was clearly necessary and correct. It will take years, perhaps decades, to eradicate the damage done to America’s reputation by Abu Ghraib, waterboarding and the other Cheney-Rumsfeld choking points, and Obama’s statement was a crucial first step in restoring America’s moral standing in the world. He couldn’t take that step and not release these memos. 

But there are real concerns in the intelligence community–and a potential rebellion in the clandestine service, according to one veteran spook I spoke with. The White House was aware of these concerns and I think Obama has taken some steps, in his statement on the release, to ameliorate the problems, but he and Leon Panetta may be facing a serious morale problem and a slew of retirements at a moment when the need for undercover work is extremely urgent, especially in the Iraqi and Af/Pak theaters. Here are some of the worries that CIA and other clandestine operators have about the release of the memos:

1. That it represents a “breach of faith.” This is an extremely serious claim in the intelligence culture, where some operators are asked to behave extra-legally for the greater good of the nation. The Bush Administration memos gave these operators leave to do certain things–practices that I believe constitute torture–and any effort to rescind that permission ex post facto could expose the interrogators to legal action. Obama and Eric Holder have addressed this clearly: none of the CIA interrogators are going to be prosecuted. Their names will be expunged from all records of the interrogations. According to Obama’s statement:

The men and women of our intelligence community serve courageously on the front lines of a dangerous world. Their accomplishments are unsung and their names unknown, but because of their sacrifices, every single American is safer. We must protect their identities as vigilantly as they protect our security, and we must provide them with the confidence that they can do their jobs.

2. That the government should have appealed the ruling on the grounds that the information was “classified” and that a stripping away of classified secrets and methods will cripple the clandestine service. Again, Obama sought to allay this fear in his statement:

Going forward, it is my strong belief that the United States has a solemn duty to vigorously maintain the classified nature of certain activities and information related to national security. This is an extraordinarily important responsibility of the presidency, and it is one that I will carry out assertively irrespective of any political concern. Consequently, the exceptional circumstances surrounding these memos should not be viewed as an erosion of the strong legal basis for maintaining the classified nature of secret activities. I will always do whatever is necessary to protect the national security of the United States.

3. The release of the memos represents a grant of “too much information” to our enemies. That is, terrorist targets now have a more precise knowledge of what we will not do to them during interrogations, thereby reducing our ability to get them under control. “You have to quickly make them understand that they’re entirely dependent on you,” a former intelligence officer told me. “The Stockholm syndrome will set in pretty quickly after that.” Well, that’s one theory. FBI interrogators have argued persuasively that more benign methods are more effective than stress positions or sleep deprivation in getting information from suspects. And, in any case, the President has made clear that coercive interrogation techniques are not going to be the American way in the future.

Not many Presidents have had good relationships with the CIA. George W. Bush’s was particularly dreadful, with Dick Cheney constantly pushing for intel that reflected his ideological predilections rather than reality. (You may remember that a series of damaging anti-Bush leaks seemed to seep out of the Langley environs during the 2004 campaign.) The release of these memos may cripple Obama’s relations with the clandestine service–or not, especially if the President and Leon Panetta continue to make clear that they appreciate and stand behind the clandestine service, so long as the operators act within the new ground rules.