In the Arena

Tortured Explanation

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As usual, Glenn Greenwald purposely distorts my position, this time on the torture memos, making it seem as if I opposed their release, when in fact–as Swampland readers know–I favored the release and vehemently opposed, on numerous occasions, the CIA’s various “enhanced interrogation” practices. What I did do that seems to have piqued Greenwald’s ire is to report an obvious truth: this is going to hurt the morale and perhaps the efficacy of the clandestine service, which performs in extra-legal situations around the world. Greenwald finds the phrase “extra-legal” Orwellian. Perhaps…or maybe it’s just a way to describe what spies do: they lie about who they are in order to steal information that can affect national security.

Now, there’s probably an interesting public debate to be had about the clandestine service lurking beneath Greenwald’s distortion. Toward the end of his life, my mentor Daniel Patrick Moynihan was beginning to doubt the efficacy of all sorts of secrecy, given the fabulously inept record the CIA had put together during its 60 year existence–and the clearly illegal capers, like the attempted assassination of Fidel Castro by the mafia, that some of the geniuses at Langley spawned. But, ultimately, I disagreed with Moynihan’s position. There is a real need for a carefully-operated, proportionate clandestine service. If we can, for example, place an agent in Osama Bin Laden’s or Beitullah Mehsud’s inner circle, that would certainly be worthwhile…or to make this truly “extra-legal,” what about placing US informants within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate?That would be illegal, according to Pakistani law, most certainly. I’m in favor of it, without caveat. Or to take another example: If the pirates were holding Captain Phillips on Somali soil, instead of asea, and the Navy SEALs staged the same operation, it would been, well, illegal–no Somali visas, unauthorized use of violence in a (somewhat) sovereign nation; murder, one could argue. (Same is true for Jimmy Carter’s pathetic, half-hearted attempt to save the US hostages in Iran in 1979). In wartime and in espionage, legality has its limits. My question for Greenwald is: do you believe that there should be any US clandestine service at all? And, on a more personal note, you do realize that one can believe in clandestine operations (and the NSA program now legal under FISA reform, for the matter) and still be absolutely opposed to torture, as practiced by the CIA?

Actually, I will concede one thing to Greenwald: I’ve been opposed to prosecuting the Bush miscreants–for political reasons, mostly. The President has put an awful lot of important domestic and foreign business on the table and this whole issue of what went on under Bush, and is no longer happening now, is a diversion from getting the important stuff done. I still believe there should be no prosecutions for CIA operators who requested a legal judgment and received one that I consider to be disgraceful and illegal, under international law. But I do believe the man who issued that judgment, Jay Bybee, lacks the moral stature to sit on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and should be impeached. His tenure there isn’t part of the past; it affects our present and future–and it should end as quickly as possible.

Harman: It is being reported that Jane Harman was caught on an NSA wiretap, offering to try to obtain easier treatment of two Jewish-American lobbyists who had been caught in a minor espionage case in return for support (from AIPAC, presumably) for appointment as chair of the House Intelligence Committee. I’m not sure that’s illegal–sounds like the sort of horse-trading that goes on all time, but–if true–it is disgraceful. (And it would be nice to know the name of the “Israeli agent” who was her correspondent.) I’ve been an admirer of Harman’s. I think she has been a smart and valuable member of Congress, one of the most knowledgeable Democrats when it comes to intelligence matters. But you don’t horse-trade in an espionage case. Period.

More on Harman: The always excellent Laura Rozen has a wild twist in the Harman case–was the anti-Harman leak a plot by Republicans and former CIA officials to turn attention away from the CIA torture story? Possibly. The fact that, according to the Washington Post, Harman was one of the few Intelligence Committee members opposed to water-boarding may have also added to the motivation for taking her out now. Harman’s office has denied calling the Department of Justice on behalf of the Aipac miscreants–but she hasn’t denied the wiretapped conversation.