Washington Matters


CIA Torture Probe Won't Eclipse Fall Agenda


Expect more high-level political jousting over the newly announced special prosecutor probe into allegations of inhumane and possibly illegal CIA interrogations, but don't look for it to dominate the agenda  this fall. Far more likely is a prolonged, behind-the-scenes probe that will pretty much fall flat in the end. 

For one thing, the Obama administration has made it clear, despite the consternation of liberals, that it wants to move on. It sees little to be gained by burning up political capital and time that it would rather use to press the president's agenda, topped by health care reform. 

While the Department of Justice is by statute independent of the administration, don't believe that Obama's wishes can be totally ignored. An open-ended probe that aims high with subpoena power is not likely. Attorney General Eric Holder has already placed a tight and narrow scope on the inquiry, keeping it based on the reported actions of a handful of CIA operatives directly involved in the interrogations. It's unlikely that top officials, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has lambasted the probe and aggressively defended the interrogations, will be in the target sights of the special prosecutor John Durham.   

The special prosecutor will conduct his inquiry largely outside of public view, so there will be no public hearings or news conferences to command media coverage and public interest or fuel a partisan standoff. And the process will take a long time. Remember special prosecutor Ken Starr's Whitewater investigation into the Clinton land deal lasted a half a decade. This probe won't take that long, but there may not even be much of an update for half a year or more.

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So what will come of the inquiry? Legal experts predict CIA operatives will testify that they were under direction to elicit as much information as quickly as they could to protect national security in the tense weeks and months after the 2001 terrorist attacks. They'll say specific techniques were tacitly or even directly approved by the administration and resulted in highly valuable and actionable intelligence gained. 

There'll be a difference of opinion about the nature of the detainee treatment and whether it was indeed illegal or  effective. Cheney and others (who won't be targets of the inquiry) already say it was not only legal but was also necessary, even vital, to prevent other large-scale attacks on U.S. soil. They could even claim a form of executive branch privilege in using whatever means necessary to protect and defend the nation after being attacked.

For Durham to move the inquiry into a potential prosecution of only a few CIA operatives and not others higher up in command who actually set official interrogation policy will seem unfair. Good chance it won't even make it that far.

That'll allow Obama to move on, as he wants to do.

 




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