Washington Matters


Time To Lay Off the CIA?


President Obama made it clear early in his administration that he had no interest in beating up the intelligence community for questionable practices authorized by President Bush and Vice President Cheney. He rightly put the emphasis on changing direction where needed (as in specifically barring torture) while preserving what those elements, however distasteful, that were necessary (as long as they were legal). Unfortunately, too many other Democrats aren't willing to let him do that. 

The latest flap involves a CIA plan, authorized by Cheney in 2001 but never really operational, to send hit teams to go after top al-Qaeda operatives. It's not the goal that has Democrats riled up, given that it's exactly what we do regularly when our drones attack terrorist strongholds in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, for the last six decades at least, U.S. governments have repeatedly been involved in assassination attempts.

What makes this case more controversial are questions about the wisdom of sending agents to do the dirty deed without telling the host countries, including some allies, that we are turning their sovereign land into a battlefield. And then there's Cheney's reported order to keep the whole plan a secret from Congress, defended on the grounds that it wasn't necessary because the plan wasn't operational yet.

When CIA Director Leon Panetta learned of it, he cancelled it and immediately told Congress and apologized for not doing so earlier. In the process, he gave support indirectly to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who some time back accused the CIA of lying to Congress. Clearly, the agency was less than forthcoming, and Newt Gingrich and others who demanded Pelosi's head for her comments owe her an apology (don't hold your breath).

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Add to that problem the separate issue of further torture investigations. Attorney General Eric Holder is said to be so sickened by the reports he's read and the videos he's watched, that he's mulling prosecutions for interrogators who may have crossed the line.

We are a nation of laws and doing the right thing is crucial to trust -- the trust that Americans must have in their government and the trust the rest of the world must have if the U.S. is to be seen as a moral leader.

But is this really the only way to earn that trust? Everyone knows that bad things happened in what may be the understandable excesses in the war on terror. But we're fixing those bad things and vowing not to do them again. The people who work for the CIA or other intelligence agencies were basically following orders, doing what they thought they were supposed to do. There are limits to that defense, as we decided at Nuremberg, but there's no evidence that those limits were crossed in this case.

In the end, this feels too much like revenge -- revenge against the arrogance of Bush and Cheney (which continues). The problem is that they're not the ones likely to suffer. It's the CIA that is getting hurt, and that's not good for the country.




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