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Who's Politicizing Intelligence Now?

Obama's intelligence chief admits the value of tough interrogations.

12:00 AM, Apr 22, 2009 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Admiral Dennis Blair, the top intelligence official in the United States, thanks to his nomination by Barack Obama, believes that the coercive interrogation methods outlawed by his boss produced "high-value information" and gave the U.S. government a "deeper understanding of the al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country." He included those assessments in a letter distributed inside the intelligence community last Thursday, the same day Obama declassified and released portions of Justice Department memos setting out guidelines for those interrogations.

That letter from Blair served as the basis for a public statement that his office put out that same day. But the DNI's conclusions about the results of coercive interrogations--in effect, that they worked--were taken out of Blair's public statement. A spokesman for the DNI told the New York Times that the missing material was cut for reasons of space, though the statement would be posted on DNI's website, where space doesn't seem to be an issue.

Curious.

There's more. Blair's public statement differed from his letter to colleagues in another way. The letter included this language: "From 2002 through 2006 when the use of these techniques ended, the leadership of the CIA repeatedly reported their activities both to Executive Branch policymakers and to members of Congress, and received permission to continue to use the techniques." Blair's public statement made no mention of the permission granted by "members of Congress"--permission that came from members of Obama's own party.

Odd.

And then there are the memos themselves. Sections of the memos that describe the techniques have been declassified and released. But other sections of those same memos--the parts that describe, in some detail, the value of the program--have been redacted and remain hidden from public view.

Marc Thiessen, a speechwriter for George W. Bush, had access to the full memos and read them to prepare a speech for Bush in 2006. When Thiessen looked at the redacted version released by the White House last week, he noticed something strange.

He writes: "But just as the memo begins to describe previously undisclosed details of what enhanced interrogations achieved, the page is almost entirely blacked out. The Obama administration released pages of unredacted classified information on the techniques used to question captured terrorist leaders but pulled out its black marker when it came to the details of what those interrogations achieved."

It's not just those memos. Former Vice President Dick Cheney says he has read other memos that describe the intelligence obtained by using coercive interrogation and that demonstrate its value. He has asked for them to be declassified and made public.

It is possible, I suppose, that a series of fortunate coincidences has resulted in the public disclosure of only that information that will be politically helpful to the Obama administration. It is also possible that Dick Cheney has taken up synchronized swimming in his retirement.

It wouldn't be the first time the Obama administration has politicized intelligence. Back in the early days of the administration, the New Yorker's Jane Mayer wrote an article about Obama's decision to ban some of these interrogation techniques. She spoke with White House counsel Greg Craig, who described the deliberations.

Across the Potomac River, at the C.I.A.'s headquarters, in Langley, Virginia, however, there was considerably less jubilation. Top C.I.A. officials have argued for years that so-called "enhanced" interrogation techniques have yielded lifesaving intelligence breakthroughs. "They disagree in some respect," Craig admitted. Among the hard questions that Obama left open, in fact, is whether the C.I.A. will have to follow the same interrogation rules as the military. While the President has clearly put an end to cruel tactics, Craig said that Obama "is somewhat sympathetic to the spies' argument that their mission and circumstances are different."

Despite such sentiments, Obama's executive orders will undoubtedly rein in the C.I.A. Waterboarding, for instance, has gone the way of the rack, now that the C.I.A. is strictly bound by customary interpretations of the Geneva Conventions. This decision, too, was the result of intense deliberation. During the transition period, unknown to the public, Obama's legal, intelligence, and national-security advisers visited Langley for two long sessions with current and former intelligence-community members. They debated whether a ban on brutal interrogation practices would hurt their ability to gather intelligence, and the advisers asked the intelligence veterans to prepare a cost-benefit analysis. The conclusions may surprise defenders of harsh interrogation tactics. "There was unanimity among Obama's expert advisers," Craig said, "that to change the practices would not in any material way affect the collection of intelligence."

That's interesting: "top CIA officials have argued for years that so-called 'enhanced' interrogation techniques have yielded lifesaving intelligence breakthroughs," but the team of "expert advisers" from Obama's presidential campaign apparently knows better.

All of this leads to one obvious question: Who needs intelligence professionals when you have campaign advisers?

Stephen F. Hayes, a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President (HarperCollins).