The Magazine

What Was the CIA Up To?

There's one way to find out: Obama should release the intelligence gained from the interrogations.

May 4, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 31 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Morally and legally, President Obama's position makes little sense. If U.S. officials are guilty of serious crimes, they should be prosecuted. The notion that CIA officers should escape criminal prosecution because they thought they were following legal orders flies in the face of the historic understanding that soldiers must not obey illegal commands. It will be outrageous cowardice if a Democratic Congress, or the administration, decides to seek the heads of Yoo and Bybee and not seek the prosecution of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, George Tenet, Condoleezza Rice, and others higher up.

And President Obama's actions are likely to cause collateral damage abroad. If the European left continues in the direction it's going, we could soon see a slew of cases filed in third countries against U.S. officials, charging them with war crimes and other human rights offenses. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose husband began the extraordinary rendition of Islamic terrorist suspects, may have an acute appreciation of the hideously time-consuming diplomatic mess she could soon find herself in if this happens. Try talking seriously about NATO and Afghanistan if in the background feisty and politically independent Spanish, Belgian, or Italian magistrates are issuing arrest warrants for former U.S. officials. Yet the White House and the leadership of the Democratic Congress are--so far--heedlessly feeding anti-American forces in Europe that could easily derail this administration's efforts to improve transatlantic relations.

For those who suspect that aggressive interrogation was a highly valuable, morally justifiable counterterrorist tool, there is really no choice but to energetically counter the president's efforts to declare the case closed, guilty as charged. The preeminent issue now is to try to learn whether aggressive interrogation produced real intelligence value. If it did not, then no one should defend it or the decision of the Bush administration to continue and seek legal justification for the practice once it became clear that substantial, lifesaving information was not being produced. If the evidence is not at all clear on the question, then all pushes ought to go to Obama. Aggressive interrogation is ugly--though far, far from barbaric, as the released memoranda clearly reveal (Justice and CIA officials were aggressively solicitous of the detainees' well-being throughout). Americans should not deploy rough tactics except in extremis.

And the American right has been much too quick in its high dudgeon about the possible operational compromises wrought by the publication of these memos. It's hard to see how this information in al Qaeda's hands would aid the organization in countering future American interrogations. My junior-officer class in the clandestine service had an excellent idea of what was awaiting it in a three-day "jail" training exercise--a program that was the model for the Bush administration's enhanced interrogation techniques. Even the former Delta Force and Navy Seals in our group, who had already experienced truly harsh survival training, found it a shock when they hit the freezing cold, the mind-scrambling electronic noise, the small boxes into which we were stuffed, and the sleep deprivation. Even the best mental and physical preparation for such an experience tends to fade quickly as the all-engulfing loneliness, fatigue, and pain of the here-and-now sets in.

And the CIA's most critical counterterrorist operations overseas will likely be unscathed by this controversy at home. The same methodology that case officers have been using since 9/11 to penetrate al Qaeda will continue. They will become neither more timid nor more bold. The odds of a "unilateral" (CIA-only) recruitment inside the inner circles of al Qaeda will remain as before: unlikely. Although it is possible that this controversy, if it mushrooms, could make some European liaison services again nervous about the disclosure of joint post-9/11 European-American rendition efforts, it's not likely that any new revelations would be crippling. France and Great Britain--our two key European intelligence allies against Islamic terrorism--are wedded to us for many reasons. Chief among them that they, unlike us, confront at home the constant plotting of domestically nourished radical Islamists. European security and foreign intelligence services are not especially perturbed by President Bush's publicly deplored counterterrorist efforts.

The overriding issue is to learn whether this whole affair is about something operationally real. If so, then President Obama, by shutting down aggressive interrogations and driving CIA officers away from acquiring the requisite special skills for its use, may well be putting the country at risk. But if we find out that the president is right, then there should, quite rightly, be hell to pay. We should not have gone through all this "unpleasantness" for nothing.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former case officer in the CIA's Directorate of Operations.