Washington Post columnist David Ignatius writes on Obama, the CIA and the memos in today's paper. His column will be the most important you read all day. Ignatius, who is extraordinarily well-sourced at the Agency, writes that the consequences of the release have been swift and damaging:
President Obama promised CIA officers that they won't be prosecuted for carrying out lawful orders, but the people on the firing line don't believe him. They think the memos have opened a new season of investigation and retribution.
The lesson for younger officers is obvious: Keep your head down. Duck the assignments that carry political risk. Stay away from a counterterrorism program that has become a career hazard.
Obama tried personally to reassure the CIA workforce during a visit to Langley on Monday. He said all the right things about the agency's clandestine role. But it had the look of a campaign event, with employees hooting and hollering and the president reading from his teleprompter with a backdrop of stars that commemorate the CIA's fallen warriors. By yesterday, Obama was deferring to the attorney general whether to prosecute "those who formulated those legal decisions," whatever that means.
Obama seems to think he can have it both ways -- authorizing an unprecedented disclosure of CIA operational methods and at the same time galvanizing a clandestine service whose best days, he told them Monday, are "yet to come." Life doesn't work that way -- even for charismatic politicians. Disclosure of the torture memos may have been necessary, as part of an overdue campaign to change America's image in the world. But nobody should pretend that the disclosures weren't costly to CIA morale and effectiveness.
And then, more consequences:
One veteran counterterrorism operative says that agents in the field are already being more careful about using the legal findings that authorize covert action. An example is the so-called "risk of capture" interview that takes place in the first hour after a terrorism suspect is grabbed. This used to be the key window of opportunity, in which the subject was questioned aggressively and his cellphone contacts and "pocket litter" were exploited quickly.
Now, field officers are more careful. They want guidance from headquarters. They need legal advice. I'm told that in the case of an al-Qaeda suspect seized in Iraq several weeks ago, the CIA didn't even try to interrogate him. The agency handed him over to the U.S. military.
Agency officials also worry about the effect on foreign intelligence services that share secrets with the United States in a process politely known as "liaison." A former official who remains in close touch with key Arab allies such as Egypt and Jordan warns: "There is a growing concern that the risk is too high to do the things with America they've done in the past."
If Obama means what he says about protecting the CIA workforce and its operational edge, he must give up the idea that he can please everyone on this issue. He should recommend limits on any congressional inquiry and resist demands for a special prosecutor. Instead, he should push the White House's preferred alternative -- a commission that can review secret evidence behind closed doors, then report to the nation.
Ignatius seems to think that all of this damage is worth it. I think he's wrong. But his reporting on the consequences of the release is a valuable contribution to the debate.