Now that President-elect Obama has made the “unique” choice of Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff Leon Panetta as his CIA director, the intelligence part of the transition team can get to work. For Panetta the job will be to learn something about the CIA. As he is brought up to speed the question arises will he participate in the liberal witch-hunt designed to purge their agency of anyone who had anything to do with “torture.” Or will he understand that waterboarding was a practice that congress knew about and made absolutely no attempt to stop. It did not become an Issue until the war started to go badly:
Barack Obama’s choice of former Congressman Leon Panetta to lead the CIA at least puts a grownup, if also an intelligence rookie, in that crucial job. It also means that Mr. Panetta and Director of National Intelligence-designate Dennis Blair will soon have to decide if they want to join the left-wing crusade to purge their agencies of anyone who had anything to do with “torture.”
In particular, at their nomination hearings they’re likely to be asked to support a “truth commission” on the Bush Administration’s terrorist interrogation policies. We hope they have the good sense to resist. And if they need any reason to push back, they could start by noting the Members of Congress who would be on the witness list to raise their right hands.
Beginning in 2002, Nancy Pelosi and other key Democrats (as well as Republicans) on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees were thoroughly, and repeatedly, briefed on the CIA’s covert antiterror interrogation programs. They did nothing to stop such activities, when they weren’t fully sanctioning them. If they now decide the tactics they heard about then amount to abuse, then by their own logic they themselves are complicit. Let’s review the history the political class would prefer to forget.
According to our sources and media reports we’ve corroborated, the classified briefings began in the spring of 2002 and dealt with the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, a high-value al Qaeda operative captured in Pakistan. In succeeding months and years, more than 30 Congressional sessions were specifically devoted to the interrogation program and its methods, including waterboarding and other aggressive techniques designed to squeeze intelligence out of hardened detainees like Zubaydah.
The briefings were first available to the Chairmen and ranking Members of the Intelligence Committees. From 2003 through 2006, that gang of four included Democrats Bob Graham and John D. Rockefeller in the Senate and Jane Harman in the House, as well as Republicans Porter Goss, Peter Hoekstra, Richard Shelby and Pat Roberts. Senior staffers were sometimes present. After September 2006, when President Bush publicly acknowledged the program, the interrogation briefings were opened to the full committees.
If Congress wanted to kill this program, all it had to do was withhold funding. And if Democrats thought it was illegal or really found the CIA’s activities so heinous, one of them could have made a whistle-blowing floor statement under the protection of the Constitution’s speech and debate clause. They’d have broken their secrecy oaths and jeopardized national security, sure. But if they believed that Bush policies were truly criminal, didn’t they have a moral obligation to do so? In any case, the inevitable media rapture over their anti-Bush defiance would have more than compensated.
Ms. Harman did send a one-page classified letter in February 2003 listing her equivocal objections to the interrogation program. She made her letter public in January 2008 after the CIA revealed that it had destroyed some interrogation videotapes. After lauding the CIA’s efforts “in the current threat environment,” she noted that “what was described raises profound policy questions and I am concerned about whether these have been as rigorously examined as the legal questions.” Ms. Harman also vaguely wondered whether “these practices are consistent with the principles and policies of the United States,” but she did not condemn them as either torture or illegal.
This wasn’t the only time a politician filed an inconsequential expression of anti-antiterror protest. Mr. Rockefeller famously wrote a letter to Vice President Dick Cheney objecting to warrantless wiretapping, but then stuck it (literally) in a drawer. Like Ms. Harman, only after the program was exposed did he reveal his missive to show he’d been opposed all along, though he’d done nothing about it.
According to Mr. Goss, some Members at the time even wondered if our terror fighters were harsh enough as they tried to extract potentially live-saving information. Mr. Goss, who later served as CIA director from 2004 to 2006, told the Washington Post in 2007 that, “Among those being briefed, there was a pretty full understanding of what the CIA was doing. And the reaction in the room was not just approval, but encouragement.”
And no wonder. The context at the time was that the government knew very little about international terror networks and further strikes inside the U.S. seemed possible. That the U.S. has so far prevented another attack is due in part to the human information that interrogations have elicited. To have some politicized panel second-guess this now that the public mood has changed would be a more dangerous replay of the Frank Church Committee of the 1970s, which damaged CIA capabilities for years. Now that Mr. Panetta and Admiral Blair will be responsible for keeping the U.S. safe and for maintaining the morale of our spooks, we can’t imagine why they would want such a political spectacle.
The real — the only — point of this “truth” exercise is to smear Bush Administration officials and coax foreign prosecutors into indicting them if Mr. Obama’s Justice Department refuses. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees already possess the relevant facts, and Senator Carl Levin and his staff have spent two-and-a-half years looking at mountains of documents — with nothing to show for it.
If Mr. Panetta doesn’t want to go down as another Frank Church or (Carter-era CIA Director) Stansfield Turner, he’ll tell his fellow Democrats to drop their “torture” vendetta against intelligence officials who were acting in good faith and with the full knowledge of key Members of Congress.