09/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

True North: In Search of Moral Direction

I've been conflicted over the past several days, trying to come to grips with warring feelings over writing about my growing perception that the Barack Obama we elected is drifting ever farther off-course. Would the article be presumptuous? Would it give ammunition to some of his critics who seem intent on undermining his presidential leadership at all costs? Would it just be spitting into the wind?

My conscience was rejuvenated this morning when I read Arianna Huffington's masterful piece on the president's approach to health care reform. (Arianna, you may not remember, but I once shared with you that I keep a copy of the Isaiah Berlin "Hedgehog and Fox" parable in my BlackBerry so it's at hand all the time!) As I read her article, my anger was reignited. Yes, I thought, when you see something wrong, your obligation as a citizen is to point it out.

It's time to speak up.

The criticism of the release of the CIA Inspector General's Office Report on Enhanced Interrogation Techniques falls into two camps, one being a subset of the other. First, there are those who say the timing of the report could be politically counterproductive in that it will divert the public's and media's attention away from other pressing issues. That is, if you're going to drop this bad news, at least drop it at a more "politically appropriate" time (whenever that might be).

The second school of thought says forget timing, don't release the report at all, and don't make the CIA look bad. To twist a phrase from eighties television, "Don't make the CIA angry. You wouldn't like the CIA when it's angry."

These concepts are chilling in uniquely different ways. The first echoes with the ache of breached trust, the second with the dread of unchecked governmental power. Both should feel devastating to reasonable Americans. What's interesting, though, is how they really are two sides of the same coin. When examined, they are both painful reminders of the gulf we now see between Obama the candidate and Obama the president. How he addresses the problem as a whole and how he answers each of these specific opinions will tell us much about the direction of his presidency. Brace yourself.

Let's take them one at a time, starting with the presumption that there's a "right" time to share news. There's no question that in this world, the timing of information release has its high-value uses. A hackneyed sitcom story might feature a wife who tells her husband about a lavish purchase not the day she makes it, but the day the credit card bill shows up. With disastrous results of course, to teach us a lesson in honesty. This is controlling timing, to be sure, but "right" time is the wrong modifier. "Advantageous" is the word they're searching for. And I understand it. Except that the idea in no way fits into Candidate Obama's promise of a new transparency. "The American people want to trust in our government again -- we just need a government that will trust in us," he said. "And making government accountable to the people isn't just a cause of this campaign -- it's been a cause of my life for two decades."

Really? If the man doesn't have the faith in the voters to take the brutal truth of how the CIA sometimes gathers information and still be able to consider the intricacies of saving our health care system, then he's not treating us like adults. He's baiting and switching and hiding the receipt for that hilarious new hat in the drawer, waiting until a more convenient time to trot it out. If he knuckles under to this timing-the-news idea, one must come to the conclusion that either he was either lying about his moral convictions back on the campaign trail (something I don't believe) or he's lost his way (something I'm afraid I am starting to believe). After all, he reversed his decision to release all those other photographs from Abu Ghraib, a censorship move I have a hard time imagining Grant Park Obama embracing.

High-stakes politics is often a forest-for-the-trees job. It appears that many of those who occupy the Oval Office temporarily misplace their moral compasses. Without this tool in good working order, the best-intentioned leader runs the risk of getting lost in minutia and compromises which inevitably pile up.

Say what you want about George W. Bush, he knew what he thought and acted accordingly. The sad part is President Obama does have a moral compass. He's on record as wanting to run his administration in the spirit of Lincoln and FDR, and give America the kind of hope my friend Martin Luther King, Jr. did.

And what did those people have in common that seems to be missing from Obama now that he has his dream job? A willingness to make enemies in pursuit of righteous change, an understanding that compromise is often a dilution of pure right with a healthy splash of wrong, a self-assuredness that impersonates fearlessness.

If Obama is the kind of leader that can check those traits right off the list, I certainly haven't seen it.

It's simple. If, on this issue of the "wrong time" for the report the president says, "Now is the only right time to release it, because an open honest American government doesn't sugar-coat the truth," then I start believing again. But I won't hold my breath waiting.

Complicating the moral bind the president seems to be struggling against is the idea -- floating free in the Washington ether -- that the CIA is above reproach. That to criticize this venerable institution is tantamount to treason.

Forget that the very pillars of the federal government are designed to catch each others' mistakes, forget that the Bill of Rights wove "Freedom of The Press" into the fabric of our society precisely to encourage open debate about system's flaws.

Forget the ideals; let's just focus on the facts. Because truth of the CIA is a matter of public record, and they are not above reproach. They're not above anything, really.

One glance at Weiner's superbly researched Legacy of Ashes: the History of the CIA tells you everything you need to know about the agency's tool kit. They use money and bullets to get their work done. Lying is their lingua franca, and assassination was a tax-payer supported modus operandi until 1976, when Gerald Ford issued an executive order banning the practice. So... when you can't run, you walk fast. When you can't shout, you talk loud. And when you can't kill people, you hurt them very badly. It's only natural; there should be no real surprise here. Not too long ago, every hockey team had its goons. Any way you sliced it, the job was "enforcer," and they have been called left wings or defensemen, yet all but the most naïve fan would ever have thought they were on the ice for their grace or scoring abilities.

And this is the fundamental issue with the CIA. It's a messy, nasty area of work that we seem to believe has value to our society. If we empower an agency, we should expect it to use the tools it's been given do its job.

So, why the knee-jerk reaction? Why are government agencies like CIA afraid of being embarrassed for doing its job? Why is this organic paranoia peppered throughout the institution? The people high up in the organization are likely concerned because they remember something Obama said that he himself isn't acting like he remembers: that situations such as the prison at Guantanamo damaged America's moral standing in the world. "We intend to win this fight," Obama said, "We are going to win it on our own terms."

New terms, not Bush's, and certainly not the CIA's. That's threatening. The pressure is on regarding this torture issue. Would you expect the CIA to voluntarily decide something in their toolkit is immoral? It took a presidential edict to stop murder as a sanctioned weapon, and that doubtless made them feel like they were fighting with one hand behind their back. Are you happy when your bosses try to take some of your responsibilities away where you work? As Frederick Douglass so elegantly stated, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."

The frightening thing here is, knowing about their methodology, when one gets the sense the CIA is taking criticism personally, the tacit threat they make with every press release feels all-too-real: you cross them at your own peril not because there's any legislation against speaking out, but because the CIA is thin-skinned and vengeful. Good for movies, bad for real life. I've seen it personally in my experiences with J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Weiner's book is full of untold examples. Unelected officials can easily take on the ego and hubris of monarchs, thinking they're more powerful than either representatives or the people they represent. This is how police states are built.

On principle and as a student of the democratic process, President Obama needs to draw a line. The hell with embarrassing the CIA, we can't let our leaders be strong-armed by them anymore. That's embarrassing to us.

Obama can nail two big birds with one stone here. By saying the Executive Branch doesn't answer to the Central Intelligence Agency, it's the other way around, he's establishing how he's allowing himself (and by extension us) to be treated. By publicly sharing the information and opening the debate on "enhanced" interrogation he may retake the moral high ground after all.

He could start by lowering the threshold of redacted information in the report (it seems to be about half-blacked out at this point). That idea that people "don't want to see how the sausage is made" is a hold-over from a pre-Obama world. At least a pre-campaigning Obama world. If we can't live with ourselves doing what the CIA thinks we have to do to protect ourselves as a country, we put the pressure on our leaders and eventually rules get changed. This well may make organizations like the CIA less effective, but that hypothetical tradeoff isn't the debate (quite possibly they've been less effective with assassination off the table for the past thirty years, but those are the rules). The opportunity here is to learn of what stuff our president is made.

In Paris last December on the occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, I was asked to compare then President-elect Obama to Martin Luther King, Jr. I said Barack Obama was a gifted political leader. Dr. King was a moral leader. Additionally, I said King was sui generis; wholly unique. I asked rhetorically who today is like Michangelo, Shakespeare, Galileo, Mozart, or Beethoven. I also reminded them that "In twelve years and four months, from 1956 to April 4, 1968 -- except for President Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation -- Martin Luther King Jr. did more to achieve racial, social and political justice and equality in America than any other person in our country's history. The jury is still out. It may be that Obama's presidential leadership will require me to amend what I just said."

I added then and still cling to the belief that Barack Obama still has the chance to possibly end up as one of the most effective national political leaders in America in a generational lifetime.

But only if he checks back on his moral compass.

Jesus taught in parables because like facts they inform, but unlike facts, they also encourage the mind's plasticity, setting the table for future teaching to take root. Earlier today, Arianna offered a parable about two kinds of leadership. Let me offer a parable here. We, a unique but troubled republic, were told by a great leader that "We are the 'we' we have been waiting for." If we are still waiting for ourselves, just how great was that leader after all?

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