As a member of the intelligence community, I understand the appeal of the truth commissions suggested by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Congressman John Conyers (D-MI). This nation would be well-served by a non-partisan investigation of matters such as the treatment and torture of terrorism suspects. While this is certainly an important policy matter, rather than focusing on the actions of particular interrogators I suggest considering a broader concern--the value and accuracy of information the intelligence community has provided over the past decade.
It is well known that questionable interrogation techniques were employed in pursuit of the Global War on Terrorism. It is also clear these techniques were approved by political appointees in the Bush administration. So who should be held accountable? The interrogators or their supervisors?
Recent history shows us it is easy to prosecute the interrogators--the government employees, members of the military, and defense contractors who did what they were told by those in authority. We now know these authorities assured the interrogators their conduct was necessary and legal. There is scant evidence to suggest, however, that those who actually ordered waterboarding or other overly aggressive and unproven interrogation tactics are likely to be held responsible for their roles. We need only look as far as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal for confirmation of this suspicion.
Focusing on the value and accuracy of intelligence would allow a truth commission to incorporate President Obama's desire to look forward. We need a strong understanding of how and why our intelligence has failed in so many instances so that we can make smarter, sounder decisions in the future. To that end, the intelligence community should lay out its track record for a full public accounting.
How can this be done? First, commission members should review all reports issued by the National Intelligence Council since 2000. That would include the 2003 Iraq National Intelligence Estimate, evaluations of Iran's nuclear intentions, and a passel of lesser documents including Sense of the Community Memorandums.
Then the commission should evaluate the reports. First, members should determine whether the intelligence community made the correct call. This might be tough as intelligence community managers like to bury their assessments in a plethora of "possibly"'s and "probably"'s. The next task is to identify which intelligence community agencies actually made correct calls--and which repeatedly missed the mark. This requires nothing more than a simple tally sheet.
Follow up with two sets of hearings. The first session should be with working level analysts--leaving managers and bosses out. Ask these analysts what calls they made and why. Have them lay out the data and explain how they reached their assessments. Then ask them whether their assessments actually made the final reports. My bet: more often than not, the answer will be no.
Now turn to the managers. Ask them the same questions as those asked of the analysts with one addition. Why did they or didn't they change the analysts' final call? The number of "I don't recall" responses may well equal those provided by former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales during his hearings regarding the U.S. Attorney scandal. This is the opportunity for the truth commission to determine whether assessments were changed to meet political agendas.
Hearings cannot be an end in and of themselves, it is critical to impose accountability. The best way for Congress to do this is not with legislation, but through the power of the purse. Intelligence agencies with a demonstrated track record of providing decision makers with accurate, valuable information should be awarded greater funding. Those who failed to meet the mark should see their budgets reduced.
Intelligence failures should be met with the same consequences encountered in private industry. Success is awarded with profit and recognition while inadequate results lead to bankruptcy and a search for new employment options. It's time for Congress to hold the intelligence community accountable and Senator Leahy may be offering just the means to accomplish that task.