Yesterday Attorney General Eric Holder announced the initiation of a "limited" inquiry into the actions of CIA officers in interrogating Al Qaida terrorists captured and detained in the course of the "war on terror." In explaining his actions, Holder noted that he agreed with President Obama's desire to avoid getting mired in disputes regarding the policies of former President George W. Bush, but that his review of information on the CIA interrogation program left him no choice. "As attorney general, my duty is to examine the facts and to follow the law," said Holder. "Given all of the information currently available, it is clear to me that this review is the only responsible course of action for me to take."
I have no doubt that the Attorney General is a good man. I have no doubt that he is acting in what he believes to be the country's best interest. I also have no doubt that this action of his in launching this inquiry will have an absolutely catastrophic effect on the CIA and the entire intelligence community.
I am a staunch supporter of this president. I voted for him, and I campaigned for him.
I am also absolutely convinced that our use of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" was wrong. I do not believe we ever should have used them. I do not believe they were ever as productive as claimed. It is good news that we have moved away from the use of these measures and imposed some control over the action of interrogators. I conducted a lot of interrogations in the field, as did personnel under my command. Such "enhanced" techniques were never utilized. Everyone we ever questioned talked.
All that said, initiating this inquiry, directed as it is at serving CIA officers in the field, is a disaster.
The CIA is critical to the defense of this nation. Particularly, in the kind of "war" we are now fighting, what we desperately need is a tough, aggressive, small and flexible intelligence organization which can go after the terrorists who wish us harm. The Department of Defense, with its massive bureaucracy and seemingly endless levels of command and review cannot perform this task with nearly the agility of the CIA. Neither can any of the other members of the intelligence community.
Over the last several years, however, we have seen that the CIA is not a healthy organization. While it has notched some impressive successes, it has also experienced some massive failures. There are many incredible, dedicated individuals serving in the CIA, but they are increasingly functioning within a broken, dysfunctional bureaucracy. When they succeed, which they do more often than most Americans realize, it is often despite the structure within which they work, not because of it.
What we need to be doing is undertaking serious reform of this critical organization. We need to be restructuring its leadership, toughening its standards and training and pushing it to become more innovative and more effective. We should be pursuing all of this with the sense of urgency that the world situation demands, moving now, before a group releases the plague in Washington or detonates a nuclear device in Manhattan.
None of this is possible, however, without rock solid political support. No CIA officer, no matter how well trained or equipped, is going to push the envelope operationally or undertake a dangerous, risky operation while simultaneously having to look over his shoulder for the next prosecutorial inquiry. Agency officers are overwhelming patriotic, hard working Americans. They are also fathers and mothers. They too have mortgages and car payments and familial obligations. When the ground is constantly shifting under their feet and no one is quite clear which way the wind is blowing, they will react predictably.
They will slow down. They will become increasingly cautious. Fewer ops will be run. Fewer agents will be recruited. At a time when we desperately need to be accelerating our ops tempo, we will be doing exactly the opposite.
We all know this new inquiry will not remain limited in any sense of the word. It will grind on and expand and command attention. The Washington Post will run endless front page articles on its progress. Television pundits will discuss the status of the inquiry day after day and night after night. Within the agency, officers will hear one message. "There is no net. There is no support. Move and act at your own peril."
We cannot afford this. We will pay in lives for this mistake when the next attack comes. We need to put the actions of the Bush administration behind us, and we need to move forward. Rapidly. Before we find ourselves once again counting bodies, hunting for survivors amidst the wreckage and wondering why we had no warning.