As President-elect Barack Obama assures intelligence officials that his complaints are with the Bush administration, not them, there are growing hints from Democratic Senate allies that spy agency veterans will not be prosecuted for past harsh interrogation and detainee policies.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein told The Associated Press in an interview this week that there is a clear distinction between those who made the policies and those who carried them out.
"They (the CIA) carry out orders and the orders come from the (National Security Council) and the White House, so there’s not a lot of policy debate that goes on there," she said. "We’re going to continue our looking into the situation and I think that is up to the administration and the director."
Feinstein declined to comment on whether her committee would take specific action to offer legal cover to those involved in harsh interrogations that some critics say amount to torture.
Obama has not indicated his stance on what information should be declassified and released or whether he thinks those who conducted harsh interrogations should be protected from lawsuits. But when he introduced his intelligence advisers at a news conference Friday, he expressed gratitude for the work and professionalism of intelligence agency employees and promised them pragmatic leadership.
"The men and women of the intelligence community have been on the front lines in this world of new and evolving dangers," he said. "They have served in the shadows, saved American lives, advanced our interests, and earned the respect of a grateful nation."
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he is interested in revealing the origins and sweep of the Bush administration’s controversial interrogation program and is willing to sponsor legislation if necessary to release many of the documents about the program.
Scores of secret documents have been assembled for the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan investigation into the CIA’s destruction of videotapes that showed U.S. interrogators conducting waterboarding of two terrorism suspects.
Wyden, a Senate confidant of Obama’s, wants to declassify many top-secret documents that would reveal how the program came to be, whether severe methods have been effective in yielding useful intelligence, and what the legal arguments were for allowing them.
"I think the U.S. has got to come clean on this," he said. "It’s about a program that goes right to the heart of what’s needed to keep America safe and keep our moral authority in the world."
Vice President Dick Cheney told the AP that waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning since banned at the CIA, produced valuable intelligence.
"It’s been used with great discrimination by people who know what they’re doing," he said.
Current and former intelligence officials have expressed concern that a release of the classified documents — which civil liberties and human rights groups as well as some in Congress have been clamoring for — could be used to mount lawsuits against agency employees. Some have advocated a process like the 9/11 Commission to investigate what was authorized, what was done and by whom, which could also form the basis for civil rights lawsuits.
Last year, the CIA announced it would pay the full cost of legal liability insurance for agency employees and expanded the pool of those eligible to about two-thirds of the work force.
Wyden said those fears of a surge in lawsuits are unfounded. With Republican Sen. Kit Bond, Wyden got legislation passed last year requiring the CIA to release an internal investigation into the agency’s activities in the months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. One of the reasons three CIA chiefs resisted doing it voluntarily was the prospect of prosecutions, Wyden said.
"You know how at Langley they are saying, ‘people are going be prosecuted with all this,’" he said in an interview. "Think about what happened. … I didn’t push anyone to be prosecuted after the CIA’s report was released on 9/11."
"No one’s talking about some witch hunt," Wyden insisted.
He added there is little appetite in Congress to prosecute government employees who engaged in "enhanced" interrogations authorized by the White House. The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners, also called for the protection of those employees from civil lawsuits or criminal prosecutions if they believed in good faith they were acting on lawfully. The bill passed with an overwhelming majority.
Obama pledged Friday that Leon Panetta, his nominee to head the CIA, would be a strong advocate for the agency’s interest inside the White House, and his selection for national intelligence director, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, would continue "the good work that is being done."
And he signaled his clear intention to abandon the Bush administration’s more controversial practices.
"I was clear throughout this campaign and was clear throughout this transition that under my administration the United States does not torture. We will abide by the Geneva Conventions. We will uphold our highest ideals," he said. "We must adhere to our values as diligently as we protect our safety with no exceptions."
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.