Looking backward, not forward

The Obama administration took office, in the new president’s words, determined to look forward, not backward, and as part of that philosophy it was agreed that it would be unfair to prosecute frontline CIA agents for harsh, even unduly harsh, interrogation techniques that they believed were authorized by the Justice department and encouraged by the White House.

In 2004, the CIA’s inspector general did an investigation of those interrogations and found much that was "inconsistent with the public policy positions that the United States has taken regarding human rights." Not only inconsistent but also very likely illegal under U.S. and international law.

The CIA then appeared to have acted properly. It referred the most egregious cases of prisoner abuse to the Justice department. Those investigations, the current CIA director, Leon Panetta, was at pains to point out, were conducted by career prosecutors and not by the higher ups who had drafted the guidelines that seemed to condone torture. Those investigations resulted in a single prosecution.

And there the matter stood for five years until the IG’s report became public this week. It contained some sickening stuff — naked, shackled and hooded prisoners, threats with handguns and electric drills, a mock execution, induced unconsciousness, threats to kill a detainee’s children and have the mother of another detainee raped.

Attorney General Eric Holder then seemed to ditch the policy of protecting agents who acted in good faith and appointed a prosecutor, assistant U.S. attorney, John Durham, to reinvestigate those cases of abuse. Holder says he has no choice but to follow the law.

He has to follow the law but he has considerable discretion as to how he follows it. If there were clear, willful and knowing violations of the law, perhaps the department should prosecute. But the attorney general also should consider the conditions under which the agents labored in 2002-2003. It was widely believed another 9/11-style terrorist attack was imminent. Many of the interrogators seemed poorly trained for the task, were poorly supervised and given little guidance. Meanwhile, the White House was pounding away at the agency demanding actionable intelligence.

The Obama administration has done the right thing, seeing that these abuses don’t recur by creating an elite interagency interrogation unit to question high value terrorism suspects. Durham should act with the greatest restraint and then quickly close this unfortunate chapter.


  1. Dionysis

    In spite of Obama’s stated desire to ignore his legal responsibility to investigate and, if warranted, prosecute these war criminals (“let’s look forward”) the fact is that we as a nation cannot simply abrogate our responsibility to exact accountability for criminality. These sordid behaviors have sullied this country’s image, and we have a moral and legal imperative to investigate fully.

    “Attorney General Eric Holder then seemed to ditch the policy of protecting agents who acted in good faith…”

    He should never have enunciated that ‘policy’ to begin with. As for agents “who acted in good faith,” that is a crock of BS. As many intelligence professionals have begun to note, these people absolutely knew they were commiting potential war crimes when they did it. “Good faith” is nonsense, rejected by the U.S. at Nuremberg.

    As CIA people have noted recently in the press, the vast majority of them are honorable people who follow the law. To allow those relative few who flagrantly engaged in criminality to avoid accountability is demoralizing to those who did the right thing, in spite of war criminal and chronic liar Dick Cheney’s BS.

  2. storky

    Prosecute War Crimes
    Non-participation, whistle-blowing and prosecution are the honorable ways to respond to War Crimes. Continuation of misguided policy is not.

    1) The Obama administration is obligated by federal and International Law to pursue War Crimes.
    2) An atmosphere of imminent attack (regardless of the veracity of such claims) has no bearing on the recognition and execution of unconstitutional law and faulty “expert” opinion.
    3) A Justice Department headed by criminals bowing to the wishes of criminals cannot be expected to effectively investigate itself.

    Moving forward requires occasionally looking back so as not to be surprised by predators.