CIA probe: More damage than good?

By naming a special prosecutor to investigate prisoner abuse cases, including interrogation techniques during the Bush administration, Attorney General Eric Holder has assured the nation of a prolonged and contentious debate over how to fight a faceless enemy with potential serious damage to the CIA.

Under these circumstances, critics argue, it is questionable whether the United States is capable of defending itself against the kind of terrorist forces who operate outside any civilized standard. This is after all a nation of ideals and a decision at any cost to keep it that way is hard to deny. But Holder should ask himself whether it isn’t enough that the interrogation policies in question have been discredited and banned and whether those who carried them out did so under what they thought was legitimate authority and should not now be prosecuted. He should also reflect on whether his own motives for changing his mind on this issue might not be politically influenced.

The purpose of all this seems to be not just to punish the culprits but to firmly attach the blame to the Republican administration so the world realizes that these mistakes following 9/11 will not be tolerated by this White House even if there are similar assaults in the future. How self -righteous is that?

Accordingly then there can be no excuse for scaring a suspected murderer into giving up information that could head off such carnage. Besides the experts say such tactics don’t really work, particularly on those who seem eager for martyrdom.

That may or may not be true. In the case of some clever suspects it probably produces more than a few lies designed to mislead. On the other hand there is evidence that several instances of intimidating interrogation have foiled plots, including one discovered by Philippine authorities to blow up a host of U.S. airliners over the ocean.

This country never should tolerate the abusive treatment of prisoners generally, even those meted out under the strict guidelines we now know were established by top CIA officials. It can’t be denied that some regrettable humanitarian violations occurred after 9/11. That was made abundantly clear in the 2004 CAA Inspector General’s report just released by Holder and used as the basis for appointment of a Connecticut prosecutor, John Durham.

In an effort to quiet the unease and bolster morale in his battered agency, Obama-appointed CIA Director Leon Panetta told his troops that the report was "an old story" and they should continue to focus on the challenges of today and tomorrow, not yesterday. He is absolutely correct, but that is a tough sell with a prosecutor lurking nearby.

Next heads on the chopping block are likely to be the Bush presidential counsels who established a policy under which some of the questionable interrogation took place. Already liberals are looking for their scalps, raising serious doubts about the future of presidential advising. Who would feel free to provide policy positions that might be used against them by an opposing political party after their man leaves office?

We should recognize that the events in question took place in context of an extraordinary time in American history. There were no prior guidelines for responding to such horror. Some of the CIA’s questionable actions seem hardly shocking — a charade with a gun fired in another room while a suspect was being interrogated, the holding of an electric drill close to the head of another, a phony threat to kill the family of the man who plotted 9/11. Others were clearly over the top. But none comes close to the huge loss of innocent lives and civilian property brought about by these fanatical thugs.

It should be noted that the heavily redacted 2004 report stated there is no doubt that the detention and interrogation program provided information that prevented further terrorist activities, resulted in the arrest of other terrorists and helped the overall intelligence picture. But it added that determining whether these harsh techniques were effective "is a subjective process not without some concern."

In other words we may be damned if we do or damned if we don’t. One thing is indisputable: We have avoided a repeat for eight years, somehow.

(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)