Regarding aggressive intelligence gathering, the Obama administration is now clearly at war — with the Obama administration. Very soon after assuming office, President Obama opted not to pursue prosecution of intelligence professionals who may have gone beyond the law during the Bush administration.

Now, however, Attorney General Eric Holder has reversed that course, appointing a special counsel to investigate possible abuses by the CIA, especially in regard to use of torture, euphemistically described as "enhanced interrogation techniques." The CIA will no longer handle such interrogations. This is a major political victory for the anti-war left of the Democratic Party.

According to news reports, CIA Director Leon Panetta is extremely disturbed by this victory of ideology over policy pragmatism, and is close to resigning. The controversial practice of using painful waterboarding to secure information from suspected terrorists has become a central symbol of alleged abuse.

The catalyst for Holder’s action is release of information from a 2004 report by CIA Inspector General John Helgerson. The report details harsh interrogation techniques, including threatening prisoners and their families, and various specific actions designed to inspire fear and intimidation.

However, the inspector general also describes in detail a disciplined process by which procedures were defined very specifically and monitored continuously. The CIA consulted closely with the Justice Department and the Pentagon; the report states explicitly that the agency operated within the law. Nonetheless, with the foresight which typifies effective intelligence pros, some of those involved in the interrogations expressed concern they might later be prosecuted for political reasons.

The report is persuasive that interrogations were instrumental in preventing additional terrorist attacks. As one particularly important example, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who oversaw the 9/11 terrorist strikes in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, provided very extensive useful information after being waterboarded. Other examples of useful interrogation include bringing down the network that carried out 2002 terrorist attacks in Bali.

As Holder’s offensive unfolds, keep in mind germane lessons, especially from our recent history. First, Panetta as an intelligence outsider is actually well positioned in political and perhaps policy terms. When he was nominated, media critics carped that he lacked formal CIA credentials.

Successful CIA leaders have included outsiders. In the Kennedy administration, California businessman John McCone was notably effective. He was the only senior official of that administration accurately to foresee the Soviets were likely to try to put offensive missiles in Cuba. In the Ford administration, George H.W. Bush had a brief but eventful tour as head of the agency. The CIA headquarters building is now named for him.

Second, cooperation between civilian and military intelligence agencies is a major current asset. During the Vietnam War, U.S. commander Gen. William Westmoreland was so angered by pessimistic CIA assessments that he tried to wall off the agency. In response, Congress passed a law requiring cooperation, with continuing positive results.

Third, the media tend to fixate on sensational practices. During the Vietnam War, CS tear gas was used to force the enemy from tunnels. CS, which is very painful but normally nonlethal, for a time became a news obsession. Meanwhile, extensive use of napalm, which the U.S. has since banned, was largely taken for granted in Vietnam news coverage.

Protecting national security unavoidably involves some moral ambiguity. Collecting and effectively analyzing accurate intelligence information is very difficult. So far, ideologue Holder’s very moralistic approach ignores these realities.

(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. E-mail him at acyr(at)

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