Mixed messages on torture put U.S. agents in a bind

The Baltimore Sun

The U.S. government has placed what appear to be irreconcilable demands on its spies. The most recent evidence came last week, when President Bush denounced torture while Vice President Dick Cheney worked behind the scenes to defeat a measure in Congress that would prohibit the CIA from “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of detainees.

The lack of clear guidance, particularly to CIA officers not accustomed to handling detainees, puts officers on the ground in an impossible position, in which they must guess what activities are allowable and hope for the best, former spies said.

Meanwhile, the State Department has opposed Cheney’s campaign. And an internal CIA report, warning that some CIA-approved interrogation techniques might not be legal, came to light in news reports last week on the heels of revelations of a secret CIA prison network in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

The mixed messages further cloud the debate over how far the agency should go in pursuing terrorists, intelligence professionals said.

“It’s a muddle at the moment,” said Loch Johnson, an intelligence historian who has served in several advisory capacities to intelligence agencies over the years.

McCain bill

This week, the Senate is expected to approve a defense authorization bill that contains a proposal, sponsored by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, that would bar inhumane treatment of detainees by U.S. agencies.

The measure is already part of a separate defense spending bill under negotiation with the House, and McCain has promised to attach his measure to other bills if these two attempts fail.

With overwhelming support in the Senate, which passed it 90-9, and considerable support from House Republicans, McCain’s measure is given a reasonable chance of winning congressional approval, despite strong opposition from the Bush administration.

“We’ve got two wars going on: one a military one in Iraq, and then we’ve got a war for public opinion, for the hearts and minds of all the people in the world,” McCain said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “We’ve got to make sure that we don’t torture people.”

Current and former intelligence officials said the confusion over what is permissible has hurt morale and discouraged operatives from taking risks — the opposite of what is needed to infiltrate terrorist groups.

What is needed, former spies said, are explicit guidelines to govern the murky world of clandestine operations. That way, those responsible for capturing suspected terrorists know what is expected of them.

Some of that discussion about drawing the line between aggressive intelligence collection and unacceptable behavior should be public, they added.

CIA not jailers

Robert Baer, who spent more than two decades spying for the CIA, said the agency was never envisioned as a prison service and that its officers were not trained to be wardens and had no desire to be. However, four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it still is not clear how or where detainees should be held.

Bush administration officials say a resolution Congress passed in the days after Sept. 11 granted the president the power to detain suspected terrorists.

It authorized Bush to use “all necessary and appropriate force” to retaliate against the perpetrators of the attacks.

“The problem is, does that have any limits?” said former CIA general counsel Jeffrey Smith.

The country has been debating these issues since 2001, when the FBI began rounding up suspects after the attacks. The president extended his authority by giving the government the ability to declare and detain “enemy combatants” inside and outside the country. The CIA’s secret prison network is an extension of these policies.

“It is inexcusable that it has been four years since 9/11 and we did not confront this issue earlier,” said Roger Cressey, a former White House counterterrorism official. “The problem is, there was paralysis in the political leadership about what to do with these people.”

One consequence of the fuzzy rules, current and former intelligence officials say, was that unrealistic demands have been made on intelligence officers.

In many cases, they are asked to use traditional espionage to confront people willing to die for their cause.

“You can’t go to someone who is going to give up their life and say, ‘I have a better deal for you,’ ” Baer said.

He said the only way to accomplish what is being asked of the CIA — to do whatever it takes to prevent the next terrorist attack — is to allow agents to use “pure force,” which means assassinating suspected terrorists and threatening their families.

Such techniques are used in countries such as Syria, which the U.S. government has condemned repeatedly for human-rights abuses.

“Few Americans, if you seriously pose the problem to them, want to assassinate people and kill their families,” Baer said. Instead, “we end up doing half-measures, and we end up letting this stuff get out to the press, and we have this huge debate, and it weakens us.”

The not-so-funny joke in intelligence circles, Cressey said, is that being a case officer for the CIA means that you have to retain a lawyer every time you run an operation.

That underlying fear of litigation discourages spies from taking the risks needed to develop new espionage tactics against an extremist, stateless enemy, he said.

Democracy paradox

As debate over these techniques continues, it threatens to undermine Bush’s policy of spreading democracy as a way of fighting terrorism and weakens the U.S. government’s relationship with its allies, several security analysts and former intelligence officials said.

Smith said the president could have avoided this confusion. Bush could have stated that, while Sept. 11 changed the rules, the U.S. would abide by the Geneva Conventions until this country, in consultation with allies, decided what the new rules would be.

The U.S. also has signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which requires signatories to prevent such treatment within their jurisdictions.

Because directives from the administration and Congress conflict, Baer said, “we need an honest debate” about what is expected of intelligence officials — followed by a decision on the rules that should guide them.

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