March 6, 2009 – For a handful of CIA operatives who were on the frontlines of the war on terror in the early months and years after 9/11, it’s the stuff of nightmares. After all, they did their job as their political masters defined it, using tools and techniques approved by their lawyers. Then came an election, and a new set of political masters, who have begun second-guessing everything they did before. Suddenly there is lots of talk about “violations” and “wrong-doing,” the promise of formal investigations and hearings, and the very real possibility that their life savings could go to defense lawyers.
Unfortunately for them, that nightmare looks like it may soon become frighteningly real. Against the wishes of the agency’s popular new leader, the CIA is in the crosshairs of two powerful Democratic Senators who are determined to get to the bottom of the Agency’s more controversial operations. And not even the White House has been able to get them to back off.
Diane Feinstein confirmed Thursday that her Senate Intelligence Committee will investigate the CIA’s interrogation and detention programs under the Bush Administration, a probe that she expects to take a year. The Californian seems to be reading from the same playbook as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, who this week reiterated his call for a ‘truth commission’ into the Bush Administration’s national security policies, including wiretapping, treatment of detainees and even the politicization of the Justice Department.
President Obama has shown little appetite for raking over those particular coals, saying he’d rather “move forward.” Veteran Democrats on the Hill say it’s all very well for the President to want to start with a clean slate, but they’ve spent years asking questions about alleged wrongdoing under Bush — and they want answers. (Feinstein was unavailable for comment, but she’s expected to release a statement about the investigation this week.)
Current intelligence staffers rarely speak on the record, but a number of recently retired heavy hitters have told TIME that Feinstein’s plan to investigate the Agency is a bad idea for a wide variety of reasons.
The former spies argue that the Agency’s staff need to be protected from changes in political climate. A joint statement issued by Feinstein and her Republican counterpart on the committee, Missouri Senator Kit Bond, said the probe will examine, among other things, “whether the CIA implemented the program in compliance with official guidance, including covert action findings, Office of Legal Counsel opinions, and CIA policy.” But the staffers responsible for carrying out detention and interrogation policies, they say, would never have used the controversial techniques if it had not been for explicit legal guidance from the Bush Administration. “The guy doing the interrogations — he did it knowing that the CIA wouldn’t have asked him to do it unless it was cleared all the way back … to the White House,” says Carl Ford, an ex-CIA hand who headed the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research from 2001-03.
By second-guessing the staffers now, warn the Agency veterans, Feinstein’s investigation will have a “chilling effect on people who are asked to do risky things for this administration,” says a former senior CIA official.
Staffers at the CIA will wonder why they are being singled out for investigation for executing the Bush Administration’s policies, “while whose who made those policies are busy writing their memoirs,” says Paul Pillar, who was the agency’s national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000-05, and now teaches at Georgetown University.
To some ex-officials, the whole thing smacks of politics and hypocrisy. They say Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle were thoroughly briefed about CIA operations, including details about interrogation techniques. “The leadership was fully briefed, and there was no objection at the time,” says Henry “Hank” Crumpton, who headed the CIA’s operations in Afghanistan after 9/11.
But even Agency veterans winced at the latest bombshell from Gitmo: the revelation that the CIA destroyed 92 videotapes that may have shown detainees being subjected to harsh interrogation techniques. “It would have been my instinct to say that these [videotapes] are the sort of thing we have to keep,” says Ford.
For the CIA staffers who may come under scrutiny in the Leahy and Feinstein investigations, there’s some consolation in the fact that their new boss is in their corner. Former Congressman and Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta has promised to cooperate with Congress, saying, “I think that we have a responsibility to be transparent on these issues and to provide them that information.” But during his confirmation hearings by Feinstein’s Committee, Panetta made it clear he doesn’t support the prosecution of CIA staff involved in detention and interrogation of terror suspects, saying they were simply following guidelines issued by the Bush administration. At a media roundtable last week, Panetta returned to the theme: “I would not support any investigation or a prosecution of those individuals. I think they did their job, they did it pursuant to the guidance that was provided them, whether you agreed or disagreed with it.”