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Posted at 10:51 AM ET, 04/28/2011

The right’s problem with Petraeus: He’s insufficiently gung ho about torture

Conservatives have finally found something to dislike about General David Petraeus: He just doesn’t like torture enough.

The decision to install Leon Panetta as Secretary of Defense and place Petraeus in charge of the CIA has largely been read as signaling continuity in administration policy, with Panetta being uniquely suited to anticipated budget fights over funding for DoD. But for Marc Thiessen, Petraeus’ appointment to the CIA is a cause for worry, because of his outspoken opposition to torture:

Thanks to Obama the CIA is out of the interrogation business, so there is no immediate impact on U.S. interrogation policy (or lack thereof). But that is also the problem. Appointing a CIA director with such restrictive views on interrogation does not bode well for the chances of much-needed improvements in our detention and interrogation policy.

When Thiessen says that the Obama administration has no “interrogation policy” what he means is that it doesn’t torture people. For him, the two are basically synonymous. But the administration does have an interrogation policy, and it’s one that the CIA is involved in.

First things first: The CIA had no interrogation experts on staff in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, since interrogations were usually conducted by FBI and military officials. Despite Thiessen’s best efforts to claim otherwise, the CIA interrogation program set up by the Bush administration used techniques of questionable intelligence value, based as they were on tactics used by the Chinese to elicit false confessions during the Korean War.

Nevertheless, the CIA has been involved in the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, the interagency team set up by the administration to bring as much expertise as possible to bear on gathering intelligence from terror suspects. White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan told reporters at a conference held by the Brennan Center last month that the detainee interrogation group has “deployed on a number of occasions, to provide support to local elements.” He added that “either there is a terrorist who has been captured or arrested, or there is anticipation of a capture or arrest, so that they are on site and able to help in that immediate aftermath in terms of the questioning and gaining immediate intelligence value.”

During a Senate hearing in February, Senator Marco Rubio pressed Panetta on whether or not the CIA needed to employ the torturous interrogation techniques used by the prior administration in order to gather intelligence. Panetta responded: “I think right now, the process that we have in place...it brings together the best resources that we have to get the intelligence we need, and I think it works pretty well.”

So, yes, the Obama administration does have an interrogation policy, and the CIA is involved in crafting and implementing it. Thiessen’s problem is that the policy doesn’t involve enough torture. Whatever other concerns people might have about Petraeus’ move to head the CIA, for those of us who believe torture is both morally reprehensible and entirely counterproductive, Petraeus’ outspoken opposition to torture and his defenses of American values and the rule of law are a feature, not a bug.

By Adam Serwer  |  10:51 AM ET, 04/28/2011

 
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