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Slow Roll Time at Langley

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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

At the Central Intelligence Agency, it's known as "slow rolling." That's what agency officers sometimes do on politically sensitive assignments. They go through the motions; they pass cables back and forth; they take other jobs out of the danger zone; they cover their backsides.

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Sad to say, it's slow roll time at Langley after the release of interrogation memos that, in the words of one veteran officer, "hit the agency like a car bomb in the driveway." President Obama promised CIA officers that they won't be prosecuted for carrying out lawful orders, but the people on the firing line don't believe him. They think the memos have opened a new season of investigation and retribution.

The lesson for younger officers is obvious: Keep your head down. Duck the assignments that carry political risk. Stay away from a counterterrorism program that has become a career hazard.

Obama tried personally to reassure the CIA workforce during a visit to Langley on Monday. He said all the right things about the agency's clandestine role. But it had the look of a campaign event, with employees hooting and hollering and the president reading from his teleprompter with a backdrop of stars that commemorate the CIA's fallen warriors. By yesterday, Obama was deferring to the attorney general whether to prosecute "those who formulated those legal decisions," whatever that means.

Obama seems to think he can have it both ways -- authorizing an unprecedented disclosure of CIA operational methods and at the same time galvanizing a clandestine service whose best days, he told them Monday, are "yet to come." Life doesn't work that way -- even for charismatic politicians. Disclosure of the torture memos may have been necessary, as part of an overdue campaign to change America's image in the world. But nobody should pretend that the disclosures weren't costly to CIA morale and effectiveness.

Put yourself in the shoes of the people who were asked to interrogate al-Qaeda prisoners in 2002. One former officer told me he declined the job, not because he thought the program was wrong but because he knew it would blow up. "We all knew the political wind would change eventually," he recalled. Other officers who didn't make that cynical but correct calculation are now "broken and bewildered," says the former operative.

For a taste of what's ahead, recall the chilling effects of past CIA scandals. In 1995, then-Director John Deutch ordered a "scrub" of the agency's assets after revelations of past links to Guatemalan death squads. Officers were told they shouldn't jettison sources who had provided truly valuable intelligence. But the practical message, recalls one former division chief, was: "Don't deal with assets who could pose political risks." A similar signal is being sent now, he warns.

One veteran counterterrorism operative says that agents in the field are already being more careful about using the legal findings that authorize covert action. An example is the so-called "risk of capture" interview that takes place in the first hour after a terrorism suspect is grabbed. This used to be the key window of opportunity, in which the subject was questioned aggressively and his cellphone contacts and "pocket litter" were exploited quickly.

Now, field officers are more careful. They want guidance from headquarters. They need legal advice. I'm told that in the case of an al-Qaeda suspect seized in Iraq several weeks ago, the CIA didn't even try to interrogate him. The agency handed him over to the U.S. military.

Agency officials also worry about the effect on foreign intelligence services that share secrets with the United States in a process politely known as "liaison." A former official who remains in close touch with key Arab allies such as Egypt and Jordan warns: "There is a growing concern that the risk is too high to do the things with America they've done in the past."

If Obama means what he says about protecting the CIA workforce and its operational edge, he must give up the idea that he can please everyone on this issue. He should recommend limits on any congressional inquiry and resist demands for a special prosecutor. Instead, he should push the White House's preferred alternative -- a commission that can review secret evidence behind closed doors, then report to the nation.

America will be better off, in the long run, for Obama's decision to expose the past practice of torture and ban its future use. But meanwhile, the country is fighting a war, and it needs to take care that the sunlight of exposure doesn't blind its shadow warriors.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.


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