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A Sigh Of Relief At the CIA

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"Let's get on with it." That was a signature line of the late CIA director Richard Helms, the savviest spymaster this country has produced. And it's the right watchword for the agency as it tries to refocus on its core intelligence mission after a ruinous foray into the "enhanced interrogation" of al-Qaeda prisoners.

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CIA officers aren't idiots. They knew they were heading into deep water -- legally and morally -- when they signed up for the interrogation program. That's part of the agency's ethos -- doing the hard jobs that other departments prudently avoid. They hoped their government would protect them from future reprisals, but the graybeards were always dubious about the politicians' promises of support.

As so often happens in our country, the cynics were proved right: Despite President Obama's fine talk about looking forward, not backward, Attorney General Eric Holder decided this week that the CIA interrogators will face yet another criminal review of conduct that they were assured by the Bush administration was legal. No matter that the same evidence was provided five years ago to career prosecutors, who decided against bringing cases.

But at least this miserable period in the CIA's history is coming to an end. Talking to CIA veterans this week, I sensed a genuine relief that the agency -- however dazed and demoralized by the post-mortems on interrogation -- can finally get back to the business of spying.

"The agency is glad to be out of it," admitted one senior CIA official. The FBI will now run interrogations, with CIA officers in the field advising whether a captive should be played back as a double agent, "rendered" to a third country or questioned in the United States. Stephen Kappes, the career officer who serves as the CIA's deputy director, "doesn't want to have anything to do with interrogation," said one White House official. "He wants to let this go."

Reading the 2004 CIA inspector general's report, you sense that agency officials were wary from the start. "One officer expressed concern that, one day, agency officers will wind up on some 'wanted list' to appear before the World Court for war crimes," says the IG report. Another said, "Ten years from now we're going to be sorry we're doing this . . . [but] it has to be done."

Looking back, it's easy to say the CIA officers should have refused the assignments they suspected would come back to haunt them. But questioning presidential orders isn't really their job, especially when those orders are backed by Justice Department legal opinions.

What will happen the next time the White House wants the CIA to do something that's potentially controversial? Well, you know the answer. The CIA officers will want to talk to their lawyers, and maybe then to lawyers from the party out of power. That's not the ideal mind-set for a modern intelligence service. But the republic will survive.

The CIA stumbled unprepared into the interrogation program partly because agency officers had been burned in torture scandals involving "friendly" services in Latin America and the Middle East. Indeed, "because of political sensitivities," notes the report, a top CIA official for a time "forbade agency officers from using the word 'interrogation.' "

Because interrogation was a political no-go zone, the agency had zero internal expertise on Sept. 11, 2001. So when senior al-Qaeda operatives were detained, there was confusion about how to interrogate them. No other government agency wanted the headaches. The CIA did what bureaucrats so often do in crisis -- it turned to outside contractors who claimed to have special expertise, in this case administering "waterboarding" for an Air Force training program.

CIA guidance was "inadequate at first" but "improved considerably," notes the report. Some of the internal controls bring to mind Hannah Arendt's famous comment about the "banality of evil." A sample admonition on waterboarding: "A cloth is placed over the forehead and eyes. Water is then applied to the cloth in a controlled manner. As this is done, the cloth is lowered until it covers both the nose and mouth. . . ."

One of the most chilling documents released this week was one that Vice President Cheney had requested to show how well the interrogation program worked. It calculated that in 2004, 3,800 of the total 6,600 human intelligence reports on al-Qaeda came from "detainee reporting."

That kind of metric sends a message: It's a numbers game, fellas. No wonder the CIA is glad to be out of the interrogation business.

davidignatius@washpost.com



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