This Fourth of July weekend, some of the CIA’s dedicated counterterrorism officials will be celebrating more than our nation’s freedom from oppression — they will be celebrating their own. On Thursday, after a grueling two-year investigation, the Justice Department announced that a special prosecutor appointed by Attorney General Eric Holder found no criminal wrongdoing by the CIA officials involved in the agency’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogationprogram.
Almost every news report led with the fact that the prosecutor, John Durham, was continuing his inquiry into two detainee deaths that took place outside the CIA interrogation program. But the real news was that, after an exhaustive look into the handling of some 100 high-value terrorists held in the CIA program, Durham found no crimes to prosecute. The agency’s interrogators, whose work stopped numerous terrorist attacks and led us to Osama bin Laden, have now been exonerated by the Justice Department for a second time.
Therein lies the outrage. During the Bush administration, career prosecutors from the Eastern District of Virginia conducted an exhaustive inquiry into allegations of abuse in the CIA program and decided against prosecutions in all but one case (a CIA contractor, not in the official interrogation program, who was later convicted of assault). The prosecutors drafted “declination memos” explaining precisely why they decided not to pursue charges. Not only did Holder, a political appointee, overrule the decisions of these career prosecutors, according to The Post, “Before making his decision to reopen the cases, Holder did not read detailed memos that prosecutors drafted and placed in files to explain their decision to decline prosecutions” (emphasis added).
Holder charged ahead over the vigorous objections of seven former CIA directors, who declared in a letter to President Obama that “Holder’s decision to re-open the criminal investigation creates an atmosphere of continuous jeopardy for those whose cases the Department of Justice had previously declined to prosecute” and “will seriously damage the willingness of many other intelligence officers to take risks to protect the country.” Joining their objections was Obama’s then-CIA director, Leon Panetta, who reportedly made his views known in a “profanity-laced screaming match” at the White House.
None of this deterred Holder from pursuing his ideologically driven crusade against the CIA’s interrogators. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Holder had told the left-wing American Constitution Society that “our government authorized the use of torture” and promised the crowd, “We owe the American people a reckoning.” Now — after two years of wasted resources and untold grief for these dedicated intelligence officers — Holder has come up empty. The special prosecutor he assigned to deliver that day of “reckoning” came to the same conclusion as the career prosecutors under the Bush administration: Further investigation of the CIA’s interrogation program “is not warranted.”
The two remaining cases reportedly involve a detainee who froze to death in his cell in Afghanistan in 2002 and another who died in American custody in Iraq in 2003. As Panetta noted in a statement last week, “Both cases were previously reviewed by career federal prosecutors who subsequently declined prosecution.” According to former senior intelligence officials I spoke with, both were battlefield detentions that took place early in the war, and neither had anything to do with the CIA’s interrogation program.
The CIA created a well-run, highly disciplined interrogation and detention regime, where clear guidelines were established, the safety of the detainees was ensured, invaluable intelligence was uncovered and any deviations from approved techniques were stopped, reported and addressed. Now the special prosecutor assigned by Holder to investigate that regime has affirmed — once again — that this program operated completely within the law.
The CIA officers who ran the agency’s interrogation program have been cleared, but their lives will never be the same. They have spent much of the decade since Sept. 11 under threat of prosecution, fighting to defend their good names even as they worked to keep us safe. As a result of the witch hunt Holder unleashed, some of our most talented, capable counterterrorism officials have left government service — and countless others, who might have contemplated such service, have chosen other careers instead. The damage this investigation has done is incalculable.
For this, the American people are indeed owed a reckoning.