US Central Intelligence Agency personnel feel they have been swept up in a crisis-laden vortex of uncertainty in the fallout from President Barack Obama's decision to publish four memos documenting harsh CIA interrogation techniques practiced against terrorists during the Bush administration, such as water-boarding.
The functioning of the agents engaged in the day-to-day fight against al Qaeda and other Islamist organizations has suffered most acutely, especially from shifting White House positions on the prosecution issue, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report.
To boost morale, the president made a personal appearance at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. He informed his audience of agency personnel that the techniques exposed in the four memos were no longer permissible. He then said solemnly: “I will protect you.” Staffers engaged in the undercover war on terror since 2002 understood they were safe from prosecution for torturing captives.
But the next day, Tuesday, after his talks with Jordan's King Abdullah II, President Obama told a White House press conference: “With respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say that is going to be more a decision for the attorney general within the parameter of various laws, and I don't want to prejudge that (…) There's a host of very complicated issues involved there. As a general ideal, I think we should be looking forward and not backward. I do worry about this getting so politicized that we cannot function effectively and it hampers our ability to carry out critical national security operations.”
In other words, the President left open the possibility of criminal prosecution for Bush administration officials who drew up the legal basis for the banned interrogation techniques.
Bush officials exposed to prosecution
With this statement, Obama rolled the ball back to the court of former Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney, and former CIA Director, Gen. Michael Hayden, both of whom sharply criticized the release of the four memos disclosing CIA tactics, viewed by many as torture. Hayden said the memos and the public restrictions placed on interrogation methods gave terrorists a tactical advantage and increased the risks of terrorist attacks against America.
Cheney insisted the disclosures were misleading because they were not counter-balanced by declassified documents proving those techniques had worked and helped make America safe.
Clearly, the furor was not about to end there.
Later that day, the CIA anti-terror agents who thought they were under presidential protection found they had been tossed back squarely into the eye of the storm.
Their new chief, CI Director Leon Panetta, had proved he was right when he opposed the president's release of the first four memos on the grounds that it would be just the beginning of a row that would lead to inquiry commissions, indictments and incessant leaks that would keep rocking the story onto unforeseen paths.
This was the climate in which the US intelligence community would now be facing day by day.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources in Washington, CIA staffers began to realize that the encouraging words they had heard from the President in Langley reflected general goodwill rather than binding pledges. He offered no example of how he meant to protect them – or even what they would be protected from.
Their uncertainties were not allayed by his statement that, from now on, their war on terror would be harder to fight but more righteous because it would uphold American values and the rule of law.
Intelligence chief's memo to staff “edited”
Their sense of foreboding deepened when they learned that a key sentence had been “edited out” of a memo from Intelligence Director Dennis C. Blair to his staff last Thursday which the White House chose to circulate:
“High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the Al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country,” Blair wrote in his unedited message.
Key agency officials are now worried about the ways in which the administration intends to use intelligence in its political battles and the impact of such practices – not only on agency heads but also on its field operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, where intelligence-directed special operations forces are deployed.
Former CIA chief, Gen. Hayden, put these concerns into words in an interview to Fox News:
“If you're a current CIA officer today – in fact, I know this has happened at the agency after the release of these documents. Officers are saying, “The things I'm doing now – will this happen to me in five years because of the things I am doing now?”
And the answer they've been given by senior leadership is the only answer possible, which is, “I can't guarantee you that won't happen, but I do know it won't happen under this president.”
Now, think what that means. The basic foundation of the legitimacy of the agency's action has shifted from some durability of law to a product of the American political process. That puts agency officers in a horrible position.
So I think the really dangerous effect of this, is that you will have agency officers stepping back from the kinds of things that the nation expects them to do. I mean, if you were to go to an agency officer today and say, “Go do this,” he would answer: “Why am I authorized to do this?”
Wednesday, April 22, the political ruckus trickled out of Washington across the Atlantic.
Certain European prosecutors and international human rights activists, including UN functionaries, said they were thinking of investigating CIA and Bush administration officials suspected of violating international laws banning the torture of prisoners, if they were not held legally accountable at home.
In 28 hours, Obama's calm pledge of protection for CIA personnel went up in smoke.