The Interrogation Memorandums

The Interrogation Memorandums

By Gary Berntsen - April 22, 2009

This past week President Obama authorized the release of a set of classified memorandums written during the Bush administration. These documents outlined the procedures and tactics employed during the interrogations of captured senior Al Qaeda operatives and have been referred to by the press as the "torture memos". President Obama's release of these memos took place despite substantial protest. The four most recent CIA Directors-John Deutch, George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden-all recommended against the release of these memorandums. President Obama's own newly appointed Director of CIA, Leon Panetta, also recommended against releasing the documents. Yet President Obama, in a seemingly relentless effort to discredit his predecessor, George W. Bush, made the memorandum available to the public anyway.

In taking this action, President Obama has effectively defined the limits of what America, at its most aggressive and most passive, would do against Al Qaeda detainees. This will undoubtedly allow groups like Al Qaeda to adjust the preparation and training of their operatives. Administration officials as well as some journalists on the left have argued that the President took into consideration the fact that much of the memos' contents have already made it into the press. This is a hollow defense. Speculation or discussion of these details in the press may allow Al Qaeda and other terrorists to assess potential U.S. capabilities to some extent. But official White House memorandums released to the public, and immediately downloadable online, are the gold standard for Al Qaeda.

In addition to bolstering Al Qaeda's tactical position and morale, I argue that President Obama has also demoralized those members of the Clandestine Service that make enormous personal sacrifices and take tremendous risks in the fight to keep our nation safe. After having served most of my adult life in CIA's Clandestine Service and having led many important counterterrorism missions, I can say that the rank and file is truly horrified by President Obama's naïve decision making. Apologists for Obama's misguided decision may counter by highlighting the President's announcement that no CIA employees who participated in the interrogation program will be prosecuted. Surely President Obama understood that taking such action would have accelerated retirement of many senior officers already eligible to depart and would have also caused a significant number of resignations.

On top of all this, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, called recently for a "truth and reconciliation commission"-much like what South Africa used to address decades of apartheid. Leahy's "truth commission" would purportedly be established to investigate allegations of wrongdoing at the Justice Department during the Bush Administration. It would allow America to cleanse itself of what he terms Bush Administration crimes. This is simply a cheap political stunt designed solely for Democratic political advantage and will further undermine our ability to defend ourselves against Al Qaeda terror.

On a daily basis we watch countries like Iran and North Korea continue to advance their technology in the area of weapons of mass destruction. What the Obama administration fails to comprehend is that terrorist groups are also evolving their tradecraft and the lethality with which they plan to strike. The fact that we did not suffer a significant follow-on attack in the continental United States during George W. Bush's eight year presidency resulted from the extremely aggressive posture taken by his administration. George W. Bush, for all his mistakes and missteps, did understand that we were at war with a lethal and insidious enemy, and he conducted himself accordingly. Sadly, it is inevitable that a time will come when we learn of an impending catastrophic attack on an American city. In today's highly globalized society, small numbers of people can leverage technology to do terrible things. Given the positions staked out by President Obama, how does a reasonable person believe the national security apparatus will function in such a crisis? Will individuals be willing to accept the reality of such a threat and be allowed to act decisively at the lowest level to counter the threat, or will such threats have to work their way up the chain of command, at the cost of time, for reflection by President Obama himself?

President Obama's handling of the classified Bush-era interrogation memorandums displays a lack of maturity. More dangerously, it displays a lack of understanding of what could lie ahead for the nation. Like all Presidents in the modern age, Obama is likely to face events in the years ahead that will be heartrending. To prepare for these challenges and to minimize the impact on the nation, he must avoid rewarding our enemy and build consensus within the national security establishment. Unfortunately, with the release of these memos, the hope that President Obama would conduct himself in foreign affairs as a moderate pragmatist has all but evaporated.

Gary Berntsen is a decorated former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) career officer who served in the Directorate of Operations between October 1982 and June 2005. He writes at The Berntsen National Security Review

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