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EDITORIAL: Obama vs. the CIA

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The Obama administration's war on the CIA continued in force this week. The result may be prosecution of CIA interrogators who work to uncover threats to national security. This witch hunt does not make America safer.

Ignoring strong objections from CIA Director Leon E. Panetta, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. appointed special prosecutor John H. Durham to examine the potential for criminal charges against CIA interrogators. The administration also declassified a 2004 report by the CIA's inspector general detailing interrogation techniques that may have crossed the line. A source in the intelligence community told us those CIA operatives who have not already retained counsel are lawyering up.

Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican, said Mr. Holder had pledged during the confirmation process not to pursue these cases. The attorney general defends his flip-flop, saying he has a duty to "examine the facts and follow the law." However, there is more than a hint of political grandstanding on display, particularly because the most severe allegations in the 2004 report already had been investigated by career Justice Department prosecutors during the George W. Bush administration. Operatives found to have committed violations were reprimanded, administratively punished or forced out.

The difference between now and then is that the Bush team pursued the matter in a low-key way that ensured accountability but did not embarrass the CIA. Mr. Holder's approach promises to publicly humiliate the agency and tarnish the Bush legacy, with no discernible benefit for national security. This is naked politics hiding behind the robe of justice.

We were reminded this week that the administration is only interested in openness that benefits its case. On Monday, Judicial Watch released two previously classified CIA documents showing the effectiveness of CIA interrogation techniques. The documents were obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request and after a personal appeal for their release by former Vice President Dick Cheney.

The Obama administration refuses to discuss the product of interrogations and only focuses on the means by which information was received. This is because certain ends can justify certain means. The reports reveal a wealth of information on terrorist attack plans, techniques and strategies. We wonder why the vice president's office didn't produce unclassified versions for public dissemination four years ago.

The administration has banned the CIA from future interrogations and handed the process over to the FBI, which will act under the direct supervision of the White House, perhaps by a new "interrogation czar." There is no reason to believe that this reorganization of responsibilities will make the system more effective, but there are many reasons to believe it will make it less so. Any government program subject to such a rigorous degree of high-level scrutiny will mean those involved will take fewer risks and demonstrate less initiative and imagination. The intelligence community cannot move forward if everyone in it is watching his back.

We agree with Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, who called the attorney general's moves a "declaration of war... against common sense." Mr. Holder's vendetta against the CIA undermines national security by taking seasoned professionals out of the fight in the war on terror.

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