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TYRRELL: Masters of deception

- The Washington Times - Friday, May 1, 2009

COMMENTARY:

Students of intelligence-gathering will tell you deception and outright lying are essential to the art.

Having now reviewed the controversy over who in Congress knew what about the CIA's use of enhanced interrogation techniques, I have concluded that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might make a superb intelligence officer. She claims she was utterly unaware of the CIA's rough treatment of terrorists detained after Sept. 11, 2001. She says this without betraying a hint of deception or uncertainty. Well done, well done.

Yet a really good liar does not lie about something easily refuted. In the case of Mrs. Pelosi's protests of ignorance, there are no less than three public sources out there refuting her. One is a 2007 Washington Post report that she was included in a bipartisan group from the Hill that was fully apprised of these interrogation techniques in September 2002. Another refutation comes from former CIA Director George Tenet's memoir, "At the Center of the Storm," which is pretty open about how rough treatment cracked Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of Sept. 11, who boasts of beheading journalist Daniel Pearl. Mr. Tenet also adds that he briefed senior congressional leaders, presumably among them Mrs. Pelosi, about another of her present concerns, namely, warrantless wiretaps. Then there is former congressman and CIA Director Porter Goss' revelation in The Post over the weekend that "Today, I am slack-jawed to read that members [of Congress] claim to have not understood that the techniques on which they were briefed were to actually be employed; or that specific techniques such as 'waterboarding' were never mentioned." So maybe the speaker of the House would not be a very good spy.

If there is any good news to come from the Obama administration's release of CIA documents relating to the detention and interrogation of post-Sept. 11 detainees, it is that Washington's post-Sept. 11 fears of further terrorist attacks against America have abated. It is official that the Obama administration no longer uses the term global war on terror. So maybe the war is over, and we can all relax.

Yet there is no question that the release of these documents and the ongoing debate over whether to prosecute government functionaries involved in the Bush administration's treatment of terrorists has hurt our intelligence community both at home and abroad. Intelligence officers within our service have been intimidated by our own government. Foreign intelligence officers who have been sharing intelligence with us abroad are going to be much less forthcoming. It is a good thing that the administration has determined that America is now secure from terrorist threats.

This is not the first time liberal politicians have put the clamps on our intelligence services' ability to protect the country. In 1975, the Church Committee investigated both the CIA and the FBI, with the consequence that congressional oversight committees were set up that in the aftermath of Sept. 11 were accused of inhibiting our intelligence services from pursuing al Qaeda aggressively in the 1990s. Now apparently, with the war on terror won, we can go back to those blissful days.

Yet, frankly, I am uneasy about this new climate here in Washington. Historically, intelligence documents have been kept from public eye, not just here but throughout the Western world. The idea is that we do not want our enemies to be informed of what we know. In David Reynolds' stupendous book on how Winston Churchill wrote his World War II memoir, "In Command of History," Mr. Reynolds shows over and again Churchill and his opponents in the Labor government cooperating to keep British secrets from the public.

British intelligence techniques, in particular, were not divulged. That President Obama's administration in its first 100 days would expose the intelligence techniques used by his predecessor strikes me as reckless. Yet, on the other hand, the global war on terror is over, so maybe everything is going to be OK.

I do, however, wonder how Mr. Obama managed to win the war so quickly. Was it just a matter of retiring the hellish George W. Bush from the White House, or is there more to it?

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is the founder and editor-in-chief of the American Spectator and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute.