- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 19, 2009

Seven of the 10 living former CIA chiefs Friday urged President Obama to overrule his attorney general and not reopen investigations into CIA employees who may have abused detainees during the George W. Bush administration.

The former directors warned that further investigations would demoralize current CIA officers and might also lead allied intelligence services to suspend or scale back cooperation with the United States because the judicial probes could disclose joint operations and activities.

On Aug. 24, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. appointed a federal prosecutor, John Durham, to review cases against CIA officers suspected of exceeding Justice Department guidelines for interrogations of terrorist suspects following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The decision to reopen the cases was controversial in part because the Justice Department under the Bush administration had already considered the charges and declined to prosecute the officers.

In a letter released Friday, the former directors of the CIA, who included Democratic and Republican appointees, wrote: “If criminal investigations closed by career prosecutors during one administration can so easily be reopened at the direction of political appointees in the next, declinations of prosecution will be rendered meaningless. Those men and women who undertake difficult intelligence assignments in the aftermath of an attack such as September 11 must believe there is permanence in the legal rules that govern their actions.”

The former CIA directors who signed the letter are: Michael V. Hayden, Porter J. Goss, George J. Tenet, John Deutch, R. James Woolsey, William H. Webster and James R. Schlesinger. The only living CIA directors who did not sign the letter are former President George H.W. Bush, current defense secretary Robert M. Gates and former President Jimmy Carter’s CIA director, Stansfield Turner.

A former government official familiar with the drafting of the letter said the elder Mr. Bush was not asked to sign the letter because he is a former president and Mr. Gates was not asked to sign because he is currently serving in the administration.

In response to the letter, Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman, said the agency “is cooperating with the official reviews now in progress, in part to see that they move as expeditiously as possible. The goal is to ensure that current agency operations - on which the safety of our country depends - center on protecting the nation.”

Benjamin Chang, a spokesman for the National Security Council, declined comment.

Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller said in a statement that “the Attorney General works closely with the men and the women of intelligence community to keep the American people safe and he does not believe their commitment to conduct that important work will waver in any way.”

Mr. Miller said that Mr. Durham had been asked to conduct a “preliminary review” that would be “narrowly-focused. … The Department of Justice will not prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the Office of Legal Counsel regarding the interrogation of detainees.”

The Washington Times reported last month that Leon E. Panetta, who currently heads the CIA, fought behind the scenes against reopening the cases against the CIA officers, some of whom had already been disciplined by the agency internally.

The cases involve harsh interrogation techniques approved between 2001 and 2004 by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. President Obama ordered the release of memos and a CIA inspector general’s report on the program, which the Bush administration called “enhanced interrogation” and many human rights advocates describe as torture.

Beyond the impact on CIA morale, the seven former CIA directors said reopening the cases could inadvertently disclose the cooperation of foreign intelligence services that the U.S. government had promised would remain secret.

“Foreign services are already greatly concerned about the United States’ inability to maintain any secrets,” the letter said. “They rightly fear that, through these additional investigations and the court proceedings that could follow, terrorists may learn how other countries came to our assistance in a time of peril.”

The letter goes on to say, “The United States promised these foreign countries that their cooperation would never be disclosed. As a result of the zeal on the part of some to uncover every action taken in the post-9/11 period, many countries may decide that they can no longer safely share intelligence or cooperate with us on future counter-terrorist operations. They simply cannot rely on our promises of secrecy.”

Jameel Jaffer, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, disagreed with the former CIA directors.

“Attorney General Holder initiated a criminal investigation because the available evidence shows that prisoners were abused and tortured in CIA custody,” he said. “The suggestion that President Obama should order Attorney General Holder to abort the investigation betrays a misunderstanding of the role of the attorney general as well as the relationship between the attorney general and the president. Where there is evidence of criminal conduct, the attorney general has not just the authority but the duty to investigate. The attorney general is the people’s lawyer, not the president’s lawyer, and it would be profoundly inappropriate for President Obama to interfere with his work.”

Mr. Jaffer added that “there is abundant evidence that torture was authorized at the highest levels of the Bush administration and the Justice Department’s investigation should be broad enough to encompass Bush administration lawyers and senior officials - including the CIA officials - who authorized torture.” He called “self-serving” the objections of former CIA officials “who oversaw the very crimes that are being investigated.”

Ben Conery contributed to this story.

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