Early next week the Obama administration is expected to release another collection of documents on the U.S. government’s detention and interrogation of al Qaeda terrorists. The documents will likely include a lightly redacted version of the CIA inspector general’s 2004 report on the program, more Department of Justice legal opinions (including the 2007 opinion on which I relied while director of CIA), as well as some reporting on the overall effectiveness of the program.
Many intelligence professionals are simply asking: “Why?”
Indeed, in his own recent op-ed, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta noted that one of his Western allies had recently asked him why Washington seemed to be so consumed with what CIA had done in the past given all the challenges of the present.
There is no simple (or good) answer to that question, but most professionals at Langley knew that more of these kinds of releases were inevitable once the president decided in April to release DOJ memos that revealed substantial details of the interrogation program. If those once highly classified facts would no longer be protected, what would be? Where was the line?
So — while noting and applauding the president’s reversing himself on releasing DoD photos, some showing criminal abuse of prisoners — America’s intelligence community is resigned to these releases and is preparing to deal with the consequences.
The first task once again is to attempt to explain to partners that their secrets — the ones that they share with us — are actually safe with us; that the things that we say will remain between us and will not be made public by the American political process. It’s a tough sell. When the government chooses, as it did in April, to make public that which the current CIA director and his four immediate predecessors say is still appropriately classified … well, it’s a tough sell to allies and an even tougher sell to potential sources whose willingness to risk their lives is directly related to their confidence in us to keep secrets.
The second task is to explain to the intelligence work force that the government still has its back. This too is a tough sell, especially when the work force reads in a Newsweek cover story that, in supporting the release of the first set of DOJ memos, the leadership of the Department of Justice calculated that “if the public knew the details, … there would be a groundswell of support for an independent probe,” and that when the decision to release those memos had been made, the DOJ leadership “celebrated quietly, and waited for the national outrage to begin.”
Those words, of course, are less comforting to a work force that is always asked to work on the edge than the president’s own commitment — made publicly and privately - that there would be no witch hunts and that he is more interested in looking forward than looking backward.
Uncertain how this will play out, many intelligence officers are hiring lawyers, and even junior officers are asking about professional liability insurance — not exactly the formula for nurturing a vigorous and creative intelligence service.
A third task is to deal with and contribute to the public discourse that the release of these documents will create. Here intelligence professionals will have to act as fact witnesses.
And the facts are important: like the fact that the agency cooperated extensively in the prosecution of an agency contractor convicted of manslaughter following the death of a detainee; like the fact that any other findings of inappropriate behavior in the IG report were reviewed thoroughly by career prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia and that they declined further prosecution; that, following the prosecutors’ decision, the agency took its own disciplinary action, where appropriate; and that the entire IG report has been available to the leadership of the intelligence committees since 2004 and to all members of the committees and an extensive number of staffers since the fall of 2006.
And then there is the fact that within these documents we will begin to get some glimpses about the successes of the interrogation program, some nuance beyond the oft-quoted “difficult to determine conclusively whether interrogations have provided information critical to interdicting specific imminent attacks,” and more about how information gained from detainees helped CIA aggressively dismantle much of the al Qaeda infrastructure and leadership before attacks were imminent - a much more valuable and effective way to combat terrorism.
A final fact: The agency is pretty much at capacity in responding to current inquiries like the Senate intelligence committee’s exhaustive look at renditions, detentions and interrogations, and federal prosecutor John Durham’s look at the destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes. Another probe from Justice or an independent commission will only add to the burden, and it will pull even more counterterrorism experts off a crucial mission. That is the mission of keeping America safe by building on the base line of information gained from the interrogation program, aggressively taking the fight to the nation’s enemies and taking those enemies off the global battlefield.
Michael V. Hayden is a retired Air Force general and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency.