Monday, May 18, 2009

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s war with the CIA could not come at a worse time for America’s beleaguered intelligence agencies. When the United States needs its intelligence arms the most - to combat terrorism, track Iran’s nuclear-weapons program and fend off foreign espionage - they are under assault from many quarters.

The release of the “torture memos” was a major blow to intelligence-community morale, and on April 16, President Obama attempted to mitigate the damage by sending the CIA what its critics have disparaged as “the love letter.” Mr. Obama praised the professionalism of the agency and noted that “this is a time for reflection, not retribution … at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”

Mr. Obama pledged to the CIA that “we will protect all who acted reasonably and relied upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that their actions were lawful” and that “these individuals will not be prosecuted and that the government will stand by them.” When White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel later stated that the no-prosecution pledge included those who devised the policies, Mr. Obama clarified the limits of reflection over retribution. “That is going to be more of a decision for the attorney general within the parameters of various laws,” he said, generating fears of more disturbing disunity ahead.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has signaled that the Justice Department will cooperate with a suit brought in a Spanish court by four former Guantanamo Bay detainees claiming torture. “This is an administration that is determined to conduct itself by the rule of law,” Mr. Holder explained in April, “and to the extent that we receive lawful requests from an appropriately created court, we would obviously respond to it.”

Exactly how the United States will cooperate with this Spanish inquest is unclear, but a dangerous precedent could be set that would unleash scores of similar suits by any party in any part of the world that felt it had a grievance against the United States. The idea that foreign courts could render judgment on officially sanctioned actions taken by members of the U.S. intelligence community within U.S. territory is unconscionable. The notion that the Justice Department would be complicit in such proceedings is intolerable.

The covenant among the government, the people and our intelligence and national security professionals must be restored. We ask this select group of specialists to do things that, while legal, must be shielded from public scrutiny lest they be compromised and rendered ineffective. Congress is entrusted with the responsibility of oversight which itself must remain secret. When this critical process is polluted by politics, sensationalism and deceit, the wound must be opened and cleaned. We owe our struggling intelligence services nothing less.

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