WASHINGTON – With the apparently imminent release of the Feinstein report on CIA interrogations of high-value terrorists a decade ago, let’s consider the situation of intelligence personnel who have been involved, not in that program but in drone strikes against terrorists, conducted in a variety of countries around the world.
They have four sources of direction and protection: Their strikes are authorized by the president, briefed to Congress, deemed lawful by the attorney general and determined useful by the CIA director.
Yet people in the drone program know that co-workers involved in enhanced interrogation had these assurances as well. And the drone program has some distinctive characteristics. Instead of employing waterboarding, stress positions and sleep deprivation, the targets are killed (sometimes with collateral damage to the innocent). President Barack Obama dramatically expanded the use of drones, as well as increasing the proportion of attacks that are “signature strikes” – meaning that those authorizing attacks don’t know the identity of the target, just its likely value.
Some may argue a subtle moral distinction between harshly interrogating a terrorist and blowing his limbs apart. But international human rights groups and legal authorities generally look down on both. The main difference? One is Obama’s favorite program. A few years from now, a new president and new congressional leaders may take a different view.
At the CIA, these concerns are not hypothetical. “There have been hundreds and hundreds of Predator shots, the most carefully targeted in the history of warfare, but not 100 percent right,” a former senior intelligence officer told me. “What if the next president, (say) Rand Paul or Elizabeth Warren, comes after people involved in this program?”
“If you have to worry about a new administration coming along 10 years down the road, making villains out of agency officials following the exact letter of the law, it is sobering. We think about that all the time.”
This is the scrutiny that comes only with success. For many, the 9/11 attacks are becoming as historically and emotionally distant as Pearl Harbor. But if America had the equivalent of a 9/11 attack each year, the range of acceptable responses would expand. V-E Day, after all, partially resulted from the firebombing of Dresden. V-J Day encompassed Hiroshima. Both involved ticker-tape parades and incinerated children.
The American response in the war against terrorism has been dramatically more selective and focused on combatants. Even so, the CIA is often forced to operate at the edge of America’s acceptable response – currently with drone strikes and a variety of activities to degrade and dismantle the Islamic State. The avoidance of “boots on the ground” in the Middle East has placed an additional burden on intelligence services to work with (often flawed) allies, target enemies and strike from afar. Political leaders, once again, urge intelligence officials to do what is necessary.
So the Feinstein report would come in the middle of a war, targeting many Americans who are still engaged in it. It would be an act of exceptional congressional recklessness. Democratic senators on the Intelligence Committee interviewed none of the key figures in the program, yet fought for months to make it easier to identify the targets of their report.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the outgoing chair of the committee, was thought to be more responsible. But her legacy may be a massive dump of intelligence details useful to the enemy in a time of war. And she knows the likely results. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed the concerns of allies about increased violence. A National Intelligence Council report warned of threats to embassies, installations and individuals, and explored how partners would react to the disclosure.
So why has Feinstein donned her Guy Fawkes mask? Tension with the CIA? Simple stubbornness? The main reason, I suspect, is different. Democrats who approved of enhanced interrogation at the time (such as Feinstein) must now construct an elaborate fantasy world in which they were not knowledgeable and supportive. They postulate a new reality in which they were innocent and deceived – requiring a conspiracy from three former CIA directors, three former deputy directors and hundreds of others.
Occam would indicate a different answer: guilt, hypocrisy and betrayal.
Michael Gerson’s email address is michael firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more columns from national writers, go to sacbee.com/opinion/op-ed
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