Democrats Fire and Fall Back in National Security Debate

Just about nothing in the Democrats' crusade to investigate and indict the Bush administration's conduct in the war on terror has gone as planned. It seems that the disclosure of the enhanced interrogation memos, the accusations by Speaker Pelosi that the CIA "misled" her, and the prospect of a "truth commission" are taking their toll -- not on the "Bushies," but on the CIA and the Democrats who unleashed the torrent of controversy.

As for the CIA, the Washington Post's Walter Pincus, no cheerleader for the Right, echoes precisely the same arguments conservatives have been making:

Battered by recriminations over waterboarding and other harsh techniques sanctioned by the Bush administration, the CIA is girding itself for more public scrutiny and is questioning whether agency personnel can conduct interrogations effectively under rules set out for the U.S. military, according to senior intelligence officials.

Harsh interrogations were only one part of its clandestine activities against al-Qaeda and other enemies, and agency members are worried that other operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan will come under review, the officials said.

Nor is it clear what the new ground rules are. Despite all the high and mighty talk about setting clear restrictions and confining interrogations to the Army Field Manual, Leon Panetta has vowed to go back to the president for authorization if needed to go beyond the methods permitted by the Field Manual. After all, the latter doesn't even permit an "attention grasp." (Football coaches and parents be forewarned!) And here's the kicker:

The Field Manual, which was published in 2006, says that "direct approach" interrogation operations in World War II had a 90 percent effectiveness, and those in Vietnam, Kuwait and Iraq had a success rate of 95 percent. Afghanistan since 2002 and Iraq since 2003 are still being studied. "However," it adds, "unofficial studies indicate that in these operations, the direct approach has been dramatically less successful."

Another intelligence official, who also asked not to be identified, said waterboarding and other harsh techniques "were meant to get hardened terrorists to a point where they were willing to answer questions." That capability, the official said, "is now gone."

The special task force set up by Obama in January will determine whether the Field Manual interrogation guidelines are too narrow and whether "additional guidance is necessary for CIA," according to a White House statement. A report on that study is not expected before July.

So after all of this, those responsible for interrogations concede we are throwing away effective techniques. And after vilifying the Bush administration, Obama will conduct his own inquiry to potentially bring back some of the very methods we've now outlawed. Will those infamous caterpillars make the cut? Perhaps the "face slap, with fingers slightly spread" will reappear. But we may not know exactly what's been re-introduced because the decision as to what methods to use going forward might be classified. And for good reason: Why give terrorists a road map to our interrogation methods, right?

If you're dizzy by now trying to decipher what has really changed and where the moral posturing ends, you can imagine how exasperated the CIA and rest of the intelligence community must be. They, after all, are supposed to carry on their duties flawlessly while this is going on. (As Michael Gerson pointed out, the political assaults on the CIA have triggered a series of hypocritical and half-hearted apologies from the Democrats. But I suspect many at Langely aren't ready to kiss and make up quite yet.)

It's hard to imagine how our political establishment could have done a "better" job of confusing and paralyzing our intelligence community during wartime. As Rep. Pete Hoekstra put it, Pelosi has become a "'wrecking ball' to the morale of officers risking their lives in the field." Our enemies must think we are mad, and worse, that we are fundamentally unserious about conducting a long and difficult war against ferocious enemies who are trained and committed to resist interrogation.