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.
And as for the Democrats, the memo controversy has consumed and embroiled them in a never-ending stream of new plot lines: What did Pelosi know? Who will win the Panetta vs. Pelosi face off? Will Pelosi get the boot? Did Rahm Emanuel give the thumbs up to the Pelosi slap down? Jay Newton-Small of Time summed up:
A lot has been written about Barack Obama’s learning curve in his first 100 days in office — understandably given his rapid ascent. But if Obama is a rookie acting like a veteran, Pelosi, a career politician, has all too often filled the role of the bumbler in 2009. In her initial press conference about what the CIA told her, she fumbled through her notes, departed the podium, returned to the podium, departed again and accused the CIA of lying to her — a charge she had clarified the next day by blaming the Bush administration. To call it a disastrous public performance would be polite.
Minority House Leader John Boehner is making the most of it, challenging Pelosi to prove her allegation that the CIA lied to her or offer up an apology. Meanwhile, conservative pundits are having a field day pulling apart her dubious story. And not surprisingly, Pelosi’s poll numbers are skidding. Is it any wonder Pelosi is now the “star” of a GOP ad mocking her never-ending stream of excuses?
The real risk for the Democrats is that they will once again live up (down?) to their reputation as unserious on national defense. When the flap over closing Guantanamo is added to the mix, voters may get the idea that Democrats are less concerned with protecting Americans than with continuing a blood feud with the Bush administration.
How did things go so awry? Well, for starters the Democrats badly misjudged the American public, which in poll after poll shows no inclination to “punish” those who labored to keep us safe or to second guess the techniques which they employed. And secondly, Democrats may have underestimated their own ability to control the narrative and limit the information the American people would get. Who imagined that Dick Cheney would pop up to remind Americans that the enhanced interrogation techniques worked? Who thought that a Democratic pol like Leon Panetta would call out the Democratic speaker of the house? Well, certainly not the Democrats who wanted to launch the just-our-version-of-the truth commission.
The American people respect and admire those who prevented a repeat of 9-11. And they seem averse to politicians who use those who protected us as props in never-ending “Get Bush” theatrics. Americans will show even less toleration for these antics should the restrictions and burdens placed on our intelligence community result in an attack on Americans.
It remains an open question whether all of this will dissuade Democrats from pursuing their political witch hunt. But if not compelled by a sense of decency, concern for the well-being of our intelligence community, or any aversion to turning the country into a banana republic (in which officials from prior “regime” are punished for their opposing views), perhaps the Democrats will heed some tried and true advice: when you are in a hole, stop digging.