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Barack Obama's presidency

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George W. Bush's presidency since 2007

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George W. Bush's presidency from 2005-06

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What Should Obama Do?

By Melvin A. Goodman
April 26, 2009

Editor’s Note: Almost by their nature, Democratic politicians look for bipartisan compromises and try to avoid nasty confrontations. But there are times when legal and moral imperatives demand courage, truth and clarity.

In this guest essay, former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman says President Barack Obama finds himself in one of those moments:

President Obama is displaying ambivalence in handling the issue of torture and abuse. He clearly wants to do the right thing and, as a result, has put a stop to torture and closed down the CIA’s secret prisons where the worst abuses occurred.

As a political leader with an extensive policy agenda, however, he wants to limit the investigation of the crimes that were committed in order to avoid a fractious political fight that could compromise his agenda.

The fact is that U.S. and international laws were broken and immoral actions were conducted. Moral and legal issues, unlike political ones, should not be compromised. Pursuing the proper moral course, as opposed to the political course, is central to the identity of President Obama as a leader and to the United States as a nation.

As a result, he must deal decisively with the Bush administration’s use of torture, secret prisons and extraordinary renditions.

The citizens of the United States, indeed the entire international community, know that war crimes were committed and that domestic and international laws were broken. Acts of sadism were committed — not only against those responsible for terrorist activities, but also against innocent victims. 

We need to establish that these activities were wrong and will never be repeated.

Only a serious high-level investigation can achieve these objectives. The investigation must focus on the senior officials of the Bush administration who were responsible for this descent into depravity, but there are individuals serving in high-level positions at the CIA, including the deputy director and the acting general counsel, who must be replaced if there is to be a convincing repudiation of the abuses of the past eight years.

CIA officials sought protection from the Justice Department because they knew their actions violated international law (the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture); U.S. law (which treats any breach of Geneva as a crime); and the 8th amendment to the Constitution.

President Obama has given senior CIA officials too much say with respect to releasing documents and limiting both congressional inquiry and the appointment of a special prosecutor. 

Senior CIA officials, past and present, are making a case that is patently false. They have told the President that an investigation will harm the CIA and that operations officers will be less willing to take risks in the future if some of them are held accountable now.

President Obama must understand that very few CIA officers were involved in these crimes; that the overwhelming majority of National Clandestine Service officers are professionals who understand the need to combat terrorism and are committed to supporting their President and defending their nation’s security.

The overwhelming majority of NCS officers was not involved in the illegal activities and did not support them.

The current CIA leadership has argued falsely that foreign intelligence services will be less willing to share secrets with the United States if we pursue an investigation of these criminal activities. In fact, it was the Bush administration’s resort to torture, abuse, and secret prisons that led many nations to withhold information from the United States.

CIA leaders believe that past investigations of CIA scandals, such as attempts to conduct political assassinations, had a chilling effect on CIA morale.

This is also untrue! CIA director William Colby’s cooperation in the 1970s with a Senate investigation of CIA assassination plots brought an end to these counterproductive actions, and CIA director John Deutch’s limits in the 1990s on the recruitment of Central American agents linked to death squads in their countries led to more effective recruitment.

Unfortunately, President Obama has made the journey toward an investigation more difficult by appointing former CIA veteran John Brennan as an intelligence adviser.

Brennan was a major player in the era of cover-up at the CIA, serving as an executive assistant to CIA Director George Tenet when the practices of detention and torture were introduced. He was a cheerleader in selling renditions and secret prisons to the media, and he lobbied against release of any torture memoranda. He has a personal interest in perpetuating the cover-up of CIA’s rendition and detention practices.

Leon Panetta’s appointment as Director of Central Intelligence has proved a major disappointment.  He has accepted the position being advanced by those Agency officers seeking to cover up the abuses of the past eight years.

He has retained Steven Kappes as CIA deputy director, although Kappes was one of the ideological drivers for these practices. He has retained John Rizzo as acting general counsel, although Rizzo was a key figure in the Agency’s lobbying for Justice Department protection for its policies for nearly a decade; the Senate intelligence committee refused to confirm Rizzo as general counsel for that reason.

Panetta also has not named a new Inspector General for the CIA, raising the question of whether he shares the preference of former DCI Hayden and Deputy DCI Kappes for a weakened Office of Inspector General.

Presumably, Hayden and Kappes prefer a weak OIG because that office is the only institution to have conducted a critical investigation of the Agency’s torture practices (2004); they surely seek to prevent any further such investigations by the IG.

President Obama and Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-California, should be deeply concerned that there is not a statutory and independent individual serving as Inspector General of the CIA at this delicate juncture.

What Needs to Be Done?

The Obama administration must stop coddling those CIA leaders who continue to try to cover up Agency actions against the best interests of the Agency itself. It is time to uncover, understand, and reject the painful truths about CIA’s use of torture and abuse.

The release of the memoranda by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has begun the process of open disclosure, but President Obama must continue that process.

He cannot expect the Senate and House intelligence committees to do a rigorous investigation because too many congressional leaders, including Jay Rockefeller, Nancy Pelosi, Peter Hoekstra and Richard Shelby, knew about the practices of torture and abuse and did nothing to challenge, let alone prevent, them.

He must appoint a special prosecutor, perhaps John Dunlop, who has been investigating for months the CIA’s destruction of the torture tapes, which now appears to have a blatant act of obstructed justice.

President Obama has ruled out the type of commission that investigated 9/11, but Pandora’s box has been opened and he will have to create or turn to some institution to confront the truths that have been unleashed.

There is no perfect institution, but he must choose one — congressional, blue-ribbon, special investigator, Inspector General. Otherwise the President will continue to be hung up by an inability to confront the very real moral challenges posed by this country’s use of torture and abuse.

It is time to recognize that the policy of torture and abuse was only one of many steps taken by President Bush and Vice President Cheney to expand and abuse presidential powers.

The Bush administration was responsible for warrantless eavesdropping in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978; the Terrorist Surveillance Program in violation of the National Security Act of 1947; more presidential signing statements than all previous presidents signed in order to undermine the will of the people; and the outing of CIA clandestine operative Valerie Plame in violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982.

The Obama administration may not have the time and energy to address all of these abuses, but the program of torture and abuse was by far the worst of these; it must be repudiated.

Melvin A. Goodman, a regular contributor to The Public Record where this essay first appeared, is senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University. He spent more than 42 years in the U.S. Army, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Department of Defense. His most recent book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA.

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