Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Chilling Effect on U.S. Counterterrorism

Via -

Over the past couple of weeks, we have been carefully watching the fallout from the Obama administration’s decision to release four classified memos from former President George W. Bush’s administration that authorized “enhanced interrogation techniques.” In a visit to CIA headquarters last week, President Barack Obama promised not to prosecute agency personnel who carried out such interrogations, since they were following lawful orders. Critics of the techniques, such as Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., have called for the formation of a “truth commission” to investigate the matter, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., has called on Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to launch a criminal inquiry into the matter.

Realistically, those most likely to face investigation and prosecution are those who wrote the memos, rather than the low-level field personnel who acted in good faith based upon the guidance the memos provided. Despite this fact and Obama’s reassurances, our contacts in the intelligence community report that the release of the memos has had a discernible “chilling effect” on those in the clandestine service who work on counterterrorism issues.

In some ways, the debate over the morality of such interrogation techniques — something we do not take a position on and will not be discussing here — has distracted many observers from examining the impact that the release of these memos is having on the ability of the U.S. government to fulfill its counterterrorism mission. And this impact has little to do with the ability to use torture to interrogate terrorist suspects.

Politics and moral arguments aside, the end effect of the memos’ release is that people who have put their lives on the line in U.S. counterterrorism efforts are now uncertain of whether they should be making that sacrifice. Many of these people are now questioning whether the administration that happens to be in power at any given time will recognize the fact that they were carrying out lawful orders under a previous administration. It is hard to retain officers and attract quality recruits in this kind of environment. It has become safer to work in programs other than counterterrorism.

The memos’ release will not have a catastrophic effect on U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Indeed, most of the information in the memos was leaked to the press years ago and has long been public knowledge. However, when the release of the memos is examined in a wider context, and combined with a few other dynamics, it appears that the U.S. counterterrorism community is quietly slipping back into an atmosphere of risk-aversion and malaise — an atmosphere not dissimilar to that described by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission) as a contributing factor to the intelligence failures that led to the 9/11 attacks.


The full article gives very good insight into some of the bureaucratic and cultural challenges faced by counterterrorism agents in US Intel agencies.

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