All elections have consequences. The most dramatic consequence of President Barack Obama’s election may be his inability to separate himself from his party’s base — specifically, its left base.
All good presidents govern from the middle. Yet Obama has taken a sharp left turn on at least one important issue, intelligence.
In a confusing series of messages — from the president, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, press secretary Robert Gibbs and Attorney General Eric Holder — the administration flipped back and forth on prosecuting those who approved torture of terror suspects during the Bush years.
At the center of this controversy was another: the Justice Department’s release of CIA "torture memos" showing some terror suspects were waterboarded hundreds of times. Adding to the confusion were "don’t do this" pleas by National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair and CIA Director Leon Panetta.
"President Obama’s own director of national intelligence wrote a memo to his staff that made clear that what we gleaned as a result of these enhanced interrogation techniques helped make America safer," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, in an interview with the Trib.
Panetta made clear that releasing the memos would harm his agency, he pointed out.
Pittsburgh native Michael Hayden, former director of the National Intelligence Agency and the CIA, said on Fox News: "By taking [certain] techniques off the table, we have made it more difficult — in a whole host of circumstances I can imagine — for CIA officers to defend the nation."
Said former CIA operative Chad Sweet: "These are guys who have jobs based on taking risks to protect the country. The release of the memos and the confusion over prosecution has made them pull back."
James Woolsey, CIA director under President Bill Clinton, is concerned about the morale of CIA staff in the field: "In a very specified way, it encourages them to be cautious and not take risks, and the only way you get info from the bad guys is to take risks."
Releasing memos that outline some interrogation techniques, without giving a broader picture of what was gleaned, deeply concerns him.
The problem for U.S. intelligence agencies is that White House officials are practicing party politics. That’s their prerogative; they won. Yet should a president play to his base at the risk of losing information while waging two wars and nuclear-armed Pakistan implodes?
"This is a difficult decision for President Obama, because not only does he need to worry about the effects on the national security community, but he also needs to respond to the concerns of liberal Democrats," said Texas Tech political science professor Craig Goodman.
The worst ramification, he explained, would be a decision that makes intelligence officers risk-averse — and then another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
"Remember, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, completely transformed President Bush’s administration — and with everything else President Obama is seeking to achieve, I don’t think Congress could handle this," Goodman said.
Most Americans understand that intelligence work is ugly and messy and want it done; they just don’t want to know about it.
Politicizing intelligence actions is never a good idea. The consequences rarely benefit either side.
"I’ve been increasingly concerned that the Obama administration is making moves that don’t seem to fit into a strategy," said Boehner, who cited the decision to close the terrorist-detention facility at Guantanamo with no plan for where the terrorists will go or how they will be tried.
"It reminds me of the situation we found ourselves in in the late ’90s, when we had depleted a lot of our operatives because we hadn’t been replenishing our human intelligence sources around the world."
Another concern expressed by Boehner, Sweet and Woolsey is the similarity between now and the days of the strict "Deutsch doctrine" rules for recruiting intelligence sources, which made CIA officers fearful to do anything.
"These are the people who are charged with gleaning information to help keep America safe," Boehner said, "and to the extent that they are inhibited from doing their job, Americans will be less safe."