April 20th, 2009
11:53 PM ET

Mistake on the "torture memos"

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Gary Berntsen
Fmr. CIA Officer and President of The Berntsen National Security Review

This past week President Obama authorized the release of a set of classified memorandums written during the Bush administration. These documents outlined the procedures and tactics employed during the interrogations of captured senior Al Qaeda operatives and have been referred to by the press as the “torture memos.” President Obama’s release of these memos took place despite substantial protest. The four most recent CIA Directors—John Deutsh, George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden—all recommended against the release. President Obama’s own newly appointed Director of CIA, Leon Panetta, did, too. Yet President Obama, in a seemingly relentless effort to discredit his predecessor, George W. Bush, has made the memoranda public.

In taking this action, President Obama has effectively defined the limits of what America, at its most aggressive and most passive, would do against Al Qaeda detainees. This will undoubtedly allow groups like Al Qaeda to adjust the preparation and training of their operatives. Administration officials as well as some journalists on the left have argued that the President took into consideration the fact that much of the memos’ contents have already made it into the press. This is a hollow defense. Speculation or discussion of these details in the press may certainly allow Al Qaeda and other terrorists to assess potential U.S. capabilities to some extent. But official White House memorandums released to the public, and immediately downloadable online, are the gold standard for Al Qaeda.

In addition to bolstering Al Qaeda’s tactical position and morale, I argue that President Obama has also demoralized those members of the CIA's Clandestine Service who make enormous personal sacrifices and take tremendous risks in the fight to keep our nation safe. After having served most of my adult life in Clandestine Service and having led many counterterrorism missions, I can say that the rank and file is truly horrified by President Obama’s naïve decision making.

Apologists for Obama’s misguided decision may counter by highlighting the President’s announcement that no CIA employees who participated in the interrogation program will be prosecuted. Surely President Obama understood that taking such action would have accelerated retirement of many senior officers already eligible to depart and would have also caused a significant number of resignations.

On top of all this, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, called recently for a “truth and reconciliation commission”—much like what South Africa used to address decades of apartheid. Leahy’s “truth commission” would purportedly be established to investigate allegations of wrongdoing at the Justice Department during the Bush Administration. It would allow America to cleanse itself of what he terms Bush Administration crimes. This is simply a cheap political stunt designed solely for Democratic political advantage and will further undermine our ability to defend ourselves against Al Qaeda terror.

On a daily basis we watch countries like Iran and North Korea continue to advance their technology in the area of weapons of mass destruction. What the Obama administration fails to comprehend is that terrorist groups are also evolving their tradecraft and the lethality with which they plan to strike. The fact that we did not suffer a significant follow-on attack in the continental United States during George W. Bush’s eight-year presidency resulted from the extremely aggressive posture taken by his administration. George W. Bush, for all his mistakes and missteps, did understand that we were at war with a lethal and insidious enemy, and he conducted himself accordingly. It is sadly inevitable that a time will come when we learn of an impending catastrophic attack on an American city. In today’s highly globalized society, small numbers of people can leverage technology to do terrible things. Given the positions staked out by President Obama, how does a reasonable person believe the national security apparatus will function in such a crisis? Will individuals be willing to accept the reality of such a threat and be allowed to act decisively at the lowest level to counter the threat, or will such threats have to work their way up the chain of command, at the cost of time, for reflection by President Obama himself?

President Obama’s handling of the classified Bush-era interrogation memorandums displays a lack of maturity. More dangerously, it displays a lack of understanding of what could lie ahead for the nation. Like all Presidents in the modern age, Mr. Obama is likely to face events in the years ahead that will be heartrending. To prepare for these challenges and to minimize the impact on the nation, he must avoid rewarding our enemy and build consensus within the national security establishment. Unfortunately, with the release of these memos, the myth that President Obama would conduct himself in foreign affairs as a moderate pragmatist has all but evaporated.

soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Jim M

    Perhaps with people like Mr. Berntsen we could have won the Viet Nam and Korean wars by emulating the enemy's interrogation tactics: electric shock to body parts, sleep deprivation, placement in small confined windowless areas – oh, did we use these in Iraq and that is whay we won the war there? I guess our operatives couldn't find any bamboo for other Asian "interrogation" methods.

    April 21, 2009 at 5:34 pm |
  2. Diane N.

    It doesn't matter whether the "terrorists" know about the techniques or not. Do we give a way the presidents postion of his secret service just because we know that he has secret service? Why people believe that those so called people deserve the same rights as anyone else, they had no regard for the thousands of innocent lives at the twin towers when they blasted through the buildings or the pentegon. I don't give a damn that they where water boarded they deserved to be hung. What we do to secure our nation and people is not for public knowledge otherwise it's not secure information is it? I'm so sick of hearing all the sympathies for these men who are trying to kill innocent people just because they hate us for whatever reason. We don't try and save rabid animals who try and bite us, why in the world do some people feel it necessary to save these men and treat them with kid gloves who are trying to kill us and believe they have the same rights as innocent citizens???

    April 21, 2009 at 4:36 pm |
  3. billy tucker

    Those thugs know more about torture techniques than we will ever know. Its a big joke that this lessens our security. Maybe we need to dunk
    Cheny a few times to force him to tell what his real motive is.
    Even Bush dumped him as soon as his presidecy was over.
    Cheny is just one notch above Newt when it comes to expressing honest feelings. Remember how he chastized ole Billy Bob Clinton for his roaming bedroom activities while he was bedding i woman,not his wife. Does this mean that some are allowed more extended sexual privileges than others.

    April 21, 2009 at 3:37 pm |
  4. Daniel, ATL

    There is nothing wrong with the memo been released. Most people already know all these interrogation technics so I do not get why people are saying it is national security issue. Terrorists already know all the torture technics presented in the memo so why would terrorists need this memo to teach them. (Anything could be found on the internet)

    April 21, 2009 at 3:03 pm |
  5. Josh Coker

    I would like to make another comment on the torture aspect with reagard to the right wing conservatives.If conservatives are generally Christian-why is it that they condemn abortion but think it's OK to torture? In the eyes of the Lord both are considered a sin so stop with the hypocracies. America is going to be stronger under Obama than it has been for a long time because he is an intelligent man that knows you catch more flies with honey rather than vinegar.

    April 21, 2009 at 12:26 pm |
  6. Josh Coker

    President Obama promised to bring change to America-and he has.Ever see another President make a bolder statement?This guy gets it-as the Holy Bible states-"love thine enemies" and as another famous saying goes "keep your friends close and your enemies closer".The fact that these files have been released is irrelevant to the rest of the world because they already knew about the techniques and Americans were simply kept in the dark so they wouldn't know how their country operates itself.Obama is playing a shell game with the world in which you show one hand and use the other.The techniques will probably continue but will certainly be conducted in a more secretive way.Guantanamo Bay's closing just means that another facility will be created in some place in the middle of nowhere and we won't know about it.Bush's arrogance was also his stupidity.Other countries use these same techniques but they do it in a secretive way and they don't boast to the rest of the world!By the way, other countries with governments that have a tighter grip on their societies are being attacked by these same terrorists so do not make the mistake of trying to make America and Obama seem weaker for it! I'll leave you with this qoute"Walk softly but carry a big stick".

    April 21, 2009 at 12:04 pm |
  7. Diane N.

    I think it is ridiculous that we are allowing classified documents to be publicised irregardless of their validity at present. In doing so wouldn't that revelation usually be considered treasonous in any other capacity???

    April 21, 2009 at 11:59 am |