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Torture Memos And The Iraq Syndrome

I think President Obama did the right thing in releasing the torture memos and also in rejecting the call for further investigations and for prosecutions. It's not a question of whether I think John Yoo and Jay Bybee and the CIA officials who even exceeded the bounds of these memos deserve some kind of punishment.  They do, but not at the hands of the federal government. And not now.  

My reasoning, I have to admit, is entirely prudential.  Recriminations don't work unless the country is fairly united behind them - think of Germany and Japan after World War II.  In the case of these post-Bush recriminations, Obama's own administration is divided.  Look at the results of the Church Committee and other post-Watergate investigations into intelligence abuses before, during, and after the Vietnam War. They made interesting reading, but also for an ugly debate over the "Vietnam syndrome."  A decade later, a new director William Casey was committing even worse abuses at the CIA.  

The question that Congress might ponder, but won't, is whether the structure of our foreign policy apparatus - the power and responsibility vested in a secret branch of government --  invites abuse. That was the position of the late Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan who argued for abolishing the CIA.  He didn't want to eliminate intelligence, but he wanted to return it to the purview of the State Department, while giving the armed forces the responsibility for overseas intervention.  

I'm not saying I favor this, but it's certainly worth discussing. One need only consider George Tenet's reign as CIA chief.  Tenet came in with a reform portfolio; and he initially did well as a manager; but by the time he had been forced out of office, the CIA itself had committed more war crimes, and bollixed more critical intelligence inquiries than ever before.  Was that because Tenet was deeply incompetent?  Or was there something about the agency's structure in government that invited presidents to twist it for their own sordid political ends?  Could the armed services have as easily complied with these torture memos?  I think not.  

Let me say one other thing: I have a nagging worry that the eagerness of some Democrats in Congress and some activist organizations to press for what would be months and even years of inquiries and investigations into Bush-era war crimes is due in part to an eagerness to divert themselves, and us,  from the seemingly insoluble problems we face in the present, which require every minute of attention from the White House and Congress.  The past can wait.

--John B. Judis