by Jon Goldstein
In 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a two-year review of 101 instances of possible criminal misconduct by CIA agents where terrorism suspects died in their custody. While this was certainly welcome news for opponents of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” initiated during the Bush Administration, excitement was tempered by the Justice Department’s announcement that Bush Administration officials, administration lawyers who approved the techniques, and CIA operatives who carried out interrogations within guidelines would be exempt from prosecution. The only exemption to this immunity would be CIA agents who went beyond simply torturing suspects to get information but in fact brutally killed them. Only these agents would be subject to preliminary reviews to determine whether a full investigation should proceed.
A few days ago the two-year reviews ended and the Department of Justice announced that of the 101 cases the department reviewed, only 2 investigations would warrant further review and inquiries into the other 99 cases would be closed. This announcement was greeted with cheers from CIA officials, such as the outgoing head of the CIA Leon Panetta, who said, “I welcome the news that the broader inquiries are behind us. We are now finally about to close this chapter of our agency’s history…”
The Department of Justice’s announcement has drawn praise for the Administration from unlikely places: Congressional Republicans. Rep. Mike Rogers, (R-Mich) said of the decision, “I hope that this decision will allow our intelligence professionals to move forward with their critical work free from the chilling effect of further investigation, and with the deserved full confidence of the American people…” Indeed it seems the CIA has much to celebrate, having escaped accountability in all but a fraction of instances where operatives tortured suspects to death.
While it is good that the Department of Justice is investigating the deaths of two CIA detainees, it is quite difficult to believe that only two deaths warrant an investigation. Since we know for a fact that 99 other detainees died while in CIA custody, and we also know that these detainees were subjected to the same kinds of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the refusal by the Department of Justice to investigate their deaths reeks of whitewashing. The Obama Administration seems to believe it is better to ignore much of the likely criminal activity of CIA operatives by prosecuting only a few of the most egregious and well known cases and closing the book on the rest.
The statements in support of this position from both Administration officials and congressional leaders portray a view that the government should not be burdening the CIA by investigating possible illegal activity. For some reason, many leaders in Washington D.C. believe that the CIA is somehow not subject to the same laws as the rest of the government. No federal or state prison would get away with torturing and killing suspected terrorists and neither should the CIA. Even advocates of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” should support more investigations, since the White House memos endorsing such techniques do not condone killing terrorist suspects. The very idea that part of the government can be exempted from following certain laws for the sake of security is inherently against one of the most important principles of our democracy: the rule of law.
The lack of accountability for CIA officers who torture suspects to death not only brings shame to the agency, it sends a harmful message to current and future CIA operatives: that they can break the law and avoid punishment because the government will cover-up all but the most public and heinous crimes. CIA officials operating with the knowledge that they can break laws without consequences are more likely to continue to operate as if they had extra-legal authority. Allowing investigations to go forward for more than a mere two percent of the cases would send a strong message to the CIA that torturing suspects to death is not only ineffective, but also illegal. Doing so will also encourage the CIA to gather intelligence in legal ways, something that has been shown to be very effective, with one notable example being the location of Osama bin Laden’s compound. In other words, the CIA should stick to doing what it is supposed to do: gather intelligence.
The CIA is vitally important for the continued security of the United States. The agency allows U.S. to keep up with the growing threats to our nation from around the world. Despite the changing challenges of the world in which we live, it remains as important as ever that the laws of the Unites States apply to all aspects of government equally. It would be foolish and short-sighted to allow a government agency to operate outside the law. And so Attorney General Holder, use your power to enforce the laws of the land—even if it means investigating the CIA. Our democracy depends on it.
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