Newsweek’s investigative reporter Michael Isikoff reports that a fierce battle is now raging within the Obama administration over whether or not to release classified Bush administration interrogation memos — a battle pitting Attorney General Eric against CIA pros and making President Barack Obama the final arbiter.
Several often conflicting issues are at play here. Isikoff reports:
A fierce internal battle within the White House over the disclosure of internal Justice Department interrogation memos is shaping up as a major test of the Obama administration’s commitment to opening up government files about Bush-era counterterrorism policy.
As reported by NEWSWEEK, the White House last month had accepted a recommendation from Attorney General Eric Holder to declassify and publicly release three 2005 memos that graphically describe harsh interrogation techniques approved for the CIA to use against Al Qaeda suspects. But after the story, U.S. intelligence officials, led by senior national-security aide John Brennan, mounted an intense campaign to get the decision reversed, according to a senior administration official familiar with the debate. “Holy hell has broken loose over this,” said the official, who asked not to be identified because of political sensitivities.
Brennan is a former senior CIA official who was once considered by Obama for agency director but withdrew his name late last year after public criticism that he was too close to past officials involved in Bush administration decisions. Brennan, who now oversees intelligence issues at the National Security Council, argued that release of the memos could embarrass foreign intelligence services who cooperated with the CIA, either by participating in overseas “extraordinary renditions” of high-level detainees or housing them in overseas “black site” prisons.
Brennan succeeded in persuading CIA Director Leon Panetta to become “engaged” in his efforts to block release, according to the senior official. Their joint arguments stalled plans to declassify the memos even though White House counsel Gregory Craig had already signed off on Holder’s recommendation that they should be disclosed, according to an official and another government source familiar with the debate. No final decision has been made, and it is likely Obama will have to resolve the matter, according to the sources who spoke to NEWSWEEK.
This is just a small part of the piece, so read it in its entirety.
Partisans on each side of this issue will dismiss the other side’s argument, but there are two vital issues (among many) at play here:
1. Releasing the memos could answer the remaining question about what really went on and who specifically ordered it. It would also be symbolic to Americans and those throughout the world who were critical of “enhanced interrogation techniques’ — a phrase which is to torture what “pre-owned cars” is to “used cars.” If the United States wanted to ensure that the kind of behavior some critics believe are in the memo will not be condoned now or in the future, a light needs to be brightly shone on the rock so every can see what was thriving underneath.
2. Releasing the memos would be disastrous to the intelligence community because it would embarrass key players that helped the United States on the war on terror. It would set a precedent where other countries or officials would be afraid of cooperating with the United States. Moreover, some intelligence sources could be compromised, even if names are blacked out (and they would be).
For instance, it would be a terrible thing if there were allegations that many believed were true that a Vice President played a key role in making it known that that someone was a CIA operative, because it could endanger the contacts in his/her intelligence work — and even put intelligence contacts’ lives at risk.
But nothing like that has ever happened in American history.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.