Holding The CIA Accountable For Bush Era Actions

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Some say an Obama administration should authorize investigations of the Bush policies on the detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists. But officials at the CIA and other intelligence agencies are making known their strong opposition.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, tallying up President Bush's score on the environment.

But first, President-elect Obama next week will replace a president whose counterterrorism policies have created controversy. Some members of his own Democratic Party say that an Obama administration should authorize investigations of the Bush policies on the detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists. But officials at the CIA and other intelligence agencies express strong opposition, and it now appears that Mr. Obama will not support those investigations. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: In the months after 9/11, CIA officers were under pressure to find out whatever they could about whether and how al-Qaeda might carry out new attacks. The agency instituted a program under which suspected terrorists were rounded up, put in secret CIA prisons, and subjected to so-called enhanced interrogation procedures that many say were tantamount to torture. As details of the program became public, it stained the image of the United States, and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon thinks theObama administration should authorize the declassification of documents pertaining to the program.

Senator RON WYDEN (Democrat, Oregon): I want to see documents that relate to the history of the program. I want to see documents that relate to whether these enhanced techniques have been effective, and then I want to see documents that relate to the legal justification for these programs.

GJELTEN: Wyden is not alone. This week, the House Judiciary Committee released a report calling on the incoming Obama administration to begin a criminal review of Bush policies. But the idea was pretty much dead on arrival. Interviewed last Sunday on the ABC program "This Week," Mr. Obama showed little interest in the idea of investigating what the Bush administration authorized the CIA to do.

(Soundbite of TV show "This Week")

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: Obviously, we're going to be looking at past practices, and I don't believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.

GJELTEN: Here is some background to that comment. Last month, Mr. Obama had a long meeting with the outgoing CIA director, Michael Hayden, and the director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell. In that meeting and in subsequent sessions with the Obama transition team, Hayden made clear that any inquiry into the CIA's operations could demoralize CIA officers. In a session with reporters this week, Hayden described the likely reaction of a CIA counterterrorism officer to the news he's under investigation. Here's how he put it: The next time any president comes to him and says, hey, big guy, I've been thinking I'd like you to go do this for me - forget about it.

Hayden's warning apparently sunk in with the president-elect. In his interview last Sunday, Mr. Obama praised the work of CIA officers and said he does not want them, quote, to feel like they've got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders and lawyering up. McConnell, as director of national intelligence, had a similar reaction. In a meeting with reporters yesterday, McConnell said the declassification of counterterrorism documents could complicate the work of intelligence professionals under his charge.

Mr. MIKE MCCONNELL (Director of National Intelligence): I have to run and be responsible for a community that penetrates the most closely held secrets of people who potentially wish to do us harm. And so my problem is, the more you tell somebody in Iowa about it, the more the other side knows, and they can take that away from us.

GJELTEN: Senator Wyden says the documents underlying the Bush administration's counterterrorism program could be made public without jeopardizing either national security or the careers of CIA officers. He says he heard similar objections from past CIA directors three years ago, when he pushed for the declassification of an inspector general's report into the CIA's performance.

Senator WYDEN: They said, oh, you're going to declassify these documents, and employees will be brought before disciplinary boards and be prosecuted. And I said it wasn't going to happen. Those documents were declassified. I made it clear that I didn't want to see anyone prosecuted, and no one was.

GJELTEN: Wyden and other Democrats say they intend to push ahead with their investigation proposals, but without support from the new administration, their efforts are unlikely to go far. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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