On National Security, We're Talking Tough Guys Vs. The Wimps

Aren't the dog days of August supposed to be the laid back part of the year? Not this summer. On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder appointed a special prosecutor to probe CIA interrogation methods. Since then, an eruption of non-stop emotion has dominated discussion of what promises to be yet another depressingly familiar round of high-decibel squabbling between left and right.

Most liberals and Democrat are demanding to know whether any laws got broken during the Bush-era prisoner interrogations. Most conservatives and Republicans dismiss it as a waste of time and a witch hunt.

But this isn't going to become your usual political food fight. Because it involves the Central Intelligence Agency, terror, and a broader debate over national security and civil liberties, there's also no shortage of politicians and pundits ready to strike tough guy poses in front of a public still unclear about what the government actually gleaned from the interrogations. And with former Vice President Dick Cheney defending the practice of roughing up prisoners to get them to talk, tactics that he claims saved American lives, the investigation is sure to revive earlier debates about the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq.

Read more about the CIA secret interrogation program:
Read CIA Memo here>
CIA Probe Angers Those on The Left and Right
2 Administrations, 2 Views of CIA Report

Unfortunately, we're reaching the point where honest disagreement is likely to go off the rails. In the aftermath of Holder's announcement, the differences between the Bush and Obama administrations already are coming into fuller view with reports of growing rift between CIA Director Leon Panetta, now portrayed as "a fall guy," and the White House. According to the Wall Street Journal, the fall guy designation "has been months in the making."

"Mr. Obama is contending with an angry left (my italics) that's riled by his decisions to retain some Bush-era counterterrorism policies. He's facing Congressional liberals still baying for Bush blood. He's hired Attorney General Eric Holder, who is giving the term "ideological purity" new meaning. Mr. Obama's way to appease these bodies? Hang the CIA and Mr. Panetta out to dry."

Purposely or not, the Journal's turn of phrase suggests how the defenders of the agency (as well as die-hard critics of the Obama administration) have decided to frame this debate. It's no longer going to be about legality but about saving lives. "Jack Bauer doesn't screw around with reading suspects their Miranda rights when there are time bombs to defuse." (Don't you love how Hollywood ties up loose ends within 60 minutes of airtime?) The argument put forward by Bush era officials is that the CIA saved lives but now that's been forgotten by an "angry left" more interested in settling old scores than in securing the nation's safety.

You can read much the same argument in the blogosphere. In her Commentary piece, Jennifer Rubin approvingly cites the WSJ piece as proof positive that an "outrage" which threatens to imperil national security is in the works. An even more dire warning is raised in guest op-ed on CNN.com by Ruben Navarrette Jr. (I'm quoting at length because the piece speaks volumes about how the right sees this:

"It's not every day that you see an administration devour itself. But that's pretty much what happens when you have the Justice Department investigating the CIA. This will poison the relationship between the entities, which still have to work together to keep America safe in the war on terror."

"And we're expected to believe that Holder is acting on his own, without approval from the president. Obama has said he wants to "look forward, not back" and called this "a time for reflection, not retribution."

"Yet, this week, the White House said that decisions "about whether someone broke the law are made independently by the attorney general."

"This is not a good look -- not for Holder, not for Obama and not for the administration. Just ask the American people. In May, a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey found that 57 percent of those questioned didn't want Congress to investigate Bush officials who authorized harsh interrogation procedures. Forty-two percent supported an inquiry. Fifty-five percent of people also didn't want an investigation by an independent panel. At the time, no one asked how respondents would feel about a special prosecutor conducting his own investigation, but it's a good bet that this will also be unpopular."

"What do Americans know that the Obama Justice Department doesn't? Maybe this: If you wanted to demoralize and destroy the country's intelligence agencies, and thus put its people at risk, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more effective way of doing it than by prosecuting CIA agents who did the nation's dirty work and acted in good faith, oftentimes after consulting with lawyers about the legality of their methods."

(Watch Katie Couric's interview with James Bamford, an author and CIA intelligence expert.)

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Really? There's so much to say that it's hard to know where to begin. But before weighing into the debate, you should read the CIA memo from 2004 detailing the methods used during prisoner interrogations. Up until the release of the memo, there was no shortage of smug dismissal that this was much more than rough stuff to deal with rough characters. Some of that still goes on. The other day I watched a Fox newsreader ask Karl Rove about whether it was wrong for interrogators to blow smoke into a detainee's face -yes, that was a technique, one I suppose the CIA invented for non-smokers - and wasn't this a bit ridiculous to prosecute? It was obviously a softball question and Rove knocked it out of the park. He might have had a tougher time dismissing other forms of coercion, such as smashing prisoners against the wall, waterboarding, putting them into stress positions or confining them into small spaces.

For the sake of argument, let's posit that torture once in a while works. What about those many cases where it doesn't?

During the upcoming debate, someone might want to consult Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for his opinions on the topic. In the military journal, Joint Force Quarterly, he argued that the U.S. ought to focus on "policy and execution problems" which are being exploited by the nation's opponents. "Each time we fail to live up to our values or don't follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are," Mullen wrote. That's a big brain on display. Mullen knows how to deploy military might with lethal results, but that's just part of the job description. When someone in his position reads about incidents of prisoner torture, he knows that his task just became that much tougher.

Back in Washington, the politics of the moment will influence how this story unfolds. Holder, the nation's Attorney General, is supposed to uphold the law, and not worry about where the chips might fall. It won't be easy, though, especially if his office concludes that laws were broken. Like the AG's who preceded him, he also is a political appointee as well as a party partisan. But that goes with the job. If Holder's worth his pay, he'll make the argument that following the constitutional example set out by the Founding Fathers makes the country stronger.

Wanna bet how long it takes somebody to call him out for being a wuss?

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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.