Thursday, January 22, 2009

Obama's First Big Mistakes

The New York Times reports that President Obama will issue executive orders that will not only close Guantanamo, as expected, but also shut down the CIA's secret prisons, and require the agency to use the same rules as the military for interrogation of terrorist suspects. Guantanamo is a complicated issue. I believe there are legitimate arguments that the existence of that facility does more harm than good. It's certainly a public relations nightmare at this point. Moving the prisoners to a different location and revamping the rules for how that type of suspect is handled, might not necessarily be bad things. So I'm not ready to consider closing Guantanamo a mistake yet. I think it depends on exactly how it is handled.

But the CIA prisons and CIA interrogations are far different matters. If the NYT report is correct, Obama's planned actions seem to indicate that he is either going to approach national security policy with a Jimmy Carter-like naivete, or that he has caved in to his left-wing base, despite the needs of national security. The CIA by its very nature is designed to operate in secret. Foreign intelligence agencies, to be effective, sometimes have to engage in borderline, dirty, and illegal actions outside our borders. The idea that there is something wrong with the CIA possessing secret interrogation facilities, is simply left-wing idiocy. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that the CIA has probably maintained some secret facilities for interrogating prisoners throughout its entire history. Why? Because it's an organization that operates secretly. I'm not sure why this basic bit of logic escapes those who are so horrified by these facilities. It is of course possible that Obama simply plans to publicly order their closure, so the government can pretend that they've all been closed, while the CIA continues to operate others in secret. I suspect (and hope) this might be the case, but we can only judge based on available information.

Then there is the ever-debated interrogation issue. I agree with strict rules for military interrogators, and disagree with how the Bush administration handled things. Utilizing borderline interrogation techniques within the military was a bad idea for all sorts of reasons, which I'm not going to recap here. But the CIA is not the military. It is a very different institution, which again, is designed to operate in secret. Spying on friends and allies alike, sometimes requires breaking laws, and doing things that we would not and should not ever permit from domestic law enforcement and other government agencies within the U.S. Restricting how the CIA can interrogate prisoners by tying them to the exact same rules as military interrogators is not only illogical, it is completely idiotic and potentially dangerous to national security. Obama appears to be off to a terrible start on the national security/intelligence front. Given most of his appointments, it appeared hopeful that he'd take a more pragmatic approach. But if reported correctly, these executive orders are a very bad sign. You just can't underestimate the utter cluelessness of the left when it comes to matters of national security. We can only hope Obama's executive orders will be mere public relations ploys, and that the government will permit the CIA to operate as necessary in secret. 


  1. Another explanation is that he comes from a realist camp that doesn't see much use for the CIA. This camp exists, and goes back to the 1960s, when the Kennedy brothers kept cooking wild-eyed plans involving covert CIA ops, and the State Department kept having to shut them down; it got a boost in the 1980s, when the CIA had no clue the USSR was about to fall. McCain was probably part of this camp, based on his proposals for a complete reform of CIA operations.

  2. The CIA is definitely notable for some big failures. It's possible there are also a lot of successes we don't know about. It's difficult to trust any public info on the CIA, again, because of its very nature.

    I think if Obama was proposing a complete overhaul of intelligence, that might be worth looking at.