Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
Panetta was a surprise choice to lead the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), since his reputation rested primarily on his mastery of domestic policy—a mastery acquired as chairman of the House Budget Committee, as President Clinton’s budget director, and later as his chief of staff. Although some colleagues say that Panetta can be “principled to the point of rigidity,” it was more his reputation for rectitude and integrity than as his grasp of the intricacies of national security issues that got him the CIA job.
In May 2009, Panetta found himself preoccupied not with foreign enemies but with domestic critics, both conservative and liberal. From the right, former Vice President Dick Cheney accused the Barack Obama administration of “making the American people less safe” by banning the enhanced CIA interrogation of terrorism suspects that had been sanctioned by the George W. Bush administration. From the left, human rights activists and some Democratic members of Congress called for the establishment of some sort of inquiry—a special prosecutor, a congressional investigation, a truth commission—to determine whether the Bush administration lawyers who had argued that waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques could be employed in the aftermath of 9/11 should be prosecuted. These liberal groups were especially appalled that Panetta had advised Obama against such an inquiry.
As the director of the CIA, Panetta knew this was a sensitive issue for his agency. Critics believe that the agency had lost its moral bearings after 9/11. In 2007, when a confidential Red Cross report became public, no doubt remained that the agency had subjected terror suspects to prolonged physical and psychological cruelty. Officers shackled prisoners for weeks in contorted positions; chained them to the ceiling, wearing only diapers; exploited their phobias; and propelled them headfirst into walls. At least three prisoners died.
There was more bad news for the agency when President Obama released disturbing classified government documents describing how one prisoner was waterboarded 183 times in a month. For more than a century, the United States had prosecuted waterboarding as a serious crime, and a 10-year prison sentence was issued as recently as 1983. Indeed, the memos authorizing interrogators to torment prisoners clashed so glaringly with international and U.S. law that some of them were later withdrawn by lawyers in Bush’s own Justice Department. Torture itself is a felony, sometimes even treated as a capital crime. The Convention Against Torture, which America ratified in 1994, requires a government to prosecute all acts of torture; failure to do so is considered a breach of international law.
Although Panetta might oppose an inquiry, that did not mean he took torture lightly. One of his first acts as director was to ask the CIA’s inspector general to ensure that there was no one on the payroll who should be prosecuted for torture or related crimes. The inspector general assured him that no officer still at the agency had engaged in any action that went beyond the legal boundaries as they were understood during the Bush years. Panetta’s position was therefore consistent with that of President Obama, who had promised immunity from prosecution to any CIA officer who relied on the advice of legal counsel during the Bush years. For the longer term, Panetta was trying to set up a state-of-the-art interrogation unit, staffed by some of the best CIA, FBI, and military officers in the country and drawing on the advice of social scientists, linguists, and other scholars.
Panetta wondered if he had done enough. Should he resist or welcome an investigation of the CIA by the Attorney General that might lead to prosecution? Or should he resist or welcome the creation of an independent “truth commission” that could grant immunity to witnesses? As he pondered the pros and cons of some sort of inquiry, it became increasingly apparent how unappetizing his choices were.
Here are some of the arguments against any investigation: