Friday, August 21, 2009

A Liberal's Response

I don't think this discussion could've timed out any better. Jeff commented on a blog that was over a month old, but the news this week has brought the issue right back to the front page. It's now being reported that the CIA employed the private contractor Blackwater to engage in covert assassinations of terrorists. While there may be nothing illegal about the arrangement, it certainly leads directly back to the discussion on CIA power and Congressional oversight.

The first point I take issue with in Jeff's response is his reference to the fact-finding investigation that I support as some sort of a "witch hunt." Witch hunts are the "act of seeking and persecuting any perceived enemy, particularly when the search is conducted using extreme measures and with little regard to actual guilt or innocence." Jeff seems to be confusing this investigation with the interrogations at Guantanamo. While this "witch hunt" mentality may be true for some of the people who called for the investigation, I don't believe it's true of intellectually honest liberals. Yes, I admittedly have a strong preconception of what's gone on here, but I'm also more than willing to let the facts lead wherever and to whomever. I think this is a key distinction. I accept facts, even when they are counter to my expectations---or even my possible desire for some Schadenfreude. I neither want, nor do I support a witch hunt. A bi-partisan investigation hardly meets the criteria for a witch hunt and it's disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

Jeff's main argument, however, is that investigations of this sort, and I presume generalized scrutiny, too, will make the CIA less willing to act decisively in moments of legal and moral ambiguity...a hesitation which may have the practical result of not keeping us safe. Specifically he says, "individuals should be given some leeway to make those decisions without some goody two-shoes coming in after the fact and second-guessing their decisions and threatening punishment or sanctions." Fair enough, but I don't think Jeff is saying in clear enough terms what he actually endorses. Specifically, if you read between the lines, Jeff seems to believe that the CIA should be above the law, beyond reproach, and beyond prosecution. Jeff and I both believe the CIA is comprised of good men and women charged with some of the most important, most difficult work imaginable. And, like Jeff, I don't believe things are always black and white when it comes to some of the tough decisions those people must make. That said, the rule of law exists for a vital and undeniable reason...which is that without limitations, without accountability, without oversight, the "little leeway" that Jeff wants very quickly expands into an all-out Machiavellian paradigm in which the only thing that matters is the end result. That is not acceptable. Quite frankly, CIA agents should contemplate their actions through the lens of existing law. Being a good person is often not enough to ensure good behavior. Good intentions matter, but that's just not enough.

Jeff will likely disagree and suggest that I'm going from one extreme to the other, that a "little leeway" is not all-out lawlessness, but I would then simply ask, "Which are the laws the CIA doesn't have to obey?" If Jeff thinks the CIA should not be required to report its clandestine activities to Congress, which is the principal conflict in our discussion, then let him say so and let him suggest that that provision of the National Security Act be eliminated. That's an honest debate. Say what you mean. It's simply not enough to ignore a possible violation of well-established law by glibly saying the CIA means well and Democrats are on a witch hunt. Jeff wants to have it both ways. He wants to show his support for the rule of law, but he only wants that law followed when it's convenient. If you read his response, while his intentions are honest and admirable, it's a decidedly wishy-washy non-specific discussion of the issue. He uses such phrases as "some leeway, " and "some degree of accountability," and "balancing act." None of that is wrong, but it's also not helpful. I gather Jeff wants things to proceed on an ambiguous case-by-case basis but, in this particular instance, Jeff doesn't even support a basic investigation to find out the facts of the case in question!

The case in question is a perfect example of a possible abuse-of-power that need not have happened. Specifically, I've not heard of a single Democrat who said they were opposed to the idea of a secret hit squad out to kill members of Al-Queda. This is significant. The GOP would like to paint the Democrats as weak on terror, but breaking laws which need not be broken to keep us safe is far from being's just being stupid. What's so dangerous in requiring the CIA, as we've done for over a half century, to report on its activities to the House Intelligence Committee? Why does this case qualify for the leeway Jeff wants? What's so special about it? Jeff also included a link to a story which suggests the program in question was really no big deal...nothing more than a $1 million PowerPoint presentation. Even if we assume that's all it was, so what? That's the kind of thing that a bi-partisan fact-finding investigation would reveal, would it not? There's a resistance to process in Jeff's response that I find deeply troubling. Conservatives typically portray themselves as anti-big government, yet Jeff seems to want to give unlimited power to the government when it comes to fighting terrorism. Again, if that's what he believes, he and other conservatives should state it in no uncertain terms: "We are for illegal wiretapping. We are for extraordinary rendition. We are for torture. We are for the CIA being allowed to do as it pleases." That's an intellectually honest debate I'm willing to have.

And finally, while Jeff makes no specific mention to Nancy Pelosi, her name has been routinely used as the reason Democrats are persisting in this provide cover for her. Look, if Jeff believes the CIA should have leeway, that presumably means he thinks the CIA should be allowed to lie about certain things if they think it benefits our national security. It's not even a baby step to then imagine the CIA lying to Nancy Pelosi about what interrogation techniques were being used. She may very well be bullshitting about the CIA lying to her, but it's absurd for the GOP to try to hang her over a statement which is CLEARLY plausible.

Good intentions matter, but adherence to the law matters more. Good intentions may mitigate certain instances of illegal behavior, but Republicans (and Democrats) should never stand in the way of finding out the truth.


Blogger Jeff said...

I responded to your post because your narrative about CIA morale was unfair and disingenuous. Neither conservatives nor liberals believe the CIA is filled with a bunch of crybabies, as you portray. The concern is more along the lines that I articulated. I think you know that concern is legitimate.

When I drafted my response, I was not thinking of the particular story that you were addressing. I had in mind the whole slew of liberal attacks on the CIA—torture, rendition, secret prisons, etc.

You seem to suggest a full-blown Congressional investigation at the slightest hint or rumor of wrongdoing. Come on, Kraig. Be reasonable. There has to be some threshold showing of wrongdoing to justify a full-blown investigation. Otherwise, we will be subject to costly and pointless investigation after investigation. There is a middle ground between endless investigations and what you refer to as all-out lawlessness. I don’t think either of us is arguing for one of the extremes. We are somewhere in the mushy middle.

I confess (without any waterboarding) that I am not familiar with the reporting requirements of the “National Security Act.” That said, I’m pretty sure that there are reasonable limits to what the CIA has to report. It’s not everything under the sun.

I thought your original post was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. I believe it was posted on the day the story broke. On that day, I had started to draft a response but was too busy at work to complete it. Whether you are ultimately right or wrong on the propriety of an investigation, I think you were wrong to demand an investigation without allowing time for the smoke to clear. I think you should have showed more of the cool-headedness exhibited by our President.

I used the term “witchhunt” because many liberals have assumed that the CIA is the bad guy. For example: “This story is making me lose my mind and I'm not even sure why. It's not like I'm shocked the CIA lied to Congress. I'm not shocked Dick Cheney was behind it. And I'm certainly not shocked the GOP is accusing the Democrats of playing politics simply by their bringing these self-evident truths to light.” From reading stuff on the web, I sense such a strong desire to nail the CIA that liberals are willing to jump all over the first hint of a justification to do so.

Your later posts seem more reasonable.

What’s the deal with all the Rick Springfield?

For your next blog post: How all this BS about “death panels” has destroyed the part of the health reform package that made the most sense—something that actually might reduce costs and enable us to provide better health care to more people? You think these politicians can solve the health care crisis when they won’t even discuss the real problems.

August 21, 2009 at 10:22 PM  
Blogger Kraig Smith said...


You misunderstood the mock dialogue I did about the CIA. That little back-and-forth was done to demonstrate precisely the opposite...that the CIA are NOT crybabies and they CAN handle criticism and still do their job effectively. I can't stand when anyone, Democrats or Republicans, uses the "lowers morale" argument as a way to evade legitimate discussion. Rumsfeld, Bush and Cheney repeatedly accused those who disagreed with their war policy of being irresponsible and that they were hurting troop morale. I find that as insulting to the troops as much to my own intelligence. Specifically, there are GOP members of the House Intelligence Committee who made that same argument as a way of NOT discussing the substance of any criticism in this case. The mock dialogue was created to comment on that absurdity.

If I read your comment correctly, you seem to be saying you're not opposed to investigating the CIA, you just want there to be some litmus test that suggests there is good cause to move forward. On that much we agree. I have to say, however, if the head of the CIA comes to committee and informs me that he's shut down a secret program that involved assassination attempts, regardless of where that program was in its execution, I think that's a very valid basis for getting more info about why there was no prior communication about the program. Further, the CIA director failed to respond to the letter the House Democrats sent expressing their concern. He simply ignored it for about 10 days, I think it was. I guess what I'm saying is, investigations get facts. They don't have to be public, and they can take any shape possible. They aren't all expensive grandstanding efforts.

I don't think of criticism of torture, rendition, etc as being directed toward the CIA. Yes, their hands are all in that business, but I view it as more of an executive the White House uses the CIA as a tool outside their legal limits. If Dick Cheney is commanding the CIA to not brief Congress on certain things that they are entitled to know, I consider that a BIG deal. Checks and balances doesn't work if one branch blatantly defies their obligation to the law. Every situation is different, yes, but then checks and balances also requires an accounting of the facts to either a) validate such questionable decisions, or b) hold people accountable so that it doesn't happen again.

I have no desire to "nail" the CIA. Do I have some desire to further expose the recklessness of Bush and Cheney? Yeah, guilty as charged. I feel very strongly that when history looks back at the Bush era, it will view those eight years as an unprecedented and unwarranted seizing of power. The CIA was just the dutiful pawn in this chess game.

As for endless and costly investigations, while I'm loathe to do the whole "but the Republicans did it, too" argument, I will point out the Ken Starr investigation of Clinton. While there was "something" there, I hardly think some real estate dealings and a blowjob comes anywhere close to the importance of figuring out just how much (or how little if the facts lead that way) the executive branch subverted the process of government. Think of all the money and years that were spent exposing next to nothing.

As for death panels...that's for another day. :)

As for Rick Springfield...that's for EVERY Friday (and today, as you'll see momentarily).

Keep commenting away, sir. Always look forward to it.

August 23, 2009 at 7:55 PM  

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