CIA Director’s claims reinforce torture reality

It’s no secret that during the Bush administration, the Central Intelligence Agency “rendered” suspected terrorists to overseas facilities where they were subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Some sessions were recorded on videotape.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, the American Civil Liberties Union has relentlessly been trying to find out how these detainees were treated. The ACLU filed suit in federal court in 2004. As part of the case, the CIA revealed that it destroyed 92 of the interrogation videotapes.

The circumstances surrounding the destroyed tapes have become the subject of a criminal investigation. The federal judge in the ACLU case, in the meantime, ordered the CIA to compile a list of documents related to contents of the destroyed videotapes and is considering whether to release some of those documents.

CIA Director Leon Panetta this week filed a personal statement with the district court _ a “declaration” in the parlance of the proceedings _ strenuously arguing against the release of any such documents.

Panetta hardly could be expected to do otherwise. A former Democratic House member from California who later served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, Panetta realizes that as the CIA chief, he must be steadfast in his defense of the agency’s reputation and prerogatives.

Political judgments on dealing with torture evidence during the Bush presidency are better left to others less directly responsible for the morale of the nation’s intelligence officers.

Still, Panetta’s declarations seem self defeating.

Much of what he proposes to the court is uncontroversial. He says intelligence officers’ identities should not be made public, that locations of covert facilities be kept secret and that evidence of actionable intelligence also should remain confidential. No problem, so far.

But what about those parts of records that reveal how detainees were treated, or more specifically, whether they were tortured? Panetta offers this blunt defense: “Explicit details of specific interrogations where (enhanced interrogation techniques) were applied would provide al-Qaeda with propaganda it could use to recruit and raise funds.” The details are so bad that Panetta compares them to “the abuse of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison.” He reveals specifics only in a separate statement filed under seal.

Panetta says his objections are “in no way driven by a desire to prevent embarrassment for the U.S. government or the CIA or to suppress evidence of unlawful conduct,” and that his “sole purpose is to prevent the exceptionally grave damage to the national security reasonably likely to occur from public disclosure.” The director, in other words, confirms that with “enhanced interrogation techniques” we got a three-for-one deal: They did no good. We shamed ourselves. And in the process, we created a grave risk to national security.

How tragic that the evidence of mistreatment is so damning that the best way to protect our nation is to suppress it.

(c) 2009, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.