It was the CIA who kidnapped people off the streets of foreign capitals, hid them away in secret prisons where they were tortured or sent them to third countries where other brutal regimes could do the torturing on America’s behalf. When Leon Panetta was announced as the nominee for the CIA, there was cheering among the rank and file and a frisson of fear at CIA headquarters at Langley. After all, Panetta had been one of the fiercest critics of the torture and rendition program which he described repeatedly as clearly illegal. Here, at last, the activists thought, someone would be held accountable. But at his confirmation hearings last week Panetta said that no action will be taken against anyone who might have carried out what he and others considered illegal acts in the Bush years.
This has produced sighs of relief in the intelligence community where many feared they might become embroiled in a long and legally expensive witch hunt that would derail their careers and jeopardize their freedoms.
Panetta also made clear that much of the torture business will continue as usual and nobody from the Bush years will be held accountable. While waterboarding has been banned, CIA agents will still be allowed to kidnap suspects and hold them for an undefined time without trial. The Red Cross will be given access to the suspects but when and under what circumstances is not clear.
At the same time, Panetta has said that he expects the rendition program to continue. This is the biggest shocker of all given the way rendition works. Basically, the CIA hands over a suspect to a country like Egypt which routinely uses torture to get information. While the CIA officer does not actually attach the alligator clips or turn on the electricity, he directs the course of the interrogation and is sometimes standing in the cell which the prisoner is tortured.
Given the Congressional criticism of the Bush counter terrorist program, Panetta might have been expected to get a rough ride at the hearings. In fact, his confirmation this week is a certainty and the Democrats have turned overnight from critics to pussies.
The CIA argues that these programs produce valuable intelligence. It’s true that under torture terrorists have revealed all kinds of details about the inner workings of Al Qaeda but whether they have produced actionable intelligence that has prevented a terrorist attack is quite another matter. In any event, America’s kidnapping, rendition and torture program did immense damage to America’s standing in the world. The fact that the program is going to continue as Bush lite dismays the more sophisticated counter terrorist specialists on Obama’s team and undermines the moral high ground that Obama rhetoric sought to occupy in the election campaign.