Put yourself in the shoes of the people who were asked to interrogate al-Qaeda prisoners in 2002. One former officer told me he declined the job, not because he thought the program was wrong but because he knew it would blow up. "We all knew the political wind would change eventually," he recalled. Other officers who didn't make that cynical but correct calculation are now "broken and bewildered," says the former operative.
For a taste of what's ahead, recall the chilling effects of past CIA scandals. In 1995, then-Director John Deutch ordered a "scrub" of the agency's assets after revelations of past links to Guatemalan death squads. Officers were told they shouldn't jettison sources who had provided truly valuable intelligence. But the practical message, recalls one former division chief, was: "Don't deal with assets who could pose political risks." A similar signal is being sent now, he warns.
One veteran counterterrorism operative says that agents in the field are already being more careful about using the legal findings that authorize covert action. An example is the so-called "risk of capture" interview that takes place in the first hour after a terrorism suspect is grabbed. This used to be the key window of opportunity, in which the subject was questioned aggressively and his cellphone contacts and "pocket litter" were exploited quickly.
Now, field officers are more careful. They want guidance from headquarters. They need legal advice. I'm told that in the case of an al-Qaeda suspect seized in Iraq several weeks ago, the CIA didn't even try to interrogate him. The agency handed him over to the U.S. military.
Moral preening by politicians dried up our intelligence networks in the 1970's and again in the 1990's. We paid a terrible price in exchange for making a few people feel better about themselves. History, sadly, is in the process of repeating itself.