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Commentary: Prosecuting CIA a foolish move

  • Story Highlights
  • Ruben Navarrette: Obama said he wanted to look forward, not back
  • He says polls show most Americans don't want investigation of CIA interrogations
  • He says Justice Department probe will demoralize agents who fight terror
By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr., a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to CNN.com, is the author of "A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano." Read his column here.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. says the administration's probe of CIA interrogations will demoralize agents who fight terror.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. says the administration's probe of CIA interrogations will demoralize agents who fight terror.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- The Obama administration actually has me feeling sorry for the Central Intelligence Agency. This week, the administration hit the CIA with both barrels.

First, it announced that the intelligence agency would no longer be responsible for interrogating suspects in terrorism cases. This task will now be conducted by a new group of interrogators overseen by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

There's hope and change for you. Those who applaud the change probably hope it means no more headlines like the one this week about how CIA interrogators threatened al Qaeda prisoner Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri with a gun and an electric drill to get information.

Al-Nashiri is accused of plotting the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, which left 17 U.S. sailors dead. Details of his alleged treatment came to light after a federal judge in New York ordered a redacted version of a CIA inspector-general's report released as part of a lawsuit.

The second blast came when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder named a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of CIA prisoner abuse cases after the Justice Department's Office of Personal Responsibility -- the department's watchdog -- recommended considering prosecution of CIA employees or contractors for rough interrogations in Iraq and Afghanistan that allegedly went beyond approved limits. Career federal prosecutor John Durham will lead the investigation.

It's not every day that you see an administration devour itself. But that's pretty much what happens when you have the Justice Department investigating the CIA. This will poison the relationship between the entities, which still have to work together to keep America safe in the war on terror.

And we're expected to believe that Holder is acting on his own, without approval from the president. Obama has said he wants to "look forward, not back" and called this "a time for reflection, not retribution." Yet, this week, the White House said that decisions "about whether someone broke the law are made independently by the attorney general."

This is not a good look -- not for Holder, not for Obama and not for the administration.

Just ask the American people. In May, a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey found that 57 percent of those questioned didn't want Congress to investigate Bush officials who authorized harsh interrogation procedures. Forty-two percent supported an inquiry. Fifty-five percent of people also didn't want an investigation by an independent panel. At the time, no one asked how respondents would feel about a special prosecutor conducting his own investigation, but it's a good bet that this will also be unpopular.

What do Americans know that the Obama Justice Department doesn't? Maybe this: If you wanted to demoralize and destroy the country's intelligence agencies, and thus put its people at risk, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more effective way of doing it than by prosecuting CIA agents who did the nation's dirty work and acted in good faith, oftentimes after consulting with lawyers about the legality of their methods.

By the way, where did those lawyers work? This is the poetic part. In the case of Steven Bradbury, Jay Bybee, and John Yoo -- the authors of the so-called "torture memos" that were the subject of so much reporting a few months ago -- they worked in the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department.

That would be the same Justice Department that is now investigating CIA officers for, in some cases, doing what the department's lawyers told them was legally permissible to do.

Just how far down the rabbit hole does this administration intend to go? The White House would have more credibility on the interrogation issue if it had not decided to continue the Bush administration's practice of rendition, which is basically the exporting of terrorism suspects to third-party countries for detention and interrogation.

The administration promises that the State Department will closely monitor the program to ensure that prisoners are not tortured. And, administration officials insist, the host countries have offered "diplomatic assurances" that they'll be on their best behavior.

This policy is a farce. The whole reason an administration uses rendition is because foreign countries have more latitude in questioning suspects and they can push boundaries to get information. If we try to take that away, then why continue the program? Why not just question suspects in the United States?

It points to the disingenuousness of this whole exercise. We want the intelligence, and we know that the lives of countless Americans might hinge on whether or not we get it. So we're not picky about what these host countries have to do to get terror suspects to spill the beans. We just like to play dumb about how the foreign authorities went about extracting it.

It's no wonder that human rights groups condemned the administration's decision, insisting that the rendition policy allows the transfer of prisoners to countries with a history of torture. They also pointed out that the Bush administration also got "diplomatic assurances" and that they were meaningless.

Those assurances are meaningless -- and pointless. Just like using the criminal justice system to settle scores and portray one administration as morally superior to another.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

All About Eric HolderBarack ObamaCentral Intelligence Agency

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