In the wake of President Obama's decision to release the OLC memos authorizing the CIA's enhanced interrogation program, it can be stipulated that there is plenty of angst at the Company right now. One doesn't have to quote an unnamed Bush administration official to this end. The full story behind the memos and their release has yet to be written -- I hope to write it some day -- and so we can safely ask whether the President's team reflected on the history of the agency, and especially what Jack Goldsmith has called the pendulum-like swings between risk-taking and risk-aversion.
I posed this question to an administration official, who, unfortunately, would not respond for the record. But the response is interesting: the release of the memos was, according to this official, the single most Obama-esque thing the President has done since taking office. That is -- it's the most risky, most un-culture-of-Washington, most-in-your-face-against-the-bureaucracy decision he's made. I'm told that Obama made the decision to release the memos early in the process. Those who tried to persuade him to change his mind unfortunately used two arguments that he found unpersuasive. One, they gang-tackled him with a united show of opposition from former CIA officials; releasing the memos would harm the CIA right at the moment when Obama most needed the CIA. Two, they argued that the release of the techniques would tie the agency's hands in the future. Obama rejected the first argument because he does not like to be cornered and he did not run for president to cater to the way Washington works. Publicly damning the CIA -- basically -- is a heckuva shot across the bow.
But President Obama was concerned about morale, the official insisted. That's why he agreed to release the memos accompanied with a statement promising that his Attorney General wouldn't prosecute those who had acted in good faith, as Obama knew that most of the agency had. His promise to safeguard classified information was also intended as a gesture of respect. So was, transparently, his remarkable visit to Langley, VA this afternoon. Obama acknowledged that he knew what he had done. He knew that he had made their jobs more difficult by banning the techniques in the first place. He said he knew that his memo decision had added to officers' anxiety about the future.
But then he lectured the agency:
"What makes the United States special and what makes you special is precisely the fact that we are willing to uphold our values and our ideas when when it's hard, not just when it's easy, even when we're afraid and under threat, not just when it's expedient to do so."
I think Obama knows precisely what he did, and I think he's betting that the CIA will respond to his vision more quickly than the CIA thinks it will. But if CIA officers are willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, they will look to him for substance, not words. Will Obama support investigations into CIA conduct? Will he quickly wrap up ongoing investigations? When Congress begins additional, formal investigations, will the White House intervene? Will Obama comply with Sen. Dianne Feinstein's request and hold off making a final decision on prosecutions until the Senate completes its investigation in six months? Will Obama preserve the State Secrets privilege? The controversial sections of the Patriot ACT? Will he defend CIA officials against civil suits? Will he allow interrogation techniques that aren't in the Army Field Manual?