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The Road to Ruin

To Get Righteous, Get Historical, Not Criminal

By Michael Tanji | August 24, 2009

There are renewed calls for an investigation into allegations of torture and other bad acts by those who where there. Their point is taken, but they're not thinking things through.

First, there is the scale problem. No one that I am aware of is alleging that abuses - real or perceived - were widespread or commonplace. As you would expect when danger and fear hangs in the air like pea-soup and confusion and conflict reigns: some people went nuts. Some people thought that adopting certain training techniques would work against an entirely different audience than American pilots or operators. Let's face it: we hadn't had to run an interrogation activity on this scale and against this set of bad actors ever. That's not an excuse, but it explains a lot. Go "wide-ranging" and "criminal" and you're going to sweep up a lot of good people with the bad. I don't care how good your intentions are, that's usually how it works. Insert your own two-wrongs and a right analogy here.

Second, you can't on the one hand berate or otherwise harangue intelligence officers, especially collectors, for not taking risks and leaning forward in the foxhole and then drop the hammer on those who did what you asked (flawed and well-intentioned as they may have been) and not expect everyone with a modicum of perception to not take the hint: Its time to shut up an color. Anyone working around the IC immediately after the downfall of Saddam knows how it works: 'No weapons of mass destruction. You analysts are all idiots. From now on you're just going to re-package reporting and leave the thinking to someone else.'

Third, there is no such thing as a non-partisan inquiry or investigation. If it's associated with Congress, even if the split is 50/50, it's going to be political and biased. They don't know any other way to operate. Especially these days, anything war or intelligence related is a witch hunt and intelligence officers are cheap, easy fodder for the stake. The gentlemen in the referenced article and their colleagues arguing for an investigation are right to do so, but they are naïve to believe that only malfeasants will pay a price and that the after-effects of any investigation won't reinforce a culture of faint-heartedness where only the timid thrive.

Finally, I agree that we need to look back to see what went wrong, document it, promulgate that document, and make sure we don't do it again, but there is a difference between an after-action report and an indictment.

I submit that what we need is a penetrating, authoritative and comprehensive investigation that is historical and not criminal in nature. If we are truly interested learning from our mistakes and making sure future operations are not tainted by abuse and scandal - as unpopular as it might be - a handful of people now are going to have to receive get-out-of-jail-free cards so that the generations that come after us don't repeat our mistakes.

This isn't going to be a popular option, but for all the reasons stated above (and probably several more) there is no other course of action between pretending it didn't happen and hauling everyone up in front of a truth commission, that will keep our intelligence apparatus effective and at the same time get us back on the path of righteousness.

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