The interwebs are abuzz with a recently published report that alleges CIA agents, among other things, knowingly tortured suspected terrorists, contracted torture out to private contractors (like Blackwater/Xe),  and generally abused every statue in the Geneva Convention.  More recently, it’s been announced that Attorney General Eric Holder will be pursuing possible criminal investigation and indictment of suspected torturers (read here).  In no way do I condone torture, but this is a terrible idea.

The CIA is the only agency designed with the explicit purpose of breaking other nations’ laws.  Field agents knowingly steal, bribe and sabotage whatever they must in order to protect America.  I refrain from adding “assassinate” to their list of duties, since President Reagan officially banned CIA assassinations in the 1980s.  When your entire work schedule revolves around breaking laws, however, why would you expect them to obey this one?

Anyway, it’s been revealed that the CIA has maintained prison camps in countries more friendly to torture than our own, and employed some police forces (notably in Morocco and Central Asia) to do the dirty work for us.  The especially infamous “waterboarding” torture was among other unsavory methods used for interrogating suspected terrorists.  The effectiveness of this torture has been refuted, and I think it’s safe to say that we’re not using this method anymore.

Still, many are calling for the heads of those who participated in this torture.  Low level agents, acting on directives from much higher up the food chain, would likely bare the brunt of this pending investigation.  Many old hands are getting ready to resign or find private lawyers, while still working in dangerous environments abroad.  There are even rumors that Leon Panetta, CIA director, wants to resign.  Yet again, the CIA is finding itself disgraced and panicked about how to move forward.

Liberal activists are right to be angry that our country sanctioned torture.  It’s an international crime, an affront to our Constitution (no “cruel and unusual punishment”), and most importantly runs contrary to everything a liberal democracy should stand for.  Torturing terrorists, no matter how bad they might be, puts us at their level.  It gives us little leverage in dealing with countries that provide safe havens for terrorists, and totally evaporates American soft power.  It’s painful to see authoritarian nations cracking down on political prisoners and realizing we can’t say a single thing to stop them without being called hypocrites.   Once we lose the moral high ground, it becomes very difficult to get back to the top.

As much as I hate torture, I also acknowledge that the CIA has a role to play in defending the country.  Agents acting on orders from their superiors should not be treated as war criminals.  If we have a system where subordinates can regularly and openly defy their supervisors on a whim, we risk losing all organization and focus.  Ordinary agents who didn’t torture are now afraid to continue working, lest they get caught up in a comparable scandal in the future. We need to assure them that we will always provide clear, legal instructions for them in return for their service to the country.  Those who did condone torture or organized this policy (very likely political operatives outside the CIA) should be dealt with harshly and barred from any further service in the government.   But at this point, I don’t understand the real, pragmatic benefits of an extensive series of trials and convictions.

Some positive steps have been made to right our previous wrongs.  President Obama has taken a decidedly more diplomatic approach than his predecessor, renewing relations with our allies and offering an olive branch to Iran.  Guantanamo Bay has been ordered closed.  The new policy that FBI – not CIA – agents will be responsible for interrogating suspected terrorists is also a good move.  The CIA should be concerned with spying and gathering information, not interrogations and maintaining secret prisons.

Many activists want a bloodbath, but President Obama would be wise not to give them one.  He should reinforce the fact that we will not torture ever again, while reassuring CIA agents that they will not be investigated for following what the previous administration thought was an acceptable practice.  Intelligence gathering is one of the least bloody and most effective means of thwarting the bad guys, so let’s look forward to a more effective CIA rather than dwelling on the admittedly gruesome mistakes of the past.