Joe Klein: For CIA, Laws Were Made to be Broken

I don’t know if Joe Klein understands what the CIA does. Responding to Glenn Greenwald on the release of the torture memos, he writes:

What I did do that seems to have piqued Greenwald’s ire is to report an obvious truth: this is going to hurt the morale and perhaps the efficacy of the clandestine service, which performs in extra-legal situations around the world. Greenwald finds the phrase "extra-legal" Orwellian. Perhaps…or maybe it’s just a way to describe what spies do: they lie about who they are in order to steal information that can affect national security.

In his original piece, Klein said "some operators are asked to behave extra-legally for the greater good of the nation." "Extra-legal" is another way of saying "illegal." And while the CIA may very well run around the world performing in an "extra-legal" fashion, it’s not what they’re supposed to be doing. Even if they break the laws of other countries, they are supposed to be following ours. That’s why we go to the trouble of writing them. The whole point of the Bybee memo was to solicit guidance from the Office of Legal Counsel as to what the CIA could and could not legally do, with the implicit notion that the CIA would then follow those rather expansive guidelines and stay within the law.

This whole "Spy vs Spy" view of the intelligence world is straight out of some Richard Burton cold war thriller, or maybe Mad magazine. How is breaking US law "for the greater good of the nation"? Who gets to decide when that happens? We have protocols and oversight for a reason — because the CIA is not some "extra-legal" rogue outfit free to operate in any way it sees fit and accountable to no one. They may very well flatter themselves that their flouting of US law serves some noble purpose, but as an intelligence organization they’re supposed to be aiding, not undermining law enforcement.

Klein says that exposing activity is going to hurt "morale." Well, getting busted never made anyone happy, but that’s the point of deterrence. Negative consequences, etc., etc. But I don’t know why it’s an "obvious truth" that the release of the memos will hurt "efficacy." Is it based on the unproven assertion of Dick Cheney and George Bush that "enhanced interrogation methods" actually work? Or is it just because being required to follow the laws of a country you’re supposed to be supporting is going to be a big bummer?

Joe says that he’s "opposed to prosecuting the Bush miscreants–for political reasons, mostly." I find it interesting that we’re once again making judgments about what the Justice Department should and shouldn’t do based on political considerations. That’s exactly what Alberto Gonzales did, and at the time people were angry about the "politicalization of the Justice Department." They aren’t there to act as a political arm of the White House, that’s the DNC’s job. The Justice Department is supposed to enforce the law regardless of the political climate.

Klein concludes:

And, on a more personal note, you do realize that one can believe in clandestine operations (and the NSA program now legal under FISA reform, for the matter) and still be absolutely opposed to torture, as practiced by the CIA?

I don’t know anyone who is claiming that to support the existence of clandestine operations is to axiomatically support torture. But now that Joe has raised the question — if you believe that laws prohibiting torture should not be enforced because they might hurt "morale" and "efficacy" and have negative political repercussions, then haven’t you just given the whole practice a wink-wink, nudge-nudge? If you say that torture should be illegal, but claim that the CIA operatives who engage in it are acting "for the greater good of the nation" and provide a litany of excuses for why transgression of the law should never be punished, then from a practical standpoint how are you opposing it?

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