The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Two recent Congressional committee reports made the news in the last few days.  The first was from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence chaired by Representative Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) on the events in Benghazi on 11 September 2012, and the second is the report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chaired by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.  These reports show how well the system can work, as well as how sometimes the system fails itself and our nation.

The House report on Benghazi was the seventh such investigation into the events of that night when terrorists attacked the American Consulate in Benghazi Libya and four of our citizens died, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya.  This investigation and the resulting report is meant to be the final and definitive report on the events surrounding that tragic loss of life.  It will not be. Influential Republicans in the House and the Senate do not like the results of the investigative report, chaired by a Republican and that garnered bipartisan support from the committee members, and therefore are going to open yet another committee investigation.  This is because it uncovered no evidence of a conspiracy or cover-up or any other devious behavior by the Obama Administration.  They are sure that it happened, even if there is not a bit of evidence to support their claim.  I am also sure that their desire for yet another investigation has nothing to do with the fact that Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State during that time and is likely to run for president in 2016.  They are merely trying to satisfy “the American people.”

Even a cursory reading of the Executive Summary of the report shows that the Select Committee exhaustively reviewed documents and diplomatic cables, conducted hearings and interviews and thoroughly reviewed the mountains of evidence surrounding the incident.  Their conclusion was that “appropriate U.S. personnel made reasonable tactical decisions that night” and that contrary to rumors perpetuated for political purposes “the Committee found no evidence that there was either a stand down order or a denial of available air support.”  They also concluded that “there was no intelligence failure prior to the attacks.”  Further, despite continued claims by those not involved, they found that “there was no evidence that any officer was intimidated, wrongfully forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement or otherwise kept from speaking to Congress or polygraphed because of their presence in Benghazi.”

That is not to say that there were no problems.  The Committee findings include the fact that “after the attacks the early intelligence assessments and the Administration’s initial public narrative on the causes and motivations for the attacks were not fully accurate.” They state that the initial reports were confusing and conflicting (also known as the fog of war) and inaccurate information was disseminated prematurely.  The assessments changed after further investigation and the receipt of more information, about ten days after the event.  They also discuss the infamous talking points process that provided Ambassador Susan Rice information when she appeared on Sunday talk shows.  They call the process “flawed” but did not conclude that it was a deliberate attempt to cover anything up or to mislead the public.  It should also be noted that the Administration corrected the record as additional evidence came to light.  (As a side note, I continue to be baffled by the unprecedented and unremitting attention paid to these talking points by some political opponents of the president, rather than on the facts of what happened. Talking points?  Really?  That’s what is important?)

There is more to the report, obviously, but these are the key findings and directly rebut the persistent rumors that continue to exist about cover-ups and abandoning our citizens.  Yet, the report, crafted by a Republican majority committee and joined by Democrats does not satisfy conspiracy theorists, or those that blatantly use mis-truths for their own political purposes.  So, we will now, for the eighth time, have yet another committee investigate at a cost in time and money that could best be used to govern the country.

Perhaps more newsworthy was the Senate report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation techniques following the attacks on 11 September, 2001 — “enhanced interrogation” techniques or “torture” depending on one’s view.  This, again, was an exhaustive study which took many years of investigation and work to compile.  It has less bipartisan support than the House report, but it does have the support of some Republican Senators (notably John McCain (R-Arizona) who knows torture) and the opposition of some Democrats.

I am sure that debate over this issue will continue into the foreseeable future, and I am not sure that there is only one “right” answer.  There is a lot of criticism over the timing of the release of the report, with some asserting that it will lead to terrorist attacks on our men and women around the world. I am not sure what would be a “good” time to release the report.  To my knowledge, terrorists and those that work to undermine our nation go to work everyday and already, in their minds, have sufficient motivation to attack us regardless of any report from Congress.  Let me also short-circuit any claims that anyone in our country wants to coddle the terrorists or has any sympathy for them.  People I know hope they rot in hell, they are evil beings, so this issue has nothing to do with going easy on terrorists.

I have tremendous sympathy and respect for most of the key decision makers following the attacks. They were under tremendous pressure to make sure that no further attacks were imminent or planned and they were focused on the need to safeguard our country.  I get that.  I also think that the discussion over how much or what kind of intelligence was gained, or not gained, is misguided.  Few of us outside of positions of authority that require very high intelligence clearances knows exactly what was obtained or from what source or from what method.  (Although I will point out that members of the Select Intelligence Committee do meet that high bar, as obviously do CIA personnel.)  However, there are many experts that contend torture is counter-productive in the long run and generally leads to poor intelligence.  There are better and more productive ways to gain valuable intelligence from detainees and prisoners that do not include torture.

To me there is only one bottom line argument.  The United States is different from other countries in the world, and thank God for that.  Most countries would not do such an introspective study of such a serious, contentious, and classified operation.  We do, and we try to learn from it.

More importantly, we are different because we act differently.  We don’t do torture.  I know all of the moral and ethical hypotheticals (if you knew you could shoot one person, even if illegally, and save thousands in the process would you do it?  Etc. Etc.)  I am talking about state sponsored, systematic, wide-spread, ongoing operations the scope and nature of which apparently was hidden for a long time from key elements of our government (seemingly including the president, Secretary of State and Congress).  We do not do it and we should not do it.  Otherwise, we are no different from the forces we aim to defeat.

I am no Pollyanna.  I know what goes on in the world and I have a good idea that bad things happen to bad people in our name as a nation.  This is different.  I am glad that it is in the public spotlight and hope that our nation can have an intelligent discussion about what we stand for as a country and where we should draw the line on official activities.

Just two examples of the good, bad, and ugly of life today.

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