Arguing that the actions of the Attorney General are essentially putting this country at greater risk of terrorist attack, a bipartisan team of seven former directors of the Central Intelligence Agency wrote to President Obama today urging him to direct Attorney General Eric Holder to close the criminal investigation looking into whether any CIA officers went beyond what they were told was legal in their interrogations during counterterrorism investigations.
Allowing future investigations and prosecutions “will seriously damage the willingness of many other intelligence officers to take risks to protect the country,” the seven men write. “In our judgment such risk-taking is vital to success in the long and difficult fight against the terrorists who continue to threaten us.”
Moreover, they argue, “public disclosure about past intelligence operations can only help Al Qaeda elude US intelligence and plan future operations. Disclosures about CIA collection operations have and will continue to make it harder for intelligence officers to maintain the momentum of operations that have saved lives and helped protect America from further attacks.”
The seven former directors are Michael Hayden and Porter Goss, who served under President George W. Bush; George Tenet, who served under Bush and President Bill Clinton; John Deutch and R. James Woolsey, who served under Clinton; William Webster, who served under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan; and James R. Schlesinger, who served under President Richard Nixon.
You can read their letter HERE.
Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller said in a statement that Holder "works closely with the men and the women of intelligence community to keep the American people safe and he does not believe their commitment to conduct that important work will waver in any way. Given the recommendation from the Office of Professional Responsibility as well as other available information, he believed the appropriate course of action was to ask John Durham to conduct a preliminary review. That review will be narrowly-focused and will be conducted by a career prosecutor who has shown an ability to handle cases involving classified information. Durham has not been appointed as a special prosecutor; he will be supervised by senior managers at the Department."
Miller went on to say that the "Attorney General's decision to order a preliminary review into this matter was made in line with his duty to examine the facts and to follow the law. As he has made clear, the Department of Justice will not prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the Office of Legal Counsel regarding the interrogation of detainees."
The seven men also argue that violations of the law have already been investigated, with the CIA having “forwarded fewer than 20 instances where Agency officers appeared to have acted beyond their existing legal authorities,” and career prosecutors under the supervision of the US Attorney determining that one prosecution was warranted, of a CIA contractor, who was later convicted.
“They determined that prosecutions were not warranted in the other cases,” the former CIA directors write. “In a number of these cases the CIA subsequently took administrative disciplinary steps against the individuals involved. Attorney General Holder’s decision to re-open the criminal investigation creates an atmosphere of continuous jeopardy for those whose cases the Department of Justice had previously declined to prosecute. Moreover, there is no reason to expect that the re-opened criminal investigation will remain narrowly focused.”
In response, the current CIA director, Leon Panetta, said through a spokesman that he “appreciates the President’s strong support for the men and women of the CIA. His focus, and that of the agency as a whole, is on the national security challenges of today and tomorrow. The Director has stood up for those who followed legal guidance on interrogation, and he will continue to do so. The CIA is cooperating with the official reviews now in progress, in part to see that they move as expeditiously as possible. The goal is to ensure that current agency operations—on which the safety of our country depends—center on protecting the nation.”
Living former CIA directors who did not sign the letter include Robert Gates, the current Secretary of Defense, who served under President Clinton and George HW Bush; former President George HW Bush, who served under Nixon and President Jimmy Carter; and Admiral Stansfield Turner (Ret.), who served under Carter.
The former directors who wrote the letter also argue that a “certain result of these reopened investigations is the serious damage done to our intelligence community’s ability to obtain the cooperation of foreign intelligence agencies,” which are “already greatly concerned about the United States’ inability to maintain any secrets.”
UPDATE: In a statement, Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU National Security Project, said, "Attorney General Holder initiated a criminal investigation because the available evidence shows that prisoners were abused and tortured in CIA custody. The suggestion that President Obama should order Attorney General Holder to abort the investigation betrays a misunderstanding of the role of the attorney general as well as the relationship between the attorney general and the president. Where there is evidence of criminal conduct, the attorney general has not just the authority but the duty to investigate. The attorney general is the people's lawyer, not the president's lawyer, and it would be profoundly inappropriate for President Obama to interfere with his work."
Jaffer continued; "The attorney general's investigation should be allowed to proceed without interference, and it certainly should not be derailed by the self-serving protests of former CIA officials who oversaw the very crimes that are being investigated. If there is a problem with the unfolding criminal investigation, it is that its focus is too narrow. There is abundant evidence that torture was authorized at the highest levels of the Bush administration, and the Justice Department's investigation should be broad enough to encompass Bush administration lawyers and senior officials – including the CIA officials – who authorized torture."