For a handful of CIA operatives who were on the frontlines of the war on terror in the early months and years after 9/11, it's the stuff of nightmares. After all, they did their job as their political masters defined it, using tools and techniques approved by their lawyers. Then came an election, and a new set of political masters, who have begun second-guessing everything they did before. Suddenly there is lots of talk about "violations" and "wrong-doing," the promise of formal investigations and hearings, and the very real possibility that their life savings could go to defense lawyers.
Unfortunately for them, that nightmare looks like it may soon become frighteningly real. Against the wishes of the agency's popular new leader, the CIA is in the crosshairs of two powerful Democratic Senators who are determined to get to the bottom of the Agency's more controversial operations. And not even the White House has been able to get them to back off. (Read "Intelligence Lapses: The Risks of Relying on 'Chatter'".)
Dianne Feinstein confirmed Thursday that her Senate Intelligence Committee will investigate the CIA's interrogation and detention programs under the Bush Administration, a probe that she expects to take a year. The Californian seems to be reading from the same playbook as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, who this week reiterated his call for a 'truth commission' into the Bush Administration's national security policies, including wiretapping, treatment of detainees and even the politicization of the Justice Department.
President Obama has shown little appetite for raking over those particular coals, saying he'd rather "move forward." Veteran Democrats on the Hill say it's all very well for the President to want to start with a clean slate, but they've spent years asking questions about alleged wrongdoing under Bush and they want answers. (Feinstein was unavailable for comment, but she's expected to release a statement about the investigation this week.) (Read "Panetta: From Washington Insider to CIA Outsider".)
Current intelligence staffers rarely speak on the record, but a number of recently retired heavy hitters have told TIME that Feinstein's plan to investigate the Agency is a bad idea for a wide variety of reasons.
The former spies argue that the Agency's staff need to be protected from changes in political climate. A joint statement issued by Feinstein and her Republican counterpart on the committee, Missouri Senator Kit Bond, said the probe will examine, among other things, "whether the CIA implemented the program in compliance with official guidance, including covert action findings, Office of Legal Counsel opinions, and CIA policy." But the staffers responsible for carrying out detention and interrogation policies, they say, would never have used the controversial techniques if it had not been for explicit legal guidance from the Bush Administration. "The guy doing the interrogations he did it knowing that the CIA wouldn't have asked him to do it unless it was cleared all the way back ... to the White House," says Carl Ford, an ex-CIA hand who headed the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research from 2001-03. (See "Top 10 Secret Service Code Names".)