How Obama is hurting intelligence gathering

David Ignatius:

At the Central Intelligence Agency, it's known as "slow rolling." That's what agency officers sometimes do on politically sensitive assignments. They go through the motions; they pass cables back and forth; they take other jobs out of the danger zone; they cover their backsides.

Sad to say, it's slow roll time at Langley after the release of interrogation memos that, in the words of one veteran officer, "hit the agency like a car bomb in the driveway." President Obama promised CIA officers that they won't be prosecuted for carrying out lawful orders, but the people on the firing line don't believe him. They think the memos have opened a new season of investigation and retribution.

The lesson for younger officers is obvious: Keep your head down. Duck the assignments that carry political risk. Stay away from a counterterrorism program that has become a career hazard.

Obama tried personally to reassure the CIA work force during a visit to Langley Monday. He said all the right things about the agency's clandestine role. But it had the look of a campaign event, with employees hooting and hollering and the president reading from his teleprompter with a backdrop of stars that commemorate the CIA's fallen warriors.

But by Tuesday, Obama was deferring to the attorney general whether to prosecute "those who formulated those legal decisions," whatever that means.

Obama seems to think he can have it both ways -- authorizing an unprecedented disclosure of CIA operational methods and at the same time galvanizing a clandestine service whose best days, he told them Monday, are "yet to come." Life doesn't work that way -- even for charismatic politicians. Disclosure of the torture memos may have been necessary, as part of an overdue campaign to change America's image in the world. But nobody should pretend that the disclosures weren't costly to CIA morale and effectiveness.

Put yourself in the shoes of the people who were asked to interrogate al- Qaeda prisoners back in 2002. One former officer told me he declined the job, not because he thought the program was wrong, but because he knew it would blow up. "We all knew the political wind would change eventually," he recalled. Other officers who didn't make that cynical but correct calculation are now "broken and bewildered," says the former operative.

For a taste of what's ahead, recall the chilling effects of past CIA scandals. Back in 1995, then-Director John Deutch ordered a "scrub" of the agency's assets after revelations of past links to Guatemalan death squads. Officers were told they shouldn't jettison sources who had provided truly valuable intelligence. But the practical message, recalls one former division chief, was: "Don't deal with assets who could pose political risks."

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There is much more.

I think Obama is so naive that he cannot comprehend the damage he has done to our ability to gather intelligence on our enemies. It is the same old moral preening that goes back to the Church committee which ruined earlier CIA operations. Obama's moral preening is going to get Americans killed.

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