Feinstein’s war on the CIA — what purpose does it serve?

The Obama administration has instituted special security measures to protect U.S. facilities around the world in the event of attacks prompted by the release of Dianne Feinstein’s “torture” report. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that “there are some indications. . .that the release of the report could lead to a greater risk that is posed to U.S. facilities and individuals all around the world.”

John Kerry was concerned enough about this risk that he urged Feinstein not to release her report at this time. But according to Earnest, the administration still “strongly supports the release of this declassified summary of the report.”

The risk that Feinstein’s report will prompt attacks on the U.S. should not be exaggerated. It’s been clear to the public for many years that the U.S. engaged in the interrogation techniques Feinstein and her Senate collaborators describe. The focus of her report is on trying to demonstrate that the tactics didn’t work and that the CIA lied about them.

Those who wish to attack U.S. interests don’t care about these issues. Indeed, they aren’t motivated to attack us by our former use of harsh interrogation techniques, any more than by videos about Islam. However, if Feinstein’s report serves as the pretext for an attack against us, that’s bad enough.

The most significant damage wrought by Feinstein, though, is the undermining of the CIA’s effectiveness. Max Boot recalls the impact on our intelligence agencies of the the Church Committee and Pike Committee investigations in 1976. According to Boot, the public condemnation that these investigations produced left the CIA in “disarray” as “many of the best CIA officers left and the nation was left with reduced capacity to detect and prevent catastrophes such as the Iran Hostage Crisis.”

Boot believes that Feinstein’s attack will likely have “equally deleterious” consequences.

If anything, I think the consequences will be more severe. Unlike in 1976, today we are actively at war with terrorists. Thanks to the Feinstein report, the CIA, so central to our war effort, receives final confirmation that the actions it takes in furtherance of that effort — even when authorized by the president, disclosed to Congress, and blessed by government lawyers — might well eventually be condemned publicly by the Senate majority and the President of the United States.

In sum, Feinstein’s attack on the CIA presents both short term and long terms threats to our security, with the short term threat acknowledged by the White House. What are the offsetting benefits of her report?

There are none. Even the Washington Post, in its fawning coverage of the report, admits that the tactics described by Feinstein “have been abundantly documented” already. It’s also been abundantly clear that the Democrats claim the tactics didn’t work, but that the CIA, former Bush administration officials, and many other Republicans think they did. Nothing new here.

The administration claims a benefit from the fact that, in effect, the U.S. is big enough to admit it acted immorally. Put aside the novel, counter-intuitive nature of a theory of international relations that finds benefit from ostentatious public admissions of wrongful conduct by a nation. The current U.S. president has repeatedly flagellated America over its interrogation policies. What is gained by having a bloc of Senators (soon, mercifully to be the minority faction) formally join the choir it has been singing in for years?

Some claim a benefit from the debate Feinstein’s report will spark. This was George Will’s line yesterday on Fox News.

But the debate is stale, as Will’s contribution to it helps demonstrate. Will derided defenders of the CIA for calling this a debate over “enhanced interrogation.” What we’re really talking about, Will insisted, is torture.

So there’s your debate: one side says “enhanced interrogation”; the other side says “torture.” It’s the same tyranny of labels style argument we’ve endured for a decade.

A proper debate would begin with this threshold question: “Do you support the use of interrogation practice X to obtain information that might help save lives if less harsh techniques have been unsuccessful?” The techniques would be described — e.g., depriving the prisoner of sleep for X period of time, etc. The practice of waterboarding would be described in full.

The debate is rarely cast this way because the opponents of what the CIA did are fearful that Americans favor each practice under the circumstances set forth in my question. Hence, the resort to the “torture” label. Don’t expect the Feinstein report to change this dynamic.

Beyond the threshold question is the issue of whether specific practices will produce helpful information (the issue of whether the information can be obtained through less harsh means — the standard fall-back of opponents of what the CIA did — is taken into account in my threshold question). The “efficacy” issue has been debated ad nauseam. It comes down to whom one believes — the CIA and Bush administration officials or Senate Democrats, President Obama, and John McCain.

By now, many Americans, unlikely to believe either side, will probably rely on their own intuition. In any event, because Feinstein failed to interview CIA personnel and failed to get a single Republican member of her committee on board, the issuance of her report will not advance the debate.

In the end, it’s difficult to see any public value in Feinstein’s report — much less, value that outweighs its potential harm. The value of the report is personal to Feinstein and some of her fellow Democrats. It furthers her vendetta against the CIA (which, to some extent, the CIA needlessly brought on itself) and provides a fig leaf with which to cover the complicity of Senate Democrats, including Feinstein, in the interrogation techniques that, after the fact, seem abhorrent to them.

For Feinstein, $40 million, long-term damage to the CIA, and the potential for deadly attacks on Americans overseas apparently are a small price to pay for this satisfaction.