Moving up the CIA ladder

CIA Director John Brennan testifies during a hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

CIA Director John Brennan is reportedly considering promoting an official who ran an overseas “black site” where suspected terrorists were interrogated and who was involved in the decision to destroy videotapes of waterboarding. It’s an outrageous idea. Installing that official as head of the agency’s National Clandestine Service would undermine the Obama administration’s insistence that it has repudiated the abuses of the George W. Bush administration’s war on terror.

The long-serving CIA official, whose name can’t be disclosed because of her covert status, is one of several candidates to head the clandestine service, which is responsible for espionage and operations abroad. The fact that she is being considered, as reported this week by the Washington Post, suggests that Brennan — who has disputed suggestions that he himself was involved in so-called enhanced interrogations during a previous stint in the agency — doesn’t fully appreciate how demoralizing her appointment would be.

It’s disturbing enough that the official was involved in the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, which has been harshly criticized in a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Even more problematic is that she helped Jose Rodriguez, then the head of the clandestine service, draft an order to destroy more than 90 videotapes of interrogations at a black site in Thailand, where at least two Al Qaeda leaders were waterboarded. Rodriguez later was reprimanded by the CIA for giving that order.

After an investigation, the Justice Department declined to file criminal charges in connection with the destruction of the tapes. But that decision doesn’t exonerate the officials whose actions made it harder for Congress and the Justice Department to investigate whether interrogators exceeded legal guidelines in using enhanced techniques such as waterboarding.

Promoting an official who was involved in destroying such material — even if she committed no crime — would be the latest in a series of decisions not to hold accountable the architects of Bush-era anti-terrorism policies and those who implemented them. In addition to declining to bring charges in the destruction of the tapes, the Obama Justice Department decided against prosecutions in the deaths of two prisoners in U.S. custody in Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, the federal courts have rebuffed civil lawsuits growing out of post-9/11 abuses.

The official being considered to head the clandestine service may have a mostly stellar record in the service of her country. But elevating someone so directly associated with the abuses of the past would be an insult to those in and outside of government who opposed the use of torture. Advocates of Brennan’s appointment as CIA director — including Obama and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee — need to remind him of that.