Cliff May

Now, not only are some of those policies being abandoned. Attorney General Eric Holder also is making an effort to demonize and, possibly, place in the docket those who conceived or carried them out. It will be a watershed in American history if lawyers from the current administration prosecute lawyers from the previous administration because they disagree with their legal opinions. In banana republics, that may be common. But in America, it used to be sufficient for one party to defeat the other at the polls. Jailing political opponents was regarded as excessive.

What's more, all of the CIA cases in question already have been examined by the agency's inspector general. They were then referred to career attorneys at the Justice Department who declined to prosecute in every case but one - that of a CIA contractor who beat a detainee to death with a flashlight. To re-open the other cases now may not technically constitute double jeopardy - but its close.

Through carelessness, partisanship or some combination, much of the media have made it appear that the abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib - abuses exposed by the military and prosecuted by the military - are somehow connected with the Justice Department memos authorizing limited but coercive techniques to get top al-Qaeda leaders to talk.

I'll bet there are people who now believe that Lynndie England was a trained CIA interrogator rather than a kid from a West Virginia trailer park who enlisted in the army reserves and got a sent to a jail in Baghdad where she mistreated prisoners for her own entertainment. They may believe, too, that she read the Justice Department memos and acted on their instructions as part of a top-secret government intelligence-gathering operation.

By the way, it is inaccurate to refer to those memos - as they have been in most press reports - as "torture memos." They are actually anti-torture memos: They draw a line between torture, which is prohibited, and harsh but legal techniques designed to prod uncooperative terrorists to reveal information about ongoing operations. One can argue over where to draw the line- precisely how many hours of sleep deprivation constitute torture? -- but one cannot seriously argue that no attempt was made to draw it. Nor can one argue, based on the evidence that has been released, that these methods did not prevent terrorist attacks and save American lives. Some people may think that's irrelevant; most probably do not.

An attempt is being made to lead Americans back to a pre-2001 landscape. A message is being sent that we now face no crisis - Americans need not be overly concerned about militant Islamists waging a war against us. Indeed, this White House and this Justice Department no longer speak of war, only of crimes committed by terrorists and -- with more vehemence -- by those who have attempted to thwart them.

It is likely to be a long time before a captured terrorist will again tell an American interrogator what he knows. It also may be a long time before another terrorist is captured. For now, at least, it is still permissible to use drones to kill terrorists in such remote corners of the world as Waziristan. Though how would you like to be the CIA operative pulling that trigger?


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.