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Does Anyone Remember the 9/11 Commission?

Via Andrew Sullivan, Marc Ambinder gives the Obama administration’s rationale for opposing a truth commission on torture:

In the [Obama administration's] view, a commission would expose secrets without any means of determining whether they’re properly protected or not, and they’ve been warned that the nation’s spy services would simply cease to function effectively if they’re forced to surrender exacting details about their immediate past conduct. The administraiton further worries that the Commission would be carried out in the context of vengeance and would not focus the rage on lessons learned for the future. This, again, is the point of view senior administration officials; it may or may not be my own.

My emphasis. On the effectiveness point, the history of the CIA is a history of telling Congress that looking at its operations too deeply will cause the entire apparatus to shatter. If it’s true, then the nation isn’t getting what it should be getting for its $50 billion annual intelligence budget anyway. But it’s a dubious point. The CIA did not cease to function “effectively” after the Church/Pike commissions in the 70s; after the 9/11 Commission and the Silberman/Robb Commission and the Intelligence Reform Act of the 2000s. It entered periods of adjustment after its excesses were exposed. Many if not most of those excesses resulted from the magical thinking of policymakers, a point often lost in the rush to blame CIA for assorted failings.

But speaking of those commissions. The recent history of the United States proves that it’s possible to have a thoroughgoing inquiry about the most politically explosive and potentially toxic events in American history and emerge with a *consensus. *The 9/11 Commission was not without its flaws, but it demonstrated that a group of wise men can avoid rancor, maintain the good faith of both political parties, display independence, yield an authoritative history of an American trauma and do this all in an election year.

That commission didn’t recommend prosecutions. Indeed, it labored to avoid placing guilt, to the point of copping out. That may or may not be appropriate in this case — let an investigation determine that conclusion — and I’m don’t mean to suggest that a truth commission on torture needs to follow the 9/11 Commission to the “T.” But its example refutes the idea that a commission into torture is necessarily an instrument of persecution and vindictiveness. That’s probably why its executive director favors repeating the experience.

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