NSC takes on interrogation

The Washington Post has a front-page story this morning on the Obama administration’s new plan to create a crack group of interrogators to glean intelligence from so-called “high value detainees.” The idea had been reported earlier by the Wall Street Journal. But a new piece of information, the significance of which was overlooked by the Post, was revealed in today’s article:

“Made up of experts from several intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the interrogation unit will be housed at the FBI but will be overseen by the National Security Council…”

This is an extraordinary extension of the NSC’s authority. The staff is a policy-making body, and has for many years now stayed out of “operational” issues, of which interrogation is not only a prime example, but one of the most controversial of the past eight years. The White House is now taking on direct responsibility for overseeing the interrogation of some of the most important terrorist suspects. That means that NSC staff officials, presumably, will not only be held accountable for what happens to those suspects in U.S. custody, but might also be expected to weigh in on how the interrogations should be conducted.

There’s a reason the NSC staff got out of the operations business. You can read about it here. The fall-out of the Iran-Contra affair so tainted the White House and President Reagan’s national security team that his successor, George Bush, dismantled many of the counterterrorism operations that had been set up during Reagan’s term. These were unprecedented efforts to fight terrorist networks head on in the wake of the 1983 attack on U.S. Marines in Beirut, Lebanon. But once it was revealed that the NSC staff had become embroiled in unseemly, and potentially illegal, operations in Iran and Nicaragua, future staffs stayed clear of anything that had a whiff of such controversy and left it to the intelligence agencies like the CIA to get their hands dirty fighting wars.

But now, the appetite for operations seems to have returned. The Post characterizes the shifting of interrogation management as a change in “the center of gravity,” taking it “away from the CIA and giving the White House direct oversight.” That’s true. But think about the gravity of that very statement.

Incidentally, it’s worth noting a particular irony here. Presumably, the oversight duties will fall primarily to John Brennan, who is Obama’s adviser on counterterrorism matters. Brennan, you will recall, saw his potential nomination for CIA director scuttled over allegations that he was involved in Bush-era interrogations. What a curious turn of events that he might now be overseeing interrogations in the Obama-era.