A whiff of hypocrisy about CIA report?

A roll of protective wire is seen near an American flag on 27 October 2009 Image copyright Getty Images

America has not come under serious attack since 9/11 on its home soil - so you would think that would be a source of celebration.

Big backslaps and high fives to the guys charged with keeping the country's citizens safe.

But in Washington this week it has been anything but. The Senate intelligence committee report on the treatment of detainees by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has unleashed a ferocious war of words (yep - even by the quarrelsome standards of this disputatious city). But why so vicious?

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Media captionBBC North America editor Jon Sopel speaks to report author Dianne Feinstein

Well the really big picture is legacy. In 50 years' time when the history books are written and children are sitting at their desks in Duluth, Des Moines or Detroit, and turning to the chapter marked "9/11", what are they going to read? Here are two versions.

On 11 September 2001, the United States came under attack from al-Qaeda terrorists, claiming the lives of 3,000 people when planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania - a war on terror was declared, and those responsible were hunted down and detained, and there were no further attacks on US soil.


On 11 September 2001, the United States came under attack from al-Qaeda terrorists, claiming the lives of 3,000 people when planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania - a war on terror was declared, but the torture tactics used to hunt down and detain those responsible brought condemnation and America lost its moral authority in the world.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption CIA interrogation procedures changed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks

Remember Winston Churchill's adage that "history is written by the victors"? This is a battle between Bush-era officials and the Obama administration over which narrative of these events should prevail.

A battle between most Democrats, who think that there are NO circumstances EVER when coercive interrogation techniques can be condoned; and most Republicans who say America was under attack, there was intelligence that there could be a second and third wave of attacks and we did whatever we could to prevent that.

But is there just a small whiff of hypocrisy here? What if it had been a Democrat in the White House when America came under attack on that dreadful September day. Would the response have been that different? Would different instructions have been given to the CIA? Would the White House have been more concerned about the treatment of detainees than the need to get intelligence from them?

I'm sure there were sadists, oddballs and bad people out there. But weren't the overwhelming majority of CIA operatives at that time just driven by one thing - a patriotic duty to keep America safe, by whatever means?

Image copyright Getty Images

And this is where it gets uncomfortable. Of course I can sit here at my keyboard and pronounce that torture can never be justified. It is an absolute. I do totally believe that. But what if a child of mine had been kidnapped, and the police arrest the kidnapper, but say to me, "Well we've got the guy who took your kid, but despite us asking him really politely where he's being kept, he's not telling us... However there are these things called enhanced interrogation techniques - we could give them a go." Would I say no? I'm really not sure.

The other thing about this debate that has made me uncomfortable is the demand that the CIA must be publicly accountable for their actions. And few things could have been more public than the lacerating Democratic-led Senate intelligence committee report released on Tuesday.

In his press conference on Thursday, CIA director John Brennan stuck to his script - but I thought there was one telling moment when he said, "There's been more than enough transparency over the past couple of days. I think it's over the top." That was the one bit of frustration he allowed himself to show. And if you're him, you can understand why.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption CIA director John Brennan challenged the report upon its release

This is a spy agency, for goodness sake - when we say their agents must be subject to public scrutiny, forgive me, but isn't the nature of espionage that, err, it needs to be secret. Part of what you are doing as a foreign agent is to try to to persuade a citizen from another country to commit treason and hand over his or her nation's secrets. Is that ok? Should a Senate committee codify what can or can't be done?

This is not the highways department where the road maintenance programme is under debate. This is national security.

Of course there has to be scrutiny - in a democratic nation, those people who work for the government, whether in the highways department or in the most secret corners of the state, must be held to account. But surely there must be a mechanism, a way of doing that so that public servants don't become part of the crude partisan political battle.

I just wonder whether in 10 years' time, when my successor is sitting at this desk, whether he or she will be writing a blog on the just-released Republican-led intelligence committee report laying into the drone programme from when President Barack Obama was in the White House.

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