Did Obama blow interrogators' cover with this release?

On the earlier thread regarding the release of the interrogation memos, several commenters have argued that their release has made the country less safe and interrogators less able to surprise detainees.  According to Politico, the Obama administration weighed the consequences of releasing the detailed discussions of interrogation methods and the levels and conditions of approvals granted, but in the end opted for transparency over op-sec:

White House senior adviser David Axelrod says President Barack Obama spent about a month pondering whether to release Bush-era memos about CIA interrogation techniques Thursday and considered it “a weighty decision.”

“He thought very long and hard about it, consulted widely, because there were two principles at stake,” Axelrod said . “One is the sanctity of covert operations and keeping faith with the people who do them, and the impact on national security, on the one hand. And the other was the law and his belief in transparency.”

The president consulted officials from the Justice Department, the CIA, the director of National Intelligence and the Homeland Security Department, according to his adviser.

“It was a weighty decision,” Axelrod said. “As with so many issues, there are competing points of view that flow from very genuine interests and concerns that are to be respected. And then the president has to synthesize all of it and make a decision that’s in the broad national interest. He’s been thinking about this for four weeks, really.”

Bill Kristol disagrees with the decision:

So: We were once in danger. Now we live in “a bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009.” Now, in April 2009, Obama’s Director of National Intelligence seems to be saying, we’re safe.

Good news, if true. And it would be an amazing tribute to the preceding administration’s efforts in the war on terror–efforts that Democrats have been saying for years were making us less safe. Apparently, the old policies worked. The threat from al Qaeda has gone. We now have the luxury of “reflection,” as President Obama put it in his statement, the luxury of debating and deploring what we did back in the bad old days when there was a war on. After all, “we have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history.”

Leave aside how dark and painful the chapter really was. The question is, Is it over? Is the chapter in which we had to focus on preventing further attacks really through? Isn’t there still a war against the jihadists on?

Well, now we call it an Overseas Contingency Operation, but yes, it’s still on.  Normally, I’d agree with Kristol and the rest of the critics about the release of interrogation boundaries and conditions, except that it’s all been public for the last several years now.  We’ve talked about stress positions, confinement, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding ad nauseam since Abu Ghraib.  Very little that was already not public was revealed in these memos, excepting the “insect” procedure.  Even that, though, was only used after explaining to the detainee that the “insect” involved would neither bite nor sting, which reveals in the moment the limitations on the procedure.

I’m not saying there is no risk in exposing these memos, but we should balance the actual risk against the ability to know exactly — after several years — how these decisions were made so that we can have a rational discussion about interrogation techniques.  It’s still an arguable call, but I’d prefer that we err on the side of transparency in a democracy, and allow us to argue from the actual facts rather than sets of wild assumptions on both sides about the issue.  In this case, after having already committed to limiting ourselves to the publicly-available Army Field Manual for interrogation techniques, the release of these defunct memos (eventually withdrawn by the Bush administration) does no more harm than what’s already been done.

Jazz Shaw brings up a better point:

No, the bigger question on my mind is, should the memos have been released at all? Yes, I know a lot of people are highly exercised over the whole thing and they want the truth brought out. Generally I default to the idea that what the government does is our business and keeping things secret from us is a sign of bad faith.

There is one area where I draw the line, though, and that comes in the form of matters of law enforcement and security. You can’t always let all of your cats out of the bag if you want to stay one step ahead of the bad guys. When a new administration comes in and finds fault with the policies of the previous, change them by all means. And if the fault is so egregious that it requires prosecution, we have military courts for such things which don’t need to have every detail hung out to dry in Newsweek.

Will this release cause future presidents to be less willing to document and retain vital documents for fear that they will be published later in the name of scoring political points? Will each administration’s tenure end with a paper shredding party in the West Wing?

We actually have laws requiring the retention of these kinds of documentation, so shredding parties would be a violation in and of themselves.  Again, I agree that this is a legitimate concern, but I think that we’re better off with transparency in order to keep government from breaking the law — if not in this case, then in others, especially when Obama made it clear that he wouldn’t pursue prosecutions on the basis of these memos, which would act as a defense for the interrogators in any case.