Image: George Tenet
Bebeto Matthews  /  AP
George Tenet, who served as CIA director under George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, has urged President Barack Obama to reverse a decision to reopen the investigation of interrogations following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
updated 9/19/2009 3:40:08 AM ET 2009-09-19T07:40:08

Seven former CIA directors asked President Barack Obama on Friday to quash a criminal probe of harsh interrogations of terror suspects during the Bush administration.

The CIA directors, who served both Democratic and Republican presidents and include three who worked under President George W. Bush, made their request in a letter Friday to the White House.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced last month that he was appointing an independent counsel to investigate possible incidents of abuse by CIA personnel during interrogations that went beyond guidelines imposed by the Bush administration.

The incidents were referred by the CIA inspector general to the Justice Department during the Bush administration, but Justice officials at the time prosecuted only one case.

"If criminal investigations closed by career prosecutors during one administration can so easily be reopened at the direction of political appointees in the next, declinations of prosecution will be rendered meaningless," wrote the former directors.

Possible indictments?
The Washington Post reported on its Web site Friday night that the Justice Department will focus on only two or three cases for possible indictment.

One of them, said the newspaper, involved an Afghan prisoner who died after being beaten and chained on a cold night to a concrete floor without blankets. The report cited unidentified officials.

The seven former CIA directors included Michael Hayden, Porter Goss and George Tenet, who served under Bush; John Deutch and James Woolsey, who worked for President Bill Clinton; William Webster, who served under President George H.W. Bush; and James Schlesinger, who ran the agency under President Richard Nixon. Tenet also served under Clinton.

They urged Obama to reverse Holder's Aug. 24 decision to reopen the investigation of interrogations following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said the agency is cooperating with the Justice Department review "in part to see that they move as expeditiously as possible."

"The director has stood up for those who followed legal guidance on interrogation, and he will continue to do so," said Gimigliano.

In their letter, the former directors warned that the investigations could discourage CIA officers from doing the kind of aggressive intelligence work needed to counter terrorism and may inhibit foreign governments from working with the United States.

Matthew Miller, Holder's spokesman, said Holder does not believe his probe will affect CIA employees' commitment to their work.

"The attorney general's decision to order a preliminary review into this matter was made in line with his duty to examine the facts and to follow the law. As he has made clear, the Department of Justice will not prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the Office of Legal Counsel regarding the interrogation of detainees," Miller said in a written statement.

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The former CIA directors also warned that foreign governments may be hesitant to cooperate with the United States if the probe continues.

"As a result of the zeal on the part of some to uncover every action taken in the post-9/11 period, many countries may decide that they can no longer safely share intelligence or cooperate with us on future counter-terrorist operations. They simply cannot rely on our promises of secrecy," the letter says.

The letter said the CIA referred fewer than 20 incidents to Bush administration prosecutors, including the case of CIA contractor David Passaro. Passaro was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to eight years for beating an Afghan detainee in 2007. The detainee later died.

One former CIA official familiar with the cases now under review said that Bush-era Justice lawyers declined to prosecute either because they were not certain they could win conviction or because some of the CIA personnel involved had already been disciplined by the agency. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the cases.

Though not a signatory to the letter, current CIA Director Leon Panetta also opposed Holder's investigation.

"I think the reason I felt the way I did is because I don't believe there's a basis there for any kind of additional action," Panetta said.

"My concern is ... that we don't get trapped by the past. My feeling is ultimately, we're going to be able to move on," he told reporters this week after a speech in Michigan.

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