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A New Year's resolution for complicated national security issues

A Cuban rides his bicycle by graffiti hailing

A Cuban rides his bicycle by graffiti hailing former Cuban President Fidel Castro, on Aug. 12, 2014, in Havana. Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Yamil Lage

For the new year, my hope is that the American people, politicians and the news media have more patience when it comes to complicated national security issues.

Take two examples from earlier this month - President Barack Obama's steps to reestablish relations with Cuba, which he announced Dec. 17, and the Dec. 9 release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's 500-page executive summary of its investigation into the CIA's detention and interrogation program.

Almost two weeks have passed since the president's announcement that he wanted to change Washington's 53-year-old policies toward Cuba, but to some politicians and reporters nothing seems to have changed. Diplomatic relations have not been reestablished, it's unclear when the 53 political prisoners on a U.S. list will be released, democracy has not been established on the island, the Castros are still in power, and American tourists can't just make an airplane reservation and go to Cuba.

Worse yet to some, Americans already in Cuba cannot legally bring back the promised $100 worth of Cuban cigars - a reality that Paula Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, spelled out for reporters in a Dec. 18 news briefing.

What's the holdup? Even what seem to be initial first steps will take time, as officials from Obama on down have repeatedly said.

Jacobson put it bluntly, saying none of the "steps announced by the president go into effect immediately. They all have to be implemented, whether it's the restoration of diplomatic relations, which has to be processed, right? We have to do that with the Cuban government in terms of implementation, or the regulation changes that will have to be made to expand purposeful travel, to general licenses 1/8to increase imports, exports 3/8, or other things.

"All of those will have to be done via regulatory changes that Treasury and other agencies are working on right now and will be published as quickly as they can. So they won't go into effect until those regulations are published," she said.

Travel changes are limited, expanding only those 12 categories of groups already authorized to visit Cuba and continuing to prohibit individual American tourists. The Treasury Department has said it will take weeks to revise those policies, and the Commerce Department has indicated that it will take months to update its import-export regulations.

Jacobson will join a beefed-up U.S. delegation that was already to meet in Havana for a previously planned session under the Migration Accords of 1995. There she expects to be joined by similar high-level Cuban officials for broadened talks on the reestablishment of an American embassy, along with migration issues.

One part of those normalization discussions, along with logistical, bureaucratic and monetary issues, will be U.S. insistence that its diplomats have a full range of privileges, including, Jacobson said, "being able to talk to lots of different people in 1/8Cuban 3/8 society," meaning dissidents.

Since the current American Interest Section is located in what was the U.S. Embassy, one part of the switchover means just changing signs. The current chief of the Interest Section, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, will no doubt be named charge d'affaires and acting ambassador.

Meanwhile, Obama has been realistic about his proposals, which are limited first steps.

Critics ignore his saying during his Dec. 19 news conference that "there will be setbacks" and that Cuba's leaders may over the next two years take actions inside their country or abroad that "we find deeply troubling." As a result, for the biggest step of all, Obama warned, "I think people are going to want to see how does this move forward before there's any serious debate about whether or not we would make major shifts in the - in the embargo." Impatience has long been a characteristic of U.S. foreign policy. Former secretary of state Dean Acheson wrote, "The problems that bedeviled American foreign policy were not like headaches," where you "take a powder and they are gone." Look at today.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has repeatedly said the fight against the Islamic State will take two to three years. Nonetheless, shortly after the United States in August began bombing Islamic State fighters - first in Iraq and a month later in Syria - critics were asking why the jihadist group had not yet been defeated.

A different kind of impatience - fostered by competition and instant worldwide Internet communications - has challenged reporting of foreign and national security events.

Instant reaction to newsworthy events before all the facts are known has become a danger.

A good example is the incomplete descriptions based on the Senate intelligence panel's recent report that set the narrative for the CIA's torture-like activities from 2002 through 2004 - while playing down their authorization by the White House and the Justice Department.

CIA waterboarding, which began in August 2002, involved only three al-Qaida high-value targets and ended in March 2003, more than 11 years ago. The CIA ended other "enhanced interrogation technique" activities in 2005, and the agency is now out of the detention and interrogation business entirely.

The panel's inquiry was flawed to begin with, since none of the CIA, White House or Justice Department officials involved were interviewed. Even the documents studied - some 6 million pages - were limited because the emails of only 64 individuals were requested by panel investigators from the hundreds of officials who were knowledgeable of the program, including the most senior CIA leadership.

The Senate Intelligence Committee majority's executive summary of the five-year investigation of CIA enhanced interrogation activities ran 500 pages. The panel's minority views, which took issue with many committee conclusions using additional facts, ran 159 pages. The CIA's 2013 response to many issues in the committee's draft report was 136 pages.

Those 795 pages were released to most journalists the morning of Dec. 9. A few organizations, including The Washington Post, were briefed the afternoon before by committee staff and got copies of the report to read.

Stories about the report went up on the Internet on the morning of Dec. 9, just after the committee chairman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., gave her remarks about the release on the Senate floor.

For those original stories, the writers did have time to weigh committee facts with those employed by the minority or the CIA itself. In addition, within hours former CIA officials put up on their own website original declassified documents, some of which added context and facts to the committee study and now run more than 200 pages.

Months and probably years from now the full story may get put together. Feinstein in her preface to the study said, "We cannot again allow history to be forgotten and grievous past mistakes to be repeated." In this case, haste has created imperfect history, and that is another mistake that should not be repeated.

Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washington Post and writes the Fine Print column.


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