Scott Shane: Is the CIA Really More Restrained than the CIA of the Cold War?

Roundup: Media's Take

When the Central Intelligence Agency took a nervous look at its past in 1973, one potential illegal act officials identified was the treatment of a K.G.B. officer named Yuri Nosenko. After fleeing to the United States in 1964, Mr. Nosenko was held in a makeshift jail for three years and subjected to tough questioning to determine whether he was a genuine defector or a plant.

A C.I.A. document released Tuesday said officials “became increasingly concerned with the illegality of the agency’s position in handling a defector under these conditions for such a long period of time.” So Mr. Nosenko was moved to a more comfortable safe house, given friendlier treatment and felt “no bitterness” about his experience after he resettled with a new wife, said the 1973 memorandum recounting the case.

In an era when secret C.I.A. detentions have become a mainstay of the news, the comparison is hard to avoid. Since 2002, the agency has jailed nearly 100 suspected terrorists overseas and subjected some of them to far harsher interrogations than Mr. Nosenko’s. The program is not seen as an agency lapse, and instead has been vigorously defended by C.I.A. officials and President Bush.

Comparisons between different historical eras are always tricky. With an incomplete account of C.I.A. misdeeds in its first quarter century from the so-called family jewels, released this week with many redactions, and a presumably even more incomplete knowledge of the spy agencies’ actions since 2001, such a comparison is inevitably flawed.

But it is also irresistible. And it raises a provocative question: do the actions of the intelligence agencies in the era of Al Qaeda, which include domestic eavesdropping without warrants, secret detentions and interrogations arguably bordering on torture, already match or even eclipse those of the Vietnam War period?...

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