I had the odd experience recently of arguing at an after-work drinking session with a conservative colleague about why the country needs the CIA. My conservative friend was arguing it should be abolished entirely, as it represents an unaccountable national-security bureaucracy, operating in secret, going rogue. He believes the time is ripe for a left-right coalition to destroy it once and for all.

As I argued in this Nation piece last year, I consider that to be an unpersuasive argument. Destroying CIA will more likely bring us worse intelligence work on crucial issues, and the structural impediments to respect for openness and democracy will remain to afflict whatever intelligence apparatus replaces it. Look at the growth in power from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for an example. The CIA should be held accountable for its failures. But blaming the CIA alone for its failures is almost always a mistake. And this is putting aside the agency’s successes — from Steve Kappes’ Libyan nuclear diplomacy to the hunting and killing of Beitullah Mehsud.

And now it appears Attorney General Holder is getting closer to appointing a special prosecutor for the CIA’s torture apparatus. That prosecutor will focus, according to Greg Miller and Josh Meyer, just on the CIA, and not even on the top agency officials who helped create the apparatus, but on the frontline interrogators who went beyond the "legal" guidance about how much torture was permissible. I don’t want to suggest that an operative who walks into an interrogation chamber with a gun is an innocent. But it’s plainly an affront to common sense to suggest that the circumstances that led him into that room shouldn’t be the subject of investigation.

Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, no apologist for torture, comments:

"An investigation that focuses only on low-ranking operators would be, I think, worse than doing nothing at all," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

 Get ready for precisely that.