The CIA’s Torture Defenders
Back in the days when I was a spy there were certain things that one just did not dwell upon. Everyone who worked in the field knew that there were episodes that it would be best not to recall, either because they were embarrassing, possibly unsavory, or even, more rarely, wildly successful though at a price that one would not be willing to pay a second time around. With that kind of baggage, the expectation was that a retired officer would be best advised to live quietly on a couple acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains and take up landscape painting or breeding Labradors and not think about or try to explain the past.
But that was then, and today the new breed of intelligence officers apparently prefers to flaunt the naughty things that it has been up to. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I have read the latest exculpatory effort by a gaggle of retired senior CIA officers seeking to justify torturing people. It is called Rebuttal: The CIA Responds to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Study of Its Detention and Interrogation Programs. Indeed, I read the entire thing, no insignificant achievement, even though much of the text appears to be untouched by a competent editor. If there was one, he or she must have given up in despair at the relentless government-speak prose.
The CIA rebuttal narrative goes something like this: the Senate report on torture was written by Democrats who were out to get the Agency and is therefore little more than a partisan hatchet job that targeted some senior officers. The book includes multiple assertions that the senators and their staffers willfully ignored things like “context,” which means that everyone was terrified that a bunch of bearded guys in caves were about to overthrow our Republic, justifying extreme measures.
And those Democrats, who ought to have known better, refused to accept that torturing people produced valuable information that saved “hundreds and even thousands of lives,” even arguing instead, perversely, that the sought-after intelligence was or could have been obtained without the physical coercion. Per the authors’ rebuttal that’s because information is like money—you can never have too much of it, an argument they label “corroboration.” Also, according to the authors, all of the CIA’s conduct was completely legal (even when someone was getting banged around before being hung from a wall and forced to listen to nonstop Michael Jackson tapes) because of authorization provided by Justice Department and White House lawyers, all of whom were indisputably men of great honor who would not lie or conform to political pressure under any circumstances.
The book is full of inflammatory yet oddly homily-like advice on how to keep America safe. George Tenet sets the stage by asserting that in 2001 “the world was in great danger.” Porter Goss explains, “What ‘must never happen again’ is that we fail to understand that weakness – real or perceived – is a magnet that attracts ‘evildoers.’ ‘What must never happen again’ is for the United States of America to relinquish its leadership as the greatest force for good in the world…” Or “no one could really claim to be following a moral path if they were complicit in the death of hundreds or thousands more Americans through failure to get information that these detainees had,” in the words of John McLaughlin, career Agency analyst.
The seven men who contributed to the book (George Tenet, Michael Hayden, Porter Goss, John McLaughlin, Michael Morell, Jose Rodriguez, John Rizzo, and Philip Mudd) are, with the exception of Mudd, quite likely guilty of war crimes, so it is completely understandable that they would want to either set the record straight or redirect the narrative, depending on how one views their actions. They also plead their case without benefit of providing any actual evidence to support it, presumably because the exculpating details are either still classified or do not actually exist. Most readers would undoubtedly accept that torturing people as an interrogation technique sometimes produces information that would otherwise be withheld, but I searched in vain for a “ticking bomb” scenario where “enhanced” methods produced intelligence that actually prevented an imminent terrorist attack.
I also tried to find proof that the book’s contributors saved the claimed thousands of lives, but all I came up with were generic assurances based on “what if” terrorist plots, suggesting to the completely gullible that if the CIA had not been torturing terrible things might have happened somewhere and at some time. The rebuttal also did not address directly any of the scores of fully documented cases of incompetence and egregious brutality that are recorded in the Senate Intelligence Committee report.
There are also a number of out-and-out lies that undercut the credibility of the book, including the repeated suggestion that CIA was working flat out on the terrorism problem before 9/11. In his earlier self-promoting book The Great War of Our Time Morell asserts that a “brilliant” George Tenet foresaw the growth of international terrorism and was “focused on it, laser-like” prior to the al-Qaeda attack. In fact, the record shows that Tenet did little or nothing even after the heads-up afforded by the first World Trade Center attack and the Embassy bombings in Africa. Morell, it should be noted, was serially promoted by Tenet and many insiders view him as George’s go-to boy.
One element I find particularly disturbing is the actual backgrounds of the officers who are pleading their case. Most were career desk jockeys, far removed from the dirty work involved in “enhancing” interrogations, but who were willing to order others to carry out something that they had to know was both morally wrong and contrary to legally binding treaties entered into by the United States regarding the treatment of prisoners and torture. One of the contributors, Jose Rodriguez, destroyed the video tapes made of the interrogations, ostensibly based on the completely implausible argument that he was doing so to protect the identities of those carrying out the torture. Someone should explain to Rodriguez that the cameras were aimed at the poor slob who was being maimed, not at the guy doing it, but of course Jose was actually destroying the hard evidence of a war crime, protecting himself and others at CIA.
It is also interesting to note some of the evidence for malfeasance that the authors chose not to address. In 2004, the Agency’s own inspector general John Helgerson produced a Top Secret report that concluded that there had been a failure in leadership at CIA relating to nearly every aspect of the enhanced interrogation program. He reported that it was difficult to determine when and if certain techniques (i.e. torture) actually resulted in information that might not have been produced otherwise, that the procedures used themselves were more brutal than what was authorized in Department of Justice legal guidelines, that the program was poorly administered, and that some prisoners were tortured when there was no good reason to do so in terms of the information that they might have had access to.
As both George Tenet, his deputies John McLaughlin, Jose Rodriguez, and Mike Morell, as well as the current Director of Central Intelligence John Brennan, were part and parcel of the process approving and implementing the enhanced interrogation procedures, one would have to believe that they have a lot to answer for. But instead of accountability we now have a book sugarcoating how and why the United States chose the dark side, a book written in expectation that a considerable hunk of the public will continue to believe that torture not only works but also that it is perfectly acceptable when a nation is “under stress” as it was after 9/11. And both the public and the authors would prefer not to consider that opening the door to torture as official policy provides justification for America’s actual enemies to do the same when they capture a U.S. citizen.
Rebuttal comes on top of mildly expiatory earlier books by Tenet, Rodriguez, Morell, and Rizzo. One might note in passing that abandoning the rule of law either due to expediency or out of fear of subversive plots is not exactly a new trick. Adolph Hitler used it in 1933 after the Reichstag fire to pass his emergency “Decree for the Protection of the German People,” which suspended the Weimar constitution. We, of course, have the Patriot and Military Commissions Acts as well as the Authorization to Use Military Force and a new Pentagon manual that defines journalists as potential “unprivileged belligerents” subject to killing on or near a battlefield. And it is all backed up by a White House that secretly enjoys having the authority to act unilaterally whenever long-suffering humanity needs to be “protected.”
One might well ask whether publishing an ostensibly serious book justifying torture could even happen anywhere but in the United States. The contributors are all retired now with generous pensions and lucrative second career positions in the National Security industry. But regrettably their legacy endures. Outright lying and plausible dissimulating continue to be the name of the game in Washington.
Recent media reports reveal that 52 intelligence analysts working out of the U.S. military’s Central Command and Defense Intelligence Agency have filed a formal complaint with the Pentagon inspector general claiming that reports on the war against ISIS have been routinely altered by senior officials to make them more optimistic. They describe their work environment as “Stalinist” and if what they allege is true, it confirms that even the White House doesn’t know what the Defense Department is actually doing in Syria.
Kudos to the analysts, but some earlier dissidents on the issue were forced to resign, and they will all certainly be punished for speaking out. And I have to believe that Tenet, Goss, McLaughlin, Morell, and Rodriguez will not think well of them for breaking the code of omerta that all too often prevails in intelligence circles.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.