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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 [1] 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 [2] 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 [3] 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 [4] 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 [5] 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 [6] 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.

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "The CIA’s Torture Defenders"

#1 Comment By Junior On September 23, 2015 @ 8:10 am

A closing argument rebuttal is exactly what their lawyers at the Hague are going to need if any one of them ever makes the mistake of leaving the borders of the US.

#2 Comment By Junior On September 23, 2015 @ 8:20 am

Now their lawyers won’t have to prepare one.

#3 Comment By Emilio On September 23, 2015 @ 9:12 am

The fundamental operating idea of many of these guys was best summed up by John Yoo when he told us that there is no law preventing the executive from torturing people, especially if he determines it to be necessary.

Of course the truth is that these guys didn’t come from nowhere, Americans elected their bosses and supported this policy. Still do, in shockingly large numbers. It’s a pretty desperate truth, and yet we can’t despair. That would mean giving in to incoherent fear, which seems to be how people start justifying things like torture.

#4 Comment By balconesfault On September 23, 2015 @ 9:17 am

Thank you Mr. Giraldi.

#5 Comment By Bane? On September 23, 2015 @ 9:25 am

My question to Mr. Giraldi is the following: at what point does interrogation become torture, since interrogation seems to imply coercing a confession of information. Furthermore, is it a matter of the severity of the coercive methods or is interrogation categorically useless because the coercive aspect casts into doubt the veracity, requiring verification by other intelligence sources (and if it needed that other intel to prove it, what was the point to begin with)?

#6 Comment By Philip Giraldi On September 23, 2015 @ 10:02 am

Bane? – I would argue against torture on two levels. First,that torture is wrong because it is generally recognized to be both immoral and a criminal act by virtually every government (even those who practice it) and by every international and religious authority. I would define torture as sustained physical punishment of a suspect that is intended to cause pain to force a response.

Torture can indeed produce information if the interrogator is willing to go far enough, i.e. torturing a man’s family in front of him. But my second point is that the victim of the process is responding to stop the pain not necessarily intending to be cooperative and he almost surely will be dissimulating, requiring still more torture of more captives to provide corroboration, as you note. Most professional interrogators believe that developing rapport with the prisoner works much better if one is really serious about obtaining useful information.

#7 Comment By Kurt Gayle On September 23, 2015 @ 10:21 am

A few lines from the 2011 David Hare (UK) film “Page Eight”:

“We were at university together. Ben was my tutor. We even went on the Vietnam marches together. He recruited me. First, counter-espionage, then counter-terrorism. There’s no difference. He still said it was dishonourable work you could do in an honourable way.”

For Tenet, Hayden, Goss, McLaughlin, Morell, Rodriguez, and Rizzo it was dishonorable work they did in a dishonorable way.

Thank you, Philip!

#8 Comment By balconesfault On September 23, 2015 @ 10:30 am

Mr. Giraldi lays out two arguments against torture – immorality, and inefficiency.

I’d add two more – one often cited, that us torturing removes us from any moral high ground we can use to pressure other governments and invites retaliatory torture against our soldiers and citizens … and one that I think needs to be discussed more, that torture corrupts the one doing the torture. For example, I have no doubt that many of the atrocities we’ve seen in Iraq over the last decade, particularly those being practiced by ISIS, are not simply rooted in Islamic/Middle Eastern culture, but also stem from the fact that Saddam had made torture systematic and there are many currently in ISIS who carried out torture for Saddam’s government.

Per Pew Research earlier this year, 51% of Americans felt that torture of “suspected terrorists” was often or sometimes justified. 47% say rarely or never justified.

And lest we conclude that this is simply a response to 9/11 … from 2004 – 2008 – 2010 the percentage saying justified has steadily increased (it does seem to have peaked …). Right after 9/11, in an Investor’s Business Daily/Christian Science Monitor poll (November 2001) 66% rejected “Government-sanctioned torture of suspects held in the U.S. or abroad”.

Our embrace of torture is not innate to Americans. It has been cultivated.

#9 Comment By Bane? On September 23, 2015 @ 10:31 am

Thank you for the taking the time to respond to someone with a serious question and silly name.

#10 Comment By MikeGrind On September 23, 2015 @ 12:24 pm

Could you imagine what Limbaugh, Hannity, and Levin would be saying if Hillary Clinton were president, a similar investigation were under way, and someone destroyed tapes? These phonie’s heads would be exploding.

#11 Comment By Jim Bovard On September 23, 2015 @ 12:32 pm

Great piece, Phil. Thanks for throwing the penalty flag on this one.

#12 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 23, 2015 @ 1:20 pm

“‘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…”

I lost my faith at Abu Ghraib.

#13 Comment By George On September 23, 2015 @ 1:51 pm

Balconesfault makes a good point here: “stem from the fact that Saddam had made torture systematic and there are many currently in ISIS who carried out torture for Saddam’s government.” But it must be added that maybe they learned it more from us, the Americans. Al-Baghdadi, head of ISIS, got his training at Camp Bucca courtesy of American torturers. Then consider many of our torturers take positions as domestic police officers or other domestic positions where it will be tempting to use these techniques on Americans if we don’t hold those we know are guilty accountable.

#14 Comment By Bane? On September 23, 2015 @ 1:55 pm

I hate to bother with more questions, Mr. Giraldi. Unfortunately, I have a few more that your expertise could help answer.

For one, a common argument made in favor of torture is that it may be the only way to acquire time-sensitive intelligence from human sources. What do you make of that? My other question is how do psychological techniques fit in, since your earlier comment focused (or at least I perceived it to focus) on physical torture?

#15 Comment By Philip Giraldi On September 23, 2015 @ 8:02 pm

Bane? – I know of no instance where torture obtained information that was time sensitive in the sense that it permitted disruption of a plot that would otherwise have succeeded. Psychological techniques are fine IMHO. It is how a good interrogator actually works since it is important to get inside the head of the suspect and work to motivate him to cooperate.

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 23, 2015 @ 11:15 pm

“Since Republicans are mistakenly eager to make 2016 a foreign policy election, it would be odd to put forward a ticket with two candidates with less experience than the Obama-Biden ticket . . .”

This is a very serious blow to me. I have thought about it most of the day. Having been a defender of Director Tenet, for quite some time, I am disappointed that he would support such tactics, if this article is accurate.

If all rekevent agencies had been acting according to standard. The hijackers would have:

1. not been in the US

2. would have been thwarted during their flight lessons

3. would have been deported because their VISAS had expired

4. under minor questioning been uncovered as there was doubt among at least one the hijackers about what they were doing.

As for trials: the gentleman above are hardly the most culpable, because members of Congress Intelligence and National Security (Agency) as well as members of the admin. also knew and approved — Democrats and Republicans alike and independents wouldn’t escape either.

I am not sure many of you are prepared for the unmasking you suggest.

#17 Comment By VRadio On September 24, 2015 @ 1:34 am

Here’s the major problem missing from this equation: Very view, and nobody in power, has admitted that the techniques used were gained from totalitarian governments that were using these to extract forced confessions regardless of truth. That Mitchell and Jessen would ever think to offer this plan as a form of fact finding program shows how utterly incompetent they were to offer the program. They were psychologists whose job was to make sure the instructors at SERE didn’t go to far and to make sure the service members put through the program were safe. That’s it. That’s their expertise and nobody seems to be crying foul that they sold a bill o goods and yielded nothing in return.
There is no way that any experienced gator would dare waterboard, wall, confine in a box, etc with any interest in getting reliable repeatable intelligence. All these methods do is force innocent people to say whatever is necessary to make it stop. We can prove this by how many we’ve already detained, filtered, interrogated, and then released. Many who were tortured while clearly innocent have spoken up. We have yet to see charges against Abu Zubaydah because they so screwed the case that they’ll never try him. They wanted to simply dump his body into oblivion and forget about it. This is insanity, folks.
Thanks Mr Giraldi, I knew you’d be a good voice to read on this matter.

#18 Comment By Hyperion On September 24, 2015 @ 7:34 pm

Thanks, Mr. Giraldi.

One of the things that really angers me is when torture apologists say that it’s obviously OK to waterboard because the US waterboarded the SERE guys during training. Logic, how does it work?

And then there is my educated and well-off brother-in-law who informed me that “the sound torture” inflicted on some was no different from your neighbor playing his boom box too loud.

#19 Comment By mojrim On September 24, 2015 @ 8:08 pm


Good interrogations are only coercive in the most expansive definitions of the word. The best and most reliable information comes from befriending the subject and taking on a role akin to “guru of captivity.”

#20 Comment By Kiza On September 25, 2015 @ 4:41 am

Firstly, thank you very much Mr Giraldi, this is possibly one of your best articles. It is about a most serious matter, but it is also humorous with a description of where the retired spies are supposed to go and do. On the serious side, this is one of the best laid out arguments against torture as a tool against the torturer as much as the tortured. You have focused a flood-light on the cowardice of those ordering their underlings to do torture.
You also highlight the second symptom of the “intelligence” decline – the cooking up of intelligence for political purposes. Would not one expect those two to go hand-in-hand, once moral barriers start coming down?
IMHO I agree with you that psychological manipulation, making friends with the suspect and similar, does not constitute torture. But this is as long as it is not preceded by torture to soften up the target and make him/her in need of a “friend” among the torturers (the classical torture approach). Therefore, it is the whole treatment of a prisoner which determines if it was torture, not its final phase which got the information.
Finally, there is no doubt that the problem is in “leadership” not in the humble torturer. I warmly recommend to everybody to find a Hungarian movie satire Crown Witness: [7]. There is one character of a torturer in this movie who says: “Hey Communists, do not punish me for torturing you when you were illegal under the previous regime, it was nothing personal, it was just a job. You will need me to torture the capitalist pigs for you now.”

#21 Comment By Charlieford On September 26, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

When Pew asked a few years ago, “Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?” only 25% of Americans said “never.” 49% said “often” or “sometimes.”

Note that this is not a “ticking-time bomb scenario,” where the hypothetical terrorist is, in fact, a terrorist, and is known by his interrogators to have the needed information.

These are simply “suspected terrorists.”

According to the Pew poll, 49% of all Americans (and 62% of white evangelicals, 51% of white non-Hispanic Catholics) believe it is often or sometimes OK to torture innocent people.

That’s what happens in a society when it decides torture is justified because it “works,” and “keeps us safe.”

#22 Comment By Richard Carter On September 28, 2015 @ 4:35 am

Kudos to participants for making this thread a discussion and not a debate.
– “mojrim” addressed my first reaction to a post, to the faulty premise that coercion is implicit in interrogation. Compare a legal interrogatory or the interrogation used in programming computers. One of my dictionaries succinctly describes “interrogation” as “formal questioning.”
– As to psychology in torture, was pointed out that interrogators use it; but, torture is also of the psychological sort. Lt. Col West’s firing of a pistol beside the head of a blindfolded prisoner involved no physical pain. Threats to kill a prisoner’s family is another example. An often-mentioned example is what’s been called the “Chinese water drop torture,” a ceaseless drip, drip, drip on the body, the anticipation of which eventually becomes excruciating.
– I recall Donald Rumsfeld referring to the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners “quaint.
– Early in the interrogations of prisoners (“suspected terrorists,” as “Charlieford” pointed out) at Guantanamo, both FBI and army interrogators refused to participate in coercive methods being used (according to official reports, interviews and testimony). Recall one experienced FBI agent saying they wouldn’t get good information, and an army interrogator saying it was against the rules of Military Justice (UCMJ).
– And let us not forget: Salem witch hunts; testimony from soldiers about activities condoned in Vietnam; Rush Limbaugh slapping himself and saying, “There, I just tortured myself.”; and Mr. Rumsfeld (again) writing on memo reporting forcing prisoners at Abu Ghraib to stand for hours, “I stand at my desk eight hours a day.”

#23 Comment By balconesfault On September 29, 2015 @ 10:50 am

@Charlieford – it’s worse than that – when Pew repeated that polling this year, we’d increased to 58% on the “ok with torturing suspected terrorists” crowd. Actually

Or as Pew headlined American Public an Outlier on Torture

Across the nations surveyed, a median of 40% believe their own governments would be justified in using torture against people suspected of terrorism in order to gain information about possible attacks. A median of 45% oppose this idea.

Compared with other nations, Americans are generally more supportive of using torture in this type of situation. Nearly six-in-ten (58%) in the U.S. say it could be justified, making it one of only 12 countries surveyed where at least half hold this view.

Those 12 countries? Along with the US, it’s Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, India, Nigeria, Ghana, the Phillipines, Lebanon, Vietnam, Pakistan … and … Israel.

The sickness in America, I believe, is that support for torture has become a partisan issue. As I noted above – immediately after 9/11, in November 2001, 66% of Americans opposed “Government-sanctioned torture of suspects held in the U.S. or abroad”.

The Cheney administration cultivated a lust for torture within the GOP, to the point where the 2015 Pew poll found that 78% of Republicans believe that torture of suspects was justifiable after 9/11. That’s 35% lead over the Democratic respondents. In the 2008 Presidential debates, we were treated to every GOP candidate except John McCain proudly touting their willingness to torture.

Torture has become part of conservative dogma in America. I laud TAC for pushing back against this, but you do seem to be whistling in the wilderness.

#24 Comment By Cliff On October 1, 2015 @ 3:43 pm

One thing I have never understood is how the opinions of the Justice Dept and the White House counsel have become law, superior to actual laws and the Constitution.