CIA Torture: An Insider’s View
The global commentariat is aflutter in the aftermath of yesterday’s release of what Twitter has termed #TortureReport by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI, pronounced “sissy,” to DC insiders). If you’re living in a cave like a member of Al-Qa’ida and somehow have missed this story, you can find all of the massive original report, plus rebuttals, here.
Up front, allow me to get my own story, and therefore biases, out there. I spent close to a decade in the Intelligence Community (IC), with the National Security Agency as an intelligence analyst and counterintelligence officer. I served in joint assignments with CIA and spent considerable time trying to help Langley, specifically on counterintelligence matters. I count several CIA officers, present and former, some high-ranking, among my close friends. I also think CIA is a mismanaged agency that needs serious reform.
Happily, I had no involvement with CIA’s “torture” program; though I was aware of its existence early on, I had nothing to do with waterboarding and worse. I was involved in certain activities in the months after 9/11 that probably would not pass smell tests in today’s calmer times, but there are quite a few IC people in the same boat.
It is perilously easy, more than thirteen years after the terrible attacks on New York and the Pentagon, to forget the hothouse atmosphere across the IC in late 2001, when fears of more, and worse, terrorism against our homeland were a constant concern. It is this decontextualization by the just-released SSCI report, the prosecutorial judging of people who sought to do good by defending fellow citizens, however misguidedly, that I find most objectionable.
For much of the IC, the months after 9/11 were a blur. I spent more time at the office, or on the road, than at home; my recollections of that era — easily the most exciting time of my life, when all of Uncle Sam’s spooks thought our personal contributions, each day, might make the difference between a “nuclear 9/11” happening or not — are therefore impressionistic, with occasional vivid recall of specific operations. I never had Dick Cheney call me, or anyone close to me, screaming into the phone to “get tough.” This was unnecessary: we all knew what the stakes were.
I provided counsel to senior leadership at Guantanamo Bay, the dreaded GTMO, on how to deal with interrogations. From what I saw, their operation was a shitshow — a characterization top IC officials agreed with, off-record. They knew it was all going wrong, but they wanted to prevent terrorism. They listened to, and rejected, my counsel, which was to get serious and professionalize their approach, without delay. Specifically, they needed to adopt something like the Israeli model.
How Israeli intelligence, specifically their domestic security service, SHABAK, approaches interrogation, is much misunderstood. While SHABAK can employ what outsiders would term torture on occasion, those conditions are tightly controlled by legal authorities: this prevents abuses and, critically, allows interrogators to know they will not face prosecution or banishment, years later, for doing what they were told was legal.
But what makes SHABAK interrogators effective is not the threat of physical pressure, rather their professional competence. The most junior Israeli interrogators have completed a rigorous three-year program in psychology and Arabic before they meet their first subject. When I told U.S. senior officers this was the way to go, they gasped and explained this was impossible. Meaning, this was not how the IC likes to do business. (They particularly objected to my mantra: “Interrogation through a translator isn’t interrogation.”) Instead, Americans opted for an ad hoc, somewhat fly-by-night interrogation program, lacking in expertise or language skills, and botched the job — to the surprise only of those who have never seen U.S. intelligence in action.
It’s fair to point out that SHABAK has a far simpler problem set, focusing mainly on Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, while U.S. spies have global responsibilities and targets; it’s likewise fair to note that our IC has personnel and resources that Israeli spooks can only dream of. Failure here was a choice, perhaps a preordained one.
Let there be no misunderstanding. While CIA officials are now insisting, contra the SSCI report, that the special interrogation program was a success, having prevented terrorism — and there is no doubt their claims are largely correct, in a technical sense — from any big picture view, it was a disaster, having delivered minimal gains at vast and enduring political cost.
Knowing the CIA and the IC, I’m not sure any other outcome was likely here. The salient fact is that, on 9/11, CIA lacked interrogators. That was a messy line of work the Agency had happily run away from after Vietnam, so in 2001 there were no serving officers who had a clue what to do. Indeed, coercive interrogation went deeply against the culture of CIA case officers, for whom getting friendly, if (hopefully) not too friendly, with sources is a requirement. As a result, CIA fobbed this nasty mission off on Agency security types lacking understanding of operations (in an eerie replay of the botched Nosenko affair of the 1960’s), much less of Arabs, and dumped the rest of the mess on a motley crew of contractors who never had any business falling into this most sensitive line of work. Whether you think CIA use of torture was right or wrong, there can be no debate, based on what the public now knows, that this program was badly mismanaged and doomed to failure from day one. As is so often the case, noble IC intentions collided with the wall of incompetence and wishful thinking, and eventually ample CYA.
That said, it is perilously easy to find fault here with people who did their best under most difficult circumstances. I find it noxious that much of the emotional hand-wringing about this comes from people, many of them in Congress, who were happy to sign off on such matters when the danger of terrorism was acute, yet are now happy to throw spooks under the bus when times and administrations have changed.
What Democrats on the SSCI have done this week is highly damaging, not to mention gratuitous, and will have lasting impacts on the IC and our national security. It is at the least highly curious that Democrats on the SSCI, as a parting shot before control of the Senate changes hands shortly, released a report that had existed, in several forms, for years. Much of the “torture” details have been known to the public since 2006, almost a decade ago, while revealing details of how foreign intelligence agencies assisted the IC after 9/11 is nothing short of stupid.
After the 9/11 attacks, many foreign partners assisted us in our covert fight against terrorism, with the understanding that it would be kept tightly secret. “May we read about you in the newspapers” is a MOSSAD joke-cum-curse for good reason. Now that the SSCI majority has betrayed that trust, I can see no reason why any foreign intelligence agency should believe American promises ever again. Coming on the heels of the Snowden debacle, which rightly raised serious questions about the IC’s ability to keep secrets, this is a grave problem. Without close foreign intelligence partnerships, based on mutual trust and discretion, our ability to protect our country and our interests will be seriously and lastingly degraded.
It is never a healthy thing in a democracy when naked partisan politics intrudes on the intelligence business, which is a sacred trust that ought to be above the partisan food-fight. Yet that is precisely what the SSCI Democrats have done here. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this release was a spiteful reaction to their recent midterm election losses. What else can be said when the Democrats made no effort to include CIA or IC viewpoints in their vast and scathing reports, which run to over seven thousand pages.
Senior IC officials have reacted with vitriol to the Democrats’ action, particularly Mike Hayden, who served as director of both NSA and CIA. The wisest response, however, has been Bob Kerrey’s. A former Democratic Senator and Governor, Kerrey served on the SSCI for eight years and knows the issues intimately. I’ve long admired Kerrey, a centrist who always tried to do what was right for the country, not just his party; his patriot credentials, as a former Navy SEAL who lost a leg in Vietnam, winning the Medal of Honor in the process, are above question. Kerrey makes many wise statements, you should read his whole op-ed, but this is central to his argument:
I do not need to read the report to know that the Democratic staff alone wrote it. The Republicans checked out early when they determined that their counterparts started out with the premise that the CIA was guilty and then worked to prove it.
There’s the rub. The SSCI majority report is in no way an effort to establish truths, much less to reform what clearly needs reform. Rather, it is a prosecutorial brief intended to cause pain to the committee’s incoming majority. This intrusion of overt partisanship into the intelligence business is a terrible precedent in our democracy.
There are few precedents for what has just happened. Some will cite the mid-1970’s efforts by Congress to investigate IC errors and worse, most famously the Church Committee. This, after all, led to the current Congressional oversight system, as well as most of the legal norms under which American intelligence operates down to the present day. But the analogy is flawed, as the Church Committee revealed IC programs, of dubious provenance and legality, which Congress knew nothing about. In contrast, the SSCI majority this week chose to release the details of Top Secret programs which they had known about for many years.
The only area where the analogy with the 1970’s is operative, regrettably, is in the realm of unintended consequences. While the Church hearings led to much-needed reforms of the IC, it also led to a bloodbath at CIA, including the firing of many valuable officers; worse, it caused the establishment of a clear delineation between foreign and domestic intelligence, more than exists in reality — so clear, in fact, that it was termed The Wall. This was The Wall whose prevention of cooperation between the FBI, CIA and NSA was the single greatest cause of the failure to prevent 9/11.
CIA isn’t going anywhere. It will weather these bureaucratic storms, as it always has. The first mission of any bureaucracy, of course, is survival. Sadly, there will be no real reforms, even though these are plainly needed. Just as the Snowden Operation made serious NSA reform impossible, since it brought the taint of treason and Moscow, the introduction of naked partisanship into the discussion of CIA torture means that Agency and IC reform is stillborn. Having branded themselves as the party of calling out CIA misdeeds, the Democrats have marginalized any credentials they have won on national security, and the Republicans, seeking payback for what the SSCI just did, will no doubt block needed reforms as “unpatriotic.”
Thus will CIA remain, largely unreformed. Its foreign partnerships have taken a serious blow, and any operational bias for action, strongly encouraged after 9/11, has evaporated, perhaps for decades. Who, after all, wants to take risks when you might be exposed by an angry Congress a few years down the road? Getting your intelligence services to be risk-averse and ineffective, acting like a very secretive and expensive Department of Motor Vehicles, is an eminently achievable goal, and will be the lasting legacy of the Democrats on the SSCI. Be sure to remember this after the next terrorist “big wedding,” which is sure to come eventually, when Congress seeks scalps to blame for the disaster.
As the world revels in blaming CIA with torture in lurid detail, we can expect outrage and perhaps prosecutions of American intelligence officers and their foreign partners. Lawfare is now a thriving global industry. The damage to our security and our allies will be lasting. To be clear, I am as disgusted as anybody by what the SSCI has disclosed to the world. My position, which I elaborated long ago, is that torture can be quite effective, but nevertheless is something no civilized country ought to employ. Period. Where easy moralizers see a simple tale of Hitlerian evil in CIA activities after 9/11, I see instead a sad, predictable story of incompetence and severe bureaucratic dysfunction that cries out for reform. A reform that Senate Democrats have now made impossible — until after the next 9/11.
P.S. It has been much noted that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) agreed with the majority on the SSCI. As well he ought to, since as someone who suffered torture for years as a POW in Hanoi, he is understandably touchy on this topic. That said, it’s fair to note that most of the people now praising McCain as the world’s moral avatar on torture generally consider him to be a deranged warmonger, and I suspect less than one percent of his cheerleaders today voted for him in 2008. Partisanship is ruining the Republic.
P.P.S. I’ve never been clear on the morality whereby invading countries, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, many of them civilians, is ok, while using drones to kill thousands more civilians in several countries is quite acceptable, but torturing a few people, mainly terrorists, is officially The Worst Thing Ever…but that’s probably just me.