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CIA Torture: An Insider’s View

December 10, 2014

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.

74 Comments
  1. Thank you for posting this. Very interesting. I’ve followed you on Twitter for awhile and wondered immediately where you stood on the report’s release. Again, thank you for posting this message.

  2. caphillrat permalink

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve followed you on Twitter for awhile and wondered immediately what your take on the report release would be. Appreciate your insights.

  3. The Bellman permalink

    A welcome blast of common sense. Well said.

  4. Not George Sabra permalink

    Very much in line with what “the architect” (?) of the ill-fated program says http://youtu.be/MmNUi0itl-8

  5. Excellent well considered, level headed, article.

    The very same politicians that are so damaging your security services, will be the ones at the front of the queue to berate their failings, when another 9/11 happens as a result. My outsiders view is that the CIA is suffering from weak management and even weaker sensible political control, creating many avoidable ‘banana skin’ moments for those on the frontline, who will inevitably be the small-guys who face prosecution, while those further up the chain will escape through using smoke, mirrors and political connections.

    Most civilizations are destroyed by ‘do-gooders’ or worse from within. Personally, I think there is a real danger of the end of Western civilization, through societies and politicians self-indulgence and increasingly dangerous partisan point-scoring politics, MSM sensationalism and either voter apathy, to the point that they won’t participate in democracy by voting or over the top, my political party’s always right on everything discussions, where the argument is quickly lost in the slanging match.

    The US is by the worst country for this, but Europe is doing it’s best to catch up as fast as possible. This means that rational, useful, political points and considered arguments get lost through an irrelevant array of MSM sensationalised fluff and flotsam as they are in the business of selling news and it sure boosts ratings and readership! This is a self perpetuating system where the politicians concentrate on the delivery of partisan-driven sensational irrelevances and spin in conjunction with the MSM where the politicians want publicity and the MSM want the sales. I not sure how this cycle tittle-tattle will be broken, but it may eventually be by consumer cynicism and boredom!

    It is not as if sensible ‘dry-reporting and storytelling’ is not available, they are on the Internet, it is just a case of using sites like Reuters and other news ‘wholesalers’ for the pre-sensationalised fact based versions and specialist blogs and websites where the authors generally have considerably more knowledge and experience in the fields they are blogging on, then a journalist reporting on a subject they know nothing about but the are ‘qualified’ with their ‘media-studies’ degree. All too often these articles involve repeat after repeat of the same very few facts, where they are paid for a minimum amount of words!

    I find these days the best way to get my news is following a range of knowledgeable people on Twitter, some because I agree with much they write, other because I disagree with most of their stories and comments, these form my ‘news headlines’ as I can quickly scan through and where many have links to more in-depth articles, I can follow those for more information.

    As a specialist blog on intelligence and military matters, you probably don’t view your website as a news website, but this is actually what you partly are, with your straight well thought out and written reports and articles, which is how I like my news.

    Keep up the good work.

  6. davidbfpo permalink

    John,

    It is worth reading a former British intelligence professional’s comment. Nigel Inkster was with MI6 (SIS) for 31yrs, now @ IISS and his slim bio is on: http://www.iiss.org/en/persons/nigel-s-inkster

    His comment is on: http://www.iiss.org/en/iiss%20voices/blogsections/iiss-voices-2014-b4d9/december-78da/inkster-torture-c673

    This passage struck me in particular: ‘The entire global history of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency shows that when governments are suddenly confronted by a seemingly existential threat they do not understand, they invariably overreact and resort to illiberal techniques to address the threat. This appears to be part and parcel of the human condition’,

    He concludes sadly: ‘Whether its impact will be sufficient to ensure against some future repetition is another matter’.

  7. Great article, John, thanks!

    I don’t see a Twitter link to RT the article from the website rather than via your Tweets, though? You should add that feature, perhaps? Keep up the good work – essential reading!

  8. Matt permalink

    Hi, thank you for your post. Young citizen here and still getting my bearings on national security issues and politics. I don’t agree with some of what you write but I appreciate reading an earnest IC perspective (since it’s (understandably rare in public). The point about damaging intelligence relationships is thought provoking and stand-out persuasive. Some questions: your post argues for not releasing a detailed (presumably more accurate, but granting IC probably should have been interviewed for perspective) report partly because a lot of its substance was already public record; but that record was arguably seriously fragmented and incomplete because of the stakes in talking about it. Current and former members of Congress (Sen Rockefeller) argue that they weren’t *really* briefed, just handled. Arguably some didn’t want to know more, but if IC wouldn’t engage those who did is that fair oversight? I also want to know more about the difference between the IC knowing on its own that it should step up its game after 9/11 (totally understandable in context) and the IC getting direction/pressure from Congress or the Executive Branch to practice extra shady business. In some response to the report, Congress is made out to be pushing for extra effort against terrorist plots. I see how that contributes to funding or adds to the background clamor, but isn’t that distinct from Congress implicitly or explicitly consenting to systematic torture, especially if only a handful of people were noticed (and to what extent noticed is contested)? I think I sympathize with the IC being put under a lot of pressure around that time; but what’s the future accountability/disincentive for a future executive branch to keep it from twisting the IC into acting badly or stupidly in the future, if they can comfort themselves with the idea that the points you raise against publishing evidence of their behavior will ever would make public exposure a non-issue? Would a report that focused less on the CIA and more on executive branch malfeasance be more acceptable? Thanks again for your post.

  9. Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
    No comment.

  10. 4MK permalink

    Surely the torture victim’s were non status enemy combatants not covered by the Geneva convention so why all the fuss,However displeasing under the circumstances its hardly unjustified.

    • Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

      http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/11/AR2006071100094.html

      The Bush administration has agreed to apply the Geneva Conventions to all terrorism suspects in U.S. custody, bowing to the Supreme Court’s recent rejection of policies that have imprisoned hundreds for years without trials.

      The Pentagon announced yesterday that it has called on military officials to adhere to the conventions in dealing with al-Qaeda detainees. The administration also has decided that even prisoners held by the CIA in secret prisons abroad must be treated in accordance with international standards, an interpretation that would prohibit prisoners from being subjected to harsh treatment in interrogations, several U.S. officials said.

      Since 2002, the administration has contended that the Geneva Conventions would be respected as a matter of policy but that they did not apply by law to terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or in U.S. military custody elsewhere. Administration officials have voiced concern that the conventions are too vague and could expose the military to second-guessing about appropriate treatment.

      But the Supreme Court rejected that view in a 5 to 3 decision last month, ruling that a Yemeni detainee at Guantanamo Bay could not be tried by a special military commission established by the Bush administration. The court held that the commissions violate U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions.

  11. Blackshoe permalink

    Hilariously heard on WGBH today that said the US Intelligence Community often runs on a “Rambo Mentality” where people who push the boundaries and break the rules get rewarded.

    I was thinking…”We’re talking about the US IC, right, not the Russians? Does this host know **anything** about the US IC?”

    I often wish we in the National Security sphere could act the way people think we do; it’d be awesome.

  12. Dan Hough permalink

    I appreciate your honest effort to explain. However, I feel that we went horribly awry, not just because we tortured and it didn’t provide a good cost/benefit, but because for the first time in our history, we institutionalized torture. If EITs like waterboarding didn’t get people’s attention, maybe ‘rectal feeding’ will. When we become the torturers, what are we fighting for? I agree that the partisan nature inherent in this release will be a problem, but in fact, everything was going to be partisan anyway, and the GOP has no interest in ‘reforming’ if it reduces the torture balance. The exception is John McCain, god bless him.

    In the end, I do agree that CIA was doing what it could to comply with instructions in a stressful time. This was a clear failure of leadership. But it is of a part of the general It is precisely these stressful times that are the reason for ‘morals’, laws, and standards. It is easy to maintain those positions when times are easy… But we don’t allow our soldiers off the hook for obeying an ‘illegal order’ and we didn’t let the Nazi’s off the hook because they were just ‘obeying orders’.

  13. A reasonable viewpoint, but I disagree. I think the report needed to be released becasue, even though there might be painful consequences (and I do’t know that it will be in any long term sense), government has to be accountable or it’s not a democracy, and with secret organizations, these kinds of reports are the only way to hold them accountable.

    In addition, with this report there are well -documented arguments on paper and the CIA and Bush administration can now rebut with similar documentation. IT’s not all innuendo and “common-knowledge.” And since it is on paper and documented, critics like BOB Kerry also now have the opportunity to show where the report is wrong.

    And about partisanship, the republicans refused to participate, which means that the democrats had no choice but to write it by themselves. And they have been writing it for years now and plans for it to be released have been in place for awhile, so I don’t think it’s revenge for the mid-terms has anything to do with it. The id-term results may have made it more urgent to release the report before the republicans took over an buried it, but again, plans were to release the report.

    And finally, about reform and politics. It’s all politics. The republicans, who feel ownership for this disaster, would never agree to reforming anything, becasue that would be an admission of fault. Which is a political position.

    • gluonspring permalink

      I agree totally. The idea that there ever could have been some kind of joint Republican/Democratic report that led to reforms on this seems highly fantastical. I think the only options were to let it live in vague half known information about the program, and fester out of sight, or to publish a report and hope that, despite the toxic partisan politics of the issue, a bit of sunlight will eventually do some good. There never was a real third option.

  14. DOW permalink

    Interesting to see the administration backing away from this release but not surprising. Now if something happens ala Benghazi, they, like the republicans, can blame Senate Dems eg we advised against it. Was there is a compelling reason outside domestic political score settling?

    Of course, we must show the world how seriously we take our humanitarian obligations vis a vis our enemies but that is a very, very low threshold. Most in the West already believe that and why would it change any political polarity in the Islamic world? If the abuses have already been remedied, what disease does this medicine cure? Well, it clearly gives the ACLU a much needed hobby horse and fund raising lift. Indicting everyone in the last administration will be quite expensive (see NYT op ed re pardoning everyone to establish their guilt). It distresses our allies as noted here and burnishes the humanitarian legacy of a few senators. It appears to me that the risks to US personnel out weigh any foreseeable benefits and the “physician due no harm” rule should have applied.

    This was an insightful post.I agree with your points re the relative futility of extreme interogation techniques and share objections on moral grounds. I served as an infantry officer in VN and saw prisoner abuse first hand after capture. This is difficult to control but can not be excused at that point or during interogation. The Abu Ghraib affair was a terrible, stupid and preventable disaster that did enormous harm. Despite this I do not understand why Democrats in the senate are: 1) absolutely certain their report was accurate in all its details; 2) why they felt compelled to release it if the current administration has already fixed the problem? If you have any insight on these questions please post or link. Thanks.

    • Thanks for your comments. Abu Ghraib was absolutely awful – and something the Army CoC effectively did CYA on, hanging out junior enlisteds to dry, letting officers (and all senior ones) walk away. A disgrace.

  15. I'm with stupid permalink

    What I find objectionable is presenting torture as doing good by defending fellow citizens.

    Torture was illegal (and immoral) then and remains so today. It was not “misguided.” It was criminal. It was not doing good in any way. It was–and is–cowardly.

    You seem to be unfamiliar with the Nuremberg Principles. Go here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuremberg_principles and discover how misguided and, apparently, ignorant you are.

    • I have defended your freedom to be an ignorant fool — and I’m glad I did.

  16. m mankoff permalink

    Without revealing this material there could never be reform. What would the incentive be among those with power? Same if Snowden didn’t do his thing. That doesn’t mean there will be, of course. A necessary, but not sufficient condition. How about invasions, drones and torture all wrong? You seemed to have ignored that possibility. Missing from your whole perspective, of course, is any questioning of American foreign policy’s objectives….parallel to lionizing the Israelis for more cleverly oppressing the Palestinians. Why are we hated in the Arab world? Hm. Could it be because we continually support dictators until they no longer serve our purpose? And don’t really give a shit about the people they rule over?

  17. 9/11 rendered me catatonic for weeks. I’m sure many other Americans and America fans around the world felt likewise, if not physically, then mentally. I’m sure any of us would have done whatever we could have personally, had we had an inkling of what that might be, or if in the right line and with the right connections. That’s why I’m extremely reluctant and hesitant to second-guess and criticize those who did have the right line of work and/or connections to get directly involved in the response.

    There was something of a two-year adrenaline rush in the country’s political, defense, and national security institutions. In the throes of adrenaline, snap-judgments are made, right or wrong, as they have to be. The clarity in the moment is perfectly crystal. The cleanup afterwards is much less so. That’s when the regrets kick in and lessons are learned.

    Yes, yes, I, too, am against torture. Today. And I probably always was. Until you tell me what you mean by torture. If that doesn’t work, I’ll have you know I’m all for motherhood. Surely we can all agree on that.

    Even more so, I’m against spilling our defense and security secrets in some selfless act of solipsistic atonement. That would be like Coca-Cola atoning for all the sugary drinks by publicizing their secret flavor recipe for everyone to see. Why would you want to give your rivals and competitors the benefit of your hard-won knowledge and experience — much less for free? They won’t refrain from using that new advantage against you. Who could imagine this to be a smart approach in the Hobbesian international arena?

    • What did we spill?

      • Wouldn’t you like to know!

      • No, really. I’ve heard that there is information that is damaging in the reports from a couple places but no one says what it is. If we are going to be adults about this kind of thing, the arguments have to be laid out clearly, so people–the citizens–can understand. Otherwise it’s just more political bluster.

        OUr country’s political debate mostly about BS and misinformation. That’s how the people in power want it. Back your argument up.

      • I can respect your position, or rather, I find it to be a legitimate and honest critique of mine. I cannot marshal any further facts to support my hypothesis — that the SSCI report divulges any new facts that hadn’t already been leaked or asserted years earlier. OTOH, it wouldn’t be right for me to ask that you support your point, as that would be asking you to prove a negative (there’s nothing here that was really secret to our enemies).

        To my mind, it is more than political bluster, but matter of principle and reason ~ that we should jealously guard our alleged secrets from the prying eyes of our frenemies and rivals. I’m personally too far removed from the particulars and must thus outsource determination of them to the professionals. But aside from that, for this to be political on the part of Obama and his party, I can’t for the life of me figure out what conceivable political advantage they’d hope to gain from this release. More likely, this may have been something that Obama wanted to cross off his legacy bucket list, since he said he’s advocated for this release for years now.

        I don’t see our national political debates necessarily as over BS and misinformation as much as it is over peripheral issues, trivialities, and overheated rhetoric. I, too, tire of all the screaming and yelling. Besides, it’s making me hoarse. 😉

  18. I have several issues with what was, as you point out, the well-known involvement of allied intelligence in “torture”:
    1. Morality: The individuals who performed torture are not fit to serve us
    2. Morality: The organisations that sanctioned torture are not fit to serve us
    3. Competence: The organisations whose choice of methods has caused so much bad PR for our allied nations are not fit to serve us
    4. Democracy: The organisation that produces for its government deliberately dishonest appraisals of the scope and results of its methods is not fit to serve us.

    To my mind, 4. is the most serious, by far. Failures by the allied IC directly undermine their mission of making us safe. Self-inflicted failures are a very serious matter.

    As an aside, the current “torture” issues pale into insignificance compared with what was going on within the allied IC during the period when Saddam was our buddy, but nobody seems much interested in remembering any of that.

  19. Matt permalink

    You lay out the many flaws in the CIA’s approach to interrogation, then sweep those flaws away because of the exigency of the moment and the good intentions of those involved. I’d like to know the answers to these questions:

    Why did the CIA throw away 50 years of tradecraft and take on a mission it was not equipped to handle?

    Who demanded that the CIA take on that mission?

    Why did the CIA’s leadership not resist a mission well outside its expertise?

    Why did the CIA’s leadership not resist patently unlawful orders? As a basic trainee in the Army in the 1980s, it was made amply clear to me that it was my duty to disobey unlawful orders, regardless of how strenuously the chain of command made those orders. Getting lawyers to redefine settled legal principles was an obvious attempt to redefine the meaning of the word “is.”

    Why did the CIA’s leadership and rank and file expect that the Nuremberg rules wouldn’t apply to them? Again, as a basic trainee, I had no doubt that if I committed a war crime, including torture, I could not claim that I was “just following orders.”

    If the answer to these questions is because we were afraid, then we simply proved to those we criticized and sanctioned for decades were right–we just had the luxury of security. Once we felt threatened, our sacred laws flew out the window.

    It’s important to remember that many Americans have faced this dilemma and not broken with their legal and moral obligations–the soldiers who did not commit atrocities after watching their comrades killed by a treacherous enemy violating the Geneva Conventions, the law enforcement officers observing the law in apprehending and interrogating the most evil of serial killers or child molesters.

    We can agree personally about the incongruity of laws that allow us to saturate the enemy with explosives that liquefy flesh but don’t allow us to kill the enemy with nerve agent, but as professional officers acting on behalf of the US Government, we are bound by the law and such personal moral judgments are moot.

  20. Speaking as a German, any atrocities committed _must_ be fully disclosed and brought into the light. Sacrificing this on the altar of Realpolitik is _not_ worth it and only harms the nation in the long run.

  21. colin permalink

    great article very informative. Some might point the activity in latin America by CIA officers who advised/ committed Torture and what occurred after 9/11 was nothing new ?

  22. Michelle T. permalink

    Pozdravlyayu on another well written article! After seeing all the crazy on the regular news circuits and social media shit shows, it was nice to come here and get someones well thought out, concise, and level headed opinion.

    • Bill Michtom permalink

      That you think justifying torture is a “well thought out, … and level headed opinion” is a sad commentary on your ethics and understanding of US and international law.

  23. colin permalink

    In war things have to be done that are not nice.

  24. You said that Secretary Kerry’s opinion piece held a lot of wisdom. Part of what he stated in the editorial piece you commended was:

    “It is important for all of us to not let Congress dodge responsibility. Congressional oversight of intelligence is notoriously weak.”

    Part of the problem is that if oversight is not sufficiently, then grand bargain struck after the Church Committee is in great danger of being undone. That is, we will trust the IC to do things in deep dark secret, and trust that the Intelligence Oversight Committees will exercise appropriate oversight. To the extent that the American public believe that the oversight is not appropriate, and perhaps subject to regulatory capture, then future Snowdens will feel justified to do what he called whistleblowing, and others have called treason. People will put pressure on their representatives to not renew authorities that the IC believe is necessary to carry out the job.

    That’s one of the dangers of the Hayden strategy of “Give me the box you will allow me to operate in. I’m going to play to the very edges of that box.” If, when the interpretation of “what the edges of the box” ends up being becomes leaked, people disagree about whether that box was appropriate, the box may very well shrink. I just hope that the people who decided that in this case, playing to the very edge of the box in terms of the metadata program and “enhanced interrogation techniques” think that the value they got from that was really worth it. Because sooner or later, one way or another, this sort of stuff _will_ leak.

  25. DensityDuck permalink

    Great post, thank you!

    I wonder if it isn’t something similar to the guy who pepper-sprayed the protestors at UC Davis back during Occupy. Nobody actually said to him “go pepper spray the protestors”. But he can point to direction from superiors that said “use any means you consider appropriate to restore order”. While they dithered and bickered, he said “okay well this method seems reasonable to me, it will certainly get results, they’ve made it my personal responsibility to handle this, and they didn’t tell me NOT to do it, so…”

  26. strategicservice permalink

    A lack of professionalism coupled with a sense of urgency doesn’t excuse criminal abuses that any human being with a shred of moral fiber could have recognized. “Reform” is unnecessary because the vast majority of the people of the United States (including the author!) have agreed that torture is against our values in addition to being of questionable effectiveness. Reform has already taken place and the reason why the report reads like an indictment is because it is one. But the unfortunate reality is that it is an indictment of individuals who will never be tried, because this country lacks the courage and introspection for self-examination.

  27. erc permalink

    Thanks John. What is your view on Sen Dianne Feinstein’s role? The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that this report was out of character for her. It makes me wonder whether it is good enough to attribute the release to a Dem vs. GOP skirmish, esp. as she doesn’t seem to be getting much support from some other Dem’s,like Kerrey or even the WH.

    • DiFi was once Mayor of SanFran. I thought she did a quite good job on the SSCI, generally speaking, but her ending there does not edify.

    • I have yet to read a single substantive rebuttal to the report. It’s all guys like Cheney saying that it’s “BS” or other people asserting it’s “cherry picking,” without a single piece of evidence to back up their assertions. Basically I can only conclude that at this point that the report is correct. So if the report is correct then the question of releasing it becomes a cost/benefit equation. Just like no one has rebutted the report, no one has as yet presented a substantive theory–based on past events even–of serious harm. So if the report is correct and there is no harm in releasing it, what does it matter if it’s written solely by the democrats or if it’s some kind of an act of revenge (another assertion without evidence presented to back it up so far).

  28. masterman permalink

    I agree with your read on interrogation. SHABAK is fortunate to work within a well-defined legal framework with effective oversight, and to have a culture of professionalism. But this was the result of changes thirty years ago that followed the unwarranted killing of two detainees and a messy cover-up. The story managed to curcumvent censorship and raised an ugly public political storm that many here claimed was un-patriotic and detrimental to Israel’s security. As it turned out, the opposite was the case. Despite the partisan aspect of the Senate report, one can at least hope there will be some positive results.

  29. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this article because of who wrote it and what you said. So many people expressing ‘opinions’ on the subject matter, but have no credentials. You sir have my utmost respect for what you have lived and worked at. Your inside perspective is what should be what politicians seek when writing laws. (I thought that was the way it was intended to work. Subject for another day).

  30. J. Daniel permalink

    Depressing week. Funny thing is how many spy shows you see on tv now. At least Hollywood still makes CIA look good.

  31. Ryan permalink

    You didn’t mention the GOP minority report.

    I feel surprised that the Senate committee didn’t interview either Bush or Cheney. Cheney apparently is willing to readily provide his opinions on the matter, in A Few Good Men-esque fashion.

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to follow Israeli policies on torture (although trained competent staff in any field is a good idea), since if you ask diplomats if it was revealed that torture was used on foreign citizens, there’d be foreign uproar. Israel has no issues with uproar because to the citizens of neighboring countries, it’s existence is an affront to them, it’s a damned if you do damned if you don’t scenario.

    With the United States, domestic and foreign support for our policies depend on the apparent righteousness of them. Pragmatically, not everyone believes in the same cold-hearted political calculus as you do. After long enough, people will give you the cold shoulder.

  32. Bill Vogt permalink

    Your estimate of how many “civilians” have been killed (i.e., “thousands) is at odds with many reports which indicates that while about 2,300 have been killed by drones, less than 300 were civilians. I am a proponent of the use of drones as they save lives. Just compare death by drones with the thousands of innocents unintentionally killed in Vietnam by use of “dumb bombs.” To rationalize the use of torture because they result in less deaths than drones ignores the fact
    that torture is against the values of this great nation.

    • There are conflicting numbers. I think killing kids is pretty contra American 21st century values. We killed a lot of kids in the 20th.

  33. kentclizbe permalink

    It’s interesting that you only touch on the political battle represented by the Democrat SSCI report on the enhanced interrogation program.

    The missing political context, and the issue underlying this despicable attack is the Politically Correct Progressives’ inherent hypocritical dishonesty.

    During the time that we were actively prosecuting the Global War on Terrorism–2001 to 2007 or so–the PC-Prog power structure–including Sen Obama–attacked each and every step taken in the war.

    They piled on to any hint of American malfeasance–from Abu Ghraib to Gitmo, and on and on–publicly reviling “Bushitler” and Cheney as some sort of ultimate evil duo manipulating the world for their own evil profiteering.

    The legacy media, pushing its PC-Prog agenda, glorified the Obama-the-savior anti-Bush/GWOT story–making Obama into a saintly savior who would make right all the evil done by Bush’s criminality. This storyline was global. It became Obama’s main claim to fame–cementing his Nobel Peace Prize campaign.

    Obama’s administration, immediately upon his inauguration, began the criminalization of the CIA’s GWOT. One of Holder’s first actions as Attorney General was to announce a sweeping investigation, and likely prosecution, of the criminal CIA officers who he claimed had carried out the “torture”.

    This article, from Newsmax, in 2009, spells out the issue, from that time:

    http://intelctweekly.blogspot.com/2012/07/holderobama-gwcia.html

    This politicization of American war policy/strategy/tactics is unprecedented. Never before had a president undertaken to punish those who had carried out an American war, following legal advice from the administration, while it was on-going.

    How the intelligence community would be politicized, in 2009, was not evident then.
    Now, in 2014, as the PC-Prog machine switches back to campaign mode, we can survey the destruction Obama/Brennan/Holder/Hillary/Powers have inflicted on the IC.

    Brennan has been Obama’s political hack–his recent protestations that he is non-political are ludicrous on their face. Obama, and all PC-Progs hate covert action when they’re not in power (ie, “Bush’s torture”).

    But when they’re in power, covert action is their sine qua non to advance their global destruction–viz Mubarak’s demise, Kaddafy’s murder, Libya’s descent into chaos, the cluster in Syria, Ukraine, drone assassinations, and more–all indicative of Brennan’s handiwork.

    The only reason Brennan is resisting the politicized hit-job reflected by the Democrat SSCI “torture” report is that he was personally involved (on Tenet’s staff during the interrogation program), and was denied the DCIA job the first time around by the Democrats because of his involvement.

    Brennan, who is Obama’s Dzerzhinsky, misused Agency resources when he used Agency officers to infiltrate the SSCI computer system. He then lied about it, and finally admitted it when the investigation revealed details.

    Those are important details, especially for conservatives to understand. Brennan is not your friend. He is prosecuting this fight against the Democrats in SSCI for his own personal motives.
    He, and the PC-Progs in the administration, have wrought more destruction on the IC than the SSCI report ever will.

    Beware the danger of becoming enamored of PC-Progs who love covert action. They, and their agenda, are poisonous.Even if there is a momentary congruence with your goals. Nothing good can come from quietly carrying out their agenda.

    • Newsmax? Really? I don’t like Brennan but calling him “Obama’s Dzierzynski” means you either know nothing about Iron Feliks or you have left orbit altogether.

  34. Northern Observer permalink

    There are three problems with torture
    1. False answers
    2. Expensive infrastructure.
    3. Blowback and prestige loss when it inevitably leaks.

    What I would have liked too see acknowledged by the CIA and the neocon torture enablers is a simple admission of the facts: torture is in the aggregate ineffective and better results can be achieved with manipulation through interviews.

    The USA tortured because it wanted retribution on someone for 911. Let’s not delude ourselves.

  35. A.I.Schmelzer permalink

    These are some interesting comments.
    I would nevertheless wish to add a few Points regarding torture from a somewhat “Russian” perespective.
    One thing that struck me from the report is the sheer ineptitude of basically anyone described. Not that Russians are strangers to that, but getting very basic procedures, both in terms of common sense and in terms of beurocratic coverup completely wrong is not something one would have expected. What is especially striking is that there are apperantly pretty clear orders for doing clearly illegal things. From the best of my knowledge, the FSB has never, writtenly defined what kind of “enchanced interrogation techniques” are “OK” (there are actual documents which spell out which techniques arent “OK”, but adherance to these documents is of course pretty “mixed” in practice).

    Russian Police is again different. Their most common way of “breaking” someone whom they want to confess something is to lock him in a room with 5-10 hardened Russian mobsters, and return half an hour later.
    This also opens the possiblitiy of disposing of/punishing the mobsters later, should the original victim be both influental and innocent.
    Punishing the torturers actually happened in the USSR/Russia on occassion. There even is an Urban myth that his former torturers in chains were a present to Rokososvsky from Chruschev after the former returned from Poland into the USSR.

    I would also make a Point concerning the use of torture as “deterrence”. Yes, some of your opponents/enemies may be deterred from Messing with you because you torture and that scares them. Given that the torture in that Report isnt even Close to the worst things People regularly do to each other, those that are deterred by that have some otherwise exploitable issues concerning their Moral fibre. On the other Hand, torture generates new enemies that hate you because you torture. These People will typically be quite a bit braver then the cravens that torture would deterr. Even assuming that the quanitity of “People that are deterred” vs. “People that are aggrieved and become enemies” is similiar (I would believe that the latter quite considerably outnumber the former), one still ends up deterring cowards and turning brave men into foes.

    Concerning the Intel value of that Report to enemies/competitors/rivals of the USA: The PR value is of course a godsend, but if the published Report featured something the SVR didnt already know I will buy you a bottle of good Vodka.

    • Good to know who “we” is when you discuss Russians.

      • A.I.Schmelzer permalink

        And your point would be?
        I am worried about being affected by epistemic closure, therefor I actively engage in debate with people that are pretty unlikely to have the same views as I do.
        I identify myself as both Russian and German fyi, but know a lot less about the German IC community then about the Russian/Soviet ones and thus cannot offer much from that perespective.
        And frankly, I still regard US hegemony as propably less worse then most of the alternatives, and it would, in my opinion, be prudent for the US to actively learn from many Russian mistakes.

        Other points you made, especially concerning the “droning many people = good but torturing less People = bad” are completely valid and deserve to be made again and again.

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