WPost: All the Ex-President's Excuses
Melvin A. Goodman
May 1, 2009
Editor’s Note: Many Americans still view the Washington Post through the prism of the Watergate scandal and “All the President’s Men,” gutsy reporters doing the hard work to hold corrupt government officials accountable, backed up by brave editors.
Sadly, that reputation – earned from events some 35 years ago – has long since given way to an insider culture that promotes the neoconservative ideology and continues to make excuses for the Bush administration’s crimes, as ex-CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman notes in this guest essay:
Under the stewardship of Fred Hiatt, the editorial and op-ed pages of the Washington Post have gradually moved to the right.
Post editorials and op-eds have defended the decision to go to war in Iraq; opposed any improvement in bilateral relations with Russia; refused to acknowledge Israel’s misuse of military power in the Middle East; and lobbied against the need for investigation of the detention and interrogation programs of the Bush administration.
As part of the campaign to prevent a rigorous examination of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (read: “torture and abuse”), the Washington Post's editorial pages have been particularly protective of the Central Intelligence Agency and its senior leaders – the ideological drivers for torture and extraordinary renditions policies.
These CIA leaders, particularly deputy director Steven Kappes and acting general counsel John Rizzo, are not trying to protect the reputation and mission of the CIA; they are trying to protect themselves.
Surely senior journalists from the mainstream media must understand that reliance on anonymous CIA clandestine sources is neither good reporting nor professional journalism. Many of these “anonymous sources” almost certainly are former and current CIA officials seeking to protect themselves. George Tenet, John McLaughlin and John Brennan are individuals who fit that description.
In the past several days, the Post has carried editorials and op-eds by its own editorial writer David Ignatius; its longtime national security writer Walter Pincus; former CIA director Porter Goss; former CIA operative Michael Scheuer; and Marc Thiessen, a former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush.
These articles have been similar in content and similar to the statements of other CIA directors past and present (Leon Panetta, Michael Hayden, Goss, Tenet, and John Deutch) who opposed the release of the memoranda of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that justified the use of torture and abuse.
The Scheuer article is particularly scurrilous, accusing President Obama of self-righteousness and intellectual arrogance” in deciding to release the torture memos. Scheuer believes that an end to torture will lead to future terrorist attacks that could involve the “loss of major cities and tens of thousands of countrymen,” and that the president will bear some responsibility.
Scheuer, an aggressive proponent of torture and abuse, was the leader of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit in the 1990s. His behavior at CIA was so bizarre that he was eventually quarantined by the Agency, spending the last few years of his employment in the Agency’s library without access to classified documents.
These Post articles also reflect the opinion of key members of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and Office of the General Counsel, who want to cover up CIA war crimes and prevent any authoritative investigation of the CIA’s creation, operation and maintenance of its detention and interrogation programs.
The CIA took a similar stance in trying to block investigations of such intelligence failures as the inability to track the decline of the Soviet Union in the 1980s; the 9/11 intelligence failure in 2001; and the provision of specious intelligence to the White House and the Congress of the United States in the run-up to the war with Iraq in 2003.
The leader of the Washington Post editorial squad has been Ignatius, who has developed close relations with CIA clandestine operatives over a period that spans three decades.
Ignatius’s key source in the 1970s was the late Robert Ames, one of the most successful clandestine officers in the history of the CIA. Ames was the source for most of Ignatius’s writings on the Middle East as well as for his novel about CIA clandestine tradecraft, “Agents of Innocence.”
Over the years, retired and active members of the directorate of operations have taken their stories to Ignatius; they have been rewarded by Ignatius’s one-sided accounts of CIA derring-do and willingness to ignore operational and analytical failures. Ignatius is welcome to his opinion on these matters, of course, but he should not be permitted to create facts that don’t square with the history of the recent past.
A comparison of the recent op-eds by Ignatius and Goss, a former CIA clandestine operative and a former chairman of the House intelligence Committee as well as the CIA director during the period of torture and abuse, is particularly revealing.
Both Ignatius and Goss argue that foreign intelligence services will not share sensitive intelligence with the United States and the CIA because of the declassification and release of the torture memoranda. That is nonsense!
The truth is that European liaison services as well as other intelligence services have tempered their cooperation with the CIA because of the use of torture and abuse as well as the extraordinary rendition of innocent individuals from their countries to intelligence services in the Middle East.
The CIA’s extra-legal activities have complicated and undermined the task of maintaining credible relations with our allies in the battle against terrorism.
Both Ignatius and Goss argue that, because of the release of the memos, CIA clandestine operatives will keep their heads down and avoid assignments that carry political risk, and that the decline in CIA “morale and effectiveness” will harm American national security.
More nonsense! CIA operatives and analysts are professionals who pride themselves on service to the country and their oath to the Constitution.
Very few of them took part in the corruption of intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and very few participated in the policies of torture and abuse. They know that the law should not be broken and they want to get these issues behind them so that they can continue to serve the national interests of the United States.
They know that painful truths must be acknowledged and that some price must be paid by all for the chicanery of a few.
If Agency personnel were permitted to share their opinions about torture and abuse with the press, a large majority would oppose the practices. Unfortunately, only those officers seeking to cover-up their own activities have the temerity to talk to reporters.
The notion that the declassification of these memoranda have given the “enemy invaluable information about the rules by which we operate” is particularly ludicrous.
The enemy has had this information for more than five years, ever since every major newspaper in the world published the unconscionable images from Abu Ghraib.
General officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have testified that these images are the most important recruitment tool in the hands of terrorists and fundamentalists and have contributed to the deaths of many American men and women.
Two of the most senior Post writers, David Broder and Walter Pincus, who have been reporting on national political and national security issues for decades, joined the apologists for CIA actions.
Pincus argues that previous investigations of CIA transgressions damaged the Agency. He ignores the fact that the Church Commission in the 1970s led to the creation of the Senate and House intelligence oversight committees as well as the introductions of “findings” that made sure a president had to vet plans for covert action with the oversight committees.
And Pincus fails to note that the CIA’s illegal role in the Iran-Contra scandal led to the creation of an independent, statutory Inspector General to make sure that CIA transgressions could be inspected internally and reported to the Justice Department whenever necessary.
Broder wrongly tells us that the Justice Department memos on torture demonstrate that the Bush administration conducted a “deliberate, and internally well-debated policy decision, made in the proper places…by the proper officials.”
If he had read the memos more carefully, he would have concluded that there were no policy debates regarding torture and abuse, extraordinary renditions, and secret prisons. Professional interrogators, for example, were excluded from the discussions.
Thiessen, the chief speechwriter for President Bush and perhaps the author of Bush’s claim that “we don’t torture,” resorts to misinformation to make his case. He states that the waterboarding of Khalid Sheik Mohammed (waterboarded 183 times) led to the discovery of a plot to destroy a building in Los Angeles, but that operation had been compromised more than a year before KSM was captured.
Thiessen claims no critical information would have been gained from Abu Zubaydah (waterboarded 83 times) without the use of waterboarding. FBI and CIA officials have testified, however, that all relevant information from Zubaydah was obtained with traditional interrogation measures and that Zubaydah didn’t have a great deal of intelligence to offer.
Thiessen’s assertion that the 2004 report of the CIA’s Inspector General concluded that waterboarding “yielded critical information” is almost certainly made up out of whole cloth; it is unlikely that Thiessen has seen that report, which has not been released.
Actually, we know from the authoritative 2004 report from the CIA’s Inspector General that there was no proof that torture enabled the Bush administration to thwart “specific imminent attacks” and that the CIA’s Office of Medical Services (OMS) concluded that the risks to the health of prisoners outweighed any potential intelligence benefit.
It is noteworthy that once the OMS got involved in the use of waterboarding, the tactic was halted. FBI Director Robert Mueller also has stated that no intelligence from “enhanced interrogation techniques” disrupted any attacks on the United States.
The CIA IG added that the CIA had no way of distinguishing detainees with relevant information from those who did not, which meant that many prisoners were tortured unnecessarily.
Even the editorial gurus of the Washington Post must know that White House speechwriters are unlikely to have access to such documents and are unlikely to have sufficient information to discuss such issues authoritatively. But that doesn’t stop them from publishing propaganda from Thiessen or regular commentary from Michael Gerson, another chief speechwriter and apologist for President Bush.
Thiessen’s charge that President Obama’s decision to release the torture memoranda is “one of the most dangerous and irresponsible acts every by an American president during a time of war — and Americans may die as a result” is obscene and irresponsible.
Ironically, Goss acknowledges at the end of his op-ed that the “bottom line is that we cannot succeed unless we have good intelligence.” Professional interrogators from military and civilian agencies have testified that torture and abuse do not lead to good intelligence.
And Broder concludes that we needed an investigation after 9/11 to understand “the flawed performances and gaps in the system and make the necessary repairs to reduce the chances of a deadly repetition.”
Like 9/11, only a serious investigation will allow us to understand the flawed processes and the gaps in the system. Unlike 9/11, the Bush administration’s approval of torture and abuse served to undermine the reputation of the United States, the legitimacy of our aims, and the moral fiber of the people who engage in such depravity.
Melvin A. Goodman, a regular contributor to The Public Record where this essay first appeared, is senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University. He spent more than 42 years in the U.S. Army, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Department of Defense. His most recent book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA.
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