Closing In on the Torturers
Do you think the wardens will let George Tenet wear his Presidential Medal of Freedom over the orange coverall?
Perhaps he and Donald Rumsfeld will end up doing time together in one of the prisons also slated to host what Rumsfeld called “the worst of the worst” from Guantanamo.
That would be poetic justice of a most ironic kind. And if the two former leaders do end up in prison they can count themselves fortunate for having dodged execution for their roles in a slew of capital offenses.
You see, punishments for violations of the War Crimes Act (18 U.S.C. 2441), applicable in their case, include the death penalty — often the sentence of choice if detainees die in their custody. And countless have.
Before you question my sanity, please know that I just completed the arduous task of reading the aging but devastating CIA Inspector General’s report on torture.
You can be forgiven for holding your nose while paging through the redacted version of the “CIA Inspector General’s Special Review of Counterterrorism Detention and Interrogation Activities (September 2001 – October 2003).” Although heavily sanitized, it is still nauseating.
You can not be easily forgiven, though, if you don’t make the effort to read with care at least some of this lurid account of the abuse of detainees held by the CIA — a narrative which is said to have sickened Attorney General Eric Holder and one which cries out for reinforced efforts toward accountability.
This is not the CIA in which I served for 27 years. I spent most of my career in the analysis directorate, but had substantial tours of duty in the other three directorates as well.
There were abuses before the Bush/Cheney administration, but Bush and Cheney thoroughly corrupted both substance and operations, and enlisted creeps and charlatans to do their bidding. There is now reason to believe that the careerists and contractors who cooperated in the criminality will be held to account.
Positive news came with the announcement that Attorney General Eric Holder has broadened prosecutor John Durham’s mandate to include cases in which CIA interrogators and contractors may have violated U.S. torture laws and other statutes.
Durham has already spent over a year investigating the destruction of CIA videotapes of interrogations and thus is in position to jump-start the process of looking into related matters.
Durham is acutely aware that the tapes were destroyed not long after word got out that the CIA Inspector General had completed a Special Review on interrogation practices. Those CIA officers with custody of the tapes were acutely aware that, if the tapes wound up in the “wrong hands,” there might well be hell to pay.
Unless someone squirreled away some duplicates, we will never see those tapes. But the IG report shines considerable light on what was done in the torture chambers the CIA was instructed to create and operate abroad.
Holder’s decision opens a hopeful new chapter in the complicated effort to hold to account those responsible for leading the country into the dark dungeons.
We can’t say we weren’t warned. Many will recall that former Vice President Dick Cheney set the tone just five days after 9/11, when he told Tim Russert:
"We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We've got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we're going to be successful.
“That's the world these folks operate in, and so it's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective."
Cheney tipped us off early to what he had in mind, apparently in the belief that most of us would go along. So far so good, from his perspective.
But recent months have seen him increasingly nervous and now that Holder has taken a major step forward, we can expect a vociferous and sustained reaction from Cheney and his avid supporters in the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM).
Indeed, Cheney did not waste a day in voicing strong criticism of Holder’s decision. And small wonder: Cheney’s DNA can be found from top to bottom of the “chain of command” on torture.
Cheney’s ace in the hole is his clearly signaled readiness to implicate former President George W. Bush, if any investigation of torture or other abuses manages to reach the most senior White House levels.
Cheney calculates that President Obama and Holder would shy away from doing that, but the former Vice President is taking no chances.
Yes, the 100-page-plus CIA IG report bears the date May 7, 2004. And yes, former Vice President Cheney’s aphorism about “the dark side” is evoked by the hundreds of paragraphs completely blackened out. (The thirsty report drank two full print cartridges). And yes, the entire four pages of the “Recommendations” section are blackened out.
Still, I think this is truly a case of better-late-than-never. And those of us who have been following this painful issue closely can readily fill in many of those paragraphs.
Right on the Mark
Unable to see beneath the black-out, it is left to us to make recommendations.
Here’s one for starters. It’s not original; rather it came in the wake of the CIA role in coups in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and South Vietnam (1963), to mention just a few:
As former President Harry Truman wrote in a Dec. 22, 1963, syndicated article entitled “Limit CIA Role to Intelligence”:
“I…would like to see the CIA be restored to its original assignment as the intelligence arm of the President…and that its operational duties be terminated or properly used elsewhere.
“We have grown up as a nation respected for our free institutions and for our ability to maintain a free and open society. There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel that we need to correct it.”
It is no surprise that President Truman felt very close to this, since it was he who pushed very hard to create the CIA.
His purpose was two-fold: to prevent another Pearl Harbor and to create an independent agency he could depend upon to speak to him and his senior advisers without fear or favor — an agency with guaranteed access to all significant sources of information on a given country or issue.
As he explained in the widely published op-ed:
“I decided to set up a special organization charged with the collection of all intelligence reports from every available source, and to have those reports reach me as President without department ‘treatment’ or interpretations.”
But a sentence that was shoehorned into the National Security Act of 1947 also authorized the President to use the CIA to perform “other functions and duties.” And that secret role including covert action gradually came to dwarf what was originally the primary task of speaking plain truth to power.
For much of CIA’s 62 years, that one-sentence tail has been wagging the CIA dog, marginalizing its central role to collect information, analyze it, and present the truth in as unvarnished a way as humanly possible.
George Tenet was a disaster as Director of Central Intelligence. Although it was a major part of his job description, before 9/11, to ensure that the entire intelligence community was functioning as an organic whole, he much preferred hobnobbing with princes and potentates abroad and backslapping senior officials in Washington.
With 15 intelligence units in the federal government, there is always a strong centripetal tendency, and Tenet’s misfeasance in managing the community resulted in important pre-9/11 intelligence falling through the cracks.
His malfeasance in “fixing” substantive intelligence to support President Bush’s wish to attack Iraq and then enthusiastically carrying out Bush/Cheney orders for torture and other abuses marks the worst chapter in Agency history — bar none.
Even so, before 9/11 Tenet did manage to give his good buddy Bush and then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice quite enough in the way of repeated warnings that they should have, well, at least seen to it that the airlines put locks on cockpit doors.
CIA directors keep copies of such warnings, of course, and this made Bush reluctant to fire Tenet after the terrorist attacks.
A kind of mutual blackmail ensued, disguised as good-ol’-boy bonhomie. I won’t fire you, George, if you promise not to tell anyone how many times you warned me that something very big and very bad was going to happen. And, from now on, you’ll do exactly as I say.
Newt Gingrich, like Cheney a frequent visitor to CIA headquarters in those years, commented that George Tenet was so grateful to Bush for not firing him, that he “would do anything for him.”
The most tangible manifestation of this Faustian bargain came on April 14, 2004, when Tenet lied under oath before the 9/11 Commission to protect Bush. Tenet told the commission under the prime-time klieg lights that he had not spoken to Bush — even on the telephone — during the entire month of August 2001.
I turns out that Tenet was lying. He did visit Crawford not once but twice during August and briefed Bush again in Washington at the end of the month. After the TV cameras were shut off, Tenet’s public affairs folks phoned the commission staff to say Oops, Tenet misspoke.
The backslapping Tenet made another fast friend of FBI Director Robert Mueller. The two conspired to fulfill White House wishes to magnify the threat from al-Qaeda about which, when all was said and done, relatively little was actually known.
Exaggerating threats became a major cottage industry, as former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge learned as he struggled to keep the color-coded warnings from being blatantly coordinated for Bush’s political purposes.
FBI Director Rehearses
FBI Director Mueller led the alarmist chorus, stating solemnly to Congress and anyone who would listen, “Our greatest threat is from al-Qaeda cells in the United States that we have not been able to identify.”
Please, take a minute to think that sentence through. It may parse okay; but what does it really mean?
In February 2003, Mueller warned that hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives were hiding throughout the U.S. planning potentially catastrophic attacks, but that the FBI does not know who or where they are.
The “greatest threat” but not yet identified. Does this not remind you of George Tenet’s Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq?
Sounds like a corollary to the Rumsfeldian dictum: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
Truly a strange way to do intelligence. And reminiscent of the then-UN chief weapons inspector’s telling comment to U.S. officials regarding the threat of WMD in Iraq:
"It's sort of puzzling, I think, that you can have 100 percent certainty about the weapons of mass destruction's existence, and zero certainty about where they are."
And so it was with al-Qaeda cells in the U.S.
Ready for this? There were no cells.
And please, don’t conjure up “threatening” groups like the feckless one from Lackawanna — the entrapment case that was the best the FBI could do in manufacturing enemies within!
Eager to please the White House, Mueller had learned to blow smoke, as we say in the trade. Not to mention the most egregious example; i. e., the thousand immigrants detained for six to 12 months immediately after 9/11, with none — not one — being charged with terrorism.
What’s the connection here with the CIA Inspector General’s report? Just this: if the FBI director points to al-Qaeda cells — real or imagined — in the U.S. as the greatest threat to our national security, there is a high premium on what former President George W. Bush called “the hunt.”
Smoke ‘em out; and find ways to make them tell us who and where in the U.S. their compatriots are lurking.
Read the following excerpts from the CIA Inspector General report text (page 83ff) and weep:
“According to a number of those interviewed for this Review, the Agency’s intelligence on Al-Qa’ida was limited prior to the CTC (Counterterrorist Center) Program. The Agency lacked adequate linguists or subject matter experts and had very little hard knowledge of what particular Al-Qa’ida leaders — who later became detainees — knew.
“This lack of knowledge led analysts to speculate about what a detainee ‘should know,’ vice information the analyst could objectively demonstrate the detainee did know….
“When a detainee did not respond to a question posed to him, the assumption at Headquarters was that the detainee was holding back and knew more; consequently, Headquarters recommended resumption of EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques].
“[a page-plus blackened] is evidenced in the final waterboard session of Abu Zubaydah. According to a senior CTC officer, the interrogation team considered Abu Zubaydah to be compliant and wanted to terminate EITs. [word(s) redacted] believed Abu Zubaydah continued to withhold information, [three lines redacted] at the time it generated substantial pressure from Headquarter to continue use of the EITs.
“According to this senior officer, the decision to resume use of the waterboard on Abu Zubaydah was made by senior officers of the DO [Directorate of Operations]. [one line redacted] to assess Abu Zubaydah’s compliance and witnessed the final waterboard session, after which, they reported back to Headquarters that the EITs were no longer needed on Abu Zubaydah.”
In their “Conclusions” section, the IG uses bloodless prose to make this painful observation:
“Agency officers report that reliance on analytical assessments that were unsupported by credible intelligence may have resulted in the application of EITs without justification.
“Some participants in the Program, particularly field interrogators, judge that CTC assessments to the effect that detainees are withholding information are not always supported by an objective evaluation of available information and the evaluation of the interrogators but are too heavily based, instead, on presumptions of what the individual might or should know.”
People were tortured on the basis of “presumptions.” Nice.
A More “Robust” Approach
Back to Abu Zubaydah: his capture in March 2002 “presented the Agency with a significant dilemma,” as the IG explains the Introduction to the Special Review:
“The Agency was under pressure to do everything possible to prevent additional terrorist attacks. Senior Agency officials believed Abu Zubaydah was withholding information that could not be obtained through then-authorized interrogation techniques.
“Agency officials believed that a more robust approach was necessary to elicit threat information from Abu Zubaydah and possibly from other senior Al-Qa’ida high value detainees.”
The IG report makes it clear that these requirements “presented new challenges for CIA … including identifying qualified personnel to manage and carry out detention and interrogation activities.”
CTC implemented training programs for interrogators and debriefers. Here’s a revealing footnote to help a torturer’s apprentice distinguish between interrogators and debriefers (from page 6 of the Summary):
“An interrogator is a person who completes a two-week [!] interrogations training program, which is designed to train, qualify, and certify a person to administer EITs. An interrogator can administer EITs during the interrogation of a detainee only after the field, in coordination with Headquarters, assesses the detainee as withholding information.
“An interrogator transitions the detainee from a non-cooperative to a cooperative phase in order that a debriefer can elicit actionable intelligence through non-aggressive techniques during debriefing sessions.”
Got that? It’s the same basic rationale that former Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller introduced into Guantanamo, and then Abu Ghraib. Remember? The MPs were instructed to soften up the detainees. The preferred euphemism was “prepare the conditions for successful interrogation.”
As reluctant as President Obama seems to be to address the torture issue, the CIA Inspector General report, for which the ACLU filed a successful Freedom of Information Act suit, is impossible to ignore.
A spokesman for Obama said decisions on how to proceed with the inquiry lie in the hands of Attorney General Holder, who appears willing to take the heat. Fox News, oblivious to the irony, is already calling Holder’s announcement the beginning of an “Inquisition.”
While the inquiry is said to involve only those CIA people who went beyond the Department of Justice’s very flexible guidelines regarding harsh interrogation, in my view it will be very difficult to keep the investigation within those tight parameters.
There is a growing chance that, at the end of the day, those up the food chain will not escape being held accountable. By this point in time most observers are fully aware that the most rotten apples were at the very top, not the bottom, of the barrel.
Endangering Morale at CIA?
What Americans need to know is that only a miniscule percentage of CIA officers approve of torture. The vast majority oppose it — whether for utilitarian reasons (as we have seen, it does not work, unless you are after unreliable information); or for moral reasons (including a decent respect for the opinion of mankind, as someone once put it).
Most believe Patrick Henry had it right, when he insisted that the rack and screw have no place in the New World.
So what about morale? Let’s address head-on the self-serving canard that would have us believe that exposing torture and other abuses would damage morale at the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
You may recall that Gen. Michael Hayden, even while still CIA director, was going around town telling folks that he had warned the new President not to allow an investigation into controversial activities like waterboarding, or else “no one in Langley will ever take a risk again.” Rubbish.
Hayden was blowing smoke, as we say in the trade, but also gravely insulting the great majority of CIA employees who have served, and continue to serve, with honor.
At a public forum in late April, former Vice President Walter Mondale exposed the speciousness of the Hayden-cum-Bush-holdovers argument. Mondale was one of the senators on the Church Committee, which during the mid-1970s unearthed the unlawful activities of COINTELPRO and other serious abuses by the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
Speaking out of that experience, Mondale noted that then, too, concern over the effect on agency morale was voiced both before the Church investigation got under way and while it was proceeding.
The concern proved totally unfounded, according to Mondale, as it quickly became apparent that agency personnel called before the Church Committee were thankful for the chance to get the truth out, get a heavy burden off their shoulders, and put the scandal behind them.
More important, the truth that was brought to light made it possible for the country to resolve how several key national security structural and legal issues were to be addressed in the future.
Much of that wisdom and many of the legal protections introduced at that time were blithely disregarded by the Bush administration. It is time to get back on the track of legality.
As veteran CIA operative Bob Baer told an interviewer on Monday, there is no reason why CIA should be considered above the law. “Indeed, the Agency does its best work when operating within the law,” said Baer.
At one point, he himself was accused and investigated on grounds that he went beyond what was permitted by law and regulation governing his operations in Iraq. Baer was able to show that he had adhered to the letter, as well as the spirit, of the law.
The investigation ended, and Baer continued to shine as one of CIA’s best operatives in the Middle East.
As for the need for holding people to account, Mondale had this to say:
"Holding people responsible in some way for what happened is very important. If the verdict here is that you can do these kinds of things and there are no consequences, then that leaves a precedent.
“I've been around the federal government long enough to know that if there is a bad precedent, it's like leaving a loaded pistol on the kitchen table. You don't know who is going to pick it up and pull the trigger. There need to be consequences for violating the law.”
So, hats off to Attorney General Eric Holder, who could have tried to keep dodging the issue; and to the President as well, for deciding to give Holder leeway to do the right thing, despite the inevitable controversy they both had hoped somehow to avoid.
In his announcement Holder was refreshingly straightforward: “As Attorney General, my duty is to examine the facts and to follow the law. In this case, given all of the information currently available, it is clear to me that this review is the only responsible course of action for me to take."
So let’s clean up the mess as quickly as possible. Then we will be able to move on, in due course, to address the kind of simple but sensible recommendation made by President Truman’s 46 years ago.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer, before beginning a career as an analyst for the CIA, and is now a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
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