No Easy Answers

Published: December 12, 2014

By Jim Lichtman
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In assessing the actions of the CIA and, in particular, the program euphemistically called, Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, context is important. Nowhere is that historical context more evident than in an April 2007 interview CBS News Anchor Scott Pelley conducted with former CIA Chief George Tenet.


Tenet was unusually candid and direct about the situation the United States faced after September 11, 2001. “The image that’s been portrayed is, we sat around the campfire and said, ‘Oh, boy, now we go get to torture people.’ Well, we don’t torture people. Let me say that again to you. We don’t torture people. Okay?” Tenet says.

“Come on, George,” Pelley says.

“I want you to listen to me,” Tenet says. “…it’s post-9/11. I’ve got reports of nuclear weapons in New York City, apartment buildings that are gonna be blown up, planes that are gonna fly into airports all over again. Plot lines that I don’t know – I don’t know what’s going on inside the United States. And I’m struggling to find out where the next disaster is going to occur. Everybody forgets one central context of what we lived through. The palpable fear that we felt on the basis of the fact that there was so much we did not know.”

Mr. Tenet’s passionate descriptions aside, in a recent New York Times story (Dec. 9), “For four years, according to Central Intelligence Agency records, no one from the agency ever came to the Oval Office to give President George W. Bush a full briefing on what was happening in the dark dungeons of Afghanistan and Eastern Europe. For four years, interrogators stripped, slammed and soaked their prisoners without the president’s being told exactly what was going on.

“By the time the C.I.A. director came in April 2006 to give Mr. Bush the agency’s first briefing about the interrogation techniques it had been using since 2002, more than three dozen prisoners had already been subjected to them. And when told about one detainee being chained to the ceiling of his cell, clothed in a diaper and forced to urinate and defecate on himself, even a president known for his dead-or-alive swagger ‘expressed discomfort.’ …

“Even to the extent that the president and his advisers understood the program, they kept other top administration figures out of the loop, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. An internal C.I.A. email from July 2003 said that the White House was ‘extremely concerned Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s been going on.’ …

“Still, the report does not fully answer the question of what Mr. Bush or his advisers knew because the committee did not interview them. In recent days, Mr. Bush and other veterans of his administration said they were not misled about the program. ‘It was approved, including the techniques, by the National Security Council,’ former Vice President Dick Cheney said in an interview Monday. ‘It produced results and saved lives.’ ”

Since the release of the Senate Report, Mr. Cheney has been back in the media spotlight, most notably on Fox News, defending the program and the people involved.

According to a Times phone interview (Dec. 9), Cheney said, “ ‘What I keep hearing out there is they portray this as a rogue operation, and the agency was way out of bounds and then they lied about it. I think that’s all a bunch of hooey. The program was authorized. The agency did not want to proceed without authorization, and it was also reviewed legally by the Justice Department before they undertook the program.”

“But Mr. Cheney conveniently left out that the Senate investigators found that the C.I.A. lied to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel about the program,” Times reporter Andrew Rosenthal writes.

“Mr. Cheney went on to claim that the torture and abuse of prisoners had produced valuable, timely intelligence, when all the evidence is to the contrary.”

Perhaps the most credible assessment comes from current CIA Director John Brennan. “In a limited number of cases, agency officers used interrogation techniques that had not been authorized, were abhorrent and rightly should be repudiated by all,” Brennan said.

But he added: “The overwhelming majority of officers involved in the program at CIA carried out their responsibilities faithfully and in accordance with the legal and policy guidance they were provided. They did what they were asked to do in the service of our nation.”

According to report by NPR (Dec. 11), “Brennan said he found the process by which the Senate committee arrived at its report ‘flawed,’ but that many of its conclusions were ‘sound and consistent with our own findings.’ He said the agency was authorized by Bush, in the wake of Sept. 11, to come up with ways to keep the country safer.

Countering Cheney’s absolutist response that Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EIT’s) directly led to actionable intelligence, Brennan said that it was “unknowable” whether the tactics directly led to useful intelligence.

In response to the Senate report, Brennan used context to help us better understand.

“In the immediate aftermath of 9/11,” the CIA chief said, “our nation ached, it cried, and it prayed. And in our pain, we pledged to come together as one and to do what we could to prevent Osama bin Laden and his killing machine from ever carrying out another attack against our beautiful country. …

“Indeed, there were numerous credible and very worrisome reports about a second and third wave of major attacks against the United States. And while we grieved, while we honored our dead, while we tended to our injured and while we embarked on the long process of recovery, we feared more blows from an enemy we couldn’t see and an evil we couldn’t fathom. This is the backdrop against which the agency was directed by President Bush to carry out a program to detain terrorist suspects around the world.

“In many respects, the program was uncharted territory for the CIA and we were not prepared. We had little experience housing detainees, and precious few of our officers were trained interrogators. But the president authorized the effort six days after 9/11, and it was our job to carry it out.

“Over time,” Brennan said, “enhanced interrogation techniques, EITs, which the Department of Justice determined at the time to be lawful and which were duly authorized by the Bush administration, were introduced as a method of interrogation. As concerns about al-Qaida’s terrorist plans endured, a variety of these techniques were employed by CIA officers on several dozen detainees over the course of five years, before they ended in December of 2007. The legal advice under which they were authorized subsequently has been revoked.

“But as the president stated this week, the previous administration faced agonizing choices about how to pursue al-Qaida and prevent additional terrorist attacks against our country. While facing fears of further attacks and carrying out the responsibility to prevent more catastrophic loss of life, there were no easy answers. And whatever your views are on EITs, our nation and in particular this agency did a lot of things right during this difficult time to keep this country strong and secure.”

Regarding how the report was conducted, Brennan said, “Unfortunately, the committee could not agree on a bipartisan way forward and no CIA personnel were interviewed by the committee during the course of the investigation.”

Nonetheless, Brennan said, “Although we view the process undertaken by the committee when investigating the program as flawed, many aspects of their conclusions are sound and consistent with our own prior findings.” …

“But CIA officers’ actions that did comport with the law and policy should neither be criticized nor conflated with the actions of the few who did not follow the guidance issued. At the same time, none of these lapses should be excused, downplayed or denied. In some instances, we simply failed to live up to the standards that we set for ourselves, that the American people expect of us.

“To address the concerns identified, the CIA has implemented a number of reforms in an effort to make sure those mistakes never happen again.”

Admittedly, I have read only a small portion of the report. But I am disturbed by the fact that, as Brennan points out, “no CIA personnel were interviewed by the committee.”

Based on my interviews over the last two years with former Assistant Attorney General and Special Counsel Jo Ann Harris, I know she would be shaking her head with respect to this finding. Investigations such as these should not only be conducted independent of political influence, but should contain personal information obtained from interviews of many of those involved in order to obtain the most objective conclusions and recommendations possible.

Would I have sanctioned waterboarding immediately following 9/11 if we had credible reports of imminent attacks?

Under conditions described by then-CIA Director George Tenet and current CIA Director Brennan, I probably would have.

Is torture wrong?

You bet.

In his concluding remarks, Director Brennan echoed Senator John McCain’s speech a day earlier. The CIA “has said that individuals who are subjected to those techniques here provided useful information as well as false information. And as our experts try to pour through a lot of data and information, that job is made more challenging if you get more false information.”

If I were a member of Congress I would be following the wisdom of McCain, the only man who experienced it all firsthand. “We need only remember in the worst of times, through the chaos and terror of war, when facing cruelty, suffering and loss, that we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us.”


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