July 27, 2014–Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. When the Senate Intelligence Committee (SSCI) investigated CIA torture and the agency’s black prisons the spooks at Langley made the investigators come to them to access the source material. With the Senate report now complete and intense pressures to release it, subjects of the study (read George J. Tenet, his successors, and their minions) are desperate to see the document, learn what it says, and prepare their counterattacks. When the SSCI voted to release the report, CIA director John O. Brennan consulted former spooks who had participated in the events it portrays. There were meetings in the director’s conference room and conference calls among the principals.
Despite his promises at confirmation hearings to take the report to heart and support its release, Director Brennan has continued to drag his feet on taking any action. In part this reflects his own loyalties–Brennan was once chief of staff to George Tenet, and the man Tenet selected to lead the first terrorist threat integration center, a fusion center whose “threat matrix” reports guided CIA counterterror actions for some time after 9/11. No doubt Brennan thought he owed it to Tenet and the others involved to bring them into the loop on the SSCI torture report.
Tenet, Porter J. Goss (who presided over the destruction of the videotapes of torture sessions), and Michael V. Hayden (who defended the program and sought to preserve the “authorities” to conduct it) sent a joint letter to Director Brennan arguing it was only fair they be able to see the report and react to it before the document is declassified. John Brennan took the letter to chairwoman Diane Feinstein of the SSCI. In a cute bit of turnabout (sauce for the gander), Feinstein offered to let the gentlemen have access on the premises of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Apparently that was too much for the former spooks, who raised the roof about the injustice of it all. (They might well have pondered the justice issues more deeply when they had those “high value detainees” in their black prisons.) But let’s take a moment to think about this. In U.S. security services access to classified information requires “clearances” that periodically have to be renewed. Indeed at several points in the past couple of decades, not least with the Manning and Snowden affairs and the Navy Yard shootings, it has been controversial that these renewals are not more thorough, with new investigations and polygraphing. Promises to tighten procedures have been made repeatedly. Of course the units that carry out these vettings are overwhelmed with work and far behind schedule.
It is a near certainty that clearances held by former officials like Mr. Tenet are dated. And we are absolutely sure that the SSCI torture report is highly classified–otherwise this stupid argument over releasing it could not happen. All of which begs the question of whether it is just to permit the former spooks access to secret documents that are denied to the public.
In the New York Times on July 26 Mark Mazzetti revealed that Mr. Brennan has enlisted the cooperation of White House chief of staff Denis McDonough who has brokered a deal. Bypassing the clearance issue, Tenet and company can look at the secret documents (in their full-text, unredacted versions) at the offices of Fearful Leader James Clapper, who can be counted on to support the sour grapes arguments that are sure to follow. Mazzetti speculates there will be a three-way showdown among Mr. Tenet and his crowd of former spooks, the White House, and the Senate intelligence committee.
George Tenet and his top lieutenants–people like Cofer Black, who headed the Counterterrorism Center (CTC) when the black prisons were set up; or Felix Rodriguez, CTC’s chief of operations–will argue the Senate investigators got it all wrong. They will say there was a real threat on the day after September 11, that CIA busted up real plots, that the agency merely followed orders. (They will not say, as some cooler heads did after 9/11, that the attacks were a one-off spectacular, the capacity for which ended the day airlines installed armored doors for their cockpits; that the hysteria drummed up by claims of plots against shopping malls and the Brooklyn Bridge was used to push through outrageous orders; or that the CIA obtained approvals for its strong-arm methods while misrepresenting the degree of their severity.) The spooks won’t need to say that the Bush administration was eager to buy that Brooklyn Bridge plot, even to egg the CIA on to greater outrages. The perps here will also neglect to mention the Nuremberg Principle, that following orders is no defense in the case of crimes against humanity.
Porter Goss will say the destruction of videotapes–and obstruction of justice–was done without his knowledge. Without the full SSCI report (not its executive summary, which is at issue here) the public will not know the extent of Mr. Goss’s knowledge. Michael Hayden will say that he dismantled the black prisons and became the man who explained the program to outraged overseers. He will not talk about CIA’s efforts to maintain contingency authority to continue the program, or his suppression of the agency’s own inspector general when the latter’s inquiries cut too close to the bone.
Here the White House is playing an enabling role, consistent with President Obama’s rejection of a truth commission back in 2009. This stance makes the president increasingly complicit in what happened here. One wonders. Mr. Obama had better have the great loyalty of the CIA on his side because he has gone far out on a limb for them. If that bough breaks the president will fall.