December 12, 2014–You know the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is in trouble when they hold a press conference. Amid the fires on Playa Giron at the Bay of Pigs, the swirling assassination charges of the Phoenix Program, the cynical denials to Congress that the agency had had anything to do with those fellows dropping supplies to the Nicaraguan contra rebels, charges the agency was running guns to Bosnian freedom fighters–never a press conference.
It’s odd, really. There are obscure federal agencies but nothing so opaque as this. Aside from our vaunted “intelligence” community, what others are there who employ tens of thousands of people, whose budgets amount to tens of billions of dollars, whose programmatic activities kill people, who are subjected to this level of scrutiny? I can’t think of one. Can you?
What level of scrutiny? Their budgets are secret. It was a struggle of more than six decades to require U.S. intelligence to divulge even an overall figure for the amount spent on this function each year. Their authorities are classified. Officials appear at nomination hearings and feed senators a load of horse**** and then disappear into the secret world. Agency spokespersons make numerous statements for publication on stories in the public domain that have no traceable texts or physical existence. Freedom of information and sunshine laws are interpreted any way they damn well please. Agency officials appear in Congress at open hearings almost only for the purpose of threatmongering, stoking public hysteria while warding off inquiry. Everything is all about image.
The kind of regulatory hearing that preoccupies most federal agencies hardly matters to the spooks. Until 1967 the CIA had never appeared before a congressional committee for purposes of accountability and then the hearing was secret. Until 1975 neither CIA nor NSA had been in open hearing either. Indeed the public is kept ignorant of the most basic information necessary for regulatory purposes. The congressional intelligence committees are supposed to stand in for the public, but we see repeatedly how they are deceived. Each time the spooks explain those manipulations as inadvertent mistakes or clumsy errors, or accidental misplacements of records, but the pattern is plain to see. In my book The Family Jewels I showed at great length how the CIA massages image by influencing journalists and using declassification rules. In the present instance of a senate investigation of the CIA, agency officers hacked into the computer systems of regulatory investigators. In spy tradecraft the word for that is “countersurveillance.”
Some journalists have written breathlessly of yesterday’s press conference with CIA director John O. Brennan as “unprecedented.” Where that adjective applies is the care the agency took with its image. Take the venue. Brennan had the press in the atrium of the CIA headquarters building, where stars are carved into the marble wall representing CIA officers fallen in the line of duty. He made sure to refer to the wall, and the stars, in the course of his 45-minute exchange. Obviously nothing could be more disruptive to agency business than to have a public event in the main entry area. This is especially true in that when the Langley complex was built, designers carefully included an auditorium area–affectionately known as “The Bubble” (it even looks like a buckeyball)–outside the main building so that events could be held without impacting the secret work of the spies.
There have been CIA press conferences in the past. Bill Colby held a couple in the heat of the scandals of 1975 with the Church and Pike Committee investigations pressuring the agency to respond. My favorite was at the height of the flap over news the CIA, in support of its Nicaraguan secret war, had flooded Los Angeles with drugs. The CIA director actually flew out to LA for that session and it got national TV coverage. Then there was the time the CIA was caught misleading the congressional oversight committees (again!) on its ties to Guatemalan army officers responsible in the murders of American citizens. Both of those were in the Clinton administration. That’s pretty much it. I might have missed a couple, but for an agency whose history spans sixty-seven years that’s not a hell of a lot. Notice the pattern? As I said up top, the press conference is a sure index of CIA nervousness.
Now to substance. Director Brennan set the context as carefully as he chose the venue. He spent nearly half the time on his opening statement, which was long on 9/11 and the atmospherics of those days. Some might dispute this, since references to the program were scattered through Brennan’s remarks, but my reading was that the CIA bossman passed over the substance of the torture program in a single paragraph (which noted it had approved by the president and the Department of Justice).
Brennan went on to the senate investigation, disputing it, asserting the CIA had acknowledged mistakes, and lambasting the Senate intelligence committee for a one-sided report for which investigators interviewed no one. He used the word “unprecedented” to describe the amount of help CIA gave the investigators. Nary a word about countersurveillance, about the CIA’s doing an internal survey covering the materials the Senate might get its hands on, CIA’s criminal complaint against the investigators to the Department of Justice, or its long foot-dragging on providing evidence, which had actually forced the president’s White House counsel to broker a deal between the CIA and the Senate committee. I don’t think Brennan actually used the word “partisan.” Instead he compared the new report unfavorably to the Senate intelligence committee’s “bipartisan” investigation of the Iraq WMD intelligence. Too clever by half. The whole problem with the Senate WMD investigation was that it was not bipartisan, but rather, driven by a Republican majority–precisely the way the CIA is wont to characterize the present effort. Apart from that, the CIA behaviors noted above might be likely to engender a certain investigatorial ire, no?
Director Brennan picked up another point from the chorus of former spooks who are shrilly screaming from the sidelines. Interviews. In the Iraq WMD inquiry, Brennan noted, some CIA officers were interviewed as many as four times. With torture, none. But Mr. Brennan left out the Justice Department obstruction of justice inquiry that proceeded in tandem with the Senate investigation. The CIA played the Ollie North card here. The prosecution of North for his role in the Iran-Contra affair failed because he had spoken to Congress on the substance of issues for which he was indicted, which left the evidence tainted. Here Justice’s obstruction inquiry took precedence over the Senate intelligence committee’s investigation. The senators had another source, though. They used the interviews conducted by CIA’s Inspector General in an internal investigation into the torture. That proved sufficient for the Senate investigation but not for Brennan and the cheerleaders. Note the play: the Senate is prevailed upon to give a free hand to the Justice inquiry; the CIA pressures the White House to drop Justice charges against its officers; then the favor Senate investigators did for Justice is used to discredit the Senate’s own inquiry.
In his defense of torture Director Brennan made much of another canard that is becoming popular among the cheerleaders: “knowability.” Now that torture has been applied, the argument goes, it is not possible to know what information the detainees would have provided if they had not been tortured. This is a straw man claim that relies on a false application of an analytical concept. In fact, “knowable” is a specific philosophical term in the intelligence business. It refers to what is beyond the realm of knowledge. In Cold War days when CIA analysts were projecting the size of Russian missile forces five to ten years in the future, they were making predictions about production decisions Soviet leaders were only going to make three to five years into the future. Those decisions were unknowable.
With the detainees CIA tortured, “knowable” does not even apply. The fact is that we have evidence, in CIA cables, that the subjects gave out information before they were tortured. The likelihood is that good interrogation practices would ensure that flow of data continued. The kinds of details cited by Mr. Brennan and in the CIA’s response document to the Senate report are ones likely to have emerged anyway, over time. With or without torture I don’t see that CIA tracked down Osama bin Laden especially quickly. They could have taken a little bit longer and conducted a legitimate interrogation. As detectives “detect,” so intelligence officers are supposed to analyze. “Knowable” has nothing to do with it.
Brennan and company are essentially saying torture is a convenience. To engage in morally reprehensible actions for convenience is unacceptable on so many levels we shouldn’t even be talking about it. It is high time to enforce accountability on CIA. Instead of accountability we get posturing and invocations of fallen heroes to justify a shabby present. The system is broken. Public relations is not oversight, nor is accountability vague pleas that the agency has heard the complaints and made appropriate changes. Accountability is explicit, specific, and it involves personnel decisions, not to mention open covenants openly arrived at.