CIA Torturers Talk Back

September 9, 2015–Remember last December, when the Senate intelligence committee released its investigative report on CIA torture programs? Many CIA officers, principals in the story, mounted an across-the-board effort to discredit the SSCI investigation, spin doctoring every aspect of the Senate report. The former officials put up their own website, flush with copies of op-eds, transcripts of interviews, and an array of documents declassified to support their position. The former agency officers have seemed quiet of late–not even adding to their website–but it turns out this was simply because they were repackaging the same information in book form. That book is being released today.

I kid you not when I say the website involved many principals in the sorry story of CIA torture, otherwise euphemized as the “RDI Program,” for rendition, detention, and interrogation. Editor of the new book is Bill Harlow. Mr. Harlow previously served as the CIA’s top public relations man, and he is the coauthor of the memoirs of both agency chief George J. Tenet and gung ho spook Jose Rodriguez. Both of them are contributors to the new book too. So is Michael V. Hayden, a man who loved operations, held the reins as the last prisoner was tortured, moved heaven and earth to keep CIA’s authority to torture intact even after President George W. Bush shut down the program, and is cited in the Senate report as systematically misleading Congress on what had been done. A third agency director who contributed to this new bit of PR, Porter J. Goss, is the man who stood aside while clandestine service director Rodriguez engineered the destruction of videotapes that documented CIA officers engaged in criminal acts–an obstruction of justice.

Both website and book are contrived to rebut–indeed that is the book’s title–the Senate intelligence committee report. In fact Rebuttal is built around the June 27, 2013 CIA response to the Senate report, for which the agency held up declassifying the investigation in the first place. The idea that this agency rebuttal hasn’t received sufficient attention is just wrong. First off, Senate investigators and CIA officials met multiple times to discuss the substance of the agency’s objections to the Senate report. If you look at the Senate report you’ll find many instances where the investigators take up specific claims in the CIA rebuttal and introduce additional evidence to counter them. I am told there are also places where the investigators accepted agency contentions and changed their text to accommodate them. In other words the CIA response has already been taken into account. The agency’s rebuttal document is nevertheless worded as a wholesale rejection of the Senate report.

Second, the CIA response is not so coherent anyway. Langley’s general counsel, Stephen Preston, would be appointed the Pentagon’s top lawyer in the course of the haggling over the Senate report. As part of Preston’s nomination hearings he was obliged to answer questions regarding the CIA’s preparation of its response, in which the general counsel had a supervisory role. Preston described a process where CIA director John O. Brennan simply farmed out sections of the Senate report to different officers for each to refute, where no one read the entire text of the Senate investigation, where the emphasis was on scoring points rather than reflecting on the evidence, where the Senate’s text was manipulated so as to optimize it for refutation.

For example, there are twenty major conclusions of the Senate investigation. The CIA rebuttal also contains twenty sections that are labeled replies to Senate conclusions. Not a single one of the CIA rebuttals corresponds to that numbered and labeled conclusion in the SSCI document. This makes a jumbled up hodge-podge of the Senate report. Its last two conclusions are not even taken up in the CIA response, several others were addressed only indirectly, and Langley’s mavens put words in the Senate committee’s mouth, making up an alleged SSCI conclusion, apparently so that it could use the phrase “saved lives.”

“Saved lives” appears in the name of the CIA’s officers’ website as well as in countless agency statements, speeches, and claims. If asserting a thing makes it so, in the classic propaganda technique, then this debate would have been over a long time ago. But like Richard Nixon steadfastly asserting his innocence in Watergate, the issue won’t go away because it is real. There is a fire behind the smoke and mirrors.

Lawyer Preston insisted that he had no writ to ensure the CIA responses were accurate or responsibility for the overall document, and made only spot contributions to its contents.

Asked about the forthcoming work that embodies the CIA response document, Senator Dianne Feinstein says, “”The new book doesn’t lay a glove on the factual accuracy of the Committee’s report.”

The truth about the secret war against terrorism is that the CIA and its cohorts replicated every one of the abuses that got the agency in trouble in the 1970s, this time on a global scale.

From the standpoint of citizens attempting to obtain accountability from their government institutions, the coddling given this crew of CIA officers is also deplorable. The fight over getting the Senate report released went on for nearly two years. During the last six months of that time the cabal were actively planning to counter the investigation before it was declassified. It took time to create and design their website and to obtain content for it. In particular, declassification of documents is an issue here: the CIA crew obtained preferential treatment in the declassification of documents. In fact, it appears that CIA work product may have been created especially to be released to this cabal (an Office of the Historian paper on CIA-congressional relations to uphold the claim the agency was square in its briefings to Congress). The bulk of these documents were released in September and November 2014, in good time for them to be placed on the crew’s website before release of the Senate report that December 8. In addition, the secrecy mavens were quite permissive in what they released to this crew, providing, for example, virtually complete versions of CIA records that the American Civil Liberties Union had already applied for, been denied, sued, won the case, only to be given completely gutted redactions.

The fact is that this whole crew–there are plenty more in here whom I haven’t named–have been treated with kid gloves so far. They are lucky to have escaped prosecution. Not satisfied with that, the crew apparently wants Americans to sign on to the monstrous acts committed in the nation’s name, perhaps even congratulate them for heroism (??!!?). Too much more of this and the thinning veneer of protection may be stripped away. Less swagger needed. Like the classic image of the spy these fellows should be gathering their cloaks around them and disappearing into the night.

President Bush’s Secret Police

December 22, 2014–You probably don’t remember this, but when CIA lawyer John Rizzo published his memoir Company Man, there was a bit of a dust up because Rizzo asserted that President George W. Bush was never briefed on the CIA torture techniques, whereas in his own memoirs Mr. Bush claimed he had personally approved them. Now we have real evidence in the matter–grace to the CIA (about which, more in one moment). It seems clear that senior administration officials steered clear of Mr. Bush. Their rationale was undoubtedly to afford the president as much leeway for plausible deniability. But the result was a highly controversial program, run by subordinates, with no one’s cognizance but their own. In effect Mr. Bush approved the CIA becoming his secret police and then left them to their own devices. That sinister eminence Vice-President Dick Cheney became the master of the dark side.

As to the evidence, we owe that to the CIA’s desperate effort to discredit the investigation of the Senate intelligence committee into its torture programs. The former CIA officers who allied themselves to crush the investigators asked Langley to give them secret documents to backstop their denials of investigators’ charges. The CIA, breaking U.S. government rules for handling declassification of secret documents, as well as its own regulations for this purpose, afforded the former CIA officers preferential treatment and gave them information denied to other requestors. The CIA permitted a long-promised declassification review of the actual Senate report to languish while it rushed out these secret documents to fuel the deniers. Moreover, it released the very class of information to them that it routinely denies to all requestors. I wrote at length in The Family Jewels   about how the denizens of Langley have bankrupted their declassification process. Now, these actions surrounding the Senate report show chapter and verse.

You can see the documents for yourself. (I am posting some of them as “Bush Torture Documents,” a product in the “Downloadable” section of this website.) The information in many of these documents is what the CIA calls “predecisional” and denies. In fact some of these documents were subjects of a lawsuit brought against the CIA by the American Civil Liberties Union, a suit the agency lost. Required to release, it did so, but reluctantly and only a few words per paragraph. For its former spooks, though, the CIA released virtually entire documents– to persons with the avowed purpose of discrediting congressional oversight of the agency.

Now back to the substance. The notorious Justice Department memos from John Yoo furnished the supposed legal basis for the CIA interrogation program in August 2002. By that time detainee Abu Zubaydah for four months. After that time it was not until January 2003 that CIA director George J. Tenet brought the interrogators under a formal directive. A record from top CIA lawyer Scott W. Muller makes clear that those consulted for approval of the CIA program in the summer of 2002 did not include the president. Dick Cheney, however, held center stage.

What was on the books was Mr. Bush’s formal order of February 7, 2002 that detainees were to be treated in a humane fashion. That came to be called the “February Memo.” The CIA documents detail literally dozens of instances where agency lawyers and others sought acknowledgements from Justice Department, White House, and Pentagon officials, that that order did not apply to the CIA or what it was doing. In one typical instance, at the White House on January 6, 2003, in presidential counsel Alberto Gonzales’s office, Mr. Gonzales and vice-presidential lawyer David Addington “confirmed that the February Memo was applicable only to the Armed Forces.”

When the United Nations held an International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, a White House press spokesman put out a favorable statement which cited the February Memo. The CIA went ballistic. Director Tenet demanded renewed affirmation of government and Justice Department support for its torture program. National Security Council lawyer John Bellinger volunteered to pass to the White House press office that it should tone down its message since the memo did not apply to CIA.

Later Patrick Philbun, a senior official at the Justice Department, commented that Justice had never taken a written position on certain features of the CIA operation. In June 2004 Tenet again demanded reaffirmation of his agency’s operations. In the interim he halted CIA interrogations in their tracks. Weeks later the Justice Department threw out the 2002 legal papers underlying the torture. The CIA and Justice hammered out a New Deal, capped by a meeting in the White House Situation Room on July 2, 2004. Again President Bush would be absent.

Dick Cheney was very much present, however. From the available documents it appears that Mr. Cheney was there for every key episode. He was consulted in advance in August 2002. One meeting Cheney attended by video link. His lawyer David Addington was a presence too. At one point in July 2003 Cheney, Condi Rice, and Alberto Gonzales agreed that in “some combination” they would tell President Bush the CIA was pursuing interrogations “using techniques that could be controversial.”

As noted, these initiatives came in response to CIA demands for “reaffirmation” of the Bush administration’s commitment to torture. The CIA’s actions were not those of officials confident of the legality of their actions. Quite the opposite. These were fidgety men and women, constantly seeking reassurances. They knew they had entered a moral swamp. They were ready to burn videotapes, destroying evidence, at the drop of a hat. Egged on by the dark lord, Dick Cheney, they ended up becoming a secret police.

It is a piece of CIA lore that in Congress in 1947, when legislators were debating whether to create a peacetime intelligence agency, they insisted it would not be permitted to become a Gestapo–the World War II experience was fresh then–and the agency would have no police powers. At Dick Cheney’s prodding that history was turned on its head.

The use of these documents today, for former intelligence officers to fashion a counternarrative that the CIA torture program was legal, authorized at the highest level, and well managed, is an attempt to hide an outrage under a veneer of efficiency. Think of East Germany during the Cold War.

Apart from everything else, the document dump represents a direct challenge to the President of the United States. Here, CIA officers are signaling that they have evidence on presidents, in this case George W. Bush, which can be deployed to the political peril of the White House. Back in 1975, the “Year of Intelligence,” confronted with evidence of CIA domestic spying, the redoubtable agency spymaster Richard M. Helms told President Gerald R. Ford, that he was not prepared to take the fall for Langley’s misdeeds, and that, if someone wanted to make him, a “lot of cats” were going to come out. The threat that Mr. Helms implied is now real–in the actions of these CIA successors. The secret police are defying their superiors.

Don’t forget, too, that all this discussion has turned on CIA activities with only a relative handful of detainees. The interrogations were matched by–and helped to fuel–a targeted assassination program using remotely-fired missiles and, at one point, a unit of human assassins. There were snatch teams grabbing people off the street in Italy, transport teams taking hand-offs of prisoners in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Montenegro, Sweden, Great Britain, and elsewhere; ghost planes to carry detainees from one secret prison to another. In a speech at Georgetown University in February 2004, Director Tenet took credit for the CIA after 9/11 taking 2,500 prisoners. For months the officers of the Counterterrorism Center must have been circling the globe like compradors, dealing flesh, wheedling favors from allied security services, because the vast majority of those detainees were handed over (rendered) to foreign spooks with even less compunction about what they were doing than the CIA. Jose Rodriguez has a lot to answer for.