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.