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.

Senate Torture Report, Version 1.75

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.