The CIA Asks America to Please, Think of the Torturer
'The Rebuttal' won't change any minds
Late last year, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence dropped a redacted 525-page version of its 6,000-page report on the CIA’s torture program. The press, including War Is Boring, spent the next month dissecting and digesting the work.
Many Americans knew the CIA had done horrible things to people in the name of national security after 9/11. But few of us realized how awful many of those techniques were. Rectal feeding and hydration entered the lexicon.
“We tortured some folks,” Pres. Barack Obama declared in August 2014.
Tomorrow, the U.S. Naval Institute — a non-profit organization that encourages debate on national security — will publish the CIA’s rebuttal to the Senate’s torture report. The 353-page tome is mostly old news.
The bulk of Rebuttal: The CIA Responds to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Study of Its Detainment and Interrogation Program is previously published work, including the CIA’s official response and the Senate minority response.
Its first 40 pages, however, are an intransigent masterpiece.
Eight editorial essays from agency luminaries such as George Tenet, Porter Goss and Jose Rodriguez, Jr. kick off the book. The pieces read like the grumpy tantrums of adult children begging the reader to remember the context of the torture program and realize the SSCI’s report was a politicized attack by Democrats.
The writers also quibble and squirm over the definition torture and … and, incredibly, beg readers to consider the feelings of the agents who performed the torture.
“I cannot tell you how disgusted my former colleagues and I felt to be labeled ‘torturers’ by the President of the United States,” writes Rodriguez, a 31-year CIA veteran. Rodriguez worries over the possibility that his colleagues might be criminally prosecuted for their actions at black sites.
“Having been the subject of a criminal investigation myself,” Rodriguez explains — investigators questioned him during the Iran-Contra affair. “I can tell you of the terrible effects such investigations have on the morale and well-being of individuals being investigated and their families.”
Remember, this man is writing about the psychological damage that possible pending criminal investigations could have on people who tortured other people. The rest of Rebuttal’s opening essays are also brazen in their myopia.
“We were fully transparent and deceived no one,” former CIA director George Tenet writes in the introduction. This, despite repeated assertions from multiple sources that Tenet and others repeatedly lied about the value of the CIA’s torture program and the intelligence it produced.
The rest of the essays are similarly divorced from reality. Several point out that Democrats compiled the report. Ergo, the document must be a politicized attack. Whining about politicization does not stop the essayists themselves from resorting to similar tactics.
“Successfully fighting an unconventional, asymmetric war being waged on us by brutal radicals will require capturing, holding, and questioning the enemy,” former CIA director Porter Goss writes. “If Chairman Feinstein has a better plan, she has not revealed it.”
I would hazard that Feinstein — who helmed the committee and led the charge for the report’s release — and the other members, as well as the bulk of the American public, understand that fighting an asymmetric war against a radical enemy requires capture, holding and questioning.
Capture and questioning does not necessitate torture. Questioning should not involve forced enemas and games of Russian roulette as described in the Senate report. Nor should it require the capture and detainment of the innocent for 480 days, as was the case with Mohammed Al Asad.
Al Asad ran a store in Tanzania. Local police arrested him and sold him to the CIA. The agency tortured Al Asad and held him in black sites for more than a year. Agents asked him questions but never charged him with a crime.
The bulk of former CIA deputy director Michael Morell’s essay concern complaints that the media failed every time it wrote or talked about the report.
“‘Senate report?’ … Just not true … it was a report of the Democrats on the Committee, led by the then Chair, Dianne Feinstein,” Morell complained. “The media had a responsibility to make clear that this was a report by only one side of the aisle. By failing to characterize the report as such, the media gave the report more credibility in the eyes of the public than it deserved.”
It’s also not as if Republicans march in lockstep when it comes to defending torture. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine voted to release the documents to the public. And Sen. John McCain of Arizona delivered an impassioned speech on the Senate floor at the report’s release.
“The use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights,” McCain said.
Rebuttal hasn’t phased Feinstein. It “contains nothing new — it recycles the same comments from former CIA officials when the executive summary of the SSCI Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation came out last December,” she told Newsweek.
“These interrogation techniques were brutal and did not produce information that was not already obtained in more traditional and acceptable ways by intelligence and law enforcement.”
“The Senator [Feinstein] said publicly that the CIA had slammed prisoners’ heads into walls,” former NSA director Michael Hayden writes. “I quickly got on her calendar to explain the interrogation technique called ‘walling,’ pushing a detainee’s shoulders into a false plywood wall, all the while protecting their necks with braces or at a minimum towels wrapped around them.”
Hayden’s description of walling, despite his assurances of neck braces and fancy towels, reads a lot like slamming someone’s head into a wall.
“I am sure that I also added that walling was no longer an interrogation technique used by the Agency,” he continues. “The Senator took the briefing but a few days later was again publicly claiming that the Agency had been slamming prisoners’ heads into walls.”
Feinstein claimed the CIA was slamming people’s heads into walls because that’s what they were doing. Dressing up a torture technique in Newspeak — a favorite strategy of America’s intelligence community — doesn’t not make it torture.
The quibbles continue.
“I am convinced that when years later President Obama and his Attorney General said that waterboarding is torture they were referring to the waterboarding method used by the Spanish Inquisition, or by the Japanese during World War II, or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia,” Rodriguez writes.
“Not the waterboarding technique used in SERE,” he continues. “Otherwise hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S. military trainers would be guilty of torture.”
SERE is Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape — a program the U.S. military uses to train its soldiers how to survive when trapped in enemy territory. The program’s trainers literally torture recruits to prepare them for the possibility of enemy capture. The CIA enlisted SERE trained psychologists to help adapt the program for its enhanced interrogation techniques.
But it’s hard to believe that Rodriguez doesn’t understand that Obama was talking about the waterboarding techniques used by the CIA. To do otherwise is to miss the context of Obama’s speech. Strange when one of Rebuttal’s chief complaints is the report’s lack of context.
“The country’s top officials had a genuine, palpable fear of second-wave attacks on the United States, including the possible use of weapons of mass destruction,” Tenet explains in his introduction. “It was in many ways a living hell — a race against time in which we often wondered whether today was the day the country would be attacked again.”
He’s right. The year or so immediately after 9/11 was a time of confusion, paranoia and reactionary politics. America and its leader made decisions — some good, some bad and some awful.
But after such times of national distress there is always a reckoning. The polis must assess actions taken in its name. Leaders must answer for tough decisions.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Washington forcibly interned more than 100,000 Japanese Americans. Today, few look back on the Japanese interment with anything but shame. “We seized their property, we seized their land and we threw them in concentration camps,” Jacob Beser — the man who dropped both Atomic bombs — said of the internment.
“When you are right you are right, when you are wrong, in this country you are damn well wrong. This was a blot in our history.”
But the men running the CIA’s current damage control campaign appear less concerned with America’s loss of moral authority and its use of torture. They appear far more concerned with themselves.
“You get the feeling that your own government has abandoned you,” Rodriguez writes. “You worry that some overly zealous prosecutor will indict you and that justice will fail you. You worry about the financial burden, the legal costs of defending yourself. You worry about the psychological effects on your spouse and children and on your other family members and close friends.”
“To make people go through this agony … was unconscionable.”
Again, Rodriguez is worrying over the mental health of torturers. It is the tell-tale sign of a bully that they revert to the victim when challenged.