Commentary Magazine


Topic: torture

CIA Must Learn the Lesson of Playing Politics

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s CIA “torture report” is a symbol of partisan venality. The old adage garbage-in, garbage-out holds true. One former CIA general counsel says the intelligence committee never asked him to testify and therefore did not consider his input, which countered Feinstein’s pre-ordained conclusions. Many former CIA directors dispute the report’s conclusions, and argue that “enhanced interrogation” did indeed lead to actionable intelligence which prevented terror attacks. Certainly, there is a tendency among bureaucrats to circle the wagon and protect the organization to which they have dedicated their life and from which they get their salaries, but that doesn’t mean that they also don’t truly believe what they argue or that they also don’t have very good evidence upon which to make their arguments. Outgoing Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein seems less motivated by principle than by personal vendetta. And the collateral damage she causes, well, she appears to be fine with it.

Read More

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s CIA “torture report” is a symbol of partisan venality. The old adage garbage-in, garbage-out holds true. One former CIA general counsel says the intelligence committee never asked him to testify and therefore did not consider his input, which countered Feinstein’s pre-ordained conclusions. Many former CIA directors dispute the report’s conclusions, and argue that “enhanced interrogation” did indeed lead to actionable intelligence which prevented terror attacks. Certainly, there is a tendency among bureaucrats to circle the wagon and protect the organization to which they have dedicated their life and from which they get their salaries, but that doesn’t mean that they also don’t truly believe what they argue or that they also don’t have very good evidence upon which to make their arguments. Outgoing Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein seems less motivated by principle than by personal vendetta. And the collateral damage she causes, well, she appears to be fine with it.

But while it seems clear that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is sullying its reputation by being so overtly partisan and playing out personal grudges against the intelligence community, the CIA must also learn that when it plays politics, it opens a Pandora’s Box and ultimately will get burned. It is ironic—but also a good thing—that so many former Bush administration officials are standing up for the CIA.

Many might harbor personal grievance because they were targets of malicious and politically-motivated CIA leaks. In November 2005, W. Patrick Lang, former Defense Intelligence Officer for the Middle East, South Asia, and counter-terrorism, told the American Prospect of some CIA analysts’ efforts to hurt the White House prior to the 2004 presidential election. “Of course they were leaking,” he said. “They told me about it at the time. They thought it was funny. They’d say things like, ‘This last thing that came out, surely people will pay attention to that. They won’t re-elect this man [President Bush]’.”

As I chronicle in my recent book, that’s just one example of many: CIA interference in policy and politics dates back to the Johnson administration at least, and was a constant problem during the Cold War under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Intelligence officials leaking to affect policy should have been exposed and fired. Frequent and unplugged leaks may win the CIA analysts short-term policy battles, but such illegalities hemorrhage long-term trust and ultimately come back to bite the agency in a way that undermines both it and the American national security which it seeks to preserve. As the old adage goes, “You can’t be a little bit pregnant.” The CIA can’t dabble in politics a little bit and expect not to be burned. While Feinstein is treating the CIA unfairly—and breeding distrust that will continue for years in the process—it is long past time for the CIA to recognize that it is not always the victim, but often a full participant in unnecessary political games.

Read Less

Torture and the Moral Ambiguity of War

The aftermath of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation policies after 9/11 has set off a spasm of self-righteous condemnation of these procedures and the agency by most of the mainstream media. At the same time, the partisan nature of the report, which was rejected by the Republicans on the committee, has turned it into something of a political football. But as shocking as the details about the treatment dished out to captured terrorists may be to many citizens, the most damning piece of the report may be the allegation that the agency lied to the president and other political authorities. But that charge rests almost completely on the allegation that “at no time” did intelligence gleaned from such interrogations prevent a terror attack. This is thoroughly refuted by both the minority report and the statements of former CIA directors, and deputy directors who were shockingly never interviewed by the committee, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Read More

The aftermath of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation policies after 9/11 has set off a spasm of self-righteous condemnation of these procedures and the agency by most of the mainstream media. At the same time, the partisan nature of the report, which was rejected by the Republicans on the committee, has turned it into something of a political football. But as shocking as the details about the treatment dished out to captured terrorists may be to many citizens, the most damning piece of the report may be the allegation that the agency lied to the president and other political authorities. But that charge rests almost completely on the allegation that “at no time” did intelligence gleaned from such interrogations prevent a terror attack. This is thoroughly refuted by both the minority report and the statements of former CIA directors, and deputy directors who were shockingly never interviewed by the committee, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Former CIA Directors George J. Tenet, Porter J. Goss, and Michael V. Hayden and former CIA Deputy Directors John E. McLaughlin, Albert M. Calland, and Stephen R. Kappes explain in their piece how the controversial interrogations provided information that disrupted terrorist plotting that made it difficult if not impossible for attacks to be planned or executed as well as leading to the capture of important terrorists. They also provided invaluable knowledge about how al-Qaeda worked.

How could the Democrats on the committee and their staff claim that the intelligence gleaned from these sessions was of no use?

First, they adopted a narrow definition of their utility by saying that they did not directly prevent a ticking bomb from going off. That may be true but there is more to a war against a brutal enemy that such an instance. The task the CIA was handed on September 12, 2001 was not merely to prevent a last-minute intervention against the next attack on the American homeland but to wage a campaign that would ensure that we never again came close to such a disaster. Their efforts largely ensured that there was never another 9/11.

Most critics of the report have rightly complained about the lack of context in these condemnations of tough treatment of al-Qaeda prisoners. Intelligence officers could not operate with the knowledge we may have now about the ultimate outcome of the battle with the group but only with what they knew at the time. However, as much as all those who are revolted by the details of the torture report should not judge these agents with hindsight, we also should judge them in terms of ultimate results. The conflict with al-Qaeda wasn’t a police investigation of a local, if horrific, crime but a war in which a crafty enemy determined to kill as many Americans as possible.

What we ought never to forget when discussing how the war on al-Qaeda was fought is that the ultimate judgment that the CIA worried about in 2001, 2002, and 2003 was not second-guessing by congressional partisans or moral preening by the New York Times editorial board. Rather, it was the possibility that they would fail, as they had failed prior to 9/11 and that al-Qaeda would not merely pull off another attack but that the group would be able to further entrench itself in the Middle East as a permanent factor destabilizing the region as well as using it as a base for future atrocities against the West. In short, once you realize that the methods were not ineffective, the talk about lies is exposed as partisan bunk.

We can’t know for certain exactly how much the torture of prisoners aided efforts to prevent that from happening but the assertion that it was of no utility is pure ideology, not derived from the facts. The spirit that permeates the Senate report is the notion that because torture is a wrong thing about which no one should feel happy or comfortable, it must perforce also be ineffective. To understand that it can be, at one and the same time, both immoral as well as effective and, in the context of a war for the survival of the West and democracy, essential, is to embrace a moral complexity that those writing the report or penning impassioned anti-CIA editorials are incapable of comprehending.

Just as important, the intelligence and operational failures of U.S. policy in the Middle East in the past few years gives the lie to bold assertions about it being safe enough now for Americans to think they don’t need human intelligence or to play rough with terrorists. The rise of ISIS, which now has achieved more on the ground in Iraq and Syria than its al-Qaeda rivals ever dreamed of, is impossible to imagine outside of the context of an American retreat from the region that is rooted in part by an unwillingness to go on fighting hard against the Islamist enemy.

Seen not only in the perspective of time but also from the understanding that talk of lies is sophistry, the report is particularly regrettable. Committee Chair Senator Dianne Feinstein’s desire for score settling with a CIA that had repeatedly clashed with her is obvious. So, too, is the political left’s passion to demonize the George W. Bush administration and to retroactively delegitimize the successful war it waged on al-Qaeda. But whatever one may think about torture, it is important to remember that there was no real political divide about what to do about al-Qaeda on 9/12/01. It may be that the general moral revulsion against torture is such that even those who understand, as even President Obama does, that the CIA was reacting to the needs of the moment, will insist that it never again be used. But those who think they can erase the moral ambiguity of war with a phrase or a self-righteous editorial are wrong. While we can pray that we never again find ourselves in such a situation, wise observers understand that if we do, the CIA will not be able to pretend that it can defeat the enemy with strictly moral methods.

Read Less

The “Torture Report” and American Values

One of the most common and most understandable reactions to the Senate’s “torture report” is that the practices described by Dianne Feinstein’s investigators are contrary to “American values.” On a certain level the assertion is undeniable: torture (and that’s what the “enhanced interrogation techniques” amount to, even if it is not torture as heinous as that routinely practiced by dictatorships) is definitely not an “American value.” But what about incinerating civilians? Is that an “American value”?

Read More

One of the most common and most understandable reactions to the Senate’s “torture report” is that the practices described by Dianne Feinstein’s investigators are contrary to “American values.” On a certain level the assertion is undeniable: torture (and that’s what the “enhanced interrogation techniques” amount to, even if it is not torture as heinous as that routinely practiced by dictatorships) is definitely not an “American value.” But what about incinerating civilians? Is that an “American value”?

The reality is that the U.S. has often done things in the past that, looked at in another light, could be judged as immoral acts or even war crimes. Exhibit A is the strategic bombing of Germany and Japan in World War II which culminated in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The two atom bombs killed an estimated 190,000 civilians. The non-nuclear bombing of Japan killed at least 330,000 more. That’s more than half a million dead civilians in Japan alone. The toll was not as high in Germany but it was high enough. One bombing raid alone, on Dresden, killed between 25,000 to 40,000 people. The total number of Germans killed in Anglo-American bombing raids has been estimated at over 300,000.

It would be interesting to know what those who now decry the torture of terrorist suspects have to say about the deaths of some 800,000 people, mostly civilians, in these World War II bombing raids. Were Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, the presidents who ordered these bombing campaigns, war criminals? And if not how can one argue, a so many on the left seem to, that George W. Bush is?

This is not purely a historical debate either. Although Barack Obama shut down the “enhanced interrogation” program (or, more accurately, continued the shutdown which had already been ordered by Bush in his second term), he has stepped up drone strikes in countries from Pakistan to Yemen. By one estimate: “the United States has now conducted 500 targeted killings (approximately 98 percent of them with drones), which have killed an estimated 3,674 people, including 473 civilians. Fifty of these were authorized by President George W. Bush, 450 and counting by President Obama.”

Note that there was no judicial review before any of these attacks, nor should there have been. They were purely executive decisions made by President Obama and they resulted, by this estimate, in the deaths of some 473 civilians. Is that OK but the use of coercive interrogation techniques is not? That’s a good question for a college class on the ethics of war. At the very least it’s not an easy question to answer, and it’s one that those who are outraged by the CIA’s interrogation program should grapple with.

I tend to agree that we should not torture, but I am honest enough to admit there are circumstances–for example preventing an imminent, mass casualty attack on the American homeland–when a president may well be right to decide that repugnant measures are necessary to save large numbers of innocent lives. I am also troubled, by the way, by the strategic bombing campaign of World War II, but I am not arrogant enough to second-guess the decision makers at the time who thought that such steps were necessary to defeat the evils of Nazism and fascism. If you think the atomic bombing of Japan was wrong, try reading Paul Fussell’s wonderful essay, “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb,” whose sentiments have been echoed by every World War II vet I have ever spoken to.

It would be nice, but unlikely, if all of those preening about how awful torture is would stop for a minute to wrestle seriously with these complicated moral dilemmas. Try to place yourselves in the shoes of a Truman or a Bush and ask what you would do when you felt that the only way to effectively protect the United States was to use methods that one’s critics could denounce as barbaric. And try to place yourselves in the shoes of a future president who may well have to grapple with such dilemmas while trying to avoid a WMD attack on the American homeland that would make Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined look like a Sunday picnic by comparison.

But of course it’s much easier to simply flay Bush, Cheney, and the CIA as latter-day Nazis. All of this reminds me of nothing so much as the pacifists of World War II who were “advocating,” as George Orwell once put it, “non-resistance behind the guns of the American Fleet”–or in this case behind the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center.

Read Less

The CIA, Interrogation, and Feinstein’s Parting Shot

Readers of news coverage of the CIA “torture” report, with details about all the unpleasant techniques employed by interrogators to elicit information from suspected terrorists, might be wondering why an agency of the U.S. government did such heinous things. The answer comes from a veteran Washington politician:

Read More

Readers of news coverage of the CIA “torture” report, with details about all the unpleasant techniques employed by interrogators to elicit information from suspected terrorists, might be wondering why an agency of the U.S. government did such heinous things. The answer comes from a veteran Washington politician:

It is worth remembering the pervasive fear in late 2001 and how immediate the threat felt. Just a week after the September 11 attacks, powdered anthrax was sent to various news organizations and to two U.S. Senators. The American public was shocked by news of new terrorist plots and elevations of the color-coded threat

level of the Homeland Security Advisory System. We expected further attacks against the nation….

I can understand the CIA’s impulse to consider the use of every possible tool to gather intelligence and remove terrorists from the battlefield, and CIA was encouraged by political leaders and the public to do whatever it could to prevent another attack.

The Intelligence Committee as well often pushes intelligence agencies to act quickly in response to threats and world events.

The author of those sentences is none other than Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee (though for not much longer) who ordered the report in question compiled and released. Given the undoubted truth of these comments, offered by way of a preamble, it is hard to know why the senator nevertheless felt compelled to release for public consumption this report that will undoubtedly damage American credibility and standing in the world and could well diminish the effectiveness of the very agencies that we count on to protect us from today’s most pressing dangers.

The Senate Intelligence Committee action, taken over the opposition of the panel’s Republican members, recalls nothing so much as the Church Committee and Pike Committee investigations of 1976 which spilled the CIA’s “crown jewels” to the public. This was when the world learned of CIA involvement in assassination plots, even if the committees never produced any evidence that the CIA ever actually assassinated anyone (in part because of the CIA’s own ham-handedness), and of other covert operations such as the testing of LSD on unwitting subjects. Many of these activities were admittedly ill-advised but there was no evidence that the CIA had acted in contravention of executive orders; it was not a “rogue elephant” but rather an agency carrying out the wishes of successive presidents.

It was, therefore, unfair and harmful to demonize the CIA even while leaving alone the reputation of presidents such as John F. Kennedy who had ordered some of its most aggressive covert actions. The result of all this public condemnation, followed by the disastrous tenure of Jimmy Carter’s Director of Central Intelligence, Stansfield Turner, was an agency in disarray. Many of the best CIA officers left and the nation was left with reduced capacity to detect and prevent catastrophes such as the Iran Hostage Crisis.

We do not yet know the result of today’s revelations but it is likely that they will be equally deleterious to our intelligence capacities–and just as unfair. The Intelligence Committee report, after all, condemns the CIA for interrogative techniques, since discontinued, that were fully approved by the president and briefed–and tacitly approved–by congressional leaders such as Dianne Feinstein herself.

Her report claims that the CIA concealed certain information from the president, a charge heatedly denied by current CIA director John Brennan, an Obama appointee, and all of his predecessors–as well as by George W. Bush and other officials of his administration. Perhaps there were in fact details that were not shared with the White House but it is clear that the president knew in broad brushstrokes what was happening, that it was judged to be legal by the White House and Justice Department, and that it was considered necessary to prevent another 9/11.

There is debate about whether the coercive interrogations produced information that led to counter-terrorist successes; Feinstein’s report denies it but numerous CIA executives, current and former, side with Director Brennan, who writes: “Our review indicates that interrogations of detainees on whom EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques] were used did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives. The intelligence gained from the program was critical to our understanding of al-Qa’ida and continues to inform our counterterrorism efforts to this day.”

As an outsider, I am not in a position to judge where the truth lies. I am also ambivalent about whether the enhanced interrogation techniques should have been used in the past and whether they should be totally prohibited in the future: It’s easy to denounce such brutal measures from the safety of an armchair, but it’s hard not to sympathize with a president who fears an imminent attack on the United States that may kill thousands, even millions, and therefore feels compelled to use every technique available, no matter how repugnant, to protect untold numbers of lives.

Whatever the case, of one thing I am positive: that the release of the Senate report will only aid our enemies who will have more fodder for their propaganda mills. It is hard to see how it will serve the interests of the United States, because even if you believe the interrogations in question were war crimes, the reality remains that they were long discontinued. Feinstein’s report merely rakes up history and for no good purpose beyond predictable congressional grandstanding.

Read Less

Rewriting History on ‘Torture’

Kathryn Bigelow, the Zero Dark Thirty director who has been attacked by senators and anti-war types for her portrayal of how enhanced interrogation helped intelligence officials track down Osama bin Laden, has published a very sharp response to her critics:

On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices. 

Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue. As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore. War, obviously, isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences. …

Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.

Read More

Kathryn Bigelow, the Zero Dark Thirty director who has been attacked by senators and anti-war types for her portrayal of how enhanced interrogation helped intelligence officials track down Osama bin Laden, has published a very sharp response to her critics:

On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices. 

Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue. As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore. War, obviously, isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences. …

Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.

From some reason, enhanced interrogation critics hate to admit that opposing these techniques for moral reasons and opposing them because they are ineffective are entirely independent arguments. You don’t see this reaction with other issues. For example, you can criticize Lance Armstrong’s steroid use without needing to claim that doping is ineffective. And people are generally aware that driving over the speed limit is a bad idea, without insisting that it won’t get them to their destination faster. 

But enhanced interrogation opponents get offended whenever it’s pointed out that these tactics contributed to keeping America safe. They’re so intent on ignoring reality that they would prefer Hollywood rewrite history rather than acknowledge the benefits of enhanced interrogation. As Bigelow rightly notes, that historical revisionism is a disservice to the men and women of the CIA who put their lives at risk in the Global War on Terror. They deserve to have their stories portrayed accurately, not airbrushed to fit a political agenda.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.