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:

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

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.