A Senate Report Vs. The CIA

CIA seal

A Senate Report Vs The CIA
| published December 11, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Citing the need for transparency and accountability, Democrats in Congress are defending their decision to release a detailed report on the CIA’s use of extreme and harsh interrogation methods in the aftermath of 9/11, and Republicans are denouncing it as an act of foolishness which will put Americans and their allies at grave risk. Meanwhile CIA officials—some past, some current—are pushing back hard, calling the report flawed and misleading.

Political analysts expect this fight to continue for some time, and the blowback domestically may include brutal infighting among various branches of the Federal government, as well as a nasty round of recriminations and finger-pointing in the Senate and the House. Internationally, things could get even more heated; United Nations officials in Geneva said this week that CIA operatives and U.S. government officials responsible for the decision to use torture should be prosecuted under mandates agreed upon by international law.

This week the U.S. Senate’s Intelligence Committee released its long-awaited 500-page report on the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques used against al Qaeda and other suspected terror operatives—extreme information-gathering sessions which took place at secret locations in Afghanistan, Poland, Latvia and Romania. Among the tactics used to extract information from detainees and terror suspects: waterboarding, sleep-deprivation, bodily suspension by arms or legs in stress positions, and a largely unknown process called “rectal replenishment” or “colon injection feeding.” One detainee may have been forced to endure sessions of Russian roulette with .38 revolvers, and several may have been forced to endure extreme cold conditions unclothed until hypothermia set in.

The backlash from the release of the report has been furious, and has generated media frenzy in the United States and abroad. Interviewed by NBC’s Matt Lauer last week, former President George W. Bush said he was not aware of the specific types of interrogation techniques being used, but did authorize the CIA and other operatives to conduct interrogation sessions to extract information which could lead to the capture of Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda operatives.

The former President told Lauer that he asked, at the time, for certainty about his legal authority to use extreme forms of interrogation in the months and years after 9/11. Bush said his top advisors secured that legal concurrence. Much of that concurrence was based on a legal interpretation formed by a top Justice Department attorney, John Yoo. Yoo, some analysts have pointed out, may ultimately be held accountable for the Bush-era White House decision to authorize aggressive forms of interrogation in the name of preventing acts of terror. But Yoo has repeatedly said that the President, acting as chief executive and as commander in chief, does have the authority in time of war to authorize interrogation methods which may be harsh, as long as they do not cause permanent or debilitating injury to the suspect, and as long as those methods are not intended to bring death.

But the Senate report has said—among other things—that the very people charged with managing and overseeing those interrogations were not properly trained nor qualified to carry out such sensitive work, narrowly-defined work. Many of the supervising interrogators spoke little—if any—of the native languages spoken by detainees and suspects, and most had little understanding of al-Qaeda or Middle Eastern politics. Instead, the two top interrogation managers—both former Air Force officers and psychologists—used their experiences from the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War to shape a program meant to extract information from suspects whose home countries were Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kuwait, Syria and Somalia. Those two former Air Force officers, according to the Senate Report, formed a contracting firm which took in about $81 million from the U.S. government, and their chief justification for their qualifications was that they taught pilots and flyers how to endure the sort of torture likely to employed by North Korea and North Vietnam in the era of those conflicts. Taking the training and data collected from those two wars, in which hundreds of American aviators were captured and tortured, the former Air Force men turned the equation around—developing a battery of coercive interrogation practices built around the core process called waterboarding. Waterboarding is a method of coercion in which a suspect is held down or tied down—on his back—to a bench or low table, and, while a towel or piece of cloth tightly covers his face, pitchers of water are poured over his mouth and nose. The result is a sensation very much like drowning, though experts disagree on whether it leads to a positive outcome for those conducting the interrogation.

The Senate report does not disclose the exact identity of the two former Air Force psychologists, though one of the two has given interviews in recent days. Some media outlets are reporting that the two former officers are James E. Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, and though Mitchell has neither acknowledged nor denied his involvement in the program, but he has told some reporters that the Senate Report is flawed and inaccurate.

Democrats in the Senate say that the entire program—tantamount to a full-blown campaign of torture—resulted in very little actionable intelligence. Though the report is heavily redacted, it nevertheless stresses that neither the CIA nor the FBI gained much in the way if useful information about potential terror attacks or possible preventive steps. The report says that most actionable data was gained routinely by means other than extreme interrogation—such as improvements in law enforcement technology, payoffs and bribes, and thorough, routine checks and double checks of emails and cell phone calls.

On this point, many in the CIA who worked in—or alongside—the interrogation program, say that the Senate’s report is misleading and full of inaccuracies, and that it appears to be skewed toward a partisan conclusion. Many former CIA employees say that the report undermines the agency’s ability to work with its partners in other countries, including those rare friends or partners in countries otherwise hostile toward the U.S. Some within the intelligence and military communities also fear that CIA and military personnel—and their families—may be at grave risk, especially from small groups or individuals.

Republicans have complained that the report is ill-timed, especially in the context of the rise of ISIS and other militant groups who may use it as a recruitment tool, or may use the report’s findings as a flashpoint for mass violence against Americans or U.S. allies around the world. Worse, say GOP members in Congress, the release of the report was rushed onto the public stage by vengeful Democrats bent on damaging the reputations of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and others, but also to cast oil onto the politically troubled waters ahead for Democrats in a Congress soon-to-be controlled by Republicans.

Committee chair Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and other Democrats in the Senate say that the report was rushed into print to prevent a Republican-controlled Senate from quashing the committee’s findings next month.

Some have called the report rubbish, including former vice-President Dick Cheney, who told Fox News “the report’s full of crap…excuse me.” Cheney argued that the U.S. had a moral responsibility to catch the perpetrators of 9/11, and to derail any further plots which may have been forming against U.S. targets elsewhere in the world. “What happened here,” Cheney told Brett Baier, “was that we asked the agency [the CIA] to go take steps and put in place programs that were designed to catch the bastards that killed 3000 of us on 9/11, and make sure that didn’t happen again. And that’s exactly what they did, and they deserve a lot of credit, and not the condemnation they are receiving from Senate Democrats.”

Cheney also sought to dispel the idea that then-President Bush was kept in the dark about the severity of the treatment of detainees and prisoners, or, conversely, that he was explicitly involved in the decision-making regarding harsh and aggressive interrogation techniques.

Meanwhile, former CIA director Michael Hayden, who took on the job of director after the interrogation programs were already set in motion, told NBC that the Senate report contained sections which are “historically inaccurate.” He went on to complain that, rather than examining all the aspects of what was necessary and what was required at the time, the Senate’s report “reads like a prosecutorial screed, rather than a historical document.”

Many former CIA employees are pushing back against the report’s larger view, and against its implications. In a large Wall Street Journal piece, published this week, two other former CIA directors joined with Hayden in defending the program, stressing that it was a top-down decision to create an operation which would save American lives and prevent another attack like 9/11. Writing alongside Hayden were George Tenet, Porter Goss and other top officials from that period, the writers said that thanks to the CIA’s harsh interrogation methods and thorough field work, no 9/11-style attack has occurred again in the United States, despite ongoing evidence that al Qaeda and other terror groups have attempted to develop such plans.

Many in the CIA, and many of its defenders, say that without those interrogation sessions Osama bin Laden would not have been tracked and killed. Harsh interrogation tactics, they say, were the tools needed to identify one of bin Laden’s most trusted couriers, a man whose movements in several countries eventually led CIA analysts to that compound in Pakistan where, in 2012, a team of Navy Seals and U.S. Special Forces personnel located and shot bin Laden.

Critics of the torture programs suggest—and the new Senate report concurs—however, that the most crucial links in the trail which led to bin Laden were not gained by coercive interrogation methods, but by routine analysis and electronic surveillance methods.

A few within the CIA did express concern about the continued use of waterboarding and other extreme forms of interrogation in those days. Emails recently disclosed show that a few CIA analysts were concerned that the team of Mitchell and Jessen showed an unusually deep commitment to waterboarding even after it became apparent that the practice was not producing results. Some of those same critics worried that by deferring to outside contractors—especially on the ongoing question of the physical and psychological health of the detainees being subjected to coercive interrogation—the spy agency was setting itself up for disaster. Jessen and Mitchell, according to the report, were both present—and participated in—the waterboarding of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, one of the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks.

A few in the GOP support the general theme of the Senate report. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), a Vietnam era pilot who was shot down over Hanoi and spent years in a North Vietnamese prison, called the release of the report a necessary step toward full accountability and honor by a democracy. McCain is the only elected member of Congress to have endured torture at the hands of an enemy during wartime. But a few moderate and conservative Democrats have sided with the GOP in their concerns about the report, and its timing. Some worry openly that the report will fuel violence against American citizens worldwide; others are concerned that it will be used as a recruitment tool for terror and militant groups to increase their numbers.

Some terrorism experts suggest quietly, however, that the brouhaha is much-ado-about-nothing. It is unlikely, they say, that groups like ISIS or al Qaeda—or other potential terror cells—will engage in any additional terror based on the contents of the Senate Report. The more worrisome problem will be the U.S. relationship with partner nations, allies, and even those countries which have an uneasy working relationship with the U.S. (Pakistan and Afghanistan, to name two examples).

Some military analysts worry also that the timing of the report may result in problems for the United States in its planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, scheduled to be completed sometime late next year. And there are concerns that the Senate’s report may make the already-difficult task of enlisting pan-Arab support for the war against ISIS even more challenging, especially where partnerships are necessary in Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Syria.

Then there is the psychiatric view of the controversy. Mitchell, who has advanced degrees in psychology, uses a technique known as “learned helplessness,” in which an individual adapts internally—often slipping into depression and becoming compliant—in the face of extreme circumstances which are out of his or her control. Mitchell was trained originally to help American soldiers understand this process, and then, mobilize their inner resolve to resist such tactics during periods of torture or duress (as in a prison in Hanoi). Critics of the CIA’s program after 9/11 say that Mitchell and others turned this equation on its head; instead of helping people to resist or overcome the process, Mitchell and Jessen apparently twisted its meaning and trained interrogators to misuse a particularly nuanced skill meant to facilitate self-help and self-reliance.

President Obama ended the CIA’s coercive interrogations after the death of bin Laden, but defenders of the CIA program have pointed out that in its place the White House and the Pentagon have used drones as the primary means of counter-terrorism. In that scenario, critics of the Senate report say, terror suspects or al Qaeda operatives are simply killed outright—with little or any reclamation of valuable information, and with loss of life. Worse, the lethal drone attacks may sow more discord among the people of the targeted areas than extreme forms of interrogation—whether those methods are called outright torture, or simply coercive questioning.

Related Thursday Review articles:

What is Gained or Lost With Drones?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review (Politics); July 20, 2013.

Battling ISIS: Will Air Power Be Enough?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 17, 2014.