The CIA's Torture Two-Step

Is CIA reform even possible when it fights so relentlessly against disclosure of its misdeeds?

June 2, 2014

More than a decade after this nation initiated its “enhanced interrogation” (read, torture) program, we still struggle with its repercussions.

Public opinion on torture has roller coastered about. Public discourse has devolved into three rigid camps: the shrill and amoral crowd – it was good and we still should be at it; the get over it group – we don’t do it anymore so let sleeping dogs lie; and the accountability gang – that’s not American and we need to assign blame.

This year, the three main players in the drama, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the CIA, and the White House have been engaging in a complicated and high stakes dance as the Committee inches toward a partial release of its report on the torture program. But like many dances, it’s one step forward, two steps back.

Last month, the Intelligence Committee voted to declassify a summary of its voluminous, 6,000-plus page report on the torture program, prepared over five years and based on access to millions of pages of CIA documents on the program. It promises to be the most authoritative and comprehensive account of the program. It also promises to be withering, detailing both illegal acts and proving, worse yet, the uselessness of the program.

So, one step forward for the accountability gang.

But before the summary can be released the CIA and White House need to review and approve the declassification. Get ready for two steps back.

The shrill crowd in the CIA has a lot of weapons at its disposal. Up to this point, it already has deployed many of them. At first, the CIA just tried to stonewall. Then, after being forced to turn over documents and cooperate with the Committee, it turned late last year and this year to spying, witch hunts, and sexism to thwart the investigators.

To wit: the CIA snooped on the Committee’s computers to try to learn how the investigators got certain documents; the CIA asked the Department of Justice to launch a criminal investigation of the Committee’s staffers; and the current and former heads of the Agency have treated the head of the Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to condescending put downs, calling her behavior “beyond the scope of reason” and “emotional.”

This month, it reverted to threats and delay—plus it revived the ghost of the Bay of Pigs.

First, the threats and delay. Faced with the almost inevitable release of the report summary, the CIA and the White House want to delay its release until sometime this summer (they can’t really say when) to prepare a security plan. In a court filing in early May, the Department of Justice warned: "Even after the declassification review is complete, and prior to release of any declassified information…, the Administration will have to take a number of security steps to protect U.S. personnel and facilities overseas.”

The not so subtle message to the Intelligence Committee: release the report and the blood will be on your hands. It’s almost a clichéd threat by now, though never one to be taken lightly. But given the national security agencies’ boy who cried wolf reputation on these matters (see their threats on Snowden Wikileaks, and the Pentagon Papers), these sorts of assertions should be taken with a grain of salt, or maybe an entire salt lick.

But maybe to really understand the CIA’s headspace, one really needs to go back to a swampy inlet in Cuba on an early spring day more than 50 years ago, when a CIA-sponsored landing at the Bay of Pigs went disastrously awry. Or maybe, one just needs to scroll back to the mid-1980s when, in a bout of self-reflection, the CIA historian’s office wrote a critical five-volume report on the invasion. Or maybe, one just needs to go back to the middle of the last decade when the CIA began fighting a FOIA request for the historian’s report.

Or maybe just to mid-May this year, when the CIA won the right to keep Volume V of its historian’s report out of public hands in a ruling by U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Volumes I-IV, more than 1,500 pages long had previously been released. (It makes great bedtime reading). But Volume V, no, that was a bridge too far. So off to the D.C. Circuit and victory.

If the CIA fought tooth and nail to keep secret Volume V of an almost 30-year-old report by an historian on a more than 50-year-old failed CIA operation, imagine how it faces the prospect of the Committee’s report.

Still, for all the of the CIA’s noxious behavior, there’s something about the accountability gang that invites reservations. They are often dismissed as vengeful Greek furies—hell bent on punishment seasoned with a dollop of partisan delight in calling out the previous Administration. Meanwhile, the sexist attacks on Senator Feinstein are a not-so-subtle way of calling her out for handwringing and armchair generalling, implying that she’s unable to do the hard work of the men who guard us.

But that misses the point, which is not irrational vengeance or mere accountability. The CIA’s reaction to the prospect of the report is really the point, or rather the opposite of the point. The CIA’s enhanced interrogation program was so far off the rails, such a colossal error in judgment, that one wonders how or if the agency can ever reform.

Sen. Feinstein herself explained the goal behind the dance: “If the Senate can declassify this report, we will be able to ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted.”

We’ll see when the report summary comes out, because I suspect it will be a devastating blend of cold analysis and emotional horror (there, I said it, emotion) at what the CIA did. It may well lay bare a brutal and worthless CIA program.

The agency’s behavior in the face of this forthcoming public accounting—the spying, the witch hunt, the sexist language, the delay, the threats—are childish and defensive. It does not inspire hope that it will manage to reflect on the past or draw any valuable lessons. It must be what it’s like to have Chris Brown as a dance partner.

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

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(Photo: AP)