Forcing the CIA to admit some ugly truths

August 1, 2014

CIA Director John Brennan participates in a Council on Foreign Relations forum in Washington

George Tenet, who presided over the CIA when terrorist suspects were waterboarded and subjected to other forms of brutal “enhanced interrogation,” has set himself a near-impossible task.  He is leading an effort to discredit an impending Senate committee report expected to lay out a case that the intelligence agency tortured suspects and then misled Congress, the White House and the public about its detention and interrogation program.

Tenet, working with other senior officials who ran the CIA in the years after September 11, is said to be trying to develop a “strategy” to counter the findings of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s 6,300-page report that was five years in the making.

But how do you strate-PHOTO TAKEN 24FEB04- CIA Director George Tenet [has resigned for personal reasons, President George..gize against the truth?

It is now well-established that the CIA ran several “black sites” in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia where al Qaeda suspects were subjected to forms of harsh interrogation that were banned as “torture” by President Barack Obama after he took office in 2009.

The “enhanced interrogation” techniques included waterboarding; making prisoners stand naked in a cell kept around 50 degrees and dousing them with cold water, and forcing suspects to stand shackled for hours in painful “stress positions.”

By all accounts, however, the Senate report will detail how some interrogation methods were far worse than these previously revealed techniques.

Tenet’s efforts to refute the coming report look like classic spycraft. In espionage tradition, spies, if caught, are trained to deny everything — no matter how overwhelming the evidence against them.  CIA Director John Brennan, for example, at first vigorously denied that the agency had hacked into the computers used by the Senate Intelligence Committee to compile its voluminous report.  “Let me assure you,” Brennan told the senators in March, “the CIA was in no way spying on [the Senate committee].”  On Thursday, however, Brennan was forced to admit that five CIA officers — including two lawyers — had done just that.

Yet his original denial followed storied espionage tradition.  When FBI agents surrounded CIA officer Aldrich Ames in 1994 and arrested him for spying for Russia, his first words were:  “There must be some mistake.”

PhilbyFor years, Kim Philby, the notorious British spy, repeatedly denied his secret role as a mole for Moscow while serving as a high-placed official in the British intelligence service throughout the postwar years. He kept up his denials right up until he finally fled to the Soviet Union in 1963.

The culture of denial still pervades the CIA, and likely most intelligence agencies. True, Tenet was never a clandestine operator. But he understands the trade. He came to espionage through his work as staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the very oversight panel now criticizing the agency. He later served as a White House adviser on intelligence during the Clinton administration, before being appointed first deputy director of the CIA and then director in 1997.  Loyal to the agency, he is hardly likely to agree that the organization he ran did anything wrong.

Tenet will likely now argue, as he has in the past, that the harsh interrogations “saved lives” and “disrupted plots.”  However, the Senate report may seriously question this view. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), who heads the Senate committee, has said the harsh interrogations did not, for example, lead to the most important intelligence success – the capture and death of Osama bin Laden.

Tenet can also be expected to argue that the methods used by CIA interrogators were adopted in the desperate days after Sept. 11, when U.S. intelligence — having failed to predict or prevent the tragedy at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — was determined to extract from prisoners any hint of future attacks.  Yet other intelligence veterans, including FBI agents who witnessed some harsh interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, insist that establishing a rapport with suspects works better than torture — in part because prisoners subjected to painful techniques may tell their tormenters anything, including false information, to get them to stop.

Feinstein speaks after a full-Senate briefing by NSA's Alexander at the U.S. Capitol in WashingtonThe full Senate report, said to be a devastating critique of the intelligence agency, is not actually going to be released. What may be made public is a far shorter — and heavily redacted — summary of the report.   “Redacted,” a word much-favored by Washington bureaucrats, is a more benign word than “censored,” which is what it really means. In the case of the Senate report, the CIA itself is doing the redacting. The process has moved so glacially that the report has so far been bottled up for 20 months.

Despite the exposure of CIA black sites, where suspects were subject to brutal interrogations on his watch, Tenet has insisted, “We don’t torture people.” But his credibility is low. When he was CIA director, Tenet assured Bush that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction — which turned out not to be true. That faulty premise allowed the United States to go to war with Iraq, a misjudgment that cost the lives of some 4,400 American soldiers and 32,000 wounded.

US President Bush awards Presidential Medals of Freedom to George Tenet.Tenet assured President George W. Bush before the war, according to Bob Woodward’s book, Plan of Attack, that the fact that Iraq had WMD was “a slam dunk.” In his own memoir, Tenet does not deny he used the phrase but insists it applied only to whether the agency could improve its public case that Iraq had WMD.

Some terrorism suspects were kidnapped by the intelligence agency in a program known as “rendition” and sent to other countries, such as Egypt, where the CIA was aware that they would be tortured. But Tenet and some of his successors as CIA director looked the other way, relying on those countries’ sham assurances that the suspects would not be harmed.

Against this background, Tenet is understandably unhappy about the looming and exhaustive Senate report. What makes Tenet’s counter-report effort even more intriguing is that Brennan is his protégé and served as Tenet’s chief of staff.  Though an analyst by background, and not a clandestine operator, Brennan rose to prominence under Tenet and later served as the White House counterrorism adviser, before Obama appointed him to the top job at CIA.

While White House adviser, Brennan said in a 2012 speech, “enhanced interrogation techniques … are not needed to keep our country safe.” Yet he originally withdrew his name from consideration for the CIA post in 2008 when some liberal groups charged that he was deeply involved with the interrogation program. Brennan, however, has said he strongly opposed those techniques. Brennan had served as a campaign adviser to Obama that year and was in line for the CIA post until he withdrew.

CIA Director John Brennan speaks at a Council on Foreign Relations forum in WashingtonProof of just how bad the interrogation methods were might be available but for the fact that Jose Rodriguez, then the head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, ordered the destruction 0f 92 videotapes of the interrogations. The reason, he said, was to protect the safety of the CIA officers who ran the program. He said he destroyed “some ugly visuals that could put the lives of my people at risk.” He used an “industrial-size disintegrator,” he said. He added that afterward, “I felt good.”

Rodriguez has a law degree from the University of Florida, which apparently did not give him pause about destroying evidence.

When the sanitized summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee is made public, it will likely be attacked by those who feel any torture or “enhanced interrogation” is justified against those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

Tenet and other high former officials of the CIA are apparently unwilling to concede that sometimes in an effort to protect the country, an intelligence agency can go too far — that it may, in the process, violate the law, the Constitution and human decency.


PHOTO (TOP): Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan participates in a Council on Foreign Relations forum in Washington, March 11, 2014. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

PHOTO (INSERT 1): George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, watches as the coffin containing the body of CIA agent Johnny “Mike” Spann being carried at Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, December 2, 2001. REUTERS/Pool/Joe Marquette

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Kim Philby in a portrait taken from a 1990 Soviet stamp. WIKIMEDIA/Commons

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, speaks to reporters after leaving a Senate national security briefing at the Capitol in Washington, June 13, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

PHOTO (INSERT 4): President George W. Bush awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former CIA Director George Tenet in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, December 14, 2004. REUTERS/Larry Downing 

PHOTO (INSERT 5): Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan speaks at a Council on Foreign Relations forum in Washington, March 11, 2014. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas



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Brennan went for a ‘routine’ visit to Kiev and immediately the Kiev army went to the east resulting in some 1100 killed including more than 700 civilians by now.

Posted by JPHR | Report as abusive

I’m not ready to condemn torture and rendition as a knee-jerk response to the attack against thousands of civilians on US territory. In fact, a president declining to take the war to the enemy in a personal way may well have been subject to impeachment after 9/11. It’s hard to rewrite history. However, you’re right in that torture rarely produces accurate and actionable intelligence.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

It is an ugly world when you look in the right places. Torture is more of a social control threat and fear to keep everyone in line and lockstep rather than a valid intelligence technique because, in my opinion, tortured people are most likely to say what their assailants want to hear just to stop the pain, fear, and whatever else is being done to them. Those who practice torture are, in my view, sociopath sadists with no view in mind other than to enjoy the terror they inflict. People who torture defenseless animals are in the same mental camp. “Enhanced interrogation techniques” is but a mere rationalization and politically correct or politically corrupt play on words. Go back a few thousand years and history constantly offers up the same state of affairs.

Posted by Art16 | Report as abusive

If George Tenet, Richard Blee from the CIA and Louis Freeh from the FBI weren’t such “richards” and listened to their field people and those who were researching the terrorism, how much of the tragedy could have been avoided?

Posted by smokeymtnblues | Report as abusive

Torture, regime change, drug smuggling, assassination, drone strikes, and kidnapping do mot make Americans safer. The Cocaine Import Agency needs to be de-funded and shut down along with the NSA, DHS, FBI, and other military/industrial/security complex TLA’s.

Posted by prolibertate | Report as abusive

There are reports of as many as 200,000 killed in México by now; mostly executed, in which CIA is active, or rather “monitor”. But who cares?. These are just Meskins, and their leaders worship white folks.

Posted by P.Avina | Report as abusive

Are these folk above the law? If not, some data-driven accounting should bring some irrational actions under control.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive

“The `enhanced interrogation` techniques included waterboarding, making prisoners stand naked in a cell kept around 50 degrees and dousing them with cold water, and forcing suspects to stand shackled for hours in painful `stress positions`.” … By any definition, this is torture. Those in the CIA responsible for these crimes should be prosecuted.

Posted by AvangionQ | Report as abusive

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Posted by Top Republican: Forthcoming report on CIA torture is "wrong" – CBS News | | Report as abusive

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Posted by Sen. King: CIA torture was ‘unjustifiable’ – The Hill | | Report as abusive

HOw do you discredit the truth? You write a BS oped.

Posted by UKantHndleTruth | Report as abusive

My father was a spy during the WWII and then worked at the NSA and then as a US foreign service officer. He has told me many times that nothing and I mean nothing that these agencies do or try to do will in any way replace what a serious scholarly student couldn’t duplicate on his own. Any scholarly student at the masters and doctoral level can provide the same and better information on any subject(s) for and to immediate decision making level at 1/10,000 the cost that these bumbling bureaucrats. So lets do some massive government cutbacks and contract-out all spy stuff to the private sector. Are they hiring?

Posted by iseau | Report as abusive

It should also be noted that those tortured were “suspects”, held without charge.
So the “due process” seemed to be “torture until proven innocent”.
Should your local police work the same way ?
A case which saw large, ongoing coverage in Australia was that of Mamdouh Habib, who was seized by the US in 2001 and tortured in Egypt, Pakistan and the USA.
“the United States decided to release him without charges in January 2005. After Habib returned to Australia in January 2005, officials eventually acknowledged that he “knew nothing about terrorism”” bib

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

It must be so nice for Brennan to be living in America, where administration felonies go unpunished. He needs to be fired immediately, and charged with war crimes along with Obama and most of the Bush administration.

Posted by Johnzzz | Report as abusive