Heads should roll at the CIA, but not for the obvious reasons. Let’s review the cacophony of issues raised by the brutal post-911 interrogation program, including the CIA’s lies, cover-ups, and a Constitution-bending spying operation against Senate staffers.
1. An exhaustive Senate Intelligence Committee investigation has determined beyond reasonable doubt that the CIA’s interrogation methods amounted to torture. The report does not recommend new punishment or further criminal inquiry, which may be an acknowledgement of the fact that CIA agents were carrying out orders of superiors, and the superiors were acting urgently, almost desperately, to protect the country from follow-up attacks.
2. Most Americans are likely to agree with President Obama, who said Friday that the tactics went too far (“We tortured some folks”), but that those who ordered and committed torture did so out of dire public interest. He called them patriots. “It’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the job that those folks had.”
3. The CIA itself is torn. In a comprehensive story outlining the pending report, The Washington Post said there were instances of CIA headquarters demanding continued use of severe interrogation techniques even after agents were convinced that suspects had no more information. In one case, a CIA employee left one of the agency’s secret overseas prisons in protest of interrogation tactics there.
4. The CIA misled the public and government (including, presumably, the president and Congress) about the program, The Post reported, “concealing details about the severity of its methods, overstating the significance of plots and prisoners, and taking credit for critical pieces of intelligence that detainees had in fact surrendered before they were subjected to harsh techniques.” The Senate Intelligence Committee report concludes that the program had little, if anything, to do with finding and killing Osama bin Laden—or with disrupting and investigating other acts of terrorism.
5. The minority report written by Republicans would “absolutely” document the intelligence value of the controversial techniques, said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. That seems dubious. Everything I’ve heard from Republicans as well as Democrats involved in reviewing the program tells me that the committee’s main report is overwhelmingly convincing. But Chambliss’s statement is an important reminder of why Obama must press for transparency. When the committee is allowed to release its findings, open-minded Americans will be able to judge for themselves.
6. The CIA has aggressively fought the release of even a summary of the committee’s conclusions. The agency has demanded and received authority to edit the report. Who wouldn’t want to edit his own indictment? This feels like institutional butt-covering.
7. The CIA hacked into the computers used by Senate investigators to conduct their watershed report. Agency spies were apparently attempting to retrieve and delete a damning internal CIA document (the so-called Panetta review). This could be criminal. It’s illegal for the CIA to spy inside the United States. The CIA is part of the executive branch of government. The Senate is part of the legislative branch, one of the few checks against the CIA’s extraordinary power.
8. CIA Director John Brennan had flatly denied that his agency was spying on Senate staffers. If Brennan knowingly misled the public, he’s a liar. If he denied the charges before checking them out, he’s careless with the truth. Pick your poison. Brennan ordered an internal review after denying the charges, then apologized when the spying was confirmed.
9. “I have full confidence in John Brennan,” Obama said Friday. This is the where I strongly disagree with the president. It is one thing to give the CIA a pass for heat-of-the-moment decisions to torture suspects, especially knowing the pressure applied from the Oval Office under President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney (Nos. 2-3 above). It’s another to implicitly condone institutionalized deception, lies, and cover-ups. (Nos. 4-8.)
10. Obama needs to hold high-ranking CIA officials accountable for misleading the White House, Congress, and the people, and for spying on Senate investigators. Patriots may get away with torture. Not with lying about it.