Op-Ed: CIA’s decade of breaking the laws

Op-Ed: CIA’s decade of breaking the laws

In Washington, the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA activities – a disclosure of over half a decade’s worth of actions that effectively amounted to bureaucratically condoned and managed torture – is now part of the official and public record. And it is a genuinely troubling and disturbing record. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.

Purists can still complain that the full six thousand pages of backup materials and primary source documents remain classified, but a nearly five hundred-page executive summary will almost certainly be enough for most readers. And almost certainly, the rest of the materials will eventually become accessible as well, a treasure trove for historians and students of bureaucratic horrors.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein delivered the executive summary in an hour-long speech in the US Senate on Tuesday evening. Feinstein spoke in a deadpan voice that might just as easily have been used for reading the arcane financial details from the minutes of a municipal bond offering; but her vocal resources belied her deep outrage over the behaviour of the CIA during the Bush administration in the months and years after the events of 9/11. The report had received its first impetus some years earlier with Senator Jay Rockefeller’s insistence that his own staff investigate all those stories about the secret renditions of prisoners and the subsequent use of extended sensory and sleep deprivation, waterboarding and other extreme interrogation methods on those prisoners, all in an effort to gain the information edge needed to combat the kinds of international terror activities that were exemplified by the events of 9/11.

Watch: US Senate Reaction to CIA Interrogation Report (CSPAN)

Even before it had even been released on Tuesday, various senior Republican figures had already attempted to undermine pre-emptively the report’s conclusions and blunt their criticism of the Bush administration. However, speaking just after Senator Feinstein had finished, Republican Senator John McCain (a former Republican presidential candidate and now one of the elders of his party) rose to give an impassioned defence of the courage of the investigators in pursuing the evidence wherever it led – and, crucially, in fully embracing both the report’s conclusions as well as Feinstein’s outrage over what the report had documented.

McCain, of course, has a special, unique stature to talk about torture. Lest anyone forget, he had spent over five years as an involuntary guest of the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” as a POW in North Vietnam where he was systematically tortured for his failure to compromise his fellow POWs or provide any other information. (Decades after his release, McCain can still not fully raise his arms beyond shoulder height – as a result of the treatment he endured at the hands of his own captors.)

In speaking so fervently in support of this devastating report, McCain was clearly speaking directly from some place deep within his soul that this kind of CIA behaviour was pretty much useless as a means to gather information (tortured prisoners will usually say pretty much anything their torturers want to hear – truthful or not – just so as to get their torturers to stop the pain). But even worse, it was fundamentally contrary to American ideals and values – and totally in violation of the rules of war. Speaking from the well of the Senate chamber, McCain may well have given the speech of his political lifetime, placing his name and reputation firmly on the side of Democrat Feinstein and the other sponsors of this report. In so doing, McCain may also have inoculated the report from substantive criticism by conservative Republicans and leftover, vociferous George W Bush administration stalwarts and veterans.

And in supporting full disclosure of the CIA’s extreme interrogation methods, McCain insisted the US must resolutely reject the temptations of using such methods even in moments of national crisis, just because they are possible in the shadowy, secret world of black opps. The ends simply do not justify the means, just because there is a budget to do so. Instead, McCain insisted the use of such extraordinary methods – and then the consistent covering up of these activities, as well as dissembling by CIA officials for years over these activities – despite persistent questioning by Senate investigators was a deep stain on the nature of American society and its ideals as well as the way those officials traduced the role of the US Congress.

As depicted by Feinstein and McCain, the contents of the report detailed an extraordinary effort to extract information from some 119 captives. However, this sustained effort ultimately produced virtually no “actionable” intelligence – that’s “CIA speak” for the stuff that actually provided credible leads allowing the US to prevent future terror attacks. (Not really a surprise, that. I rarely found much of what the CIA delivered from the field to be very much help in understanding the world and how it was evolving.) But beyond the troubling, morally anomalous universe so many CIA officials chose to inhabit by their actions, what astonished me most when I watched the speeches in the Senate chamber was the revelation that some of this extreme interrogation was even part of a service agreement contracted out to some private individuals – in effect subcontracting efforts to extract information by fair means or very foul ones to some private citizens.

In many ways, while what has been confirmed by this report in gory, graphic detail has been known in essence for some time, what the heft of this report does is provides the numbing, telling and grinding, corroborative bureaucratic detail that makes the coercive activities depicted in films like Syriana or Rendition a commonplace of government activity. And it put the US well on the road to the kind of thoroughly amoral universe so precisely catalogued in John le Carré’s best novels.

As a retired career government employee, what I heard Tuesday night frankly filled me with great sadness about a government – or at least a real chunk of it – that had seriously lost its way in a moral quagmire. This report gets this mess out in the open, clearly embraced tightly by courageous politicians.

However, the real battle may begin once Republican defenders of George Bush and his henchmen attempt to respond vociferously to the charges in this report. Or, even more difficultly still, the reckoning may come once those in charge of this program – or the energetic hoplites who carried it out – between 2001 and 2009 are pushed to defend their behaviour somewhere, somehow. Over a generation earlier, another Senate committee, then under another Democratic Senator, Frank Church, exposed numerous unsavoury CIA activities that went well beyond their administrative mandate – and the law itself.

Will this newest report just end up being a racy catalogue of some serious, now-historical CIA misdeeds – or will it somehow lead to much closer oversight of that agency? And, ultimately, maybe a more awkward, fundamental question also needs to be asked: Will any of the individuals specifically named in the report end up in front of disciplinary tribunals? Will they be forced to confront their misdeeds and risk the loss of what is left of their reputations, their jobs, and their pensions – or perhaps even gain fines and prison time for this behaviour? DM

Photo: Democratic Senator from California Dianne Feinstein speaks to the media outside the Senate chamber after the release of a report on Bush-era CIA torture policies in the US Capitol in Washington, DC USA, 09 December 2014. The controversial report, which is more than 6,000 pages long, details post 9/11 torture methods the CIA employed on detainees. EPA/JIM LO


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