HNN December 12, 2014
When does an intelligence agency become worthless?Good question. A fair answer: when it stops speaking truth to power—or anyone else. I am sad to say the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has crossed that line. One can understand their motives—protect friends and colleagues, a misplaced sense of mission, the influence of former Great Captains of espionage—but the present leadership of the CIA have permitted themselves to be swayed, abandoning the bedrock values the agency has always stood for (or said it did). Only two conclusions are possible: that the agency never had bedrock values, or that the present spy chieftains have been corrupted.
Director John O. Brennan told the assembled senators at his confirmation hearing that he understood what had been done in the CIA black prisons program was torture, that it was offensive to him—and he had even spoken out against it—that he stood for accountability, and would work to release the investigative report the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had compiled on its inquiry into CIA torture. His nomination approved, Brennan took the oath of office as CIA director in March 2013. The Senate intelligence committee report had already been completed and only awaited CIA declassification approval.
As director John Brennan promptly took the opposite tack. He supervised preparation of a CIA rebuttal report and held back on declassification pending resolution of “issues” with the Senate investigators.
Completed in June 2013 the CIA rebuttal is an odd document, replete with statements that concede the validity of this or that criticism, then either rejecting the Senate’s evidence (which consists of the CIA’s own documents) or construing the error as inadvertent, well-meaning, or simply moot. From then to now, a period of a year and a half, Director Brennan sat on the Senate report, permitted subordinates to initiate a phony criminal complaint to the Justice Department against the Senate investigators, publicly took their side in publicizing the phony charges, and permitted former CIA officials and employees to make use of agency work product for a website designed to discredit the Senate report. He then prevailed upon the Obama White House to lobby the Senate committee to secure even broader discretion to delete material from the investigative report. The secrecy game has become a corrupt process. In my view we would not have the report out at all save that intelligence committee members had made clear they were ready to put out the full, unredacted text unless the CIA made public its declassified version.
(Incidentally, one point is worth making about CIA’s actual declassification work: the figure “5 percent” was repeatedly used by agency persons, and commentators informed by the CIA, in connection with the amount of text that has been at issue in the secrecy fight. It is now clear from the released report that that claim was not true. More than that, it is also apparent the Senate committee had engaged in self-censorship, in substituting the word “redacted” for many titles, numbers, and passages in the original. The CIA then waded through the text, wildly deleting more names, dates and swathes of text. Some pages, especially in the sections that discuss particular CIA claims that torture had broken up particular terrorist plots, are mostly blank. The pattern makes it clear a primary CIA interest was to disguise the dates when numerous events occurred, in spite of the fact that any number of these episodes are matters of public record. The Senate committee’s self-censorship plus the CIA’s deletions total much more than the figure quoted. This raises the question why an investigative group should bother self-censoring if an executive agency is then going to massage the text. In my book The Family Jewels there is considerable detail on how the CIA massages its image by means of manipulating journalists and regulating what former employees can write about it as well.)
The conclusion is inevitable that this process was not about making available the Senate report, it has been about suppressing it. Now that the report has emerged the trick is to discredit it. Director Brennan has lent himself to that task as well. Brennan went to the extent of holding a press conference in the lobby of CIA’s main headquarters building. This is one of only a handful of press conferences ever given by a CIA director. At this event Mr. Brennan went so far as to laugh at a question asking what he might say in the interest of transparency, replying “I think there’s more than enough transparency that has happened over the last couple days. I think it’s over the top.” Thus Mr. Brennan characterized CIA’s fierce fight to quash this investigation as the opposite, an act of “transparency.”
Immediately afterwards the CIA director falsely construed an intelligence concept to argue there is no way to dispute what the CIA says its torture program had accomplished. He repeated that phrase in responding to another question later. Brennan had made the same point already in his opening remarks, saying “The cause and effect relationship between the use of [torture] and useful information subsequently provided by the detainee is, in my view, unknowable.” The repetition reveals this to be a major point in the CIA’s defense, so it is important to understand that this constitutes a false use of the concept of “knowable.” In intelligence practice, knowability refers to the proposition an analyst may have to predict things that areinherently not capable of being known. For example, during the high Cold War years, analysts were predicting the size of Russian nuclear arsenals five to ten years into the future where Soviet leaders’ decisions on manufacturing those weapons systems were still years away. That is “unknowable.”
There is nothing of this in the situation with respect to torture. Not only did the CIA program not meet the threshold for unknowable in principle, the concrete evidence in the form of CIA reporting cables shows, in case after case, detainees already beginning to provide information.
Thus the notion that torture had been necessary to unlock the stream of disclosure collapses in the face of evidence prisoners were already talking. More than that, Mr. Brennan also told his audience at this press conference that he believes effective, non-coercive methods of interrogation are available and “do not have a counterproductive impact on our national security and our international standing.”
So, in his next breath the CIA spy chief openly admits that the torture damaged the United States and that alternatives were available, yet he has just employed a falsified construction of an intelligence concept to argue, in the face of evidence, that no one can gainsay the decision to rely upon torture. “One of the most frustrating aspects of the [Senate] study,” Mr. Brennan said just moments later, “is that it conveys a broader view of the CIA and its officers as untrustworthy.” Really? What is the public supposed to think when the intelligence agency engages in shabby tactics to avoid the revelation of criminal behavior and then collaborates in attempts to discredit the critics, all the while misleading its overseers? Alluding to discussion of the torture report Director Brennan talked about “misrepresentations” circulating in public. Just who is it who is misrepresenting? At an earlier point in its checkered history another CIA director, William E. Colby, feared that the agency might be swept away if it did not make a sufficient effort to meet investigators halfway. We may have reached that very point today.
John Prados is a senior fellow of the National Security Archive in Washington, DC, and director of its CIA Documentation Project. He is the author of “William E. Colby: The Secret Wars of a Controversial CIA Spymaster.” For more on all these subjects visit www.http://johnprados.com.