Washington Divided on Issue of CIA Interrogations

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Washington Divided on Issue of CIA Interrogations
| published December 11, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Already in the midst of what may turn into another major budget crisis, and with the possibility of another government shutdown, Congress now finds itself sharply divided—along mostly partisan lines—over the recently-released Executive Summary Report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, a now highly controversial report on the types of interrogation tactics used by the CIA after 9/11.

Those tactics—which neither side disputes were used as explained in the report—may now become the source of a deep divide in the United States over how it conducts military interrogations in times of war or crisis, or both. The 528-page report, issued by an intelligence committee currently controlled by Democrats and led by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, sheds a critical, sometimes unfavorable light on how the CIA conducted interviews at numerous “black sites” around the world—in Poland and Lithuania, in Afghanistan and Romania.

Democrats, those staffers and researchers who worked on the report, and the White House, say that the release of the summery report is necessary if the United States is to maintain its legacy of openness and accountability as a democracy. Republicans charge that the release of the report is a political move, and little more—a way to shift blame to a former President and his staff for actions now making liberals uncomfortable. Worse, the Senate Report will put American lives at risk around the globe, and inflict deep damage to the working relationships between the U.S. and its allies and partners.

The CIA—and many of its former employees and directors—have also pushed back against both the content and the conclusions of the report, suggesting that without some of the harsh interrogation tactics used during that period after 9/11, the U.S. would have been at greater risk of another attack. More importantly, they say, the world may have never learned the exact location of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan. Coercive forms of interrogation were the key, the program’s supporters say, in identifying the all-important courier which led CIA analysts to discover where al Qaeda’s top man was holed-up.

In an unprecedented press conference at CIA headquarters, current director John Brennan defended the CIA’s employees and called its work after 9/11 crucial to the nation and its allies. Among other things, Brennan said that without harsh Q&A methods—tactics he termed “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or EITs in the vernacular of the intelligence community—terror plots may have been born and executed, and Osama bin Laden may not have been tracked to his hideout in Pakistan.

“It is our considered view,” Brennan told reporters, “that the detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques provided information that was used in the ultimate operation to go against bin Laden. Brennan, clearly seeking to push back against the implications of the Senate report, and surely seeking to balance the complexities of a story with worldwide potential blowback, wanted reporters to understand what he saw as the crucial importance that some of the information gained from extreme interrogations played in the post-9/11 world.

However, Brennan did acknowledge that some CIA operations did not go as smoothly as envisioned, and that the agency may have on occasion exceeded the legal authority extended to it by the White House and the Justice Department.

The CIA’s program of EITs began only weeks after 9/11. According to then-President George W. Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, and others in the Bush White House, the challenges faced in those days were immense and existential: what could be done to prevent another such attack on American soil, or in the lands of America’s allies. When presented with a plan which would include the detention and thorough interrogation of terror suspects, the White House was faced with the legal question of how far could the U.S. government go in its grilling of someone who might have knowledge of a future attack. Bush wanted legal and constitutional justification, and he got it in the form of a memo from senior Justice Department attorney John Yoo. Yoo, and White House colleague David Addington, forged (some critics may say stitched-together) the legal template upon which the neo-cons pressed forward with its request that CIA begin its program of harsh interrogation.

Under fire indirectly now that the Senate report is out, Yoo has already sought to defend his own actions as well as his legal interpretations. Among other things, he has lashed out at the Senate report as being shortsighted, naïve, and incomplete in its conclusions. Echoing the sentiments of Cheney and others, Yoo says that in those dark days and weeks after 9/11, Americans needed, more than almost anything else, to regain a sense of security and stability.

“Suppose you are a President who has just witnesses 3000 American deaths in a terrorist attack by a shadowy enemy,” Yoo writes this week in Time magazine. “Intelligence reports strongly indicate that follow-up attacks will come.” Yoo presents this “hypothetical” as, of course, the reality which faced the Bush White House. Yoo says that based on the findings and recommendations of Senator Feinstein and her colleagues who prepared the report, CIA and FBI interrogators would have no other option than to engage in “police station-style questioning” which could take weeks or months to bear fruit. Meanwhile, the threat of terror is imminent, and possibly growing by the minute.

According to the Senate’s report, the CIA operated several top secret facilities for the purposes of detaining, and interrogating, terror suspects or those with direct knowledge of known terror operatives. Using the services of two former Air Force officers with extensive backgrounds in psychology to oversee the program, CIA operatives used extreme forms of coercion to gain information deemed necessary to thwart potential future terrorist acts. The CIA also sought any information about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda’s number one man worldwide. Among the tools used by the CIA in these sessions: waterboarding, hanging detainees by their arms or legs in stressful positions, forcing prisoners to remain naked for long durations, slamming detainees against wooden walls, and locking prisoners inside small boxes or crates to induce sensory deprivation. CIA operatives also used sleep deprivation as a long term tactic, and kept prisoners isolated from one another. A few detainees may have been subjected to a form of forced feeding—in lieu of providing nutrition through meals or intravenous methods—known as rectal replenishment.

The Senate report posits that most of these actions constituted torture, and at least one Republican—Senator John McCain of Arizona—agrees that some of these extreme interrogation tactics constitute torture. As a U.S. Navy pilot during the Vietnam War, McCain was shot down over Hanoi, and spend the next several years—badly injured—in a North Vietnamese prison, where he was tortured.

President Obama officially ended the detention and interrogation programs—those originally set in motion during the presidency of George W. Bush—in 2009. Some operations, however, remained active for several months after that point, but by early 2010 all programs involving CIA sites used for the extraction of information from terror suspects were effectively closed-down. President Obama banned the use of such programs and facilities at that time, and directed that the CIA use the same techniques and procedures found in the Army Field Manual—methods believed to be in general accordance with international law. The CIA’s website, which includes statements from Brennan on Tuesday and Wednesday, also includes documents which stress that the CIA complied with the President’s mandate that all forms of detainee interrogation cease in 2010.

At the core of what may become a nasty debate and a long round of recriminations by all parties involved, is the definition of torture. McCain, for one, says that waterboarding and all forms of slamming or hitting prisoners constitute torture, as do prolonged periods of exposure to extreme cold and heat. But clearly the current mess now faced in Washington shows us that one person’s torture is the next person’s harsh interrogation. Two former CIA directors—George Tenet and Porter Goss—along with several other former and current top CIA officials, have hit back hard against the basic premise of the Senate report. In a Wall Street Journal editorial they write collectively that the United States has been kept safe from acts of foreign terrorism in large part because of the harsh interrogations that took place during that time.

“The CIA’s aggressive counterterrorism policies and programs are responsible for that success,” they wrote in the op-ed piece this week. Former Bush administration officials too are not taking the Senate’s report lightly, and some are charging that the report is a transparent political ploy to make Democrats like good and to backdate blame for ugly tasks that nevertheless made everyone safer. GOP members of Congress suggest that the report’s timing is meant to insure that Democrats on the Intelligence committee rushed the report into print to avoid a confrontation with a Republican-controlled Senate next month.

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden says that the Senate’s report is inaccurate and incomplete, and that its conclusions are faulty—including the broad assumption that identifying Osama bin Laden’s trusted courier was achieved by means completely external to the interrogation sessions. Despite Senator Feinstein’s assertion that bin Laden was tracked using conventional forms of intelligence, many in the CIA at the time—including Hayden—dispute this, and they suggest that much of the credit for identifying bin Laden’s exact location was built upon information gleaned during the interrogation of detainees.

In his Time magazine article, John Yoo says that he felt that “the CIA’s proposed interrogation methods were within the law—just barely.”

“They [the tactics used] did not inflict serious, long-term pain or suffering,” Yoo writes, “as prohibited by the federal statute banning torture. We realized than that waterboarding came closest to the line. But the fact that the U.S. military has used it to train thousands of U.S. airmen, officers, and soldiers without harm indicated that it didn’t constitute torture.”

“The Feinstein report,” Yoo adds, “cannot deny that most Americans agree President Bush acted reasonably under these emergency conditions.”

Still, even Brennan, the current CIA director, sees ambiguity on the whole troubling affair. “There were no easy answers,” he told reporters, “and whatever your views are on the EITs, our nation and in particular this agency did a lot of things right during this difficult time to keep this country strong and secured.”

Related Thursday Review articles:

A Senate Report Vs. The CIA; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; December 11, 2014.

American Photojournalist Killed in Yemen; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; December 6, 2014.