As always, CIA dutifully followed White House orders, so for the next five years we only told those select members—euphemistically dubbed the “Gang of 8″—about the program as it developed and expanded. Only they were briefed on CIA’s secret detention facilities overseas and the employment of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs), including the waterboarding of high-value detainees like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheik Mohammad.
While used only rarely in the past, the “Gang of 8” notification process is explicitly authorized in the congressional oversight provisions of the National Security Act for covert actions of “extraordinary” sensitivity. It was an entirely lawful way to proceed to notify Congress about the EIT program. Yet I am convinced it proved to have disastrous consequences for CIA.
For one thing, such notifications are only really suitable for surgical, discrete, “one-off” actions; the May 2011 raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound is a perfect example. The detention and interrogation program, by contrast, was complex, costly, and open-ended in duration, evolving into an ever more treacherous legal and political terrain for the Agency to navigate. From its beginning, what CIA needed above all from Congress was stalwart, bipartisan cover—for their understanding and acquiescence that the continuing Al Qaeda threat required unprecedented measures. We needed it for the time down the road from 9/11 when, absent a second catastrophic attack, the political winds inevitably would change once the initial shock, horror, and outrage about what happened that day abated.
We were naïve in believing that the “Gang of 8” would play that role. There is no way to expect that from a handful of politicians being made to listen some very dicey and chilling information in sporadic, off-the-record sessions. Sure enough, as time went by and controversy over leaked details about the program grew, the only cover they provided was for themselves. In the earliest days of his Administration, President Obama rescinded and publicly repudiated the Agency’s detention and interrogation program, and for good measure declassified virtually every detail of the program.