There are aspects of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s (SSCI) report on the CIA’s Bush-era enhanced interrogation techniques and their efficacy that are unequivocally disturbing. The report alleges wrongful deaths at the hands of CIA operators, the detention and mistreatment of innocent people, and elaborate physical punishments inflicted on terror suspects resulting in lasting ailments.
Some of these practices and certainly the allegation that the CIA intentionally misled those responsible for its oversight are deeply disturbing. War, however, is hell, and America was and remains engaged in a war in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. in which nearly 3,000 innocent civilians were killed.
It is a war that took the lives of 169 Americans, Swedes, Danes, Britons, Indonesians and Australians when Jemaah Islamiyah attacked a tourist attraction in Bali in 2002. It is a war that spread to Spain in March of 2004 when al-Qaeda operatives killed 191 and wounded 1,800 more when they detonated a series of explosives onboard a Madrid commuter train. In 2005, the war engulfed London when a terror attack on buses and subway cars killed 52 civilians and wounded 700 more. It was a war that involved tens of thousands of Western soldiers fighting on battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thousands of those troops gave their lives in the effort to ensure that those who would execute similar attacks on Western targets never had the opportunity to leave that volatile region.
Noting the realities above is not designed to either excuse or explain the excesses in which the CIA is accused of engaging, but merely to provide some of the context which has been lost in all the moral posturing over the SPSCI’s report. It is possible to be both outraged over the claim that the nation’s intelligence agency abused the public trust and damaged America’s standing abroad while simultaneously acknowledging the importance and complexities of their mission.
And while we are casting America’s intelligence professionals as wholly irresponsible in their prosecution of the clandestine aspects of the War on Terror, it is important to also give them a fair hearing. This is particularly critical given the fact that the Senate panel that compiled this report did not interview any of the senior CIA managers who conducted the post-9/11 interrogation program or the directors who oversaw it.
In a letter published in The Wall Street Journal, six former CIA leaders, including George Tenet, Porter Goss, and Michael Hayden, blasted the report as “one-sided and marred with errors.” These former CIA directors insisted that the report is “a poorly done and partisan attack on the agency that has done the most to protect America after the 9/11 attacks.”
ABC News noted that these CIA officials claim their actions in the last decade resulted in the saving of “thousands of lives.”
“A powerful example of the interrogation program’s importance is the information obtained from Abu Zubaydah, a senior al Qaeda operative, and from Khalid Sheik Muhammed, known as KSM, the 9/11 mastermind,” the former directors write. “We are convinced that both would not have talked absent the interrogation program.”
As for Osama Bin Laden, the former leaders outline the steps that led the Navy SEALs to the Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
“The CIA never would have focused on the individual who turned out to be bin Laden’s personal courier without the detention and interrogation program,” they write. “So the bottom line is this: The interrogation program formed an essential part of the foundation from which the CIA and the U.S. military mounted the bin Laden operation.”
“The al Qaeda leadership has not managed another attack on the homeland in the 13 years since, despite a strong desire to do so,” these CIA chiefs conclude. “The CIA’s aggressive counterterrorism policies and programs are responsible for that success.”
What’s more, this report is a valid source of consternation for some former CIA members, including 31-year agency veteran Jesse Rodriguez, who alleged hypocrisy among those castigating the spy agency. He said many of those in Congress casting recriminations on the CIA failed to object to some of its practices when they were originally informed of them.
The interrogation program was authorized by the highest levels of the U.S. government, judged legal by the Justice Department and proved effective by any reasonable standard. The leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees and of both parties in Congress were briefed on the program more than 40 times between 2002 and 2009. But Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tried to deny that she was told in 2002 that detainees had been waterboarded. That is simply not true. I was among those who briefed her.
There’s great hypocrisy in politicians’ criticism of the CIA’s interrogation program. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, lawmakers urged us to do everything possible to prevent another attack on our soil. Members of Congress and the administration were nearly unanimous in their desire that the CIA do all that it could to debilitate and destroy al-Qaeda. The CIA got the necessary approvals to do so and kept Congress briefed throughout. But as our successes grew, some lawmakers’ recollections shrank in regard to the support they once offered. Here are a couple of reminders.
On May 26, 2002, Feinstein was quoted in the New York Times saying that the attacks of 9/11 were a real awakening and that it would no longer be “business as usual.” The attacks, she said, let us know “that the threat is profound” and “that we have to do some things that historically we have not wanted to do to protect ourselves.”
Rodriguez worried that some of his CIA colleagues may restrain themselves when they are next asked to do all within their power to prevent further catastrophic attacks on Western interests. He feared they might think twice about what might happen to them if they were to use every tool within their reach to prevent Western bloodshed.
Of course, a CIA operative would defend their agency and the practices in which they engaged in the years immediately following the worst attacks on the nation since Pearl Harbor. The fact that these remarks were anticipated does not make them invalid. The SPSCI’s report is important; a thorough and public audit of America’s practices in the War on Terror is crucial. It is also critical that Americans react to this report with sobriety and foresight.
We are still at war.
An earlier version of this post identified the SSCI as the “Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.”