March 25, 2013 | The Washington Post

The CIA’s Interrogation Program Deserves a Public Airing

March 25, 2013 | The Washington Post

The CIA’s Interrogation Program Deserves a Public Airing

The Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have bequeathed to the lucky few with clearances a 6,000-page report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s enhanced interrogation program. Although such length suggests detailed intellectual promiscuity (the bipartisan 9/11 Commission Report — a masterpiece that covered decades — was a mere 567 pages, with notes), the senators who insist that a declassified version be released are surely right.

Americans should assess whether Langley engaged in torture in its war against al-Qaeda. The country’s honor is at stake, not just the competence of its primary intelligence service. Neither the CIA nor national security is likely to be harmed if the behemoth were released with the necessary camouflage for operatives, tradecraft and foreign intelligence services.

We should all want a vigorous debate about the type of duress — psychological and physical — a liberal democracy is willing to use against captured holy warriors who would down skyscrapers. Given the history of weapons proliferation and the continuing vibrancy of Islamic militancy, it is naive to assume we have seen the end of mass-casualty terrorism in the United States.

And the country is obviously ill-served by case officers who would mislead our elected representatives, as has been suggested in this report. Jose Rodriguez, a former head of the Counterterrorism Center (CTC) and the Clandestine Service, has written that on Sept. 4, 2002, he and a CTC team briefed Reps. Porter Goss and Nancy Pelosi, then the chairman and ranking minority member of the House intelligence committee, about the specific techniques used against Abu Zubaida, the first of three terrorists to be waterboarded. Senior Democratic and Republican senators received similar briefings. Pelosi vehemently denies that she knew or approved of the program. Somebody is shamelessly lying.

In my experience, case officers are capable of prevaricating before Congress. Omission is a well-honed habit in the executive branch. And working-level operations officers often have little difficulty elongating the truth for their bosses.

But why would Rodriguez or other agency officers have wanted to deceive their overseers? It was in the CIA’s interest to have senior Democrats aware of, and approving, the methods used. Even in the heady days after 9/11, when Langley had no idea what terrorist cells al-Qaeda could activate against the United States, even the most fearful case officer probably thought about “CYA” politics. That is inescapably part of Washington’s culture.

The CIA also had cause to believe that the methods it rapidly assembled would not cause shock in Congress or the White House: They had been used for decades in training elite military and CIA operational cadres. Sleep deprivation, which Rodriguez maintains broke 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, is standard fare in such training. An ethical case officer who had personally endured prolonged sleep deprivation could understandably conclude that using such a tactic in a monitored manner wouldn’t denote torture to his superiors. Ditto for CIA and White House lawyers.

Historically minded operatives know that pain matters. U.S. and allied espionage networks have been torn apart by foreign security services that don’t follow Marquess of Queensberry rules. After Vietnam, CIA junior officers were tutored by U.S. soldiers who had endured brutal foreign interrogations. Their counsel: In the hands of a trained adversary willing to use pain, the truth cannot hide. The lesson primarily engendered in ops officers concern for their foreign agents’ security. After 9/11, the issue for Langley was not whether “enhanced” interrogation worked but what types of pain could Americans morally use against holy warriors.

It’s not clear that the 6,000-page report even touches that question. Perhaps the operative Democratic assumption is that a captured jihadist and an arrested bank robber do not fundamentally differ: Both get lawyers and G-men interrogators trying to become their friends. If so, then that’s a worthy ethical and tactical debate that would certainly be aided by allowing the public to peruse Senate Democrats’ reflections on how al-Qaeda detainees have been handled.

The pen is a subjective instrument, more so than the camera. I could easily limn a picture of the three days that my junior-officer class spent in prison — being sleep-deprived, stuffed into sweat boxes, stripped, frozen, hooded in retch-inducing material, bombarded with electronic noise, slammed into walls and starved — that would seem extremely torturous. On camera, it would be worse.

My former colleagues undoubtedly fear how this Senate report depicts them. Hindsight, through which we bring order to the mess that is real life, can be wicked when fueled by a vindictive, guilty conscience. The American people may feel ashamed of the CIA’s actions against al-Qaeda. They did vote twice for Barack Obama.

But Langley deserves a fair public trial. Release the Senate magnum opus. Let people see the CIA’s back and forth as it tried to devise an American way to compel jihadists to talk. And release the tens of thousands of pages of documents seized in the raid on Osama bin Laden. Everyone would benefit from an open, bruising assessment of the country’s long war against Islamic radicalism.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He was a CIA case officer from 1985 to 1994.

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