Some political events mark their importance less by their content than by their timing, circumstances and presentation. That is the case for the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on CIA torture. It contains little new to the attentive observer and none of that is of major consequence. It does, though, bear the imprimatur of the Senate -- albeit with the abstention of Republicans. It appears at the culmination of a fierce White House campaign to prevent it from seeing the light of day. President Obama's last minute "sky-is-falling" warnings that issuing the report would endanger the nation's security was the exclamation point for a series of progressively more drastic measures that included the unconstitutional hacking of the Committee's computers by the President and CIA Director John Brennan.
The administration thereby raised expectations of what the revelations contained, spotlighted the event and generally created a sense of drama for an habitually jaded public. Pervasive suspicions about this President thereby were neatly transposed onto the torture story whose actual protagonists were Bush's men. This conformed to the maladroit politics that is the President's trademark. As to timing, the country's assiduously cultivated amnesia about Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and all that had been lifted somewhat by ISIL's doings, the recommitment to an open-ended war in Afghanistan and the Intelligence Community's abuses in the draconian spying on American citizens. This convergence of elements meant headlines and commentary that exceeded the stipulated 24 hour news cycle -- even if the MSM did their best to blunt the story's edges and to ease it off the front pages as soon as decency permitted.
Beyond the drama created by the Report's surviving multiple assassination attempts, what is there that should grab our attention? The CIA designed and conducted a program of systematic torture of those it suspected of being associated with terrorism. It did so at several of the notorious "black sites," at Guantanamo and probably elsewhere in Iraq and Afghanistan. Torture was the official policy of the United States government as stipulated by President George W. Bush with the unanimous approval of his national security team -- including Colin Powell. The torture program continued for years -- carried out by the Army as well as the CIA. Several of those tortured were held on basis of no evidence whatsoever, something that did not shield them from abuse and imprisonment under brutal conditions.
This is damning bill of indictment. But none of it is new. For a decade we have had credible reports, testimony and accounts of how the torture program was decided, organized and executed. Some have come from military officers and other official personnel. We have known that the Agency at the highest level took the radical step of destroying video evidence of torture out of fear of criminal prosecution and damage to its bureaucratic empire lavishly funded beyond their wildest dreams thanks to the "war on terror" boon. The "black sites" were identified eight years ago in exhaustive investigative reports prepared under the auspices of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. So, too, were the kidnappings, renditions and complicity of all but one NATO government. All is detailed and documented there. The torture programs vengeful and sadistic ethos is not a surprise either -- nor the total failure to produce a single piece of actionable intelligence involving a threat to the United States.
Yet, the reaction is one of surprise. Senator Feinstein did a compelling reprise of Captain Reynaud's "I am shocked, checked that gambling is going on here." Feinstein's expressed greatest outrage over what she claimed were misleading statements by successive CIA Directors as to the scope of torture and as to its effectiveness. The Committee never was provided with a record accounting for those subject to torture and the aftermath. It never demanded one. The primary inference to draw from the Senator's grievances is that the Intelligence Committees knew perfectly well that torture had become the official policy of the United States. Moreover, they seemingly made no great effort to find out how the program was executed with what consequences. Yes, the CIA deceived them about certain things but it strains credulity that hardboiled Congress people did not realize that deception is what the CIA does for a living. The bottom line is that Congress was an accessory to the torture program and remained so until it became politically convenient to distance itself (the Democratic members anyway) from Constitutional abuses unprecedented in the country's history. The tragic irony here is that the CIA/White House deception of the Congress was but a small incident in the grand deception that has been the "war on terror" -- a pyramid of lies and illusions.
The Congressional leadership -- Chairs and senior minority members of the Intelligence committees, as well as the House Speaker and Senate majority Leader -- were apprised for the programs initiation and implementation from the outset. Former Chair of the House Intelligence Committee Pete Hoekstra let the bag out of the cat in admitting on television that his staff already knew 90% of what was in the report. Moreover, there were the multiple public sources referred to above. Yes, the Committees had been lied to on several occasions as to the modalities of this of that aspect of the program. And as the relationship between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee took on an adversarial character with the Democratic victory of 2006, the Agency leadership leader went into full deceit mode to protect its turf, its prerogatives and its budget. Those qualifications notwithstanding, the core reality is that the three branches of government conspired to keep these heinous, illegal acts concealed from the American people.
This reading of the post-9/11 torture history matches the accounts we have of the tripartite conspiracy to launch massive electronic surveillance in calculated violation of the law and the Constitution. It, too, was conceived and orchestrated at the White House. It, too, enlisted the Congressional leaders as co-conspirators. It, too, selectively coopted the courts via the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the head of the FISA Court. (The detailed narrative is provided by James Risen in his recently published book Pay Any Pricechapter 9).
What the Senate Committee does not tell us. The Feinstein report is not a comprehensive account of torture and abuse by the United States government in the "war on terror." It is limited to actions at the "black sites" and at Guantanamo. The numbers cited are 191 persons, of whom 26 are categorized as manifestly innocent. This is actually a small fraction of those who suffered inhumane treatment at American hands. For one thing, it excludes those incarcerated at the numerous bases, camps and outposts set up by both the Army and the CIA in Afghanistan from 2002-2004. They were the nodes for a draconian campaign to hunt down Taliban. In fact, they became collection sites for locals shopped by self designated warlords, vigilantes, free-booters and outright criminals who trafficked humans for the immunity we gave them to pursue their own dubious schemes in post-Taliban Afghanistan. We thereby empowered a network of drug dealers, power brokers and brigands who helped the Americans meet quotas for "Taliban" detained. We have graphic accounts of how the victims were treated. All were abused. Many tortured, some given one-way tickets to Guantanamo. Some were cast aside as the broken refuse of vendetta and vengeance. (A detailed, witnessed portrayal of how this played out in Kandahar and Urozgan provinces is given by Anand Gopal in No Good Men Among The Living 2014). The harsh truth: a motley array of Afghan miscreants played CIA agents and Army officers for fools. Their blind lust for revenge made them easy marks.
The total numbers are unknown and unknowable. The Senate Intelligence Committee never considered pursuing the matter. There were similar patterns of abuse in Iraq. Most of those accounts are verbal reports from Iraqis caught up in the apparatus of abuse -- whether victims directly of American interrogators/jailers or Iraqi auxiliaries who acted with an American mandate and, often, with Americans present in their own prisons. CIA agents, military officers and private contractors were all accomplices to this large-scale torture of Iraqis. In the former category, we do know that Abu Ghraib was not unique. General Stanley McChrystal was the point man for the program who personally created the notorious Camp Cropper interrogation center. What is on the public record is the imprisonment of 20 -- 40,000 Iraqis in grim conditions on grounds of engaging in "anti-Iraqi activities" -- i.e. planning to attack Americans. All were released by the time that the United States vacated Iraq (temporarily) at the end of 2011. One noteworthy alumnus was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi -- the mastermind of ISIL. In effect, American authorities had little idea of what they were doing, of who was who. Much pain was inflicted, much injustice done, by incompetent American authorities. We are suffering the whirlwind for this mindlessness -- and will continue to indefinitely.
The Senate Intelligence Committee summary report does present one conclusion of the utmost importance -- even if it, too, conveys no revelation. No information of value was elicited through the application of torture techniques. That conforms to everything we know about interrogation. It also confirms numerous bits and pieces of the story that have emerged over the years. CIA leaders and their backers (politicos and commentators) persist in the claim that vital information flowed from their torture campaign. These are offered as articles of faith without supporting evidence. Why this compulsion to lie? The aggrandized CIA of the WOT era is animated by a myth. It is the fictive tale of dedicated patriots risen to the great challenge of our times to protect and to secure America against diabolical enemies. That mythology infuses the NSA and Pentagon as well to a somewhat lesser degree. It is central to the Agency's sense of self and ambitions. The praise heaped on the CIA leadership by President Obama from January 2009 through last week keeps the myth alive and stokes the hubris that feeds on it.
Absolutely crucial to this mythical story is the legend of how the Agency got Osama ben-Laden. It is the CIA's Passion Play. Good triumphs over Evil -- a tale replete with heroes (and heroines in the Hollywood version), Divine inspiration and super human labors in the vineyard of the Lord. The Senate Committee report in effect open's the trap door under the stage on which the CIA has been preening. The OBL tale is false. The critical torture induced information is a fiction. The causal chain advanced by the CIA logically untenable. It just didn't happen the way John Brennan and his predecessors have told it. The Agency is plodding rather that perspicacious, slow and awkward rather than nimble. Organizationally incoherent rather than a superb Intelligence machine. This conclusion is no more original than other segments of the report. The flaws of evidence and logic in the CIA fictive account were pointed out by close observers three years ago. The best informed, rigorously argued criticism was presented by Brig (ret) Shaukat Qadir of Pakistan who undertook his own investigation on both sides of the Durand Line. (It has been published as Operation Geronimo: the Betrayal and Execution of Osama bin Laden and its Aftermath May 2012 -- Kindle eBook). A brief summary of the main points in debunking the CIA story was published in theHuffington Post (Zero Dark Thirty). Qadir, moreover, fills in the blank left by President Obama whose statement announcing OBL's killing made oblique reference to valuable information transmitted by Pakistani authorities. In fact, OBL may have been betrayed by his own people.
The MSM's neglect of this expose of the CIA's fabrication, which has been in the public realm for more than two years, like its overlooking of the Council of Europe's detailed accountability of "black sites," epitomizes the sheer laziness and obedient conformity of those whose mandate is to keep the American people informed. They also might have employed their own mental faculties to pick up the contradictions and illogicalities of the CIA's manufactured account.
The complicity of the White House in perpetuating the CIA mythologyis the most troubling part of the story. President Obama went all the way down the line to prevent its exposure. Even now that the lie has been established between any reasonable doubt, he personally has thrown Brennan et al a life preserver in pronouncing himself neutral on the issue. In his official reaction to the Feinstein release the next day, Obama declared that that he will not take sides in the debate on whether torture worked. This is a striking example of Presidential irrationality -- as well as irresponsibility. He is reacting as if a friend had asked him whether the Chicago Cubs should shell out $100 million+ for Jon Lester. That is a policy preference. Whether torture helped capture and kill OBL is a matter of fact -- of truth or falsity. Leaving aside the inconvenient fact that he happens to be President of the United States, that that he already conspired with the CIA to block the report's release and to prevent the ensuing embarrassment of the revelation that the torture program did not work (thereby already taking a position on the issue), one cannot logically abstain on a question of whether the sun rises in the East or the West.
Accountability for the country's Intelligence agencies begins with the acceptance of responsibility in the White House.
Michael Brenner: Senior Fellow the Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS-Johns Hopkins (Washington, D.C.) Author of numerous books, and over 60 articles and published papers. Recent works on American foreign policy and the Middle East are "Fear & Dread In The Middle East", and "Democracy Promotion & Islam". He also has written "Nuclear Power and Non-Proliferation" (Cambridge University Press) and "The Politics of International Monetary Reform" for the Center For International Affairs at Harvard. His work has appeared in major journals in the United States and Europe, such as Europe's World, European Affairs, World Politics, Comparative Politics, Foreign Policy, International Studies Quarterly, International Affairs, Survival, Politique Etrangere, and Internationale Politik. Directed funded research projects with colleagues at leading universities and institutes in Britain, France, Germany and Italy, including the Sorbonne, Bonn University, King's College – London, and Universita di Firenze. Invited lecturer at major universities and institute in the United States and abroad, including Georgetown University, UCLA, the National Defense University, the State Department, Sorbonne, Ecole des Sciences Politiques, Royal Institute of International Affairs, International Institute of Strategic Studies, University of London, German Council on Foreign Relations, Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and Italian Institute of International Affairs. Previous teaching and research appointments at Cornell, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Brookings Institution, University of California – San Diego, and Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the National Defense University.