Why is it that the public will likely never get to read much of a major investigative report the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence produced on the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program—a program that included torture?
Thursday, the Senate intelligence committee voted to declassify portions of the 6,300-page report—the executive summary, findings and conclusions. It was not long after the vote that it was confirmed that the White House would have the CIA conduct a declassification review of these parts of the report before they were released.
This conflict of interest was addressed by Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News, who told The Guardian the CIA functionally will control “the declassification process, and they have an interest in how they as an agency are portrayed in the final product.” He added, “They’re not an impartial party, and that’s a flaw in the process.”
Yet, what if it is not a flaw? What if it is a feature? The CIA has made it this far in history without facing any accountability whatsoever for torturing and even causing the deaths of captives it confined in a network of secret prisons the agency maintained.
According to McClatchy Newspapers, the Senate report CIA used “interrogation methods that were not approved by either the Justice Department or their own headquarters and illegally detained 26 of the 119″ captives they held in CIA custody.
While much of this has been understood to journalists and human rights groups that have been interested, the investigation also found that “critics inside the CIA were cut out of the debate over the program or ignored and the news media were manipulated with leaks that tended to blunt criticism of the agency.”
“The CIA’s high-level officials mismanaged the program,” and “interrogators who crossed the line into abusive behavior went unpunished.” The report also confirms the role of the CIA in the deaths of at least six captives.
Deception and hypocrisy has been employed by the CIA with success, and, through entertainment, such as the film, Zero Dark Thirty, the agency has even been able to glorify and sensationalize what it has done in the global “war on terrorism.”
It is all very similar to how the agency acted to protect itself from scrutiny in the 1970s, when much of its covert operations in the 1950s and 1960s, including domestic spying on Americans, were beginning to become widely known.
In 1974, Victor Marchetti, former executive assistant to the CIA Deputy Director, and John D. Marks, former staff assistant to the intelligence director at the State Department, wrote a book, The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, that the CIA tried to have legally suppressed. It went to court to have the book censored prior to publication. Marchetti became the first writer to be served with an official censorship order by a US court.
Marchetti and Marks argued that hypocrisy, deception and secrecy had become “standard techniques for preventing public awareness of the CIA’s clandestine operations and government accountability of them.” Men who demanded they be regarded as honorable for their role in the CIA, “true patriots,” often lied when caught “in their own web of deceit.” They believed they had a “right to lie” to Americans.
“In this country, secrecy and deception in intelligence operations are as much to keep the Congress and the public from knowing what their government is doing as to shield these activities from [any enemies],” they declared. “The intelligence establishment operates as it does to maintain freedom of action and avoid accountability.”
The CIA “recognizes no role for a questioning legislature or an investigative process,” the former government officials suggested. “Its adherents believe that only they have the right, and the obligation to decide what is necessary to satisfy the national needs.”
“The cult of intelligence demands that it not be held accountable for its actions by the people it professes to serve” because “in their minds those who belong to the cult of intelligence have been ordained and their service is immune from public scrutiny.”
Historically, the CIA had managed to convince US presidents to lie on their behalf. President Dwight D. Eisenhower lied to the American people about the CIA’s involvement in a coup in Guatemala in 1954. President John F. Kennedy lied about the CIA’s role in an invasion of Cuba in 1961 (“Bay of Pigs”). President Lyndon B. Johnson lied about US involvement in Vietnam and Laos. President Richard M. Nixon lied about the CIA’s attempt to fix the election in Chile in 1970. (These are just a few examples.)
Both Marchetti and Marks rationalized that this was due to a “clandestine mentality,” a mindset that “thrives on secrecy and deception” and “encourages professional amorality, the belief that righteous goals can be achieved through the use of unprincipled and normally unacceptable means. Thus, the cult’s leaders must tenaciously guard their official actions from public view. To do otherwise would restrict the ability to act independently; it would permit the American people to pass judgment not only on the utility of their policies but the ethics of those policies as well.”
Not even in the first year of President Barack Obama’s administration did the White House ever seriously want to expend political capital and hold CIA agents or officers accountable for torture. Attorney General Eric Holder initially “identified at least ten instances in which interrogators” went “far beyond what had been sanctioned” by President George W. Bush’s administration. CIA management also had destroyed interrogation videotapes that probably contained evidence of torture, however, the administration chose to move forward instead of looking backward at any crimes committed.
There was no real risk of prosecutions when the Senate intelligence committee chose to produce a report that could set the record straight on CIA torture, detention and renditions. However, that did not stop those in the “cult of intelligence” from interfering in the Senate’s investigation by disappearing documents from a database Senate staffers were using and by conducting unauthorized searches on a network to find out details on how the staffers were preparing the report.
Senate staffers were essentially spied upon because of the interest the CIA has in keeping the true history of CIA torture from becoming official US history. They did not want the Senate to have certain details in the report that would differ from the fabricated stories consistently told by individuals like former CIA director Michael Hayden, former acting CIA general counsel John Rizzo, former Vice President Dick Cheney, former CIA Counterterrorism Center head, Jose Rodriguez and others, whose allegiance remains with the “cult of intelligence” they have dutifully served in their lives.
Beyond the promotion of the agency’s own version of history is the reality that the “war on terrorism” is a paradigm that the CIA will likely be able to easily manipulate in the same way that the agency has prevented information from becoming public in recent cases involving Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests or lawsuits involving torture victims seeking justice.
Jason Leopold recently highlighted how the Obama administration blocked torture photos from being released to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 2009. An appeals court had found that President George W. Bush was using FOIA exemptions as “an all-purpose damper on global controversy” and “an alternative classification mechanism.” Obama initially was going to abide by the judge’s order but then “Senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney and his daughter, Liz,” accused Obama of “endangering the lives of US military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Obama decided to not allow the photos to be released, effectively concealing torture and shielding individuals from accountability.
In a lesser known case, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) sought the disclosure of video of Guantanamo Bay prisoner Mohammed al Qahtani under FOIA so attorneys for Qahtani could publicly confirm or deny whether they had viewed video that show Qahtani being tortured and abused. They wanted to be able to acknowledge this in open court before the military commissions. But a judge ruled that it was appropriate for the CIA to neither confirm or deny that such images or video of Qahtani existed.
It was “logical and plausible that extremists would utilize images of al-Qahtani (whether in native or manipulated formats) to incite anti-American sentiment, to raise funds, and/or to recruit other loyalists, as has occurred in the past.” He is believed by the government to have been the “20th hijacker,” who would have been on Flight 93 if he had not been denied entry to the US, so “misuse” of his images would be “particularly plausible.”
The judge also contended that, although CCR had highlighted what “written information” was already known publicly to argue for the release of video, the “written record of torture” made it “all the more likely that enemy forces would use al Qahtani’s image against the United States’ interests.”
One talking point the “cult of intelligence” has relied upon more and more often to protect itself from transparency is to argue that transparency would empower the terrorists, who America is fighting in a war. The argument was used against Chelsea Manning when prosecuting her for her disclosures of information to WikiLeaks. It has been repeated to condemn former NSA contractor Edward Snowden for his disclosure of information on massive global surveillance violating the privacy of citizens. (Manning was even charged with the military offense of “aiding the enemy.”)
The threat of propaganda from terrorist groups if transparency is allowed, however, is overwhelmingly insignificant and impossible to detect in comparison to the very real threat of propaganda from the CIA and the “cult of intelligence” if it is able to keep up secrecy, which effectively allows the agency to continue its hypocrisy and deception.
Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon called attention to “the intelligence leadership’s culture of misinformation” and Senator Mark Udall of Colorado had “challenged” the White House to not delegate declassification decisions to the CIA because “significant amounts of information on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program that [have] been declassified and released to the American public [have been] misleading and inaccurate.” But a bureaucratic process the CIA can easily tailor to serve its agenda has now been set in motion.
There may be a bit of a reckoning when the tidbits of this major torture report the CIA allows the public to read are released to the public, but the full reckoning that should take place will not occur until the vast majority of the 6,300-page report is made available to the public. It won’t occur until the public can read the stories that Senator John McCain said are “chilling” and too upsetting for him to repeat.
Tragically, over twenty-five years from now, when that finally happens, a number of lead officials responsible for authorizing and committing atrocious acts detailed will probably be dead and gone, and a new generation of leaders in the CIA and the “cult of intelligence” will occupy our attention as we commiserate about their secrecy, hypocrisy and deception engaged in because our system ordains them with immunity from scrutiny and accountability for their actions.