A new Congressional report reveals the CIA used much more extreme torture techniques in the past decade than we knew. It also gained far less intelligence from torture than it claimed. Further, it lied to Congress to conceal these facts. None of that is as surprising as what happened after the CIA's Congressional oversight committee became suspicious of the CIA and launched an investigation: the CIA hacked the committee's computers to secretly erase evidence. The report was eventually finished, despite the CIA’s wish to the contrary. It is damning, and the CIA's hacking makes it doubly so, but the most egregious aspect is our government’s ongoing and abject failure to protect the American people from the obvious threat to national security that our own intelligence community has come to pose.
On Monday, the Senate Intelligence committee announced the findings from its investigation. Senator Diane Feinstein, the committee chair and a frequent defender of the CIA, stood on the opposite side of her usual battle line. She called the committee’s findings “shocking” and said, “The report exposes brutality that stands in stark contrast to our values as a nation. It chronicles a stain on our history that must never again be allowed to happen”.
The committee revealed that CIA agents have been interrogating people with techniques that include holding them underwater and smashing their heads against walls. Torture is illegal under U.S. and international law, and these forms of torture are more severe than “waterboarding” – the practice of pouring water over a person’s face to “simulate drowning.” Waterboarding became a political issue in 2007 when it was revealed the Department of Justice had issued a secret memorandum authorizing what it called “enhanced interrogation techniques” that included simulated drowning. In the face of widespread backlash the Department of Justice continued to argue that these were not forms of torture. (Ironically, after World War II the United States argued the exact opposite. During the “Tokyo Trials” from 1946-48 our government charged Japanese soldiers with torture for waterboarding American prisoners. Many of those Japanese soldiers were executed for that crime.) Yet it appears the CIA not only exercised the dubious authority the Department of Justice extended, but even took license with it.
After having won an ugly political battle in favor of torture, and then still overstepping its authority by using more severe forms of torture, the CIA wanted to show strong results. It couldn’t. Apparently, little useful intelligence was extracted through waterboarding, slapping, drowning, and smashing heads into walls. (This is not surprising, considering that interrogation experts consistently observe that torture is an ineffective means of gathering intelligence.) Obviously the CIA couldn’t easily admit to something that was both illegal and a failure, so it kept quiet. In fact, in 2006 the American people discovered the CIA had been trying to hide its “detention and interrogation” program for 4 years. In 2007, we discovered that it had deliberately destroyed videos of some of its interrogations, apparently in violation of orders from the White House. This prompted the Senate to launch its first investigation, which concluded in 2009. Those findings prompted a second investigation, more extensive and also more bipartisan, that has taken until this year to be completed.
It was during this second investigation that the CIA hacked into Senate computers and deleted certain sensitive documents. This is dumbfounding. Let there be no dissembling on this point: the CIA used its unique capabilities to attack its own country. In the beginning the CIA was at least ostensibly acting in the interest of the American nation, however misguided those efforts may have been. Then the CIA began to hide evidence, then destroy it, and then actively impair its oversight committee. These actions weren’t for the benefit of our nation, they were purely for the protection of the CIA and its agents. That should be terrifying to every American.
We already know the U.S. intelligence community is out of control. This Senate report simply reinforces that conclusion. The CIA and the NSA are our two largest intelligence agencies, and they have both established reliable patterns of lawlessness and deceit. Last year, we discovered the NSA has been lying to Congress about the nature and extent of its spying. It turned out the NSA has been violating the Constitution for years, and covering it up. It has also been deliberately and comprehensively undermining our nation’s digital security. James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, was caught telling such blatant lies about these efforts that he was forced to write a letter of apology to Congress. (He admitted his statements were “clearly erroneous” and justified them as being the "least untruthful" lies he could think of.) Both the NSA and the CIA have been caught breaking the law, violating the Constitution, and lying to their Congressional overseers to hide their abuses. The CIA even seems willing to risk actively interfering with Congress. Yet despite the obvious need to rein these organizations in, Congress is doing little and the President is doing less.
James Clapper may have perjured himself in front of Congress, then admitted it in writing, yet he is still the Director of National Intelligence. The Department of Justice did not prosecute him, and President Obama did not replace him. Keith Alexander, chief of the NSA, also lied to Congress. Again, no charges and no replacement. Given those high-profile disappointments, this latest round of revelations about the CIA seems unlikely to play out differently.
We have always known our intelligence agencies are two-edged swords. As a rule they are inherently dangerous organizations. Like the military they serve a defense function and are therefore much less legally restrained than other government agencies. Obviously they are highly secretive. United States intelligence agencies are also very well funded and technologically sophisticated. This combination of characteristics makes our intelligence agencies more capable of abusing power than any other type of entity in our government. For years we have been shocked by reports that they are exercising that capability. However, in the past 10 months we have been outraged by something more than abuse of power; by flagrant violation of the Constitution and even standards of common decency.
One would think the Democrats would jump at the opportunity to dismantle the much-hated police state infrastructure erected by the Bush administration. After all, President Obama promised to do so many times during his campaign. Unfortunately, the opposite has proven true. The Obama administration has expanded the police state, and continues to doggedly defend it even in the face of scathing public disapproval. At this point how could the administration turn around and admit the CIA has run amok, or the NSA must be purged? To do so would be to deliver a truckload of political ammunition to the Republicans. Unthinkable.
Americans frequently express the hope that Congress can find a way to set its hyper-partisanship aside for the matters our nation shares a consensus on. When it comes to certain matters of so-called “national security” it seems our Congress can do exactly that. Unfortunately, rather than it being a matter of rare mutual agreement, it is a matter of deep mutual culpability. Both parties have contributed to building our national intelligence monster. Ultimately, both factions fear that fighting the beast would do their side more harm than good. Now the American people are left with no defender.
National security is about ensuring peace and liberty for our nation. Those are the first and most basic responsibilities of American government. Is our national security being improved by the NSA’s systematic debilitation of our internet security technology, or its mass surveillance of our communications, or the CIA’s practices of kidnapping and torture? Is it being enhanced by cover-ups and lies? Is it being benefitted by a Congress or a President that refuse to put a stop to widespread abuse of power? Those things are harming our national security – the peace and liberty of our nation. This new form of partisan deadlock in which neither party is willing to take a stand is perhaps the biggest threat to American peace and liberty. Our nation is facing a clear, predictable threat that is well within its power to control. If neither Democrats nor Republicans can rise to that kind of occasion, our national security problems run even deeper than we know.