No Comment — January 28, 2008, 11:15 am

Operating in the Dark

Spencer Ackerman, writing in today’s Washington Independent, offers a very useful summary of the inquiry into the CIA’s relationship to the Bush Administration’s program of highly coercive interrogation techniques. He starts his narrative just where any good chronicler would: in the legacy that the Bushies inherited.

In a bucolic field two miles north of Mount Vernon, beside a baseball diamond in Fort Hunt Park, Va., about 20 veterans of a secret World War II intelligence unit gathered together last year for the first time since 1946. The National Park Service was holding a ceremony to commemorate their service. The men, mostly in their eighties, had never before told their stories. During the war, Fort Hunt was a secret interrogation center, where some 4,000 German and Italian military officers, high-ranking government officials and scientists were debriefed. A few years ago, Park Rangers responsible for the area learned of Fort Hunt’s critical intelligence role in recently declassified documents, and they decided to create a memorial and reunite the unit’s veterans. The dedication ceremony was held over two balmy, peaceful days last October.

Col. Steve Kleinman, a U.S. Air Force Reserve interrogator, 50, who had served in Panama and both Iraq wars, was one of the speakers that fall day. In a conversation earlier this month, Kleinman said he was horrified by America’s turn to what Dick Cheney has called “the dark side” in the war on terrorism: indefinite detention in the name of national security, torture in the name of intelligence collection. And so he fought against it. Kleinman joined an effort, sponsored by the Intelligence Science Board–an interagency intelligence-advisory panel–to get the intelligence community to finally renounce torture. His speech at Fort Hunt was a subtle rebuke of the use of torture, comparing the war on terrorism to an earlier era, when interrogators shunned brutality.

Suddenly, at Fort Hunt that October day, a veteran approached Kleinman. “I never laid a hand on one of my prisoners,” the older man said. “That allowed me to do my job and retain my humanity.” Kleinman was moved. “I thought, when’s the last time I heard an interrogator concerned about that?” he recalled.

Actually, as Ackerman points out, those concerns are commonplace. In fact, a significant number of CIA interrogators took early retirement or sought transfer to other postings out of a sense of disgust with the torture tactics that the Bush Administration was so eager to pass down. I have interviewed some of them, and so has my colleague Ken Silverstein. And Ackerman gives us a good example:

The exception was one obscure office: the Polygraph Unit in the Administrative Directorate. There, employees—who were not case officers or intelligence analysts—would perform the closest thing to interrogations as existed institutionally in CIA. Usually, the unit’s job was to polygraph officers in the U.S. and abroad as part of the agency’s defense against enemy penetration. Less often, it would vet the agents or defectors that case officers ran. “Very, very few interrogations were done in CIA,” said John Sullivan, who performed an estimated 5,000 polygraph tests in the unit during a 31-year career. “Most of what we did was elicitation. Interrogation involves people who don’t want to give you information. In my case, about 20 percent of my tests involved some form of interrogation.” None of those interrogations involved anything physical or psychological pressure. “I was never aware of any agency employee being involved in torture. Never. And I spent four years in Vietnam,” Sullivan said. “I was disgusted by Abu Ghraib. It broke my heart.”

The Bush Administration’s official narrative has been consistent and deceitful. It holds that the reach for the “dark arts” started deep inside the intelligence community, with interrogators who were frustrated that the techniques they were trained in weren’t producing results. But in fact when Vice President Dick Cheney initially pressed the agency to use “rough stuff,” he met with strong resistance from career intelligence officers who felt it wasn’t needed and would ultimately prove counterproductive. Ackerman also gets this piece of the story right:

But 9/11 changed all that. Despite having nearly no off-the-shelf experience, the CIA was tasked by President Bush to come up with a robust interrogation program for the most important al-Qaeda captives. So the agency turned to its partners for assistance in designing its interrogation regimen: Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia—all countries cited by the State Department for using torture—among others. Additionally, as Mark Benjamin has reported for Salon, two psychologists named Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, who worked as contractors for CIA, helped the agency “reverse-engineer” the military and CIA training on resisting torture for use on detainees. Suddenly, waterboarding, an illegal practice of simulating or in some cases inducing drowning, became an American-administered practice.

So Jessen and Mitchell played the key role in reverse engineering torture for the benefit of the Bush Administration. They are being aggressively protected by a very thankful Team Bush. In fact, the Administration has gone way out of its way to shield them from prying eyes. Senate Armed Services Committee efforts to probe into the Jessen and Mitchell contracts have been obstructed, and the edgy psychological duo have secured high priced legal talent to help them cover their trail. Former Deputy Attorney General Jamie S. Gorelick was hired to represent them at taxpayer expense by virtue of an extraordinary (and possibly illegal) indemnification clause contained in the deal they initially cut.

The Pentagon remains openly hostile to the “program,” as President Bush calls it. And its spokesman offers up some very harsh words for Jessen and Mitchell:

Kleinman agrees. “The nation was frankly angry,” he said, emphasizing that he’s speaking for himself and not the Defense Dept. “The psychologists come in, when in fact they don’t know what they’re talking about. There was a lack of understanding of what resistance is all about. It’s designed to cause propaganda, not to get them to tell the truth—what we trained our people to resist.”

Key to the Bush Administration’s pro torture mantra is the claim that torture works. Every time the program comes under attack, we’re told that “lives have been saved.” When asked for examples, we’re usually told “sorry, that’s classified.” And the few cases that have become public knowledge do not support the Administration’s claims. Most recently, the treatment of Abu Zubaydah was held up as a positive example, but the FBI immediately disputed it, arguing that no useful intelligence emerged from the use of harsh techniques in his case. The Bush Administration seems to have a losing position on this point. It can sustain itself only by using its position in power to dictate official responses. Within the agency, opposition to the torture practices continues to build.

The former senior intelligence official contends that torture is a tricky and subjective category. “Some of this stuff is bizarre,” the ex-official said. “You can’t take a fundamentalist Islamist and put a good-looking nude woman in front of him because it’ll embarrass him and cause him stress. Well, you can put her in front of me.” But this official, who was active at CIA during the interrogations of Zubaydah, al-Libi and the man that the CIA calls “KSM” suggested that their interrogations didn’t provide the intelligence treasure troves that Bush has claimed. “We didn’t have any extraordinary breakthroughs,” he said. “We didn’t know if we had the right people under control, and don’t know if these people didn’t know anything, or we just didn’t have the right skill sets to get it out of them. . .”

Nearly seven years after 9/11, the Intelligence Science Board finds CIA interrogations are still on a poor footing. The legacy of torture will be with the U.S. in myriad ways for a long time: perhaps through a prosecution of Rodriguez, or even interrogators themselves; perhaps through innocent Iraqis tortured by U.S. officials who then become terrorists and seek revenge; perhaps through its effect on interrogators themselves. “You don’t torture people and lead a normal life afterwards,” the former senior Operations official said.

As we start the seventh year following 9/11, the torture issue seems entrenched, and the Bush Administration continues to wield impressive powers to cloak its dark dealings and to build public support for them. But in the end, as Ackerman notes, paraphrasing Tallyrand, torture is worse than a crime. It is a blunder.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

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Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

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On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers

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