No Comment — February 10, 2011, 1:52 pm

The CIA’s Culture of Impunity

What happens to a CIA agent who authorizes the torture of an innocent citizen of a NATO ally, leaving a long trail of dumb mistakes behind? The answer appears to be: promotion. That’s the message from an impressive Associated Press story by Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, two of the best reporters covering the intelligence beat today. Newspapers around the country pared the AP story down, and the Washington Post mysteriously edited out critical details, but it’s worth going straight to the AP site for the whole 3,700-word feature.

Here’s a key fragment:

In December 2003, security forces boarded a bus in Macedonia and snatched a German citizen named Khaled el-Masri. For the next five months, el-Masri was a ghost. Only a select group of CIA officers knew he had been whisked to a secret prison for interrogation in Afghanistan. But he was the wrong guy.

A hard-charging CIA analyst had pushed the agency into one of the biggest diplomatic embarrassments of the U.S. war on terrorism. Yet despite recommendations by an internal review, the analyst was never punished. In fact, she has risen to one of the premier jobs in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, helping lead President Barack Obama’s efforts to disrupt al-Qaida.

That “hard-charging CIA analyst,” we learn, has now become the head of the Agency’s Global Jihad Unit, responsible for tracking down Al Qaeda operatives—one of the most important posts in the agency. But who is she? AP explains that the CIA insists that her name not be used, not even her first name, which they indicate is “unusual.” They identify her as “Frances.” She figures prominently in an important 2005 article by Dana Priest, which details her notorious role in the el-Masri abduction. “She just had a hunch,” Priest quotes a CIA official as saying. “She didn’t know.” It’s unclear whether she is one of the thirteen CIA agents that German prosecutors indicted in January 2007, in a case that American diplomats subsequently tried to shut down with an unusual exhibition of raw political pressure, as a WikiLeaks cable disclosed.

In addition to Frances, we are also introduced to Elizabeth, a CIA lawyer eager to demonstrate a “can-do” mentality, who approved Frances’s decision to kidnap and torture the innocent German greengrocer; Matt, in whose custody a prisoner froze to death in the CIA’s infamous Salt Pit prison in Afghanistan; Albert, who decided to stage a mock execution to motivate a prisoner he was holding in Poland, and Ron, his boss, who watched the process go down and did nothing to stop it; Steve, who interrogated Manadel al-Jamadi to death; Baghdad station chief Gerry Meyer and his deputy Gordon, who introduced and operated the “ghost prisoner” system there; and others. There’s only so much one can cover in 3,700 words.

The AP story juxtaposes the CIA internal probes with the military’s culture of officer responsibility. The contrast between the CIA and the Navy, for instance, couldn’t be stronger. If a ship goes aground, the commander faces an almost certain inquiry and disciplinary measures from which his career is unlikely to quickly recover. The CIA, by contrast, has a culture of impunity—blame is shared and institutionalized. As the AP investigation shows, even in cases that the CIA agrees were clear-cut mistakes, those who disrespect the law and particularly the rules for the protection of prisoners are likely to rise within the agency.

Such a culture has certain legal consequences. Under the doctrine of command responsibility, when an organization involved in warfare fails to punish or discipline those who engage in criminal conduct, criminal liability passes to the senior officers of that organization. That’s a point for Leon Panetta and his senior deputies to ponder carefully. It is not just their reputations that are in jeopardy.

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