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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2016

Unhackable

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

American Imperium

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Fighting Chance

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Front Runner

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Habits of Highly Cynical People

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Elisabeth Zerofsky on Marine Le Pen, Paul Wachter on the quest for an unhackable email, Rebecca Solnit on cynical people, Andrew J. Bacevich on truth and fiction in the age of war, Samuel James photographs E.P.L. soccer, a story by Vince Passaro, and more

I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Front Runner·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The F.N. asked to be sent to an institution whose legitimacy it did not accept, and French voters rewarded the party with first place in the election."
Illustration (detail) by Matthew Richardson
Memoir
I Am Your Conscious, I Am Love·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A paean 2 Prince
"And one thinks, Looking into Prince's eyes must be like looking at the world."
Photo ©© PeterTea
Article
Stop Hillary!·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"As wacky as it sometimes appears on the surface, American politics has an amazing stability and continuity about it."
Article
Plexiglass·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

Photograph (detail) by Karine Laval

Age at death last March of the sturgeon Nikita, Khrushchev’s gift to Norway, after an accidental immersion in salt water:

38

There were new reports of cannibalism in North Korea.

The Finnish postal service announced it will begin mowing lawns on Tuesdays.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today