Reviews — From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

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The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture: Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program. Melville House. 549 pages. $16.95.

On December 9, 2014, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released its torture report — or, more accurately, a redaction-studded version of the report’s executive summary, which nonetheless delivered far more than might be expected from such a document. This was no bureaucratic whitewash. It avoided the tepid style of most congressional prose, opting instead for a clinical, precise, and engaging narrative that patiently unfolds one of the most dysfunctional and embarrassing episodes in the history of American spycraft. It makes for an instructive comparison with Zero Dark Thirty, which was written and produced with the CIA’s secret backing. The film tells the story of post-9/11 intelligence in the way Langley would like to have it told. But the Senate report unmasks the film as sheer fiction. Not only is it better written than Zero Dark Thirty — thanks no doubt to the editorial talent of Daniel Jones, the former FBI agent who oversaw the entire project — but it has the distinct advantage of being true.

“The Salt Pit, Northeast of Kabul, Afghanistan,” by Trevor Paglen, from his series The Black Sites

“The Salt Pit, Northeast of Kabul, Afghanistan,” by Trevor Paglen, from his series The Black Sites

The report has been described as a powerful attack on the CIA. In fact, its authors are united in their aim to make the agency better, not to scrap it. And in any case, the position of the CIA within the American national-security community has never appeared more secure. The agency was born in 1947 and conceived as a civilian institution with analytic responsibilities. It also obtained a limited brief to conduct covert actions, allowing it to influence political or military conditions abroad without showing the nation’s hand. Crucially, the CIA was designed to collect intelligence in foreign countries, not on U.S. soil, and was forbidden any “internal-security functions.” It was viewed as an adjunct to the Pentagon, providing intelligence to a short list of consumers led by the secretary of defense.

The CIA that emerges from the pages of the Senate report, however, bears almost no resemblance to the modest organization created at the end of World War II. It has a titanic budget, as well as its own army and, thanks to a fleet of missile-equipped drones, its own air force. It wages wars directly in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and across the nations of the African Sahel, and it mobilizes proxy armies to do its bidding — arming Afghan warlords to topple the Taliban in 2002, seconding the Ethiopian military’s invasion of Somalia in 2006, and recruiting Libyan exiles to battle Qaddafi in 2011. The agency also operates a far-flung assassination program, deploying drones, bombs, and bullets to kill hundreds of people who pose some perceived threat but have no pretense of recourse to the American judicial system.

Much of this is beyond the actual scope of the report, which bores with intensity into a single program created in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks. The protocols associated with the new program significantly expanded the agency’s powers. The CIA was now licensed to seize suspected terrorists, whether snatching them off the street or taking custody of them from other governments. It was allowed to hold these suspects in an archipelago of secret “black site” prisons around the world. And it was permitted — or, more accurately, encouraged — to subject prisoners to interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, hypothermia, prolonged isolation, sensory deprivation, and what the agency calls “rectal rehydration.” (In the report, the latter procedure is described by one operative, with no apparent irony, as a good way “to clear a person’s head.”)

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America’s Stealth Warfare (Nation Books).

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