The Magazine

What Was the CIA Up To?

There's one way to find out: Obama should release the intelligence gained from the interrogations.

May 4, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 31 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

This is a delicate business involving some unpleasantness; it must be entrusted to the hands and tongues and pens of men who are completely above suspicion and without self-interest, for the weal or woe of the country depends on them." So wrote Nizam al-Mulk, the great 11th-century Persian vizier about the importance of good intelligence and good intelligence officers. Unfortunately for this cultured, Machiavellian minister, the intelligence wasn't good enough: In 1092 a Shiite holy warrior--a member of the dreaded Assassins--got through his security and knifed the old man to death.

The controversy surrounding the Central Intelligence Agency's use of aggressive interrogation and black sites is probably in its early stages, unfortunately. Unless the American left decides to calm down, we are all in for a tortuous, emotionally wrenching national discussion of the "unpleasantness" involved in counterterrorism. We never really did have a post-9/11 debate about the morality of counterterrorist operations, since both Republicans and Democrats wanted to be unpleasant and preferred not to talk about it. President Bush really should have forced a public discussion--or at least a closed hearing of the congressional intelligence committees--about what the CIA could and could not do in its efforts to gather information about possible catastrophic attacks against the United States and its allies.

If President Bush had done so, we likely would have had a bipartisan consensus in favor of black sites and aggressive interrogation. This consensus still might have changed--and it should change if America's elected representatives determine the threat does not merit harsh counterterrorist methods, or that the interrogation methods used are ineffective. But at least we would likely now be less partisan and more careful about casting stones. Liberal pundits and publications, who have made surreal slippery-slope parallels juxtaposing 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) with Jacobo Timerman and Soviet dissidents, and the Bush administration with the Argentine junta and the KGB, might have drawn more complicated pictures of the collision of good and evil after 9/11. Now on both the Democratic and Republican sides, we have, as with the Iraq war, more often forgetfulness and hypocrisy. President Bush's and Vice President Cheney's mania for secrecy and executive prerogative did neither them nor the country any favors.

Although President Obama may parade his virtuousness too prominently, he is undoubtedly right that part of the superpower strength of the United States is in our national character. Statecraft that damages the country's soul weakens the heart and will of its citizenry--especially when it comes to the unavoidably ugly task of waging war against America's enemies. It really isn't that important whether the Germans or Egyptians think well of us--the former will not fight in Afghanistan regardless of Barack Obama's efforts to restore our "honor," and the latter's police-state security service, with whom the administration has a fairly close intelligence-liaison relationship, could not care less who we waterboarded however many times. But it does matter a lot whether America's liberal foreign-policy establishment is willing to combat Islamic radicalism aggressively. A guilt-ridden America isn't a particularly daunting foe.

There is something fundamentally impressive--even at this late date--in Americans' having a big, brawling debate about how we should combat Islamic terrorism. Although the Supreme Court is on the verge of giving the protection of the Geneva Conventions to KSM and his kind, it's still not too late for the war-making branches of government and the citizenry to debate whether the Geneva Conventions are appropriate for combating mass-casualty terrorism. But like President Bush, President Obama isn't interested in debates about this issue. The president and senior congressional Democrats simply assert that we are safer because we no longer put senior members of al Qaeda through the wringer. A "false choice between our security and our ideals" isn't necessary. Okay. But wouldn't it be better if before making such a flat statement that the president and his team, let alone a more objective blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission, had assessed the 6,000 intelligence reports produced from the interrogation of CIA detainees? Isn't it just possible that these individuals were more truthful and more talkative because they received Langley's special attention?

Shouldn't the White House at least digest the 3,000 intelligence reports produced between September 11, 2001, and April 2003, from the CIA's "high value detainees"--that is, the folks who most likely passed through the agency's black sites? How in the world can the president be so certain so quickly that aggressive interrogation doesn't work? One may conclude that sleep deprivation, walling, or waterboarding is morally repugnant, even when committed against holy warriors who incinerate skyscrapers, but that does not necessarily mean that these procedures are ineffective (or criminal). Critics of these programs may counter that we will never know whether KSM would have cracked if the CIA had just followed the Marquess of Queensberry debriefing rules and emphasized empathy and fraternity over pain. Maybe. But the evidence--so far--suggests that the CIA tried that path first.

Vice President Cheney, in his call for declassifying the intelligence gained from the interrogations, is right: The public--or a blue-ribbon commission--should look at all the evidence that it possibly can before concluding that physical pain is ineffective, or even counterproductive, in al Qaeda interrogations. Liberals are usually biased in favor of declassification; they should be so even when they find themselves uncomfortably aligned with Dick Cheney. President Obama should err on the side of the public and declassify aggressively all the memoranda surrounding the black sites and the CIA's special methods. Declassify, as much as possible, the thousands of intelligence reports produced by CIA detainees. It is likely much--if not most--of this information is no longer sensitive. Let the court of public opinion decide whether the morals-lost/intelligence-gained ratio favors President Obama or President Bush. As it stands now, it's hard not to conclude that those who are so certain that aggressive interrogation is useless do so because they fear being in the more precarious position of expressing outrage against dark tactics that may have saved thousands of American lives.

It's difficult to have a firm idea of whether Vice President Cheney's assertions about the utility of waterboarding are true. The CIA is a mediocre institution capable of considerable exaggeration and deceit to cover up its own weaknesses and poor performance. When I was in the clandestine service, I regularly saw case officers stretch the truth about the value of counterterrorist operations and human-source intelligence reporting. A few times, I saw senior executive-branch officials accept at face value the views of senior operations officers that were, to put it politely, at odds with the truth. There may have been considerable "stretching" about the value of aggressive-interrogation intelligence. Vice President Cheney may have taken some intelligence memos at face value, where he should have been skeptical.

On the other hand, it may be that CIA interrogators performed their work well, and the vice president knows exactly what he's talking about. We need to find out. It's quite likely that during Barack Obama's presidency, American military or intelligence units will get their hands on another "high-value" jihadist. The man may well have information about an imminent attack against U.S. civilians. Before that happens, it would be good to have a better idea of the risks President Obama is assuming by forsaking aggressive interrogation.

For now, it looks like the president may have created a moral train wreck for himself, and for the country, with the publication of these memos. Barack Obama appears to be emotionally in the camp with those who believe that the black sites and enhanced interrogations were sinful ("a dark and painful chapter in our history")--that President Bush, Vice President Cheney, the Justice Department lawyers, and the CIA officers who approved and conducted the interrogations were unquestionably guilty of torture. With the exception of high treason, it's difficult to imagine a more heinous charge against an American official. Yet Obama doesn't want to follow through on the logic of his convictions. He says he wants "reflection, not retribution"--at least for CIA officers involved with "torture." The case is not so clear for former Justice lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee, who appear to be at the top of the Obama administration's most-immoral list.

Morally and legally, President Obama's position makes little sense. If U.S. officials are guilty of serious crimes, they should be prosecuted. The notion that CIA officers should escape criminal prosecution because they thought they were following legal orders flies in the face of the historic understanding that soldiers must not obey illegal commands. It will be outrageous cowardice if a Democratic Congress, or the administration, decides to seek the heads of Yoo and Bybee and not seek the prosecution of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, George Tenet, Condoleezza Rice, and others higher up.

And President Obama's actions are likely to cause collateral damage abroad. If the European left continues in the direction it's going, we could soon see a slew of cases filed in third countries against U.S. officials, charging them with war crimes and other human rights offenses. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose husband began the extraordinary rendition of Islamic terrorist suspects, may have an acute appreciation of the hideously time-consuming diplomatic mess she could soon find herself in if this happens. Try talking seriously about NATO and Afghanistan if in the background feisty and politically independent Spanish, Belgian, or Italian magistrates are issuing arrest warrants for former U.S. officials. Yet the White House and the leadership of the Democratic Congress are--so far--heedlessly feeding anti-American forces in Europe that could easily derail this administration's efforts to improve transatlantic relations.

For those who suspect that aggressive interrogation was a highly valuable, morally justifiable counterterrorist tool, there is really no choice but to energetically counter the president's efforts to declare the case closed, guilty as charged. The preeminent issue now is to try to learn whether aggressive interrogation produced real intelligence value. If it did not, then no one should defend it or the decision of the Bush administration to continue and seek legal justification for the practice once it became clear that substantial, lifesaving information was not being produced. If the evidence is not at all clear on the question, then all pushes ought to go to Obama. Aggressive interrogation is ugly--though far, far from barbaric, as the released memoranda clearly reveal (Justice and CIA officials were aggressively solicitous of the detainees' well-being throughout). Americans should not deploy rough tactics except in extremis.

And the American right has been much too quick in its high dudgeon about the possible operational compromises wrought by the publication of these memos. It's hard to see how this information in al Qaeda's hands would aid the organization in countering future American interrogations. My junior-officer class in the clandestine service had an excellent idea of what was awaiting it in a three-day "jail" training exercise--a program that was the model for the Bush administration's enhanced interrogation techniques. Even the former Delta Force and Navy Seals in our group, who had already experienced truly harsh survival training, found it a shock when they hit the freezing cold, the mind-scrambling electronic noise, the small boxes into which we were stuffed, and the sleep deprivation. Even the best mental and physical preparation for such an experience tends to fade quickly as the all-engulfing loneliness, fatigue, and pain of the here-and-now sets in.

And the CIA's most critical counterterrorist operations overseas will likely be unscathed by this controversy at home. The same methodology that case officers have been using since 9/11 to penetrate al Qaeda will continue. They will become neither more timid nor more bold. The odds of a "unilateral" (CIA-only) recruitment inside the inner circles of al Qaeda will remain as before: unlikely. Although it is possible that this controversy, if it mushrooms, could make some European liaison services again nervous about the disclosure of joint post-9/11 European-American rendition efforts, it's not likely that any new revelations would be crippling. France and Great Britain--our two key European intelligence allies against Islamic terrorism--are wedded to us for many reasons. Chief among them that they, unlike us, confront at home the constant plotting of domestically nourished radical Islamists. European security and foreign intelligence services are not especially perturbed by President Bush's publicly deplored counterterrorist efforts.

The overriding issue is to learn whether this whole affair is about something operationally real. If so, then President Obama, by shutting down aggressive interrogations and driving CIA officers away from acquiring the requisite special skills for its use, may well be putting the country at risk. But if we find out that the president is right, then there should, quite rightly, be hell to pay. We should not have gone through all this "unpleasantness" for nothing.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former case officer in the CIA's Directorate of Operations.