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

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.