Ex-CIA Chief Defends Hiding Torture Evidence, But We Need to Know the Truth

April 28, 2012


It feels like we have been here before. Another testosterone-fueled memoir from a charter member of President Bush’s torture team unapologetically seeks to justify the unjustifiable with inflated claims of attacks thwarted and secret battles won.

Latest to the plate is Jose Rodriguez, former Head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, and the man charged with implementing the application of enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) to detainees that fell into the CIA’s clutches after 9/11.

Rodriguez was not always quite so willing to boast about his handiwork. In 2005 he destroyed 92 videotapes of high value detainees Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri being water-boarded at secret CIA prisons in Thailand.

At the time Rodriguez justified his action to CIA Director Porter Goss by telling him that the tapes would make the CIA “look terrible; it would be devastating to us.”

Rodriguez was at least right about that. Larry Siems, who reviewed almost 140,000 previously classified documents obtained by the Freedom of Information litigation conducted by the ACLU, recently summed up the EIT program in the following terms:

“They tortured innocent people. They tortured people who may have been guilty of terrorism-related crimes, but they ruined any chance of prosecuting them because of the torture.

They tortured people when the torture had nothing to do with imminent threats: They tortured based on bad information they had extracted from others through torture; they tortured to hide their mistakes and to get confessions; they tortured sometimes just to break people, pure and simple.”

Obviously, that is unlikely to make for very edifying viewing.

hard measuresIn his memoir, Hard Measures, Rodriguez tries to make the case that what he describes as the CIA’s “legal, authorized, necessary, and safe” black site program was run to higher standards than the abusive military interrogations that took place in Abu Ghraib and Bagram, and he expresses his concern that the public might be confused between the actions of his officers and “the mindless actions of some MPs [Military Police]”.

That is a version of events which is hard to square with the facts now in the public domain – CIA officers threatened detainees with drills and pistols, planned to confine detainees in boxes with insects crawling all over them, and subjected one detainee to near-drowning 183 times in a month.

When the CIA grabbed Khalid el Masri by mistake they still held him in a black site for three months, abused him, subjected him to forced-feeding when he went on hunger strike to protest his confinement and then finally dumped him exhausted and naked on a hillside in Albania even they knew he was completely innocent of any connection to terrorism.

The CIA held on to el Masri, a German national, for so long solely because it was worried that his release would compromise its black site program. El Masri has still not fully recovered from his ordeal.

“Legal, authorized, necessary, and safe” are not exactly the first words that come to mind to describe such methods.

Rodriguez tries to claim that EITs saved lives and were an indispensible intelligence tool. As John McCain has powerfully argued, this is somewhat beside the point – torture is illegal and an anathema to our values as a nation.

But even on his own terms, Rodriguez’s claims don’t stand up. His successor as Head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, Michael Sulick, certainly didn’t agree with this assessment. At an event at Fordham University in April 2010 Sulick commented in response to a question regarding the impact of the Obama administration’s prohibition on waterboarding:

“I don’t think we’ve suffered at all from an intelligence standpoint.”

It is also clear from the few excerpts of Hard Measures that have appeared in the press so far that Rodriguez is not much of a big picture guy – a rather surprising shortcoming in a professional intelligence officer.

Rodriguez readily admits that the propaganda damage done to the United States by its association with torture was “immense” but he doesn’t seem to grasp that this in turn had real world consequences. As former FBI Special Agent Jim Clemente put it recently:

“In the end all the tough-guy talk won’t be enough to counter the fact that torture cost American lives, it didn’t save them.”

Another FBI Special Agent, Ali Soufan, who led the investigation of the USS Cole bombing and successfully interrogated numerous Al Qaeda suspects, has also recently spoken out against Rodriguez’s claims:

“EITs were designed by bureaucrats with no experience with al Qaeda… By people who had never met a terrorist, let alone interrogated one. Unsurprisingly, it ended in disaster. False leads were chased, and real opportunities were missed. And justice was never served.”

Soufan also noted that Rodriguez’s book is being published with almost no redactions, while his own memoir, The Black Banners, was heavily censored before publication by the CIA:

“The public battle over EITs, reminds me of Winston Churchill’s remark that, ‘A lie gets halfway around the world, before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.’ This, incidentally, is why the books defending EITs, have no redactions. Because after all you can’t redact fiction.”

We are never going to hear the end of claims that tortured worked while its proponents can bolster their arguments with vague references to classified documents and secret successes.

So far, not one of these claims has stood up to close examination once exposed to public view, but until we have a definitive record of what was done in the CIA’s black sites new claims will inevitably keep surfacing.

For three years we have been waiting for the publication of just such a record. In 2009 the Senate Select Intelligence Committee (SSIC) embarked on a comprehensive investigation of the EIT program. The study is now almost 6,000 pages long and it has reportedly found little evidence to suggest EITs produced any vital intelligence.

Scandalously, there is a very real possibility that this report will never see the light of day. The same people who are promoting Jose Rodriguez’s revisionist torture narrative are also trying to block the publication of the SSIC report.

Senate Republicans have withdrawn their support from the SSIC investigation. Some Senate Democrats are nervous that unilaterally publishing the report will give the Republicans ammunition that they are soft on terrorism.

Doing the right thing is not high on many agendas during an election campaign.

Critics allege that by publishing the report SSIC would be undermining the vital work of US intelligence agencies and it is a charge that is worth considering.

In a newly published written exchange between Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and General David Petraeus and during the latter’s confirmation hearings for his new post as Director of the CIA, the general was asked if he would cooperate with SSIC’s review.

His response was admirably principled and unequivocal:

“I believe that a holistic and comprehensive review of the United States Government’s detention and interrogation programs can lead to valuable lessons that might inform future policies… The best way to gain a common set of facts would be to reach out to the intelligence and military communities responsible for detentions and interrogations and for implementing future policies.”

It is difficult to imagine anyone better placed to conservatively assess the potential risks to the intelligence community than the current Director of the CIA, and if General Petraeus isn’t concerned then that should probably be the end of this particular debate.

But it hasn’t been.

That is why Amnesty has now launched a campaign to put pressure on lawmakers to get the SSIC report out. You can add your voice to the chorus of American voters demanding to know what was done in their name by taking action.

As for Jose Rodriguez, he was part of management team at CIA who failed to protect American lives before 9/11 and then failed to protect American values afterwards. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why anyone would take his self-serving version of history seriously.