The report on the brutalities of the CIA’s secret prisons is the most important work by the Senate Intelligence Committee since congressional oversight of the CIA began in the 1970s. Its descriptions of torture and deception are as compelling as the newsreels of the Nuremberg trials.
But will it have any impact on the CIA or the future of congressional oversight? Not likely. Can Americans run a secret intelligence service under law in an open democracy? Not yet. We’ve been at it since 1947, but we’ve rarely gotten it right—and we’ve rarely gotten it more wrong than we did after 9/11.
The director of the CIA, John Brennan, much vilified for trying to defend the agency against the indefensible, was at least truthful in his public remarks after the report’s release: “We feared more blows from an enemy we couldn’t see and an evil we couldn’t fathom,” he said. “The agency was directed by President Bush to carry out a program to detain terrorist suspects around the world. In many respects, the program was uncharted territory for the CIA and we were not prepared. We had little experience housing detainees, and precious few of our officers were trained interrogators. But the president authorized the effort six days after 9/11 and it was our job to carry it out.”
In other words, the president told us to do it, and we did as we were told. But we didn’t know what we were doing.
It appears that the CIA did not give President Bush a full report on the gory details of the secret prisons for four years. This is “plausible deniability,” which shields the president from legal or moral hazard by keeping him in the dark. That practice was supposed to have ended decades ago.
The CIA had also forbidden the use of torture—“not only because it is wrong, but because it has historically proven to be ineffective,” in the words of Richard Stolz, chief of the clandestine service under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Stolz is cited in the Senate report. The CIA’s codes of conduct before 9/11 clearly stated, “Inhumane physical or psychological techniques are counterproductive because they do not produce intelligence and will probably result in false answers.”
False answers were what Congress got from Bush’s CIA directors and their underlings. They delivered deceptive testimony and destroyed videotapes of torture. Brennan had to reprimand five officers for cybersnooping on the Senate’s files. The intelligence committees cannot function if the CIA lies to them and spies on them. That, too, was supposed to have ended when the committees were created in the 1970s.
To see how the system broke down, it’s best to know how it was set up.
Forty years ago, Director of Central Intelligence William Colby had a fateful conversation with a reporter for The New York Times, Seymour Hersh, who had discovered one of the CIA’s darkest secrets. On December 20, 1974, Hersh received a long-sought interview at the agency’s headquarters. Colby tried to argue that “family skeletons are best left where they are—in the closet,” but Hersh’s Page 1 headline read: “Huge C.I.A. Operation Reported in U.S. Against Antiwar Forces, Other Dissidents in Nixon Years.” The CIA had been spying on the American left, in violation of its charter.