For anyone who's ever been involved in the intelligence game, the past few days have been fascinating, disturbing and illuminating.
We refer, of course, to the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's "report" on enhanced interrogation techniques, used against high-value Al Qaida detainees in the years after the 9-11 attacks. The term "report" is used with a great deal of caution, since most documents bearing that title make some effort to present both sides of an issue.
But Democrats on the committee, led by outgoing Chairwoman Diane Feinstein, abandoned at pretense of balance or fairness long ago. Their "report" was compiled completely by Democratic staffers, who (in the process of analyzing enhanced interrogation methods) never bothered to interview the four CIA Directors who ran the agency while those techniques were utilized, or the former director of the agency's clandestine service, who oversaw their development and early implementation.
The result is a thoroughly unbalanced, one-sided analysis which makes these (and other claims):
- Enhanced interrogation methods were more widely used that the CIA has previously claimed.
- Employment of these techniques (described as "torture" by Senator Feinstein and her colleagues) did not produce any actionable intelligence.
- The CIA lied to Congress about the scale and scope of the program.
Such claims are easily refuted. Water-boarding, regarding as the most heinous of the disputed techniques, was used on a grand total of three terrorist detainees, out of hundreds captured over the past 13 years. The report also fails to note that the staggering number of water-boarding sessions (more than 180 for 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed) represent the "splashes of water" poured on the terrorist, not the number of interrogation periods when he was water-boarded. Incidentally, the differentiation between splashes of water and actual water-boarding sessions was provided by Jose Rodriguez, the former chief of CIA undercover operations.
That sort of context is lacking throughout the report. In fact, the document is so distorted that three former CIA Directors (two Republicans, one Democrat) took the unprecedented step of penning a Wall Street Journal op-ed to refute its claims. The agency's current director, John Brennan, also made a rare, televised appearance to defend the interrogation program, echoing the claims of his predecessors. All agree that enhanced interrogation measures yielded valuable information and saved American lives.
They also challenge assertions that Congress was misled by the CIA. Indeed, documents obtained four years ago by Judicial Watch revealed that the agency briefed 68 members of the House and Senate on the interrogation program between 2001 and 2007. That group included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senator Feinstein, who began receiving updates when she joined the intelligence committee in 2005. Former CIA leaders assert that Congress never challenged the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, or the legal authority to employ them. In fact, some members of Congress asked the agency if it was "doing enough" to obtain information from captured terrorists.
It's bad enough that Senator Feinstein elected to release the report, rehashing issues that were largely resolved years ago. But the real damage will be measured elsewhere, long after the current furor has faded.
Consider the foreign intelligence services (notably Poland, Jordan and Romania) that went out on a proverbial limb to host "black site" detention centers and in some cases, assist with the interrogation. What are the odds they would partner with the CIA again? Why risk having your operatives and locations subject to media scrutiny, international prosecution and possible terrorist reprisal. Fact is, these same services are extremely valuable in assisting with regional issues, ranging from Russia to Syria. Expecting the same level of cooperation in the future is doubtful, at best.
Likewise, the agency's skills in prisoner debrief and interrogation will likely go fallow once again. The Feinstein report is highly critical of two psychologists who were paid more than $80 million to develop and direct the program. Why was the job outsourced? After the Cold War, the agency allowed its interrogation skills to atrophy; after 9-11, the agency realized it had few people capable of extracting information from suspected terrorists, or creating a program of enhanced interrogation. The psychologists were veterans of the Air Force's SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) program, one of the few organizations that retained expertise in questioning prisoners and compensating for counter-interrogation techniques.
When controversy over enhanced interrogations erupted years ago, the psychologists (and their firm) were sent packing. Meanwhile, CIA officers who acquired skills as interrogators were left twisting in the wind, as the Justice Department contemplated possible criminal charges. While no charges were filed, the episode sent a clear message to members of the clandestine service: stay away from anything resembling an interrogation program, lest a member of Congress deem your actions excessive and even criminal.
Sound familiar? It should. After the Church and Pike committees savaged the CIA for past mistakes in covert operations, our capabilities in human intelligence (HUMINT) flatlined; supervisors were reluctant to approve new operations, fearing Congress would learn of the enterprise and leak it--or worse. Newly-hired officers began plotting their escape from the clandestine service, viewing it as a dead end. The same cycle will now repeat itself with our interrogation program and the next time the agency needs to question large numbers of prisoners, it will have to scramble again.
To be fair, mistakes were made during the enhanced interrogation program, and they have since been corrected. Beyond that, many of the controversial techniques have now been outlawed and acceptable measures must now comply with the Army Field Manual on interrogations.
But that raises an interesting question: what happens if the U.S. finds itself in a situation similar to the post 9-11 environment, worried about imminent threats that could kill thousands of Americans. Individuals in captivity could provide information needed to foil those plots, but "conventional" interrogation techniques have failed. What happens next? CIA Director Brennan has refused to rule out enhanced methods in the future and while that upsets the ACLU, it is the right course of action. No one can predict what the future may bring and what may be necessary to extract information to save American lives. That should not become carte blanche for torture, but we should not exclude certain, enhanced techniques that may persuade a terrorist to talk--before a nuclear device explodes in a U.S. city.
That's the real truth that comes with interrogating terrorists. Unfortunately, that truth has been twisted and distorted beyond all recognition, much like circumstances surrounding the death of Missouri teenager Michael Brown. "Hands up, don't shoot," is light-years away from what actually transpired on the streets of Ferguson, just like the Feinstein report bears little resemblance to reality. But as the left learned long ago, never let the facts get in the way of a convenient narrative.