I’m delighted to see that the amazing Marcy Wheeler has joined Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept website as a senior policy analyst and writer. No one is more meticulous in their research and analysis than Marcy and she’s all over the CIA spying on the Senate story, pointing out that President Obama has been covering up the role of the Bush White House in torture from the moment he took office.
We can be sure about one thing: The Obama White House has covered up the Bush presidency’s role in the torture program for years. Specifically, from 2009 to 2012, the administration went to extraordinary lengths to keep a single short phrase, describing President Bush’s authorization of the torture program, secret.
Some time before October 29, 2009, then National Security Advisor Jim Jones filed an ex parte classified declaration with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, in response to a FOIA request by the ACLU seeking documents related to the torture program. In it, Jones argued that the CIA should not be forced to disclose the “source of the CIA’s authority,” as referenced in the title of a document providing “Guidelines for Interrogations” and signed by then CIA Director George Tenet. That document was cited in two Justice Department memos at issue in the FOIA. Jones claimed that “source of authority” constituted an intelligence method that needed to be protected.
As other documents and reporting have made clear, the source of authority was a September 17, 2001 Presidential declaration authorizing not just detention and interrogation, but a range of other counterterrorism activities, including targeted killings.
Both former CIA Director Michael Hayden and former CIA Acting General Counsel John Rizzo have made clear that the torture program began as a covert operation. “A few days after the [9/11] attacks, President Bush signed a top-secret directive to CIA authorizing an unprecedented array of covert actions against Al Qaeda and its leadership.” Rizzo explained in 2011. One of those actions, Rizzo went on, was “the capture, incommunicado detention and aggressive interrogation of senior Al Qaeda operatives.”
As Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, noted in 2009 – shortly after Hayden revealed that torture started as a covert operation – this means there should be a paper trail implicating President Bush in the torture program. “[T]here should be a Presidential ‘finding’ authorizing the program,” he said, “and  such a finding should have been provided to Congressional overseers.”
The National Security Act dictates that every covert operation must be supported by a written declaration finding that the action is necessary and important to the national security. The Congressional Intelligence committees – or at least the Chair and Ranking Member – should receive notice of the finding.
But there is evidence that those Congressional overseers were never told that the finding the president signed on September 17, 2001 authorized torture. For example, a letter from then ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman, to the CIA’s General Counsel following her first briefing on torture asked: “Have enhanced techniques been authorized and approved by the President?” The CIA’s response at the time was simply that “policy as well as legal matters have been addressed within the Executive Branch.”
Nevertheless, the finding does exist. The CIA even disclosed its existence in response to the ACLU FOIA, describing it as “a 14-page memorandum dated 17 September 2001 from President Bush to the Director of the CIA pertaining to the CIA’s authorization to detain terrorists.” In an order in the ACLU suit, Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein confirmed that the declaration was “intertwined with” the administration’s effort to keep the language in the Tenet document hidden. When the administration succeeded in keeping that short phrase secret, all effort to release the declaration also ended.
Some Obama apologists have claimed that perhaps once he got into office, the president has found out that those CIA programs were necessary to stop terrorism and thus has changed his mind. But if that were true, why would he have signed an executive order outlawing those techniques? I suspect the opposite is more likely, that he found out that the CIA torture program was much worse than he imagined, going well beyond waterboarding, and that he is afraid that the release of such information would be such a stain on the country’s reputation that he decided it was better to cover it up. That would explain nearly all of his actions since taking office.
But here’s the problem: A cover up only ensures that it is likely to happen again. It also is a blatant violation of our treaty obligations, which is already destroying America’s reputation and making us look like hypocrites when we criticize other countries for human rights violations.