A Two-Sides Twofer: the CIA, the Church Commission, and Enhanced Interrogations

A Two-Sides Twofer: the CIA, the Church Commission, and Enhanced Interrogations August 28, 2009

Since the Morning Report was growing long already, and I had two versions of Today’s Two-Sides, I decided to pull the longer and more important one out as its own post.  So here it is.

First, from the Left, a very sobering reminder of the Church Commission of 1975-76 and all the wild excesses it uncovered at the CIA and NSA in the early decades of the Cold War.  Younger Americans, as well as those with short or selective memories, may not remember just have far the CIA once went before it was subjected to so much Congressional oversight.

And so: the CIA contracted a Mafia boss to murder Fidel Castro, sent biotoxins to the Republic of Congo with orders to poison Patrice Lumumba and tested LSD on unsuspecting citizens (one of whom jumped out of a window to his death). It fomented coups and bloodshed against democratically elected governments, while the National Security Agency, in coordination with the major telegram companies, read every single telegram coming in or going out of the country for three decades. The FBI infiltrated peaceful antiwar groups, breaking up marriages of activists with forged evidence of infidelity, while surveilling civil rights leaders with an assortment of bugs and break-ins. It even attempted to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr. into committing suicide, shipping him tapes of him midcoitus with a mistress and a note that said, “There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

We know all this (and much more) thanks to the work of the Church Committee. Chaired by Idaho Senator Frank Church in 1975-76, the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities labored for sixteen months to produce a 5,000-page report that is a canonical history of the secret government. Over the past three decades the Church Committee has faded into relative obscurity. (I was somewhat surprised to discover how few people my age had heard of it.) But in the wake of further disclosures of crimes and abuses committed by the Bush administration and the escalating war of words between the CIA and Congress over just how much Congress knew about (and approved) these activities, the specter of the committee has begun to haunt Capitol Hill.

Mostly, the Church Committee is invoked by conservatives as a cautionary tale, a case of liberal overreach that handicapped the nation’s intelligence operations for decades…But a growing chorus of voices, some of whom served on the original committee and some of whom currently occupy oversight positions in Congress, have begun to refer to the Church Committee as a model for the kind of sustained inquiry needed today. Congressman Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, has served on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence since 2003. When I met him recently, his office had a table full of books and papers about intelligence oversight and the Church Committee’s legacy. “The intelligence community has not undergone comprehensive examination since then,” he said, “and it needs it.”

One important aspect of the Church Commission was that it uncovered excesses and illegalities on both sides of the aisle:

Since the committee began in the wake of Nixon’s resignation and revelations about his deceptions, abuses and sociopathic pursuit of grudges, Church and many Democrats had every reason to believe they would be chiefly unmasking the full depths of Nixon’s perfidy. Quickly, however, it became clear that Nixon was a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind. Kennedy and Johnson had, with J. Edgar Hoover, put in place many of the illegal policies and programs. Secret documents obtained by the committee even revealed that the sainted FDR had ordered IRS audits of his political enemies. Republicans on the committee, then, had as much incentive to dig up the truth as did their Democratic counterparts.As historian Kathy Olmsted argues in her book Challenging the Secret Government, Church was never quite able to part with this conception of good Democrats/bad Republicans. Confronted with misdeeds under Kennedy and Johnson, he chose to view the CIA as a rogue agency, as opposed to one executing the president’s wishes. This characterization became the fulcrum of debate within the committee. At one point Church referred to the CIA as a “rogue elephant,” causing a media firestorm. But the final committee report shows that to the degree the agency and other parts of the secret government were operating with limited control from the White House, it was by design. Walter Mondale came around to the view that the problem wasn’t the agencies themselves but the accretion of secret executive power: “the grant of powers to the CIA and to these other agencies,” he said during a committee hearing, “is, above all, a grant of power to the president.”

A contemporary Church Committee would do well to follow Mondale’s approach and not Church’s. It must comprehensively evaluate the secret government, its activities and its relationship to Congress stretching back through several decades of Democratic and Republican administrations [such as the rendition program developed under Clinton that became the extraordinary rendition program under Bush]. Such a broad scope would insulate the committee from charges that it was simply pursuing a partisan vendetta against a discredited Republican administration, but it is also necessary to understand the systemic problems and necessary reforms.

So much for the Left.

Spies have been with us for a very long time.
Spies have been with us for a very long time.

Second, from the Right, read the WSJ’s interpretation of the recently released Inspector General’s report from 2004 on the CIA and its anti-terror activities.  A few cases of abuse went beyond the bounds of what was prescribed.  But “the real news,” claim the editors, is “that the program was thoughtfully developed, carefully circumscribed, briefed to Congress, and yielded information crucial to disrupting al Qaeda.”

That’s the essential judgment offered by former CIA Inspector General John Helgerson in his 2004 report. Some mild criticism aside, the report says the CIA “invested immense time and effort to implement the [program] quickly, effectively, and within the law”; that the agency “generally provided good guidance and support”; and that agency personnel largely “followed guidance and procedures and documented their activities well.”

As the program expanded, the CIA “implemented training programs for interrogators and debriefers.” By early 2003 it had created guidelines on detention and interrogation and required “individuals engaged in or supporting interrogations be made aware of the guidelines and sign an acknowledgment that they have read them.” The guidelines also made “formal the existing . . . practice of requiring the field to obtain specific Headquarters approvals prior to the application of all EITs.” This was hardly a rogue CIA.

Congress also knew about it. The IG report belies House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s claims that she wasn’t told about all this. “In the fall of 2002, the Agency briefed the leadership of the Congressional Intelligence Oversight Committees on the use of both standard techniques and EITs. . . . Representatives . . . continued to brief the leadership of the Intelligence Oversight Committees on the use of EITs and detentions in February and March 2003. The [CIA] General Counsel says that none of the participants expressed any concern about the techniques or the Program . . .” Ditto in September 2003.

As for examples of “unauthorized techniques,” the IG explains that the most “significant”—an accusation that an interrogator threatened a detainee with a gun and a power drill—was the subject of a separate investigation. As for the rest—”the making of threats, blowing cigar smoke, employing certain stress positions, the use of a stiff brush on a detainee, and stepping on a detainee’s ankle shackles”—the IG report says the “allegations were disputed or too ambiguous to reach any authoritative determination” and “did not warrant separate investigations or administrative actions.”

The report shows that several figures only provided detailed, actionable intelligence after they were subjected to Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (including waterboarding on three of the worst terrorists).  It is fair to say that plots were foiled due to intelligence that was gathered through EIT’s.  This does not mean that EIT’s were morally right; and it does not prove that we could not have gained this intelligence otherwise.  But those who object to EIT’s should do so with the intellectual integrity to acknowledge that real intelligence was gained through EIT’s that was not gained without them, and with that intelligence plots were foiled.

The editors conclude: “The outrage here isn’t that government officials used sometimes rough interrogation methods to break our enemies. The outrage is that, years later, when the political winds have shifted and there hasn’t been another attack, our politicians would punish the men and women who did their best to protect Americans in a time of peril.”

You decide.

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