The Implications of the Torture Report

  • submit to reddit

Copyright, Reprinted with permission.

(Photo: takomabibelot/flickr CC 2.0)

(Photo: takomabibelot/flickr CC 2.0)

After years of the Obama administration’s foot-dragging, obfuscation and threats, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s “Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program” has finally flopped onto the Senate presiding officer’s desk like a landed carp.

The present writer will take as a given the veracity of its three main findings: that the United States engaged in practices both legally and commonly definable as torture; that the actionable intelligence these practices produced was negligible; and that the practices tainted the moral prestige of the United States government in a manner that damaged its foreign policy. These assertions may be taken as true both because of the abundant evidence presented in the report itself and because of the flailing and hysterical reaction by our country’s national security elites.

Whether from obstruction or lack of control, the implications of the CIA’s spying on Congress merited Senator Feinstein’s description of it as a constitutional crisis.

“Hysteria” does not arise from groundless causes, but from a guilty and conflicted id seeking to displace blame from itself onto others. The reaction to the Senate study is as significant as the facts that the study uncovered in providing a window on the psychology and methods of those who run the Deep State – the hybrid association of key elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States with limited reference only to the consent of the governed as it is normally expressed through the formal political process. This essay will discuss some of the implications of that reaction.

President Obama is an operative of the Deep State, but it is unclear whether he is its master or its prisoner. The president’s role in this affair has been extremely puzzling. On March 11, 2014, when the torture issue blew up in the Senate because of Intelligence Committee chair Diane Feinstein’s allegations of CIA spying on her committee’s staff members, she said that the White House had been supportive of her committee’s probe of CIA activities. That may have been true, but that is still only what she said she believed. It is hardly beyond the realm of plausibility that the president or one of his aides told her that the White House was supportive of her committee’s investigation while at the same time tolerating, or even encouraging, CIA obstruction. But suppose the president did support the committee’s probe? That would imply that the White House does not really control the CIA. In either case, whether from obstruction or lack of control, the implications of the CIA’s spying on Congress merited Senator Feinstein’s description of it as a constitutional crisis.

Obama showed a similar split personality nine months later when the report was finally released. The president, and his White House press secretary, insisted that he was in favor of the public seeing the study (or at least the redacted summary of it). Yet on the Friday before its release, John Kerry, the most senior cabinet official in the government, called Senator Feinstein and urged her not to disclose it.

Kerry: “Lots of things going on in the world; not a good time for disclosure.” But when is there ever not a lot of things going on in the world? Kerry seems to have travelled a great distance since he was the young Winter Soldier who proclaimed that you can’t ask someone to be the last man to die for a mistake. Did Obama authorize Kerry to make that call? If not, did he care that Kerry was contravening stated White House policy? Or does Obama have any say in the matter?

The CIA’s strategy . . . was less about keeping faith with its dutiful foot soldiers than about priming its former big-shots with an advance look at the report so that they could go on an immediate public relations counteroffensive.

These questions, however, may be addressing a distinction without a difference. Whether willing or unwilling, whether in charge or not, Obama is fulfilling his role. Obama’s personality has been more impenetrable than that of any other president in recent history; yet he may, like Napoleon III, be a sphinx without a riddle: merely an ambitious person who tested well with focus groups and who arrived at the right moment, promising hope and change as a pretext to reign over, but not rule (in the manner of a constitutional monarch) a corrupt and entrenched system without conviction or feeling any personal stake in the great issues.

For the Deep State, attack is the preferred form of defense. National security elites have been preparing a vigorous counterattack for months. Because of the seriousness of the crimes in which CIA officers may have been implicated, Chairwoman Feinstein reluctantly agreed to the CIA’s request that some of the current and former CIA officers mentioned in the Senate report should have the opportunity to read it prior to its release. This was an unusual concession, since subjects of congressional investigations are not normally made privy to the contents of a report before the public finds out, but it is not a completely unreasonable request given the gravity of the allegations against these individuals.

Nevertheless, just prior to the time scheduled for the officers to read the document in a secure facility, the CIA told them there had been a mix-up, and that only senior, current and former CIA leadership (people like former directors George Tenet, Porter Goss or General Michael Hayden) could read the report. These were men with lucrative post-government careers and plenty of public relations know how in dealing with the Hill and who likely would have continued to have a range of press contacts. The CIA’s strategy was crystal clear: Its request to the Senate was less about keeping faith with its dutiful foot soldiers than about priming its former big-shots with an advance look at the report so that they could go on an immediate public relations counteroffensive against the document on the day it was publicly released.

The rebutters’ gaps in logic and evidence have almost never been challenged by the bulldogs of our gloriously free and adversarial press.

In fact, the opening barrage occurred even before it was made a part of the senate record. On the Sunday talk shows, people like General Hayden and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers were at their most hyperbolic. Congressman Rogers seemed to revel in the prospect of being vindicated in his prediction of dire terrorist attacks as a result of the study’s public disclosure. General Hayden waxed positively lyrical about the blessings of torture, as he has been doing virtually nonstop since he stepped down as CIA director in 2009.(1)

It was all hogwash and misdirection. The rebutters produced no concrete evidence that torture brought worthwhile results. Blaming the revelation of the crime, rather than its commission, on anything bad that might happen in the future is to stand ordinary ethics, not to mention common sense, on its head.

It requires only a moment’s thought to realize that mistreated detainees who were subsequently released knew exactly what was happening to them, and they would tell their family, friends and anyone else in their home countries, including local media, what went on in those prisons. The only people who would not know, absent official disclosure, would be the American people. That, however, is how the Deep State operates: It forces through its agenda by appealing to the elemental fear of terrorism so that it short-circuits the logic of the listener.

The news media are complicit. The rebutters’ gaps in logic and evidence have almost never been challenged by the bulldogs of our gloriously free and adversarial press. During the two or three days prior to the Senate report’s release, the media were awash with unbalanced stories trumpeting the (hypothetical) damage disclosure would cause, all based on interviews with former government officials with an obvious interest in keeping the report under wraps.

This is in part because the media maintain an incestuous relationship with their current and former government sources. One of the most egregious examples was CBS News; one of its national security consultants is Michael J. Morell, a former acting CIA director. The network actually permitted Morell to inveigh against the report’s release under color of being a news consultant, despite the fact that he was one of the former CIA big-shots who had prior access to the document and had worked on a rebuttal to it! The mortal remains of Edward R. Murrow are presumably spinning like a rotisserie. (2)

“We’re the real victims here.” When they are caught in the act, it is a frequent psychological ploy among bullies and con men to accuse other of the crime and to play the victim. The Senate study has been accompanied by a torrent of such behavior on the part of the Deep State’s current and former operatives. Several former CIA directors and other former intelligence players have even launched, with suspiciously miraculous speed, a website devoted to attacking the Senate report and portraying themselves as victims. (3)

Their demand for secrecy is really a penchant for self-dealing without public scrutiny.

The themes were predictable: Senate Democrats were just picking on dedicated public servants doing their patriotic duty to keep Americans safe. The program they administered was lawful. CIA officers now have to worry about shifting political winds. We got bin Laden, didn’t we? Those sloppy Senate staffers didn’t even interview us. And so on. Let us examine those assertions.

False appeals to patriotism have become so common after 9/11 that they are almost an involuntary reflex. But, as Samuel Johnson said, patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. In reality, however much of the rebuttal brigade see themselves as patriots, they were actually senior operatives of the Deep State, deeply imbued with an ideology that is neither specifically Republican nor Democrat, and certainly not the beliefs necessary for the maintenance of a constitutional republic under law and the informed consent of the governed.

The ideology of the Deep State is about maintaining and enhancing power – and cashing in afterwards. It is worth noting that almost all senior national security operatives never retire after leaving government; they cash in with consultancies and board memberships with security-related corporations. It’s not that no one ever truly retires, but like snakes in Ireland, they are a vanishingly rare phenomenon. It is profoundly in the material interest of these operatives to defend the Deep State so as to keep the cash flowing.

When they complain about the CIA being subject to shifting political winds, they are expressing distaste for the very processes of elective politics that constitute the democracy they once swore to defend. Their demand for secrecy is really a penchant for self-dealing without public scrutiny. It is exactly what James Madison warned about: “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

The mountain of documents uncovered by the Senate staffers gave a far more accurate picture of the contemporary situation than the self-serving memories of a George Tenet or a Porter Goss would have.

Assertions that the interrogation program was lawful rest on claims that a presidential finding and the Justice Department’s office of legal counsel authorized it. But a presidential finding says nothing at all dispositive about a law, treaty or constitutional provision. Opinions of executive branch legal counsels are not the same as a plain reading of the applicable statute; it has been my experience in Congress that executive branch legal counsels are far too often in the habit of giving a green light to whatever farfetched interpretation of a law the executive branch wants to give it. To say that the president signed off on something, so consequently it was legal, sounds uncomfortably like the Nuremburg defense, or President Nixon’s memorable statement to David Frost: “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.” What is legally binding are the Geneva Convention and the relevant federal statutes prohibiting torture.

The CIA supposedly ended the enhanced interrogation program in 2006. If in fact the torture produced actionable intelligence, why did it take five more years to dispose of Osama bin Laden, the supposed object of all our efforts after 9/11? That’s longer than the period the United States was in World War II, from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay. Ticking time bomb, indeed.

Chillingly, “enhanced interrogation” is a literal translation of the German verschärfte Vernehmung, a term introduced by a Gestapo directive of June 12, 1942, to describe permissible methods of interrogating prisoners.

Finally, the big-shots’ website engages in mock sorrow over the fact that the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigators did not bother to investigate them. There is good reason for that. Legendary investigative journalist I.F. Stone rarely interviewed high officials in government, but based his stories to the extent possible on documents. Why? As a subject becomes controversial, or as people risk getting into legal jeopardy, actors in a situation tend to shade their stories to make themselves look better or to exculpate themselves. Or they may simply misremember an incident several years old. But documents give an exact picture of thinking and intention at the time they were written.

The mountain of documents uncovered by the Senate staffers gave a far more accurate picture of the contemporary situation than the self-serving memories of a George Tenet or a Porter Goss would have, particularly as they had reason to believe they might be in legal jeopardy, whatever the disinclination of the Obama administration to prosecute torture might be. It certainly would make foreign vacations a riskier proposition for such people, if they traveled to countries claiming universal jurisdiction.

As always, contractors are the real creeps. In every possible situation, from mess halls to logistics to the guarding of military bases, the government contracts out services so as to keep the money flowing into the hands of potential political contributors. And so it was even with torture. The CIA outsourced the program to two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. The report says that the two had never witnessed a real interrogation before (as opposed to the mock interrogations conducted by the military’s survival, evasion, resistance and escape schools), and had no relevant other experience, such as cultural knowledge of the Middle East. Yet, as with Halliburton, incompetence was no obstacle, and the two were hired to run the program of “enhanced interrogation.”

Chillingly, “enhanced interrogation” is a literal translation of the German verschärfte Vernehmung, a term introduced by a Gestapo directive of June 12, 1942, to describe permissible methods of interrogating prisoners. Post-World War II war crimes tribunals judged the techniques described in the directive – techniques strikingly similar to those employed six decades later by the CIA – to be war crimes. It should also be noted that a Japanese sergeant at Changi Prison in Singapore was sentenced to 20 years at hard labor after World War II for waterboarding prisoners.

People routinely condemn politicians and bigwigs of all stripes without noticing an uncomfortable resemblance.

The Senate document says that of 139 CIA detainees, 39 were selected for the psychologists’ treatment. Since the agency had showered the pair with $81 million to conduct the program, that comes to over $2 million per detainee! The cost makes the Air Force’s $600 hammer look like a bargain. And why is it that so many people in the CIA were convinced that the intelligence these methods produced was so good? Perhaps because the psychologists themselves were in charge of evaluating whether the interrogations they had designed produced good results, and whether they should be continued. I have often speculated on how many of the S-class Mercedes one sees on the Washington Beltway, or yachts in the Washington marina, were the fruits of the so-called war on terror that conveniently never seems to end. There is even a pot of gold, apparently, in forcing people to stand on broken legs.

If you want to see the Deep State, look in the mirror. The torture report makes one wonder: Did all this happen against the will of the American people? To some extent that may be the case, because public opinion is virtually irrelevant.

The political game is so rigged that something like this was to a degree foreordained. It also explains why no one will ever be tried, at least in a US court. But why is it that our political system is the way it is? It is true that at the polls, Americans face a rigid, binary choice of pre-selected candidates in thrall to corporate money. That is the stock progressive critique of the American political system.

Still, it does not quite explain why the people just last month elected possibly the most reactionary and plutocratic Congress since the Coolidge era. There are other psychological factors involved than mere mystification and manipulation of a poor, deluded public. Just as Americans console themselves with the belief that Washington is not the real America when it is in reality only concentrated distillation of all the good and bad characteristics of any American town, so do people routinely condemn politicians and big-wigs of all stripes without noticing an uncomfortable resemblance. It is one thing for the Jon Stewarts of the world to denounce Dick Cheney and his henchmen for authorizing torture as if they were somehow disembodied from society at large.

It is more painful to reflect upon the results of a 2014 Amnesty International poll, finding that 45 percent of Americans believe that torture can be justified on public safety grounds, a significantly higher percentage than in any other country in what is now called the developed world. By contrast, respondents in countries like Chile, Argentina and Greece, where the public knowledge of torture has been much more up-close and personal, gave sharply lower affirmative responses to the question than Americans did. Gazing at the snarling face of Dick Cheney, some Americans would be shocked to find it is a grotesque reflection of their own countenance, distorted as in a funhouse mirror.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.


1. It has been little remarked in the context of US mistreatment of prisoners, but the historical record shows that torture is often intertwined with sexual perversion of the type described by Richard von Krafft-Ebing, as the incidents at Abu Ghraib prison demonstrated to the world. One cringes to think how people like General Hayden may be getting their jollies.

2. To be fair, in 2007, CBS News’ Scott Pelley baited former CIA director George Tenet into making a touchy, defensive denial that the CIA engaged in torture which only succeeded in suggesting that precisely the opposite was the case.

3. The fact that the current CIA director, John Brennan, allowed former government employees to see a highly sensitive document that was being withheld even from senators not on the intelligence committee so that these former employees could more effectively engage in partisan axe-grinding ought to be investigated as both an ethics and a security violation.

Michael Lofgren, author Anatomy of a Deep State
Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His book about Congress, The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, appeared in paperback on August 27, 2013. He is currently writing a book about the sociology of the national security state, to be published in 2015.
  • submit to reddit