Of Terror and Torture


The recent Congressional confirmation for the new CIA director, Gina Haspel, has reopened some very nasty wounds in the American body politic (which were only just recently healing). Haspel is a woman who is deeply respected both within the intelligence community as well as by many policymakers in both parties. Her record of service and dedication to the country is long.

In fact, it’s the stuff of legends.

On a personal note, I think she was probably the best choice President Trump could have made for the next CIA director. At the same time, irrespective of how disingenuous her opponents on Capitol Hill may have been during the recent confirmation hearings, there were legitimate reasons to be concerned with her selection. Namely, Gina Haspel’s career was forged during a time in which the American government engaged in horrific excesses.

The kind of excesses that may have led to the permanent diminution of our global capability to compete in the soft power arena for hearts-and-minds in other, more pressing conflicts (like the coming competition between the United States and China).

Surviving Black Tuesday

According to David Rothkopf’s history of the National Security Council, National Insecurity: American Leadership In An Age of Fear, George Tenet was meeting with some former colleagues from the Clinton Administration at a posh brunch joint in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. around 9 a.m. on September 11, 2001. He was discussing a retinue of issues with his former friends, including the rising threat of terrorism to the United States. During that breakfast, when his cell phone began ringing (as well as the cell phones and beepers of almost every other patron in the restaurant), and he had received word of the attack in New York, Tenet knew it was al Qaeda.

As the day wore on, the Pentagon was burning and the World Trade Center was a smoldering pile of asbestos-filled rubble (the destruction in New York was actually visible to the astronauts who watched helplessly from the International Space Station). Reports of a car bomb at the State Department’s headquarters in Foggy Bottom circulated around the intelligence community. The CIA headquarters in McLean, Virginia was also a massive target–so much so that Tenet had ordered the building evacuated.

Meanwhile, no one was quite certain as to whether or not United Airlines flight 93 was headed toward Capitol Hill or the White House. However, just in case Vice-President Dick Cheney and the cabinet officials of the Bush Administration who weren’t either traveling with President Bush in Florida or with Secretary of State Colin Powell in Peru were huddled in the World War II-era bunker beneath the White House.

All members of House of Representatives and the Senate were evacuated, with most being transported to a secret Cold War-era facility that was designed to allow the Legislative Branch to ride out a nuclear war with the former Soviet Union. In the streets of Washington, D.C. and New York City, chaos and uncertainty reigned supreme.

From within the White House bunker (known to insiders as the “Presidential Emergency Operations Center” or “PEOC”), Vice-President Cheney attempted to coordinate with President George W. Bush on Air Force One, but the communication lines in the air were spotty at best. So, Cheney was left to his own devices that day.

Multiple reports came in to the cramped bunker that several flights were unaccounted for, not just Flight 93 (and the other aircraft that conducted the 9/11 attacks). It is believed that Cheney had ordered the Air Force to shoot down any planes approaching Washington, D.C. In fact, when Flight 93 was reported as having crashed over the Shanksville, Pennsylvania area, Cheney initially worried that an Air Force plane had acted on his orders. Word came that it was the passengers who rallied and resisted the terrorists who had commandeered the aircraft.

At the CIA headquarters, all but one floor had been evacuated. That was the Counterterrorism Center. On that day, J. Cofer Black, head of the CTC, told his team that they would stay put no matter what happened, and prepare for retaliation against al Qaeda (which he had spent the previous decade tracking and fighting during the Clinton Administration). Also there that day–her first day back in Washington, D.C. after having served as station chief at an “exotic overseas location,” according to her CIA bio–was none other than Gina Haspel.

According to the now-controversial CIA operative, Jose Rodriguez, in the days and weeks following the attacks, everyone with a CIA background, no matter what section they worked, offered their talents to the once-small CTC. Many sleepless nights followed. Gina Haspel was there for all of it. She lived it. 9/11 was not only one of America’s darkest days (up there with the British Army’s burning of the White House during the War of 1812 or the bleakest days of the American Civil War or Pearl Harbor in 1941), it was also the CIA’s crucible–as well as Gina Haspel’s. More than anything, 9/11 shaped the modern CIA, for better or worse and Haspel was in the thick of it. She saw the brilliance and the wastefulness of the agency’s response.

So, who better to lead it going forward into the next decade of the 21st century?

By the end of 9/11, nearly 3,000 Americans would be dead. On that day, the United States went to war with a barely-visible enemy, who hid among civilian populations in a politically toxic region of the world. Gina Haspel was among the first to deployed in that epic fight.

All sources familiar with Haspel’s service credit her with great gusto and an uncanny ability to improvise, adapt, and overcome in any situation. And, in the early phases of the poorly named “Global War on Terror,” improvisation was one of America’s go-to strategies when dealing with terrorists and their supporters.

Improvisation and Irresponsibility

In 2002, Gina Haspel found herself in charge of one of the CIA’s controversial “black sites” in an undisclosed foreign country. A black site was an undisclosed location in a foreign country where the CIA held many high-value detainees (e.g. terror suspects).

Many of these individuals were suspected members of al Qaeda picked up on the various battlefields in the War on Terror (notably in Afghanistan, but also in places like Pakistan or in countries throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Southern Asia). While commanding the site, it was rumored that she managed one of the most brutal interrogation programs for suspected terrorists.

Here is one of the main controversies surrounding her (though, many deny that she was directly involved with the formulation of the Enhanced Interrogation Program). You see, after 9/11, the Bush Administration (specifically, Vice-President Dick Cheney) took to the airwaves to announce a sea-change in handling terror suspects captured overseas.

In Cheney’s infamous words, the United States was “going to have to play on the dark side” of international affairs. In other words, the United States was going to have to capture, illegally detain (under the Geneva Conventions), and torture certain terror suspects in its custody (of course, the U.S. government came up with a euphemism for this and alternatively referred to it as “rendition” or, more clinically, “Enhanced Interrogation”).

The logic behind the program was predicated on desperation. Both the Bush Administration and the intelligence community were caught unawares on 9/11 and believed they were playing a proverbial game of catch-up with al Qaeda. In many respects, they were. But, al Qaeda was not unknown to the government. It had been in existence for more than a decade and had claimed countless American lives throughout the eight years of the previous Clinton Administration.

Of course, political leaders (and foreign policy “experts”) from both political parties never took terrorism as seriously as they should have. And, by all accounts, former President Bill Clinton only “got serious” about al Qaeda around the year 1998, which by that time he had been politically neutered by the Republican Party in the Lewinsky Scandal and was caught up with other foreign policy crises, such as those developing in the Balkans and Iraq.

It has since been reported that former Clinton-era national security adviser, Sandy Berger, briefed Condoleezza Rice during the Bush transition period in late 2000 about the growing al Qaeda threat–supposedly warning her that President Bush’s number one national security concern would be al Qaeda.

According to Richard Clarke, a Clinton holdover who became the national counterterrorism czar under Bush, no one in the Bush camp took terror seriously from their transition period in late 2000 until September 11, 2001. Yet, elements of the intelligence community (such as J. Cofer Black’s team at the CIA’s CTC) were keenly aware of al Qaeda’s threat.

In fact, George Tenet had presented an intelligence report to President Bush and his national security team on August 6, 2001 with the headline, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike the US.” While it is fair to say that the report lacked any actionable details (as in, where, when, and how the attack would occur), little if any countermeasures were taken.

When 9/11 happened and a response was needed, the Bush Administration behaved as though it had no clue what al Qaeda was or who Bin Laden was. They scrambled. Some things were done right (such as rolling into Afghanistan as rapidly as we did). Many other things were done wrong. Fear gripped American officials.

They worried about the future: if another attack happened on their watch, their careers would be over; countless Americans would be dead, and the country would be permanently damaged.

As for the intelligence folks, an elite cadre of them had been screaming about al Qaeda since the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and had nothing to show for it. The Bush Administration’s improvisational war footing served their needs in the sense that they just wanted to punch back against al Qaeda as hard as they could. It was in this improvisational morass that major policies with lasting impacts on the United States would be crafted.

We went from having little meaningful intelligence on terror networks around the world to being inundated with information, much of it useless, but some of it truly life-saving. The narrative during the Bush years was that the United States had neither the time nor inclination to make distinctions in the war. We had been hit; the Bush Administration had been humiliated by the attacks; we had to shove a boot in al Qaeda’s ass because that was the American way.

But, the fight against al Qaeda was far different from the Second World War or even the Cold War. It was Cheney who claimed that the United States would “have to fight in the shadows.” He was right about that. Yet, we proceeded to act loudly and sloppily. We needed highly precise and covert action on a continuous, though small-scale, level.

Instead, we got a cacophonous response that ended up sucking all of the proverbial oxygen out of U.S. foreign policy for the last 17 years.

The Enhanced Interrogation program was an outgrowth of these terrible trends. With the flood of prisoners, there was a debate about what to do with them in the Bush White House. Colin Powell and folks at the Justice Department, like Jack Goldsmith, insisted that basic rights be conferred upon them. Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the so-called “Neocons” disagreed.

The Cheney wing of the debate won out in the early phase of the War on Terror. Captured terrorists would be subject to torturous treatment. Whatever euphemism we may wish to use today, that’s what it was. No, I’m not a bleeding heart or a terrorist sympathizer. I am merely speaking objectively. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed with the Goldsmith view.

Excessive use of force coupled with virtually unchecked power was conferred upon the Executive Branch during this time (power that was carried over into the succeeding Obama Administration, by the way). We saw this play out not only in the disastrous Iraq War of 2003, but also in the domestic surveillance program as well as the CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation Program. The political debate surrounding these issues, in my opinion, missed the point. It wasn’t whether we were torturing suspected terrorists or not. We were.

The debate should have been threefold.

First, in torturing the suspects were we gleaning any actionable intelligence? Second, whatever actionable intelligence (if any) we were gleaning from these procedures, could it have been gathered in more constitutional ways? Third, what would the long-term impact on American grand strategy be?

To the first point, it is an unequivocal fact that American interrogators absolutely gained actionable intelligence from torturing the terror suspects. Jane Mayer’s book, The Dark Side: An Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, argues that American intelligence operatives could have gathered the information through less caustic means (like traditional relationship-building techniques, which many FBI Counterterrorism agents wanted to engage in but were ultimately stymied by their CIA counterparts).

However, the fact remains that no one at that point knew when–or even if–the next 9/11 was going to happen. After a decade of paying minimal attention to the terror threat, we were playing catch-up with them on some level. Traditional relationship-building interrogation techniques might not have worked under tight time tables. Remember, ultimately, our interrogators were dealing with many individuals who had no compunction about dying.

Jose Rodriguez and others have argued that the reason for the distinction in terms (“Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” as opposed to “torture”) is because the EITs were used to essentially bring the would-be “holy warriors” of captured al Qaeda suspects back down to Earth, as it were. The purpose was to remove any sense within those detainees that they had any control over their lives whatsoever.

Once brought back to the temporal, material world, it has been claimed that these detainees became far more compliant and more conventional interrogation techniques would then work on them. In fact, according to Rodriguez, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks who was waterboarded 183 times, once encouraged his CIA interlocutors make “the brothers” (his fellow al Qaeda prisoners) endure similar treatment, so as to test their divine strength in the face of the infidels. Nevertheless, these tactics were likely far too controversial for the long-term health of the country (especially since they ultimately were revealed to the public).

It is the third point that we must keep in the backs of our minds when analyzing the efficacy of the CIA’s torture program. Speaking before an audience in Washington, D.C., Kishore Mahbubani, the preeminent international relations scholar and current president of the prestigious Lee Kuan Yew School of Government in Singapore, argued that the fact that the United States essentially normalized torture following 9/11, meant that it lost whatever soft power attraction it had for many countries. This was particularly true in the case of countries in Asia, where the next great power conflict was shaping up.

As Mahbubani argued in 2008, when Americans would meet with their Chinese counterparts and lecture them about their human rights violations, the criticisms carried weight not only with the Chinese (who were simply incapable of changing their evil ways), but they also carried weight with other Asian states that might want to buddy up with the United States instead of China.

Whereas before the world tended to view American human rights concerns as a real issue for American leaders, now nearly all world leaders simply saw it as a cynical ploy to manipulate other countries and impose American values upon them.

Another problem that Haspel faced was related to the Enhanced Interrogation Program, this time regarding her colleague and firebrand, Jose Rodriguez. For years, Rodriguez was targeted as the public face for the CIA’s interrogation program. He is unapologetic about his participation in that program and has spent years defending it from its critics.

It is believed that Rodriguez may have destroyed evidence proving that he and his interrogators went over-the-line in interrogating some prisoners. What’s more, given Gina Haspel’s role in the CIA at the time, it has long been argued that she either approved of or covered up Rodriguez’s destruction of evidence that would have most-certainly been used by the Democrats in Congress against both Rodriguez and the CIA.

Yet, both Haspel and others from the CIA deny that she was in any way knowingly involved in the destruction of potential evidence. Since none of those analyzing Haspel in the public have access to her classified records, we can only take her at her word. Regardless of what she did or did not do, the fact remains that the CIA substituted responsible policymaking in the long-term for generating positive results in the short-term. We can endlessly debate the efficacy of this program, but those are the facts.

Fear drove American policymakers to abandon practices they deemed as too cumbersome for protecting Americans from terrorists. Their assumption was both right and wrong. I do believe that the CIA’s torture program helped to break otherwise implacable terrorists in time to save some American lives (and give other viable intelligence on terror operations and organization).

Yet, the fact that this program was publicly disclosed and has had the kind of corrosive effect on both overall American foreign policy, as well as our image around the world, implies that this program was not worth the effort–especially since we’ll never know if other, less-invasive means could have worked over the long-term.

One Last Thing

Shortly before the final confirmation vote, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), attempted to throw a proverbial spanner in the works by writing Haspel a letter inquiring about her knowledge regarding any attempts to spy on the Trump Campaign during the contentious 2016 presidential election.

While this was clearly an attempt to stymie the ultimate confirmation of Haspel, Senator Paul’s question was both fair and necessary–especially since we know what the intelligence community under former President Barack Obama was up to during the last presidential election.

Haspel evaded the questioning. But, the evidence suggests that, whether Haspel was involved or not, key players in the intelligence community were complicit in an extremely questionable counterintelligence “investigation” directed against Donald Trump.

Namely, we now know that former CIA director John Brennan was briefed by his British counterparts about calls and contacts between senior Trump Campaign officials and suspected Russian intelligence assets. We also know that the FBI had placed a “spy” (which, in this case, is known as a “confidential informant”) within the Trump Campaign to report on the goings-on of the Trump Campaign to the Obama era intelligence community.

James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, argued recently that the operation was “the most benign form of intelligence gathering” that was actually to help protect Donald Trump from any potential Russian penetration of his campaign.

Give me a break.

This was the politicization of intelligence for domestic political concerns, nothing more. Whatever innocuous connections between a smattering of one-time Trump Campaign advisers there may have been at the onset of the campaign, it did not warrant the level of investigation it received.

Senator Paul was right to ask Haspel this question. It is troubling that Haspel did not speak to it, even in a classified briefing.

Haspel’s nomination was good for the intelligence community, in that she has a breadth of experience and is widely respected. She also has a close, working relationship with both the president and the current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo (who was briefly her boss at the start of the Trump Administration). But like so much in the CIA since 9/11, it is a mixed bag.

We can only hope that the mistakes done over the last 17 years can be repaired through a cogent, judicious use of covert power coupled with a more responsible, restrained approach to highly sensitive matters.

Whether you agree with this history or not, Haspel is the nominee and will help to shape the culture and image of America’s most important intelligence agency for years to come.

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