Obama And Torture: The Record Gets Worse


We are still, of course, waiting for the Senate Intelligence Committee Report to be released to the public. It’s been forever since it was finished, and forever since the CIA managed to respond, and the endless process goes on and on – even after John Brennan’s attempt to spy on the very committee supposed to oversee his out-of-control agency, and then lie about it. The very fact that Brennan is still in his job – after displaying utter contempt for the Constitution and the American people – tells you all you really need to know about where Obama really stands on this question. He stands for protecting the CIA – and Denis McDonough, his chief-of-staff, has become the CIA’s indispensable ally in enabling not only its immunity from any prosecution for war crimes, but from even basic democratic accountability.

So it does not, alas, surprise me to find this anecdote in Leon Panetta’s memoir:

The extent of the Obama’s fury over the [Senate Committee’s] study was revealed in a memoir by former CIA Director Leon Panetta that was released this month. The president, he wrote, was livid that the CIA agreed in 2009 to give the committee access to millions of the agency’s highly classified documents. “The president wants to know who the f— authorized this release to the committees,” Panetta recalled then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel shouting at him. “I have a president with his hair on fire and I want to know what the fuck you did to fuck this up so bad!”

We don’t have merely passive indifference to the CIA’s record on torture, we have active opposition to the entire inquiry from the very beginning of Obama’s term in office. If you want to know why we are still waiting for the report almost two years since it was finished, and if you want to know why the White House refused to provide mountains of internal documents that would have added to the report’s factual inquiries, just absorb the anecdote above. And if you want to know why the White House did nothing to discipline the CIA after it hacked into the Senate Committee’s own computers, ditto. It’s impossible not to conclude that Obama wants as little of this material made public as possible. His pledge for the most transparent administration in history ends, it seems, at Langley.

The question is: why? The answer, I’d wager, is pretty simple and deeply depressing. From the very beginning, Obama was told (and apparently believed) that if he attempted to investigate or cooperate in any inquiry into the CIA’s war crimes, he would “lose the agency,” as they say in Washington. It’s a curious phrase when you come to think about it: “lose the agency”. In what other branch of abu_ghraib_thumbgovernment would cooperating with a Congressional investigation into alleged misconduct risk “losing the agency”? There’s an implicit sense here that the CIA can and will retaliate against presidents who dare to hold it to account. And that kind of conventional wisdom is what led Emanuel and now McDonough to protect the CIA at nearly any cost.

The current battle – in which McDonough is apparently indistinguishable from John Brennan – is over the extent of the redactions in the report. They’re already voluminous, but the CIA is now asking for unprecedented concessions in order to make the report as hard to understand as possible and to render critical narratives impossible to follow. So, for example, they are objecting to the use of pseudonyms to identify individuals who crop up often in the report, alleging that they somehow risk agents’ lives.

But the pseudonyms in the report are not the pseudonyms that agents use to protect their actual identities; they are merely completely fictional names in order to clarify an individual’s role over time in the torture program. Without them it could become close to impossible to make sense of the torture narrative. In the past, moreover, all sorts of reports that have emerged from government inquiries – from the Church Committee to Iran-Contra – have used real names for some individuals, and pseudonyms for others, in laying out their conclusions. But not this time, apparently. And even from the CIA’s perspective, this battle makes little sense. If all identifying pseudonyms are turned into black spaces, it can lead to the impression that the agency as a whole was responsible for various war crimes, as opposed to pseudonymous individuals within it. Removing pseudonyms actually paints the entire CIA with a much broader and darker brush than it deserves – for there were many in the CIA appalled and shocked by the amateurish brutality of the program, and many who were integral to ending it.

Then there is an attempt to redact parts of the report that include the history of intelligence before the torture program was put into effect. The CIA wants this removed as irrelevant, but in the context of the report, it can be highly relevant. If, for example, it can be shown that a certain piece of intelligence was already known in the CIA before the torture program, and a torturer subsequently claimed it was discovered in a torture session, then it is highly relevant for that history to be known. For it proves that torture was not necessary and that many of the claims for its success were without key context and therefore deeply misleading.

Yesterday’s McClatchy story leads with the notion that the report does not follow the trail of responsibility up to Bush, Cheney, Tenet, Rumsfeld et al, and is thereby somehow toothless.

But the committee was an investigation specifically into the CIA’s records on the program, to get a full accounting of what happened within that agency. It was not tasked with the essentially political job of holding the White House responsible. And it may be, in fact, that even some of the most powerful individuals in the Bush administration were actually unaware of what was really going on, or that they were merely repeating what the CIA was telling them, and the CIA was lying to cover its ass. That does not minimize the political responsibility of president Bush and others for presiding over such a grotesque torture program; but it’s essential context for understanding what actually happened.

That’s what this Committee report is really about. It is not about assigning responsibility for torture. It is merely the legislative branch’s completely legitimate inquiry into how on earth a democratic society could have sunk so low so fast in the war on Jihadist terrorism. It is the beginning of that process of truth and accountability, not its end. But even that minimal task of fact-finding has been stymied, obstructed and foiled by the CIA from the very beginning. And in that process, the president has been one of the CIA’s strongest defenders and enablers.

In no way does that mean that Obama bears the responsibility for this hideous stain on this country’s integrity and values. It does mean, however, that we have a government agency that is effectively beyond any democratic accountability – even when it commits war crimes. Something is rotten in this national security state. And it is our duty to expose it – and do what we can to make it better.

(Photo: Director of the Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan (L) talks with the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper before President Barack Obama spoke about the National Security Agency and intelligence agencies surveillance techniques at the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC, on January 17, 2014. By Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.)