How The CIA Won The Beltway Battle … Till Now

by Scott Horton



There’s a simple, foundational question behind the publication of today’s report on CIA torture: Are the people and Congress entitled to know about these programs and the legacy they have left behind? The conflict between the right of a democracy to know what’s being done in its name and the necessary secrecy of intelligence services is what’s really being tested right now. And looking back on the struggle between the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the CIA over the report due to be released today tells us a lot about the state of play.

On this score, the report is likely to document, without highlighting, an embarrassing failure of oversight during the period from 2002-2006, when the core programs were in effect. That failure is almost certainly a combination of misdirection and misinformation from the CIA to SSCI, a desire by the White House not to share certain information, and a failure by the SSCI itself to probe with sufficient determination to find the facts. But the report should help us weigh these considerations.

The history of the production of the SSCI report already suggests very strongly that the CIA has been far more skillful player in the struggle than the Senate. In her now-famous speech on the Senate floor, Dianne Feinstein set out many of the historical steps. These make clear that from the outset to the last stages, the CIA has played a subtle and effective game of slow-down designed to stretch the process out. It has been fighting for time, and taking the view that every week of delay is a victory. Some of the tactics used included:

• Insisting on internal review prior to disclosure to SSCI, and then hiring outside contractors (who would not otherwise have had access to the documents) to do the review;
• Raising claims of privilege and relevance to disclosures;
• Insisting that review occur in CIA offices, using equipment that was owned and provided by the CIA;
• “Disappearing” documents once they had been provided;
• Bringing accusations of security breaches by SSCI staff;
• Requesting a Department of Justice probe of their allegations;
• Demanding aggressive redactions from the text of the report designed to make the report itself incomprehensible.

These tactics were successful at least in that they slowed down the report by several years.

In my mind, it is utterly unsurprising that the CIA would reach to these tactics—that is precisely the conduct I would expect from officers loyal to their institution, who are struggling to avoid disclosure of information which they believe will prove harmful to the institution’s interests. What is truly surprising is the indulgent, understanding posture of Senator Feinstein and her staff, who gave ground to the CIA on point after point, in derogation of the Senate’s rights and powers. Perhaps Feinstein thought that being deferential would help her with the CIA. If so, that was exceedingly naïve.

Chalk this up, then, as a huge win for the agency over its overseers. The CIA demonstrated a mastery of the politics of the Washington Beltway that far outstripped its investigators. So far at least it has only won them time—but it has gotten them close to their mark. Another week of delay and the report could have been buried for ever.

The final gambit in the delay game was the claim that American personnel abroad may face danger as a result of the disclosures. But the SSCI report is not likely to make entirely new disclosures on the key points. These disclosures occurred in a steady trickle from April 2004 through early 2009. The use of torture and the creation of black sites did indeed have consequences abroad for the United States—it fueled recruitment for terrorist groups on one hand, it helped inspire the Arab Spring and the cries of “dignity” that accompanied it on the other. In any event, it greatly complicated U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and other theaters of operation. However, the consequences that the SSCI will have for U.S. personnel are likely to be different. It is likely to have consequences precisely for the persons who are today heard most loudly objecting to its release: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Michael Hayden and Jose Rodriguez. Their reputations will be tarnished further, and, no doubt, demands for accountability will be renewed. And there are plenty of U.S. citizens, and U.S. intelligence officers, who reckon that a very good thing.


(Photo: CIA director John Brennan testifies before a full committee hearing during his nomination hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, on February 7, 2013. By Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)