The CIA impunity challenge

The intelligence agency – and the White House – are holding hostage the truth about torture

March 19, 2014 8:00AM ET
Then-President George W. Bush and then–CIA Director George Tenet at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va., in 2001.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

The White House and the CIA are currently engaged in an unrelenting battle to cover up the George W. Bush administration’s torture program and to maintain a system of impunity for what are obvious war crimes. Disturbingly, they are even willing to break the law — again — to win that battle.

The historic testimony given by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on the Senate floor on March 11 laid bare the efforts of the Central Intelligence Agency to block the publication of a 6,300-page investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee into the Bush-era interrogation program. She accused the CIA of violating both statutory laws and the Constitution.

The committee, chaired by Feinstein, began a comprehensive review of the post-9/11 detention and interrogation program in 2009. As part of the investigation, the CIA was compelled to provide the committee and its staff with all relevant documents.

At some point during the investigation, the CIA quietly hacked into the computer network established specifically for the inquiry and removed about 1,000 pages of documents, including an internal CIA review of the torture program that was conducted while Leon Panetta was its director. When questioned, the CIA claimed the White House ordered the files removed, which the White House denied.

This breech of the computer network indicates not only that the CIA violated its agreement with the Senate committee and then lied about it but also that it acted independently of White House orders, all in an attempt to hide information about the torture and interrogation program.

The still classified Senate study reportedly reveals gruesome details of torture and concludes, contrary to CIA claims, that so-called enhanced interrogation methods did not generate valuable intelligence.

The CIA has maintained that the report cannot be declassified because of significant factual errors and misleading judgments; this is a curious contention, as the internal Panetta review largely conforms to the committee’s conclusions.

“Some of these important parts that the CIA now disputes in our committee study are clearly acknowledged in the CIA’s own internal Panetta review,” Feinstein explained. “To say the least, this is puzzling. How can the CIA's official response to our study stand factually in conflict with its own internal review?”

Feinstein also revealed that the CIA’s general counsel — who played an important part in the torture program and who is “mentioned by name more than 1,600 times” in the committee study — told the Department of Justice that Senate staff committed a crime by reading the Panetta review. Feinstein said she believes this was an attempt to “intimidate” the committee and sabotage the investigation.

While it’s unlikely the CIA will face penalties for this intimidation, Feinstein’s testimony may help tip the balance in favor of declassifying the Senate review.

The CIA shares blame for obstructing the Senate investigation with the White House. Despite repeated statements that he supports the release of the committee’s report, President Barack Obama, in the face of CIA objections, has refused to declassify it.

The shameful effort to intimidate Congress and hide the truth from the American people will, if successful, extend that impunity into the foreseeable future.

In addition, Obama has been unilaterally withholding “more than 9,000 top-secret documents” from the Senate inquiry, McClatchy reported on March 12. These “are separate” from documents that Feinstein referred to. The content of these documents is unknown, but one can only imagine what they reveal. Such unscrupulous secrecy is contrary to the promises of transparency and accountability that drove then-candidate Obama to the White House in 2008.

“These documents certainly raise the specter that the White House has been involved in stonewalling the investigation,” Elizabeth Goitein of NYU Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice told McClatchy.

The coordinated attempts to cover up the controversial program should surprise no one, given what is at stake.

In 2007 the International Committee for the Red Cross concluded (PDF) that the treatment endured by detainees in CIA custody “amounted to torture” and constituted war crimes.

Detainees were subjected to waterboarding, forced nudity, severe beatings, sleep deprivation and exposure to extreme temperatures. The CIA hired a former military psychologist, James Mitchell, to oversee much of this sadistic treatment. He is reported to have advised that a detainee should be treated “like a dog in a cage.”

Many people had their heads smashed into walls; they were shackled in extremely painful stress positions; they were locked in tiny boxes with restricted airflow; they were chained by collars around the neck and beaten. An estimated 100 detainees were tortured to death.

By 2005, approximately 3,000 individuals had been captured by the CIA. Since the program was secret, captured suspects were almost never formally charged and were deprived of due process.

This inevitably led to a glut of what were called erroneous renditions, in which the CIA abducted and tortured innocent people. “They picked up the wrong people, who had no information,” a CIA official told the Washington Post in 2005.

Aside from the hideous details of this inhumane treatment, the torture program has a legacy of consequences that extend far beyond individual detainee abuse.

Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, an Al-Qaeda suspect in the custody of the CIA in 2001, was transferred to Egypt to be brutally tortured. After being locked in a small cage for more than 80 hours and severely beaten by Egyptian authorities, Libi confessed to having knowledge of senior Al-Qaeda leaders meeting with Iraqi officials for training in the development and use of weapons of mass destruction.

The Bush administration used this coerced confession in its propaganda campaign to boost support for invading Iraq. In a 2002 speech, Bush announced, “We’ve learned that Iraq has trained Al-Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and deadly gases.” Then–Secretary of State Colin Powell used this information in his infamously flawed speech at the United Nations.

Libi later recanted his so-called confession. In 2006 the Senate Intelligence Committee released a study, which reported that Libi “lied … to avoid torture.”

Torture produced wildly distorted intelligence that was then used as evidence to justify an unnecessary war that killed half a million Iraqis and almost 5,000 Americans and has cost trillions of dollars.

The people responsible for these crimes, including those in the CIA, have been shielded from investigation and prosecution for too long. The shameful effort to intimidate Congress and hide the truth from the American people will, if successful, extend that impunity into the foreseeable future. Instead, Obama should agree to the full declassification of the Senate inquiry and fully comply with whatever criminal investigations arise out of such disclosures. 

John Glaser is based in Washington, DC. He has been published in CNN, Newsweek, The National Interest, Reason, and the Washington Times, among others.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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