Senate Showdown

03.15.14

Never Forget? The CIA Report and the Problem With Hindsight

It’s easy make judgments about the agency’s post- 9/11 decisions here in the relative clarity of 2014. But the unknown was terrifying then.

The feud between the CIA and its Senate overseers spilled over in public again this week, once more over the Senate’s long-delayed release of a voluminous report on the agency’s detention and interrogation program.

For much of the American public, this seems like old news: The CIA’s “black site” prisons and enhanced interrogation techniques have been shut down for years, and it is hard to imagine America’s security services ever returning to these types of programs. For those of us caught up in this debate, though, the sense of anticipation is nonetheless high. Once again, Americans will reopen the question of what they want from their clandestine services. More personally, they will reopen the question of how they judge those of us who made those choices during the painful post-9/11 period.

I don’t know what’s in the report, and I wasn’t approached during its preparation. I can only guess that I would be among those who question its merits once it enters the public domain. This judgment, though, isn’t particularly relevant. In our system of checks and balances, there will often be times when overseers and officials from executive branch agencies don’t agree, and both parties have a right to speak on a matter that is of such interest to the public. We’re in a finger-pointing Beltway battle between two entities nobody much trusts. Let the people sort it out, after they see what both sides say; let the public decide where the pendulum rests.

There are key points that might get lost in this ugly rumble. Primary among them is the quality of the Senate report, which the CIA evidently argues is profoundly flawed and therefore misleading. This may well be true, but it’s not clear it should stand in the way of the report’s release. The agency has its perspective; the overseers have theirs. Once the report is released—and, in leak-happy Washington, elements of the report will come out eventually, regardless of whether it’s formally published—the debate will go on. And those who do not share the judgments in the report will be free to explain their side of the story, which, no doubt, Senate overseers will judge as fundamentally flawed. One way to start: Time the release of the Senate report to coincide with the release of a CIA rebuttal. Give both sides their say, and then let the public weigh in.

The ensuing debate will be rough, so maintaining focus on key questions will be important. No doubt one of the issues raised in the report will center on whether brutal interrogation tactics work. It’s an interesting but near-useless debate, and spending time on this question will detract from the issues Americans should be weighing: Do Americans, and their representatives in lawmaking bodies, want their security services to interrogate prisoners using these tactics? Do they believe these tactics represent American values?

When we met every night to discuss the threats that were cascading into the agency, the sense that we would face another catastrophic attack was pervasive.

If the answer is “no,” the question of whether the tactics are successful becomes moot. Let’s assume, for the moment, that we all accepted as fact that the tactics were hugely successful in eliciting valuable intelligence. Would this then change the argument? I hope not: If you want to judge that these programs aren’t appropriate for a democratic society, that judgment shouldn’t come with a sliding scale. So why waste time on the question of the program’s utility?  Why pretend that the answer would sway those who believe America should never again return to the tactics the CIA used?

As an intelligence officer who was at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center during the early 2000s, and was once its deputy director, my views of this debate are not complex, and they won’t be changed by this report. The al Qaeda prisoners we held at CIA facilities helped us understand the adversary. A lot?  A little? Somewhere in between? Outside observers can debate it, but it’s hard to argue that sitting across from the most senior leaders of your adversary, over a long period of time, isn’t helpful to understanding how they think and act. It is.

This judgment, though, is as irrelevant today as it will be the day this Senate report appears in public. The American people, speaking through their elected representatives in both the executive and legislative branches, say they are not comfortable with these programs. Not necessarily because the programs weren’t effective, but because they do not believe their security services should be running these kinds of tough interrogations. America’s security services serve according to the direction provided by the country’s elected representatives, and the laws set by the legislative branch and adjudicated by America’s courts. If I were ever again directed to participate in these kinds of programs, I would decline, as I believe my colleagues would. The reason? Not because we at CIA thought the programs were ineffective; we didn’t, and we don’t. Instead, we wouldn’t return to those programs because, with the benefit of hindsight and a lengthy period without a catastrophic attack, Congress, the president, and others have said they don’t want these programs to be a part of America today. Case closed.

Just one more note of caution before we descend down the rapids of morality and ethics. These defunct detention and interrogation programs are slipping into history, and the renewed public debate about them will fall victim to one of the inevitable effects of the march of time—the inability to look back and recreate what the world felt like during those first years after the 9/11 attacks, and to recreate the unpleasant environment that led U.S. decision makers across the executive and legislative branches to judge that the extraordinary detention and interrogation methods were acceptable, even necessary.

When we met every night during those years to discuss the threats that were cascading into the agency, and the progress we were making against al Qaeda, the sense of that tomorrow was a gaping unknown—and the sense that we would face another catastrophic attack was pervasive. This is not to say that others would have made the same choices we did with al Qaeda detainees. It is to say, however, that for all those who choose to pass judgment quickly, it’s worth remembering that judgment in 2014 is much easier, and much clearer, as a result of the counterterrorism successes of the past decade-plus. Throw stones, if you will. Believe the Senate. Or believe the CIA. But before you throw that first stone, never forget.