There may have been bourbon punch and festive lights at the CIA’s holiday party Friday night, but a frosty gloom hung in the air.
As everyone in the agency’s Langley, Va., headquarters knew, the long-awaited “torture report” from the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Democrats was set to drop early the next week, perhaps as soon as Monday morning. It seemed a rather awkward time for a party.
The CIA’s response to the report will be muted. The agency will neither defend the so-called rendition, detention, and interrogation programs. Nor will the CIA disavow those controversial efforts entirely. According to current and former officials familiar with the higher-ups’ thinking, CIA Director John Brennan is likely to keep his powder dry and essentially agree to disagree with the agency’s critics. Even though some CIA employees remain convinced that brutal interrogations of suspected terrorists, including waterboarding, produced useful information that helped prevent terrorist attacks, the agency’s leaders will take no position on whether that information could have been obtained through less coercive means.
Such a Jesuitical response will do absolutely nothing to satisfy critics of the program or its supporters—some of whom still go work at Langley every day. But it’s the result of the precarious political position that Brennan finds himself in now.
“There is a feeling in the hallways that Brennan is not pursuing their best interest,” said a former intelligence official who talks to friends at headquarters. “That, in fact, he’s pursuing the White House’s best interest. And they’re getting thrown under the bus. It goes back to the one basic thing: Whether they did right or they did wrong, they were told to do something, they did it, and they feel like they had the rug pulled out from underneath them. They feel sold down the river, and Brennan is part of the sale process.”
Those disgruntled analysts and spies will find more vocal defenders in a group of former officials who’ve read the findings, and who pledged not to discuss them until they were made public. These officials have penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, which will be published soon after the report is publicly released. In it, according to a source familiar with the contents, the formers will lay out their fierce rebuttal of the committee’s findings—nearly all of which have already been leaked—and blast what they see as a biased, five-year process that culminated in a flawed history of the rendition, detention, and interrogation efforts.
For pro-release activists, the dissemination of the report would be a holiday present, years in the making. And they’re already concerned about deflecting the impending pushback against the Senate Intelligence Committee’s findings.
“What really needs to happen is rather than casting doubt on the report, the CIA needs to address the underlying misconduct,” said Melina Milazzo, senior policy counsel at the Center for Victims of Torture. “They’re trying to cast doubt on the report, because according to news reports, the CIA report will say that the program was more widespread, more brutal [than previously known], and that the CIA lied to the Justice Department and the White House.”
Brennan held a senior position in the agency when the interrogation program was in full swing, in the first term of the Bush administration. But then he became an adviser to Sen. Barack Obama, who campaigned in 2008 against the CIA’s program and publicly acknowledged in July that the United States “tortured some folks,” using a verb that even the Senate report avoids.
Brennan cannot go against his president. But he also has to back up the CIA workforce, which still includes people who participated in the program and have since gone on to more senior jobs and are still taking part in counterterrorism operations today. Brennan is expected to address the CIA workforce at headquarters on Tuesday.
“If they don’t see some measure of support for them, they’re going to find it very disappointing,” said another former senior intelligence official who is familiar with the contents of the Senate report and thinks it unfairly portrays the agency as going rogue and trying to mislead Congress about how it illegally tortured detainees. “What signal does it send if employees do things that one administration says is legal, and the next administration attacks you for doing things that are contrary to American values? If the next administration has a different view, do I have to lawyer up?”
Adding to employees’ anxieties is the still-unanswered question of whether the published report will be sufficiently redacted to keep close readers from identifying individuals who took part in torture sessions. Brennan personally prevailed upon White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to engage in shuttle diplomacy between Capitol Hill and the CIA in an effort to keep names and identifications out of the report, one of the former officials said, arguing that if CIA officers’ names were known, their safety could be jeopardized.
Those in Congress seeking to release a redacted CIA “torture report” dismiss these concerns. Sen. Ron Wyden, an outspoken critic of the CIA and a fierce advocate for the release of the report, said Friday that every major inquiry into the national security establishment for the last 40 years used pseudonyms to indicate different actors.
“The important thing about the pseudonyms is that provides the opportunity to learn not just what happened, but why it happened,” Wyden said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “What I have been working for, for many months, really years now, is to make that this report doesn’t get buried.”
Even if McDonough’s efforts paid off, though, employees are also concerned that Sen. Mark Udall, one of the interrogation program’s harshest critics and a committee member, will read a classified version of the report into the record, names and all, the former official said.
Udall hasn’t said one way or another what he plans to do. But in an interview with Esquire magazine, the senator said, “When this report is declassified, people will abhor what they read. They’re gonna be disgusted.”
Even if Brennan and his lieutenants don’t take to the op-ed pages or the talk shows to defend torture, CIA employees can expect agency officials and their surrogates to take aim at the committee report itself, and particularly the way it was generated. (The CIA will also issue a written response to the report.) Chief among the agency’s complaints will be that Senate investigators failed to interview anyone who worked on the program, leaving them to base their findings solely on classified documents that, officials argue, couldn’t be fully understood without some elaboration and context.
Committee sources have already countered that a voluminous paper trail, which includes agency memos and internal communications, faithfully tells the tale of one of the darkest chapters in the CIA’s history. But certain dramatis personae will be conspicuously absent, most notably the former vice president, Dick Cheney, and his right-hand man David Addington, who are among the senior Bush administration officials who bear the most responsibility for setting up the program. Their free pass isn’t sitting well with CIA employees, who insist they themselves were following the White House’s orders and had been given assurances their extreme actions were legal.
“[M]any Americans, when they see the torture report, will be very much disturbed,” Wyden told the The Daily Beast Friday. But when asked if it could compel a major legislative effort to permanently prohibit enhanced interrogation techniques, he focused on the singular importance of getting the report to light.
“One of the things that is important about this report is that people see not just what happened, but why it happened, to make it less likely that it will happen again,” he said.
Congress’ relationship with the CIA has no doubt been altered by the grueling, months-long fight over how to appropriately redact the Senate committee’s report. And even as the Senate shifts into Republican control in the New Year, lawmakers involved in the process will long remember the agency’s conduct in the matter.
As of Friday, just how the final publication would play out remained a mystery, like so many Christmas presents under the tree. That day, Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly called Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein to ask her to “consider” the timing of the report’s release.
Not long after these reports circulated, Wyden released a fiery statement, urging the Senate to be willing to “act unilaterally” to ensure that the report sees “the light of day before Congress adjourns this year.”
So as CIA brass passed the punch and mini-pecan pies Friday evening, they wondered: would next week would bring sugarplum fairies, or lumps of coal?