We knew that, like almost everything else in Washington, the program would eventually be leaked and our Agency and its people would be inaccurately portrayed in the worst possible light.”
Those words were written by former CIA director George Tenet. Two years ago, in his book “At the Center of the Storm,” Tenet predicted the controversy that has now engulfed Washington. The new revelations regarding the agency’s enhanced interrogation techniques has captured the nation’s attention with the Obama administration’s release of the Bush Justice Department’s secret memos on interrogation.
Near the end of the Korean War, I was an interrogator in the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps, trained to extract information from the targets of our investigations by developing relationships with them. I was taught that using force resulted in questionable intelligence.
But decades later, I was in Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, and I saw the anxiety that overtook the city after the loss of 3,000 lives in the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon. Friends and colleagues spoke openly of their fears of another attack and purchased gas masks and duct tape to secure their homes. Imagine the atmosphere in the White House, where, one month earlier, the president had received a CIA briefing entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” FBI Director Robert Mueller, new on the job, told Post reporters and editors at a luncheon several weeks after the attacks that there may be as many as 100 al-Qaida cells inside this country.
In October 2001, I wrote that torture talk was in the air, as was the possibility of sending suspects to countries where such interrogation tactics are used. The FBI typically shies away from harsh interrogations because the results cannot be used in court. But the CIA, which was under fire at the time for having failed to prevent the attacks, was under no such constraint.
Now, more than seven years after al-Qaida’s assault on the United States, memories of the fear and pandemonium in Washington have faded, replaced by heated debates over torture, prosecutions and truth commissions. Tenet could write with confidence that the inevitable disclosure of the CIA’s program would generate such reactions in Congress and among the public because it has happened to the CIA many times before — each with devastating effects on the agency.
Will this time be different? Maybe. President Obama went out of his way last week to reassure CIA personnel that he opposes prosecution of agency officers who carried out the techniques within the four corners of the legal opinions. But Congress and human rights groups are pushing for investigations that will inevitably shine the spotlight on CIA leaders and operatives who ran the programs, along with the White House and Justice Department officials who authorized them.
Remember the post-Watergate release in the 1970s of the so-called “Family Jewels,” that collection of horrific acts the CIA undertook in the Cold War period, including assassination attempts against Fidel Castro? Sen. Frank Church, the Idaho Democratwho chaired a Senate committee investigating those activities, called the agency “a rogue elephant.” It made little difference when it turned out later that almost all its operations had been directed and authorized by the White House. (For example, Attorney General Robert Kennedy had urged and approved the attempts to kill Castro.)
In the 1980s, the Iran-contra affair — managed by CIA Director Bill Casey with members of the White House National Security Council staff — got the agency in trouble. In the 1990s, another scandal erupted over a Guatemalan military officer (and CIA informant) who was allegedly involved in torturing and killing a rebel married to an American lawyer named Jennifer Harbury. A report by the CIA inspector general — which Congress demanded after Harbury publicized the case — found that the Guatemalan officer had remained on the agency payroll even after the station chief learned of allegations linking him to the murder of a U.S. citizen.
Almost two dozen agency officials were punished as a result. CIA Director John Deutch, who had his eye on the job of defense secretary in the Clinton administration, played to Congress, firing two senior officers and disciplining seven others. He also “cleaned out” foreign agents and informants who had criminal records or other questionable associations.
After Sept. 11, the CIA bore the brunt of criticism for not having informants inside al-Qaida. No one outside the agency looked back at how the Guatemala episode had affected the CIA’s willingness to recruit unsavory individuals. And later, at the very time when the CIA was conducting its interrogation program out of public sight, the 9/11 Commission was citing “risk aversion” to describe why the agency had not prevented the attacks.
Today’s atmosphere blurs not only the reality of the past, but infects what is going on now. Most press accounts about the documents never explore whether torture may have paid off, although the pages of the Justice Department opinions contain many references to important information learned from Abu Zubaida and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
The long-term consequences of today’s controversies will inevitably fall on the CIA, and this look back in history does not bode well for the folks at Langley.
• Walter Pincus has covered intelligence and national security issues for The Washington Post since 1975