The release of the Senate report on “enhanced interrogations” has prompted mostly well-intentioned efforts to protect CIA personnel involved in the program. President George W. Bush, on CNN, said, “These are patriots, and whatever the report says, if it diminishes their contributions to our country, it is way off base.” The New York Times says that “Bush and his closest advisers have decided that, ‘We’re going to want to stand behind these guys.’”
Most of the CIA leaders who designed and ran the program were my colleagues and friends. I had the privilege to lead many of them when they accomplished significant feats in difficult and dangerous places and situations. My respect and affection for them remain strong.
That said, as an operations officer and leader, I learned that good guys have bad days, and that fear, anger and ambition degrade, rather than enhance, judgment and decision making. My friends and colleagues made serious errors in just such an atmosphere.
Interrogation and detention were never among CIA’s core competencies. When CIA leaders had to make decisions on this stuff, they rejected the counsel of FBI and military interrogators who had long and successful experience in obtaining useful intelligence from detainees, including terrorists. The FBI, early on, ordered its people to refuse to participate in what the CIA decided to do. Instead, CIA turned to consultants who encouraged them to adopt measures that came out of the U.S. military’s program to train our men and women to resist the detention and interrogation practices of our World War II and Cold War enemies. Somehow they missed the point that our enemies were not using these methods to obtain intelligence. They were using them to extract confessions; mostly false confessions.
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While there might be classified information to the contrary, that which has so far been made public shows that using the evil practices of an “Evil Empire” didn’t work. While CIA leaders and others accurately tell us that useful information was obtained from detainees subjected to “enhanced interrogation,” they have not revealed that most, if not all, the useful information came from these subjects before they experienced “enhanced” practices. They told us what we needed to know before we tortured them.
Worse, false “information” that came from men who told their interrogators what the they wanted to hear in order to stop the pain inflicted on them contributed to serious policy errors.
After 9/11, fear and anger gripped our nation. CIA’s leaders were not isolated from them. Ambition, another distorter of judgment, had an effect on honest and competent people who wanted desperately to do what the president, vice president and secretary of defense wanted done.
After 9/11, our nation and CIA simply ran off the tracks. We did things that were wrong. When I say we, I mean our nation. Almost all of the mistaken and, indeed, evil, things done by CIA were done on our behalf and, generally, with our approval. Standing “behind these guys” and making sure we keep in mind that they are “patriots” must not get in the way of the necessary task of correcting what went wrong.
There are many things we did in fear and anger that have to be undone. One of the easiest is to put laws and regulations in place that ensure that we handle the detention and interrogation of our enemies in ways that do not bring us down to their level. We can do this without impugning the patriotism or the contributions of individual CIA personnel or leaders. We can’t do it, however, if we don’t face up to the truth that mistreating detainees, even detainees who clearly deserve mistreatment, is ineffective, counterproductive, illegal and morally repugnant. Ducking that truth or making it a partisan political issue is not the way to go.
Frank Anderson served in the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency for 26 years. He served three tours of duty in the Middle East as an agency station chief, headed the Afghan Task Force (1987-89) and was chief of the Near East and South Asia Division.