Of all the shocks and revelations in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture, one seems very strange and unlikely: that the agency misinformed the White House and didn’t even brief President George W. Bush about its controversial program until April 2006.
The question of the claim’s truth or implausibility is not trivial or academic; it goes well beyond score-settling, Bush-bashing, or scapegoating. Rather, it speaks to an issue that’s central in the report in the long history of CIA scandals, and in debates over whether and how policy should be changed: Did the torture begin, and did it get out of hand, because the CIA’s detention and interrogation program devolved into a rogue operation? Or were the program’s managers actually doing the president’s dirty business?
If the former was the case, then heads should roll, grand juries should be assembled, organizational charts should be reshuffled, and mechanisms of oversight should be tightened. If the latter was the case, well, that’s what elections are for. “Enhanced-interrogation techniques” were formally ended by President Barack Obama after the 2008 election, and perhaps future presidents will read the report with an eye toward avoiding the mistakes of the past.
But which was it? Were the CIA’s directorate of operations and its counterterrorism center freelancing after the Sept. 11 attacks, or were they exchanging winks and nods with the commander-in-chief?
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The annals of history suggest the latter, and in a few passages, so does the report. A big lesson of the Church Committee — Sen. Frank Church’s mid-1970s probe into black-bag jobs, assassination plots, coup attempts, and other acts of CIA malfeasance since the agency’s origins — is that, in nearly every instance, there was no “rogue elephant” at Langley. Rather, the presidents in office at the time knew what was going on, at least in broad, strategic terms — and their CIA henchmen knew to give the leader of the free world a wide berth of “plausible deniability” in case they got caught.
As the Church reports and books such as Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes clearly show, President Dwight Eisenhower knew about and approved the CIA’s plot to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. President John F. Kennedy knew about, and approved, the plots to murder Cuba’s Fidel Castro; in fact, his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, formed a top-secret “special group” in the White House to oversee the operation. President Lyndon B. Johnson (who, after he left office, told a reporter that Kennedy had been running “a damn Murder Inc. in the Caribbean”) carried on the enterprise elsewhere in Latin America.
It seems odd, then, that the officials running the CIA interrogation program kept things secret from the highest elected officials and thus, as the report puts it, “impeded effective White House oversight and decision-making.” First, the history of these sorts of programs suggests they were carrying out White House decisions. Second, President Bush and especially Vice President Dick Cheney supported the program, and they still emphatically defend it. Bush wrote in his memoirs that he approved it.
The committee’s own account contains anomalies on this question. For instance, the report cites an internal CIA email noting that “the (White House) is extremely concerned (that Secretary of State Colin) Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s been going on.” That was written in July 2003, nearly three years before Bush was supposedly first briefed on the program, yet someone in the White House not only knew about it, but knew enough to know that certain Cabinet secretaries — in this case, a former Army general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff well-versed in the Geneva Conventions and official manuals on interrogation — might object.
The report also cites a briefing by a CIA station chief to a government official in a foreign country where the agency had set up a secret detention center. “The presentation,” the report says of the briefing, “also noted that the president of the United States had directed that he not be informed of the location of the CIA detention facilities to ensure he would not accidentally disclose the information.”
No date is provided for when this briefing took place (or perhaps it’s been redacted in the footnote), but the context suggests 2003 or 2004. Again, this is two or three years before Bush was supposedly first briefed on the program — yet, he already knew that the CIA did have secret foreign detention centers for interrogating suspected terrorists in ways that might be illegal if done stateside.
A key point here is that Bush “had directed” the CIA not to tell him the locations of these centers. This fits the classic pattern of “plausible deniability”: The president is told about the drift and outlines of the black program (be it an assassination, a coup, bribery, torture, or whatever), but he doesn’t want to be told too much. He doesn’t want his fingerprints on any directive, so that, in case things go awry, he can blame Langley — and part of Langley’s job is to take the blame.
With this in mind, let’s take a close look at the committee’s claim that Bush wasn’t briefed on the program until it had nearly run its course: “According to CIA records,” the report states, “no CIA officer, up to and including CIA Directors George Tenet and Porter Goss, briefed the president on the specific CIA enhanced interrogation techniques before April 2006.”
I’ve italicized two words in this passage, for emphasis. The second word is key: Bush wasn’t briefed on the “specific” techniques till 2006. Under the well-known rules of plausible deniability, he would not have wanted to know too much about these specifics. As indicated in the station chief’s presentation, it’s not that the CIA didn’t tell the president certain details; it’s that the president didn’t want the CIA to tell him.
But the other use of italics — “According to CIA records” — is more significant than it may seem at first glance. The Senate committee was denied access to White House records. Its staff examined only CIA records, and if the principles of plausible deniability were in force, the CIA probably would not have had records of earlier briefings, if there were any. (And we know there must have been some, because Bush knew, much earlier, about the fact that secret foreign detention centers existed.) It’s worth noting, according to the report, that the April 2006 briefing took place only after Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, demanded that he be briefed. At that point, deniability would no longer be plausible; word of the program had spread beyond the Oval Office and into the West Wing.
The report also notes that Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld, the secretaries of state and defense, were finally briefed on these unpleasant specifics on Sept. 16, 2003. Are the report’s authors suggesting that the CIA informed key members of the president’s Cabinet 2 1/2 years before it told the president himself? If nothing else, Cheney, who had his own back-channel contacts at Langley, would have known what was going on. It is now well known that, on many national security issues, Cheney was running the show during Bush’s first term. But there’s no evidence, on any issue, that Cheney left Bush out of the loop.
One sign of the dysfunctional decision-making in Bush’s first term is that, quite often, the National Security Council would decide on some policy, and then Cheney would have a one-on-one chat with Bush in the Oval Office, and the policy would be crucially modified or reversed. Unless Bush kept a tape recorder running, like Kennedy and Johnson, we may never know the full reasons for the invasion of Iraq, the termination of talks with North Korea, or many other actions Bush took that affected the fate of the nation and the lives of millions of people worldwide.
None of this should imply that the CIA was blameless, or merely a White House tool, in its torture of detainees. The report lays out compelling evidence that the agency’s directorate of operations and its counterterrorism center lied to its own lawyers and inspector general; that they kept congressional intelligence committees in the dark; and that they contracted out many interrogations (at enormous expense) to inexperienced psychologists of a sadistic bent, ignoring dissent not only from FBI agents (who often eked out more useful information with gentler techniques) but also from the CIA’s own chief of interrogations, who wrote a memo, back on Jan. 21, 2003, expressing “serious reservations” about their techniques, adding, “This is a train wreck waiting to happen, and I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens.”
The committee offers no recommendations on how to make things better (at least not in the 524-page executive summary partly declassified and released this week), but there are clear lessons for future presidents to absorb. Not least is the dark, slippery slide of “plausible deniability.” It must be tempting for a president to nod his head, say, “Make it so,” and then sit back, knowing that, whatever “it” is will probably happen. That’s part of what the CIA does and always has done. But as this report, like many similar reports in the past 40 years, clearly show, it’s a perilous gamble; the people who carry out such orders take them literally and to the maximum limit. Presidents should stop doing this, even if it means accepting accountability for things they’ve long been enabled to avoid.
Fred Kaplan is the author of “The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War” and “1959: The Year Everything Changed.”
© 2014, Slate