The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture makes for painful reading for those of us who thought that our intelligence agencies had been brought under control decades ago. We should have been so hopeful!
It has been nearly 40 years since I was a young staff member on the Senate Select Committee chaired by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, that was charged with investigating our intelligence agencies. We uncovered secret spying on Americans, we investigated coups against foreign governments, we looked into assassination plots against foreign leaders, and we blew the whistle on the FBI’s bugs of Martin Luther King and its efforts to get him to commit suicide. The scary and sickening period in our history needed to be examined so that it would never be repeated.
[VIEWS YOU CAN USE: The CIA Torture Report Goes Public]
Well, sadly, as Yogi Berra put it, here we are, deja vu all over again.
There are a number of reasons I am not surprised by what was revealed in the report. As my old boss Church pointed out so many years ago, the CIA often acts as a “rogue elephant.” Presidents often give consent to broad policy guidelines, then stay out of the details. This provides some sense of “plausible deniability” for the chief executive. It is clear that President George W. Bush (or Secretary of State Colin Powell or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld) did not get the details of what was occurring. When Bush found out about prisoners hanging from the ceiling in diapers, he was clearly not pleased, according to the report.
Another reason I am not surprised goes back 40 years to when I went to the White House with members of the Church Committee and other staff to meet with then-President Gerald Ford and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller on the issue of assassinations. (I think I probably went because I was driving the car!) Several of us were naturally kept in the waiting room, but there was one individual who I can’t forget going in and out: future Vice President Dick Cheney.
Cheney was chief of staff to Ford from 1975 to 1977 and held the Church Committee and the role of Congress in investigating the intelligence agencies in total contempt. From those early days and meetings, it was clear to many of us that Cheney would not condone “interference” and held the view that we were out to destroy the CIA, not to save it. His views only hardened and his contempt for Congress only deepened in his years as vice president.
And one more thing hasn’t changed: We were lied to when we first investigated the intelligence agencies back in the 1970s, and once again the Cheneys and the Michael Haydens lied before Congress and to the American people.
This period of black sites and torture and out-of-control operatives has not enhanced our nation’s security, it has undermined it, much as the activities of our intelligence agencies did over four decades ago. We investigated them then, and the light of day has been shown on them now.
Courageous senators such as Colorado Democrat Mark Udall and California Democrat Dianne Feinstein would not give up or give in. Nor would the hardworking staff of the current Senate Intelligence Committee when confronted with CIA intimidation. Without strong congressional oversight, the “rogue elephants” will return again and again. The question, of course, is when will we ever learn?
We paid two armchair psychologists $81 million to devise torture techniques that, if they read any studies over the past 100 years, they would know don’t work. Not only is torture immoral, but it is ineffective. This was the gang that couldn’t shoot straight – it had no background in terrorism, no knowledge of al-Qaida, and was clearly making it up as it went along. This is all a bad made-for-TV movie.
The problem, of course, is it undermines who we are as Americans, or who we think we are. As Church, put it, “beware of adopting the methods of your enemies, you will become more like them.”
If we as Americans truly believe that it is imperative for us to hold up the moral high ground, our actions must befit our words. To deny torture and simply use phrases like “enhanced interrogation techniques” is not only duplicitous but undermines that moral authority.
Now, as 40 years ago, it is time to correct our mistakes and acknowledge our own wrongdoing. That makes America stronger, not weaker.