Did the CIA Go Rogue After 9/11?

The Senate Intelligence Report raises painful questions about who watches the watchers.

George Tenet

Former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, at the Dead Sea on May 16, 2009.

Photo by Ali Jarekji/Reuters

On Nov. 4, 1977, moments after the legendary CIA director Richard Helms received a suspended two-year sentence and a $2,000 fine for committing perjury by lying about U.S. covert action in Chile before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his former CIA colleagues gave him a standing ovation at a local country club. Two hats were passed around the room, and the group quickly collected more than enough to pay off the fine for their friend. The CIA brotherhood was proud of their leader for protecting secrets from those who had no business knowing them, even if that meant the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The country was at a turning point in its relationship with its spies, and the arrogance in that room was just the sort of thing that had produced fears that the CIA was uncontrollable or, as it was said then, had become a “rogue elephant.” These fears led to the creation of permanent intelligence oversight committees in the House and the Senate.

Tuesday’s release of the executive summary of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s damningly detailed report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program provides the first proof in a generation that the U.S. government may have lost control of the CIA again, at least in the critical first years after 9/11. Page after page of the report details how the CIA misled Congress and President Bush’s White House about the essential elements of its most controversial covert activity—in other words what forms of “enhanced interrogation techniques” they were employing, and whether this use of torture was producing any meaningful results.

The Senate intelligence committee staff spent four years writing this report and updated it to refute a CIA response provided to the committee in 2013. Tuesday’s release is only the 488-page summary. The actual report is more than 6,000 pages long and has not yet been submitted for declassification.

In the footnotes to the summary, the committee refers to sections of the report. Although at this point we have to take the committee’s word that the sections match up with the topic-sentence conclusions, there is more than enough evidence to conclude that the Bush administration’s oft-repeated public defense of the CIA’s interrogation techniques was false. The Senate committee takes up the 20 cases that the program’s advocates most often cite in its defense, instances where the information collected came solely from these harsh methods. The report then demonstrates how each one of these claims dissolves under careful examination.

Some of the story of the torture program we have known for a decade thanks to journalists such as James Risen and Jane Mayer. Additional details were revealed in 2009, when the Obama administration declassified a report that the CIA’s inspector general had produced five years earlier. The main points are as follows: The capture of Abu Zubaydah in March 2002, a man whom the U.S. government had actually sought since late 1999, caught the Bush administration unprepared for how to handle al-Qaida detainees. With Zubaydah’s capture imminent, the CIA requested presidential authorization to hold the captive at a secret site in an obliging foreign country (whose identity is still secret). When Abu Zubaydah stopped talking, the CIA sought permission to move to unorthodox measures of questioning. Permission came in the first of what became known as the “torture memos” from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in August 2002.

Zubaydah would be the first of 39 people subjected to torture. That number was not known until Tuesday. Also unknown until Tuesday was that the CIA managed the program in a surprisingly slipshod manner. It never produced a master list of the detainees at its secret sites. Senate investigators concluded that there were at most 119 detainees, and though not all of them were subjected to torture, Langley did not have sufficient control of its own secret prison system to know about, let alone authorize, every instance where torture was used.

Early on the CIA convinced itself that it would be impossible to undertake an objective assessment of this program, so it never tried. It was only when President Bush went on record against torture in the summer of 2003 that the CIA scrambled to justify its walk on the dark side. Senate investigators have found that the origins of most of the misinformation about the interrogation program dates to the summer of 2003.

It starts, ironically, when President Bush said the following in June 2003 at the United Nations International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture:

[The] United States is committed to the world-wide elimination of torture and we are leading this fight by example. I call on all governments to join with the United States and the community of law-abiding nations in prohibiting, investigating, and prosecuting all acts of torture and in undertaking to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment.

Days later, the CIA’s legal counsel called a White House lawyer to express “surprise and concern” at the president’s language. The president was setting a public standard that was different from the administration’s private standard for the treatment of detainees. The CIA wanted to know whether the program was still authorized. In July 2003, then–CIA Director George Tenet wrote to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice seeking “reaffirmation of the administration’s support for the CIA’s detention and interrogation policies and practices.” Meanwhile the CIA scrambled to collect information to ensure that it could persuade any doubters in the Bush administration that the interrogation program was worth the moral costs.

The Bin Laden or “Alec” station, a virtual station started as far back as 1996 to monitor the terrorist’s activities, produced the talking points. It is not clear why the Alec station felt it had so much invested in the program that it threw together misinformation. But the Senate found that the deputy of Alec station urged people to be forward-leaning in showing that the enhanced interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was effective. Neither Tenet nor his deputy John McLaughlin challenged the information they received. It became a classic case of garbage in, garbage out. The CIA turned the supposedly glowing results from Alec station into a PowerPoint presentation shown to Vice President Dick Cheney and other members of the National Security Council on July 29, 2003.

According to this CIA briefing, enhanced interrogation had been necessary for Abu Zubaydah to extract information that led to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, members of the 9/11 conspiracy. Indeed the CIA made the case that it was only because they tortured Abu Zubaydah that they learned that KSM had been the mastermind behind 9/11. But the most insidious misrepresentations made by CIA to the White House were over the effectiveness of torture in derailing subsequent plots. For anyone who had moral qualms with torture, there was always the palliative that lives had been saved by this ugly work. Attacks against London’s Canary Wharf and Heathrow Airport or the U.S. Capitol and “other U.S. landmarks” had been disrupted. None of that was true.

Senate investigators painstakingly and persuasively argue that every single one of the claims that the Bin Laden team made for this program—which their senior CIA leaders repeated—was, if not completely false, thoroughly misleading. Nevertheless, the 2003 PowerPoint presentation became the foundation of the defense of this controversial program. Its points were next relayed to the leadership of the congressional oversight committees. Finally, when the administration’s “war on terror” came under blistering public and congressional review, President Bush relied on much of this misinformation in his September 2006 speech on terrorism to the nation.

In its efforts to find the truth about how plots were stopped, the Senate has unearthed evidence of good intelligence work by the CIA, NSA, and America’s foreign intelligence partners. The Senate had also uncovered the role of good luck. The CIA actually captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed not because of secrets beaten out of Abu Zubaydah but because of an informant codenamed Asset X. Even this new revelation, which is an extraordinary intelligence success, isn’t wholly flattering to the agency. The CIA had been in touch with Asset X, who knew KSM before 9/11, but failed to show him much respect. In 2003, he texted his CIA contact that he was meeting with his old friend KSM in Islamabad. A few days later KSM was in custody. But in this case—as in all the others—the United States didn’t have to torture anyone to learn what it needed to know to apprehend the bad guys.

Reading the Senate report, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Bush administration heard what it wanted to hear. Nothing has been declassified yet to indicate that the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon ever pushed back on the accuracy or value of the interrogation program. But the Senate report is incomplete. Apparently, President Bush asserted executive privilege, and the Senate could not directly access the Bush administration’s White House documents. What we see are CIA records of interactions with Bush officials. It remains possible that the CIA did not record all of its interactions with the White House to protect some officials. But there is no denying that in the briefings we see described, the CIA clearly misled the White House about the value of its torture program. If the Bush administration assumed that the CIA could be trusted to give an objective assessment of its own performance in a controversial program—an incredible assumption given Cheney and other officials’ low regard of the agency—the administration is guilty of, at least, recklessness.

In the final scene of her brilliant polemic, Citizenfour, Laura Poitras shows Glenn Greenwald informing Edward Snowden in a Moscow apartment about revelations from a new source. Greenwald writes each secret down so that Snowden, and not the audience, can read it. Snowden is surprised and seems pleased that these secrets are out. The film ends with Greenwald ripping up the pieces of paper. He is now the keeper of the secrets. Understandably, intelligence officials and many policymakers hate when outsiders can decide the fate of their secrets.

The Senate report is a reminder of why the keepers of secrets must be made to play by the rules. Comfortable in its rarified world of compartmented information, the CIA easily misled elected officials about the extent and value of its controversial interrogation program. That the Bush administration was credulous does not absolve the CIA of its fundamental responsibility. There are too many instances in U.S. history when the term “national security” was used to cover official criminality. No citizen should be comfortable with those who inhabit the secret world’s being unsupervised.  

The release of Tuesday’s report should be an inflection point in the history of intelligence oversight. The Snowden revelations have already diminished public confidence in President Obama’s independence from the worst excesses of the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” If we are to reject the radical view that no part of any government can be trusted with secrets, and trust our elected officials and judges to supervise these activities, then the intelligence community must be held accountable when it lies to those officials. President Obama has a chance now, by making changes at the CIA, to show that lying to any branch of government is unacceptable. In its report, the Senate has redacted many names of CIA officers who were involved in the interrogation program. One of them may well be current CIA Director John Brennan. If he was involved in this effort to deceive, he should be relieved. We pay the CIA to lie for us, not to us.