The writer is a 31-year veteran of the CIA. (Special to the Washington Post.)
The men and women of my former organization, the CIA, are accustomed to frequent and sudden reversals of direction from their political leaders. But the latest twists and turns are especially dramatic.
In one ear they hear the public, the media and members of Congress raising alarms about the terrorist threat from the Islamic State: Do something! Do it now! Why didn’t you do something sooner?
Politicians from both sides of the aisle are saying that the militant group is an enormous challenge and must be prevented from bringing its brutality to America’s shores. The president assures us that the United States will “degrade and ultimately destroy” these terrorists, while the vice president doubles down and says we will follow the Islamic State to “the gates of hell.”
But shouting in CIA officers’ other ear are people such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., regarding the 528-page summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the agency’s interrogation efforts.
The report’s leaked conclusion, which has been reported on widely, that the interrogation program brought no intelligence value is an egregious falsehood; it’s a dishonest attempt to rewrite history. I’m bemused that the Senate could devote so many resources to studying the interrogation program and yet never once speak to any of the key people involved in it, including the guy who ran it (that would be me).
According to news accounts of the report, Feinstein and her supporters will say that the CIA violated American principles and hid the ugly truth from Congress, the White House and the public. When the report comes out, I expect that few of the critics who will echo Feinstein’s charges will have read it — and far fewer will read or understand the minority response and the CIA’s rebuttal.
The interrogation program was authorized by the highest levels of the U.S. government, judged legal by the Justice Department and proved effective by any reasonable standard. The leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees and of both parties in Congress were briefed on the program more than 40 times between 2002 and 2009. But Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., tried to deny that she was told in 2002 that detainees had been waterboarded.
That is simply not true. I was among those who briefed her.
There’s great hypocrisy in politicians’ criticism of the CIA’s interrogation program. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, lawmakers urged us to do everything possible to prevent another attack on our soil. Members of Congress and the administration were nearly unanimous in their desire that the CIA do all that it could to debilitate and destroy al-Qaida. The CIA got the necessary approvals to do so and kept Congress briefed throughout. But as our successes grew, some lawmakers’ recollections shrank in regard to the support they once offered. Here are a couple of reminders.
On May 26, 2002, Feinstein was quoted in the New York Times saying that the attacks of 9/11 were a real awakening and that it would no longer be “business as usual.” The attacks, she said, let us know “that the threat is profound” and “that we have to do some things that historically we have not wanted to do to protect ourselves.”
After extraordinary CIA efforts, aided by information obtained through the enhanced- interrogation program, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed architect of the 9/11 attacks, was captured in Pakistan. Shortly afterward, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., then the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, appeared on CNN’s “Late Edition” on March 2, 2003.
Rockefeller, who had been extensively briefed about the CIA’s efforts, told Wolf Blitzer that “happily, we don’t know where [KSM] is,” adding: “He’s in safekeeping, under American protection. He’ll be grilled by us. I’m sure we’ll be proper with him, but I’m sure we’ll be very, very tough with him.”
When Blitzer asked about how Mohammed would be interrogated, Rockefeller assured him that “there are presidential memorandums that prescribe and allow certain measures to be taken, but we have to be careful.” Then he added: “On the other hand, he does have the information. Getting that information will save American lives. We have no business not getting that information.”
If Feinstein, Rockefeller and other politicians were saying such things in print and on national TV, imagine what they were saying to us in private. We did what we were asked to do, we did what we were assured was legal, and we know our actions were effective. Our reward, a decade later, is to hear some of these same politicians expressing outrage for what was done and, even worse, mischaracterizing the actions taken and understating the successes achieved.
I’m confident that my former CIA colleagues who are still on the job will do what is necessary to protect the nation from the new Islamic State and continuing al-Qaida threats. But in the back of their minds will be the nagging thought that, as they carry out legal, authorized and necessary actions, they may be only a few years away from being criticized and second-guessed by the people who today are urging them onward to the “gates of hell.”