What the torture revelations tell us about the culture of Langley.

A wartime lexicon.
April 27 2009 1:38 PM

Yet Another CIA Failure

What the torture revelations tell us about the culture of Langley.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

Moral smugness reigns. The Episcopal church that squats on the opposite side of Connecticut Avenue from my office has now chosen to display a sign that reads "Torture Is Wrong." Could sheer, undiluted clarity and courage go any further? One can almost understand the tooth-gritted impatience and annoyance of the Cheneyite right. When torture was actually being practiced, it was in order to slake an unspoken demand from everyone from Congress and the public and the 9/11 commission that swift results be obtained, that no more "warnings" be overlooked, that we all feel more "safe." Only a very few people were consistently against using "harsh methods," let alone making use of the information that such methods might (or might not) have produced.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

The absolute amount of torture in the world was also very much reduced by the removal of the Taliban and the Baath Party from power in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's not like the Kissinger days, in other words, when democratic governments were removed and replaced by dictatorships. (If we are going to hand over any American war criminals to an international or any other kind of court, we have to start much further back than 2001.) But even when we have cut through the cant and hypocrisy, the fact remains that the amount of torture in the world inflicted by Americans went up steeply in the same period, and we could very probably have had the first triumph without besmirching it and degrading it.

After all, in the case of Abu Ghraib, it was not even seriously argued that the gross maltreatment of our Iraqi detainees was motivated by a search for information. The foul images from that jail were of recreational and pornographic torture, undertaken by bored amateur sadists and third-raters. Since then, as Philip Zelikow of the 9/11 commission has mentioned, the military-run Joint Special Operations Command, confronting some truly tough al-Qaida characters in Iraq, has succeeded in turning many of them, as well as tracking down and killing many more, without any recourse to the methods that the CIA excused itself for adopting.

Surely the most flabbergasting single disclosure in the recently released interrogation memos is the revelation that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, captured on March 1, 2003, was put to the water-board 183 times that month, or about six times a day. This can really only mean two things: that the method is very crude and inexact and/or that his interrogators were in a state of panic and under insane pressure to produce results. I have myself been water-boarded under controlled conditions, and it isn't possible to imagine undergoing it that number of times unless one was seeking martyrdom (which may well be the case with KSM, who is still demanding the death penalty from us). The memorandum rather silkily argues that "before the CIA used enhanced techniques," KSM was resisting "giving any answers to questions about future attacks," but if he was apprehended on March 1, 2003, and then "dunked" 183 times in the next 31 days, it suggests in the dry words of Scott Shane in the New YorkTimes that "interrogators did not try a traditional, rapport-building approach for long."

Here is a seldom-mentioned reason why the CIA might go crazy in this way, to the point where even the FBI and other agencies were cripplingly (for us) reluctant to cooperate with it. On 9/11, according to Bob Woodward, George Tenet audibly hoped that the suicide-murderers of al-Qaida were not connected to the shady-looking pupils at those flight schools in the Midwest. The schools, that is to say, about which the CIA knew! In other words, and not for the first time, the CIA (which disbelieved the evidence of Saddam's plan to attack Kuwait in 1990 and continually excused him as a "secularist") had left us defenseless and ignorant. Unprofessional and hysterical methods of interrogation, therefore, were unleashed in part to overcompensate for—and to cover up—a general lack of professionalism at every level of the agency from the top down. The case for closing and padlocking Langley and starting all over again with an attempt at a serious national intelligence body becomes more persuasive by the day.

A couple of degrees over on the "intelligence" spectrum, CIA Director Gen. Michael V. Hayden has deplored the release of the memorandums on the grounds that they inform our enemies of how far we are prepared to go. In what conceivable world has the general been living? The techniques of water-boarding were borrowed by us from our previous enemies in Japan and China and Korea and "taught" under the pretext of training people to withstand them. This program even had a name: Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape. I once interviewed Malcolm Nance, a military veteran of this program and a strong opponent—within the militant anti-terrorist faction—of water-boarding and other outrages. It's been well over a year since he told me that Gen. Hayden's hobby horse was well and truly out of the barn. As he phrased it:

Torture advocates hide behind the argument that an open discussion about specific American interrogation techniques will aid the enemy. Yet, convicted al-Qaida members and innocent captives who were released to their host nations have already debriefed the world through hundreds of interviews, movies, and documentaries on exactly what methods they were subjected to and how they endured. Our own missteps have created a cadre of highly experienced lecturers for al-Qaida's own virtual SERE school for terrorists.

Read that twice. Still more evidence for my view—of institutional debauchery at the CIA—is provided by the Senate Armed Services Committee report (cited most recently by Jane Mayer in TheNew Yorker), which says that the CIA was using rough stuff on prisoners even before the now-infamous Bybee memorandum of Aug. 1, 2002.

It's not unlike Gen. Hayden's other folly: the warrantless wiretapping carried out by the National Security Agency. (Interest declared: I was a named plaintiff in the suit brought by the ACLU against this program.) Now, let's stipulate that there may conceivably have been a moment of national emergency—a "ticking bomb" moment, if you insist—when the rules were bent a bit. But if this emergency rule-bending is then institutionalized, and kept a secret from Congress and the courts and the voters, and becomes a regular bureaucratic practice known only to an unelected and unaccountable few, then you have created a secret state within the state and are well on the road to becoming a banana republic. The next stage, very often, is that certain inconveniently damaged secret prisoners have to be made to "disappear," as in the death-squad regimes of Latin Americain the days when the CIA ruled that roost as well. I am very much afraid that this will be the next awful disclosure we read about.

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