Central Intelligence Anxiety

How the Bush administration left the spooks to twist in the wind

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This winter, as politicians fulminated over the destroyed tapes of the waterboarding of Al Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah, a former CIA operative told me that after 9/11 he was approached to take part in a special counterterrorism group authorized to use “enhanced techniques.” He had “a moral problem with it,” he told a superior, but he wanted to go after the bad guys; what should he do? “These enhanced techniques may make us feel good now, but one of these days they will leak,” the superior told him. “They will hit the press, and there will be congressional investigations. And God forbid someone will go overboard and kill someone.” So, the former operative turned down the job, “thank God.”

After that, a division emerged between what a former senior Agency official described to me as the “SS crowd” and the “Wehrmacht crowd,” the “hard edged” and the “smarter and better informed.” He said, “People managed not to take assignments. There were senior people who would not go to meetings if they thought that extraordinary rendition or enhanced interrogation techniques were going to be discussed.”

Sure enough, when public opinion finally shifted, the administration left the spooks to twist in the wind. “The Bush administration ordered it and approved it and then never came to the Agency’s defense when it hit the fan,” the former operative said. “The hypocrisy is breathtaking.” That prompted a former CIA counterterrorism officer, John Kiriakou, to go on national television to point out that administration officials had been briefed in detail about the Zubaydah interrogation and others. For his trouble, Kiriakou now is reportedly the subject of an FBI investigation focused on whether he disclosed classified information.

What about Congress? “They have known for a long time that [the CIA] uses stress positions and hypothermia and waterboarding and sleep deprivation—and they haven’t done anything about it,” says Marty Lederman, a former Justice Department attorney who now teaches law at Georgetown University. “They don’t disagree with it. And if they do disagree with it, what are they going to do about it? The default position is to have closed hearings, which is preposterous. The intelligence oversight committees are totally captured by the intelligence community.”

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