Let Us Be Skeptical of the CIA's Support for Limits on Interrogations

Remember the role they played in Zero Dark Thirty, used to publicly justify waterboarding


"Zero Dark Thirty"
"Zero Dark Thirty," Sony

Tonight NBC News will be airing an interview with CIA Director John Brennan where he will declare that his agency will refuse to engage in any further waterboarding, even if ordered by the next president himself or herself.

This is not a new declaration, and it's clearly and obviously in response to Donald Trump promising to bring back waterboarding and "a hell of a lot worse" to try to get information from suspected terrorists.

You'll have to excuse me for raising a cynical eyebrow at the CIA's sense of propriety and for gently suggesting that there's greater concern that perhaps an unpredictable, emotion-driven president like Trump might simply demand that they do bad things without, say, setting up the appropriate legal framework to declare that these bad things aren't actually bad and are totally legal and legitimate and help catch terrorists.

I say this as somebody who has actually read the Senate Intelligence Committee's torture report when it was released in 2014. I noted at the time that while there were some lurid descriptions of abuses, the reason the report was so long (the part that was released was just a summary, and just that section was nearly 500 pages long) was that so much of the argument was over who was responsible for creating the rules, how the oversight worked (and failed), and whether the "enhanced interrogation" actually accomplished anything. At the time, I noted, "Strip out the torture and terrorism and you've got any other troubled government program."

Brennan's original response to the report was to acknowledge some problems with the interrogation program's oversight and operations but insisted at the time that the CIA's interrogation techniques actually got them useful information, a justification that has been used by any number of mainstream, Trump-disliking conservatives for supporting waterboarding and other forms of torture in interrogation. (And then later on the CIA quietly walked back even some of their own defenses when nobody was looking)

My larger point is not that we shouldn't be happy about Brennan's declaration (though we should resist assuming that he'll still be in place under a new president). Rather, it is extremely important to remember that the torture that actually happened was not implemented rashly or impetuously, like we might assume would happen under a Trump regime. Rather, many, many people working under a "mainstream" Republican president helped make it happen, and the leadership under a "mainstream" Democratic president may have ordered it to stop, but nevertheless defended its usefulness as an ass-covering move. Don't forget the CIA's involvement in Zero Dark Thirty, which suggested these interrogation techniques were needed to help track down Osama bin Laden in a movie put out for public consumption. As such, we should treat skeptically any public claims that the CIA would "refuse" to follow orders. They could just be complaining that Trump would not put the correct legal framework into place to protect them from the consequences.