President Obama, Operative in Chief, visits the CIA

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Yesterday President Obama visited the Central Intelligence Agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia and delivered a message of reassurance and renewal. His speech at the CIA came in the wake of his administration's release of the so-called torture memos. Those documents detailed the "enhanced interrogations techniques" that CIA operatives used to extract information from purported al Qaida operatives. The Obama administration has said these techniques might constitute illegal torture. In his speech, President Obama joined CIA Director Leon Panetta in telling the CIA that they supported them in their mission, but waterboarding and other harsh tactics devalues their work and America’s moral standing in the world. Joining The Takeaway to discuss the CIA's reaction to the President's words is Art Keller, a former CIA case officer.

Miss the President's speech at Langley? Here it is:

Former CIA operative Art Keller’s reaction to the President’s speech to the CIA

President Obama was greeted in yesterday's visit to the CIA by surprisingly thunderous applause from CIA staffers.

For CIA staff, his speech did not disappoint. The opening notes seemed designed to convey one particular message: "I GET IT." What he "gets" is that the CIA, particularly its field officers, often operate in difficult and dangerous conditions to undertake operations in defense of the nation, and usually receive little thanks from either official Washington or the America public. After the CIA staff basked in the unaccustomed praise, Obama segued into one of the two main themes: he would not prosecute CIA officers for using harsh tactics authorized by the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Council (OLC).

Obama's speech demonstrated to CIA staffers that he understands a fundamental but little-discussed truth about harsh interrogations, extraordinary rendition, and other sticky situations in which the CIA has found itself: Major new CIA operations and policy shifts, such as use of harsh interrogations, require a direct authorization from the President known as a Presidential Finding, and matching policy guidance, which in this case was provided by the OLC. He has taken the very sensible (to CIA officers, at least) stance that he is not going to hold the CIA responsible for the use of harsh tactics any more than he would bring soldiers up on charges for invading Iraq. The speech shows that he has embraced a truth long absent from Washington: the buck stops at the desk of the President, not with those who carry out the President's orders.

The second major theme of the speech was to haul the issue of the OLC memos out into the daylight and definitively quash them. For my money, the President sent exactly the right message. By explicitly saying to both the CIA and the world that such tactics will no longer be used, he has done the Agency a favor. It helps put a dark and unwelcome chapter in the Agency's history to rest, allowing it to move on and get on with the Agency's real business: collecting human intelligence and providing top-quality analysis.

Before the issue of harsh interrogation tactics for suspected terrorists returned to the headlines, Art Keller wrote about the value of these techniques. His unedited notes are below.

Should US intelligence be using torture to gain information?

In February 2008, a measure that would have restricted the interrogation techniques available to the CIA to only those specified in the US Army Field Manual on interrogation was voted down in Congress. The failure of that measure left the door open for the use of unspecified techniques, as long as they cannot be classified as torture…yet torture has proved to be a word with a very elastic definition. Since few outside the CIA are sure what those techniques may be, it is hard to say whether they might include water-boarding and other forms of harsh treatment. If they do, this is a major step in the wrong direction.

The issue of the CIA’s interrogation policy may have fallen off the front pages because of the global financial crisis and the US presidential election, but there is no better time to examine what techniques may be approved by the next President in the name of averting terrorist attack.

Earlier this year, former CIA case officer John Kiriakou told ABC News that water boarding was used with Al-Qaeda logistics chief Abu Zubayda, and that the technique yielded actionable information that disrupted terrorist attacks. Yet Kiriakou also said that since leaving the CIA, he has changed his mind on the advisability of such tactics, and thinks that as Americans “we are better than this” and shouldn’t engage in torture.

Kiriakou’s sentiment is widely shared. Unbeknownst to the general public, the CIA has been hemorrhaging experienced field personnel, resignations of conscience over harsh interrogation tactics and other mistakes in the “Global War on Terror.” Many CIA officers feel these tactics should not be used, and that we lose more by the employment of such techniques than any information gained.

Aficionados of the TV show “24” have seen CIA officer Jack Bauer torture people to obtain information that is used to avert imminent terrorist attacks. In a case of life imitating art, in the real world, the justification given for need for harsh interrogation is just the sort of “ticking clock” scenario featured in 24: information obtained at the last minute to avert an imminent attack. Is this a realistic scenario?

No. Not remotely, in fact.

Major terrorist attacks, like 9/11 and the US embassy bombings in Africa, are months or years in the planning and execution, and often involve several failed attempts before a successful attack: plenty of time to get information through conventional questioning. It is not enough to say that Abu Zubayda talked. In order to even marginally justify harsh interrogations, one has to prove that he would never have been responsive to other forms of interrogation, and that the attacks he warned of were, indeed, imminent. And for every case like Abu Zubayda, where harsh tactics seem to have yielded information of use, there is a case which calls into question whether information obtained via torture can ever be trusted. Al Qaeda commander Ibn-al Shaykh al Libi was captured in 2001 and turned over to Egypt, where under torture he confirmed a relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, a confession that was used to help justify the invasion of Iraq. There’s just one problem: Al-Libi’s information turned out to be false. Repeated, exhaustive analysis to find a pre-war link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda has proven definitively that there was no link. Victims usually will say anything to make torture stop, including manufacturing a link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda where none existed.

To a lot of former and current CIA officers, the interrogation debate is an ugly and unwelcome distraction from the normal business of collecting intelligence from human sources.

Nobody who has worked at the CIA would claim it is a group of international boy scouts, but for most of its history, harsh interrogation tactics were not the standard operating procedure of the CIA, just the opposite, in fact. During training at “The Farm”, I was taught that the most reliable way to “recruit” someone as a spy for the US was to befriend them and help them, usually when nobody else will. More sons and daughters of foreign spies have gone to college on the CIA dollar, and more foreign spies have received quality medical care (in countries where such is nearly impossible to obtain) than anyone who has not served in the CIA’s Clandestine Service would possibly believe.

Like most employers in a competitive world, the CIA has found the old adage the old adage that “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” to be right on the mark. The vast majority of people who provide information to the CIA do so because it is to their advantage to work with the CIA, for financial or other reasons.

Historically speaking, the CIA has greatly benefited from volunteers (known as walk-ins) who approach the CIA and volunteer to spy for it, often for reasons of conscience, money, or, as is so often the case with human beings, a mixture of motives. As a former CIA case officer, I believe the biggest drawback behind the use of harsh interrogation tactics is that it blackens the international reputation of the USA in general, and the CIA in particular, making potential walk-ins less willing to spy for the US. This major “dog that did not bark” has been missing from the debate on intelligence, but make no mistake: an infamous reputation can dry up the pool of sources on which intelligence services depend. The CIA needs sources that will provide crucial information because they admire the US and they want to provide it, not because they were forced to.

President-elect Obama must ensure that the use of harsh interrogation tactics does not become ingrained at the CIA or elsewhere in the murky world of US intelligence. We need to move on with the business of intelligence collection, free from both the moral peril and practical drawbacks of harsh interrogations.


Art Keller


Jen Poyant

Comments [1]


I'm always puzzled by Obama's references to the Constitution placing limits on what the US can do abroad to non-US combatants. US Constitutional rights are the rights of US citizens. It is no more logical to extend these rights to our enemies abroad as it would be to give those same enemies the right to vote in US elections.

Apr. 21 2009 08:44 AM

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