Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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The CIA’s Torture Report Response

by Micah Zenko
December 9, 2014

An MQ-9 Reaper sits on the flight line at Hurlburt Field, Florida on May 3, 2014. (Bainter/Courtesy U.S. Air Force)


There will be a tremendous number of reactions to the graphic and troubling findings contained in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) study’s executive study of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. There will be far fewer reactions to the CIA response to the SSCI, in the form of a June 27, 2013, memo that the CIA released today. According to a forward from Director of Central Intelligence John Brennan, “The CIA’s comments on the Study were the result of a comprehensive and thorough review of the Study’s 20 conclusions and 20 case studies.” However, there is one CIA acknowledgment that should be as disturbing as anything that is contained within the SSCI study itself.

Page 24 of the CIA memo addresses the SSCI’s conclusion that the “CIA never conducted its own comprehensive analysis of the effectiveness of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.” The CIA’s response:

We agree with Conclusion 10 in full. It underpins the most important lesson that we have drawn from The Study: CIA needs to develop the structure, expertise, and methodologies required to more objectively and systematically evaluate the effectiveness of our covert actions.

We draw this lesson going forward fully aware of how difficult it can be to measure the impact of a particular action or set of actions on an outcome in a real-world setting.

Therefore, the CIA admitted that—as late as June 2013—it was simply incapable of evaluating the effectiveness of its covert activities. This apparently made it impossible for CIA officials and those within the Counterterrorism Center (CTC), who were responsible for detaining and interrogating the 119 known detainees, to examine and assess if this detention and interrogation program was working at all. Given that the CIA has acknowledged this so recently, it should cast doubt upon all previous responses from Intelligence Community officials that defended and justified the program. If they had, by the CIA’s own admission, the wrong structure, expertise, and methodologies to evaluate the program, then what was the basis upon which they claimed it was needed and successful?

Moreover, this also directly implies that the CIA lacks the ability to adequately evaluate its much larger, more lethal, and more consequential covert program: its role as the lead executive agency for drone strikes in Pakistan, and many of those in Yemen. Based upon the best publicly available information, the CIA has killed an estimated 3,500 people in non-battlefield drone strikes since the program began on November 3, 2002—the rest were killed by the U.S. military.

In early 2013, before signing the CIA’s response to SSCI committee—that, again, admitted to the Agency’s inability to evaluate its covert programs—John Brennan gave an extensive interview to Gentleman’s Quarterly. When asked about public criticisms of the CIA’s drone program, Brennan replied sharply:

There are a lot of people who talk about these issues very callously, on the outside. Because they’re not a part of it. And it’s easy for people to criticize, to lay blame…Sometimes you need to take these types of kinetic actions, because you’re trying to give these other efforts time and space.

Yet, as he would acknowledge in June of that year, analysts on the inside were apparently incapable of evaluating when they would need to take those types of “kinetic actions.” I have spoken with former and current National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) officials and analysts, who have always been uneasy with having CIA analysts evaluate CIA covert programs. Specifically, they claim that—compared to the NCTC’s own analysis—CIA analysts are more likely to discount claims of collateral damage and the thesis that drone strikes creates blowback in the form of enhancing terrorist recruitment. Naturally, you should not have people with an institutional interest in the outcome of a covert program also serve as the analysts of those programs.

As I have pointed out for years, there are many crucial reforms to U.S. targeted killing programs that President Obama must still implement, given that almost every one of the alleged drone reforms he announced in May 2013 never went into effect. (This also should lead Americans to question the value or objectivity of the CIA’s analysis that was provided to Obama before he made that speech.) Finally, since the CIA admits it was unable to evaluate covert programs before June 2013, there should be a comprehensive survey of America’s covert drone program, conducted either by the committees on governmental affairs or intelligence. If the 119 detainees who entered the rendition and interrogation program—26 of whom were wrongly detained—deserve a public accounting, then don’t the 3,500 who have been killed deserve this as well? Or, is the United States simply more comfortable with torturing suspected terrorists than killing thirty times more of them?

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Betterworld Now

    The CIA is merely the fall guy for a rogue state. Nothing they did, and do, anywhere in the world conflicts in any material way with the intent of the US Senate, the House of Representatives, the President, the Attorney General, the US Supreme Court or the vast majority of the citizenry of the USA. The entire enterprise is therefore criminal in essence.

  • Posted by Matt

    The nature of foreign intelligence is you are operating in another country, breaking their laws. So just because it is authorized by the US government as legal means nothing international. Whether that is traditional espionage or targeted killing via drones. Rendition is only legal if the handover to authorities occurs in international waters. The act of kidnapping itself is illegal, but the handover to the DOJ, FBI or CIA is legal. Thus they suspect can be brought home and put through the court system without it being thrown out or unconstitutional.

  • Posted by Matt

    I look at it this way if you do not want to be subjected to POW training don’t volunteer, to work for an agency if you don’t want to be subjected to EIT don’t volunteer for the other side. POW training goes for 2 to 3 weeks you are held in solitary, bashed, drugged with high doses of psychological drugs, starved, raped, interrogated daily. That is so you can hold out for 24 to 72 hours if captured to allow the operation to succeed or for assets to be evacuated. I have had POW training and it is not nice, I no sympathy for the HVD’s who had the EIT. And I earned that right because I have had POW training, it is experience, not theory.

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