The CIA will thrive as long as the ‘age of fear’ persists
When is the CIA going to be cut down to size? The question seems logical in the light of the damning report issued this week by the US Senate into the interrogation methods the agency adopted in a fit of panic following the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
The report makes clear that the CIA lied to the American public and to Congress about the extent of its use of “enhanced interrogation”, which is now accepted to be a form of torture. To hide the fact that it had no sources of intelligence in Al Qaeda, it consistently exaggerated the success of its interrogation methods.
It had little expertise in the interrogation of terror suspects, but spared no effort to keep its domestic rival, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, away from its detainees, even though the FBI has a good record of success in this field without the excesses that the CIA embraced.
As the expected intelligence failed to materialise, the interrogators stepped up the pressure, with sessions of near-drowning through the technique known as waterboarding, shutting detainees in coffin-like boxes or hanging them from bars for 22 hours a day.
The Senate’s report might lead an innocent observer to conclude that the CIA is a rogue body that needs to be dismantled and rebuilt from first principles. This is a conclusion that only a visiting Martian could make. It is far beyond the bounds of what can be politely said in Washington. The CIA and other branches of the US national security complex are central elements of the American establishment, as firmly entrenched as the principles enshrined in the Constitution.
It was not always thus. Towards the end of the Second World War, when it was clear that America’s role in the world would for the first time be that of a superpower, Franklin D Roosevelt shied away from creating a peacetime spy organisation, fearing it would be seen as America joining in the dirty intrigues of the Old World. His successor, Harry S Truman, said he wanted no hand in “building up a gestapo” – a reference to the Nazi German secret police.
When peace turned into the Cold War, Truman relented and the CIA was born, to work in the shadows and do the nation’s dirty work abroad. To this day the CIA bears the marks of the duality of its birth. Sometimes it is the hero of exploits of derring-do against foreign monsters, but more regularly it stands as an indictment of the deeply held view among older Americans that their country is, and should remain, a force for good in the world.
Time and again the CIA’s successes have returned to haunt it. Its support of a coup against the Iranian prime minister, Mohamad Mosaddegh, in 1953 set the tone for military coups in Syria, and was the subject for a confession by Barack Obama in 2009 when he was trying to make a new start with the Muslim world. CIA support for the military to crush communism in Chile, which led to the overthrow and death of the socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973, still haunts US relations with South America.
The CIA is now central to the US security establishment while at the same time enjoying the privilege of secrecy and being above the law, as if its only business was collecting foreign intelligence, rather than combating enemy terrorists. This is the key to understanding the vitriolic debate in Washington over the Senate foreign intelligence committee’s report on the CIA’s interrogation techniques.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of that committee, is a long-term supporter of the intelligence services. But, at the age of 81, she holds what might be seen as the quaint view that the CIA should be subject to the scrutiny of Congress.
The CIA does not see it that way. Taking advantage of America’s post 9/11 sense of vulnerability – an atmosphere the author David Rothkopf calls Washington’s continuing “age of fear” – the CIA has come to see itself above the law not just abroad, but also at home. The CIA and to a certain extent the White House have tried to delay publication of the report, and to excise as much detail as possible.
Ms Feinstein was outraged when it emerged that the CIA was hacking into the Senate investigators’ computers. Predictably the CIA denied it was doing this but in due course the CIA director, John Brennan, had to apologise. Since then it has been war between Ms Feinstein’s committee and the CIA. Bush-era officials have condemned the report, with Dick Cheney, former vice president, dismissing it with a four-letter word.
The CIA might look as if it was on the back foot. But no one should underestimate the power of the national security industry. According to a new book, National Security and Double Government, by Michael Glennon, a law professor with experience of working in Congress, the security agencies effectively tell the president what to do and write the laws that Congress passes. It should, of course, be the other way round.
In some ways all this is ancient history. The so-called enhanced interrogation techniques are no longer authorised. Since 2004 the CIA has been running a drone operation to kill Al Qaeda-linked militants in Pakistan. This tactic kills large numbers of civilians but avoids the complexities of how to get intelligence out of captives and what to do with them when the interrogation is finished.
It is noteworthy that this dirty business is not conducted by the US military, which might be thought to have a monopoly on the use of air power abroad. The CIA’s role is not just to ensure secrecy and operate in the shadows, but to preserve the honour of the US armed forces and, in bureaucratic terms, to show that the CIA is at the forefront of protecting the homeland. It may have to eat some humble pie, but as long as the age of fear lasts, its future is secure.
Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs
Published: December 11, 2014 04:00 AM