Commentary

Rebel Interrogators Want Investigation

After former CIA Inspector General John Helgerson’s recently released explosive 2004 report on “enhanced” interrogations of terrorism suspects, he said he began his investigation “in part because of expressions of concern by Agency (CIA) employees that the actions in which they were involved, or of which they were aware, would be determined by judicial authorities in the US or abroad to be illegal.”

And strikingly, he added, “Many expressed to me personally their feelings that what the Agency was doing was fundamentally inconsistent with long established U.S. Government policy and with American values, and was based on strained legal reasoning.” (Washington Post, Aug. 24).

In my 2004 book, The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance, I quoted several of these rebel interrogators, including 27-year-FBI-veteran Jack Cloonan, senior case agent on the FBI’s “Bin Laden Squad.” He was giving instructions to the FBI interrogators of prominent Al Qaeda official Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) at a secret prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. He told them to follow the procedures we had adopted as if they were talking to this person in New York.” Subsequent CIA interrogators of the notorious KSM disagreed and used “black site” procedures.

Now, Cloonan has returned to this grimly festering debate amid the furious outcry by Dick Cheney, present and past CIA directors, and Republican leaders that even the narrow preliminary inquiry Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered on CIA methods will have — as House Minority Leader John Boehner warns — “a chilling effect on the ability of our intelligence professionals to do their jobs.”

On Aug. 21, Cloonan was one of three signers of a letter to the chairmen of the House of Senate Judiciary and Intelligence Committees. Joining Cloonan was Steven Kleinman. With more than 20 years in the field, Kleinman is one of the Defense Department’s most experienced interrogators and recently was a senior adviser on a study of strategic interrogation for the Director of National Intelligence. Kleinman has conducted interrogations in three separate military campaigns.

The third signer, Matthew Alexander, has intensive experience, including having been the senior interrogator for the 2006 task force that tracked down exceptionally dangerous Al Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. For security reasons, he uses a pseudonym. (PublicRecord.org, Aug. 23)

Starkly, their letter insisted that “prosecutions of individuals who violated anti-torture statues alone … will not prevent policy makers from making similar mistakes in the future. At the heart of the policy decisions buttressing interrogators’ use of torture and cruelty lay closed processes that have yet to be scrutinized with cool heads and wise counsel.” (The Washington Independent, Aug. 24).

Therefore, “a nonpartisan, independent commission with subpoena power should assess the deeply flawed policy making framework behind the decision to permit torture and cruelty.”

In directly urging President Obama to appoint this nonpartisan commission, “not to look backward but to provide recommendations for the future,” these deeply seasoned interrogators emphasize that such an independent review, which perforce must go up the chain of command, including Justice Department lawyers who created “the torture memos,” will “strengthen our system of checks and balances so that when faced with the next challenge, we get it right.”

During an interview with Jason Leopold of The Public Record (pubrecord.org), Aug. 23, Kleinman said — Mr. President take heed — “I’ve had the honor of testifying before four committees of Congress and I am always astounded at the profound political partisan politics that surround this issue. I’m a professional interrogator. I have 25 years of experience in this and I don’t have any concern whatsoever that an investigation into how we conducted ourselves since 9/11 would in any way undermine our ability to continue gathering intelligence.”

Significantly, in this land of the free and home of the brave, Kleinman added: “I have friends in the intelligence community who won’t speak up because to do so is almost a career-ender.”

And that might well happen with Leon Panetta as director of the CIA. But we have a tradition in this country going back to the Founders — who would have been hanged by King George III if the American Revolution had not succeeded — of speaking up to power. If I were still teaching what used to be called civics (which has largely disappeared from many schools), I would discuss with students whether they agree that Jack Cloonan, Steven Kleinman and Matthew Alexander exemplify the actual meaning of patriotism.

President Barack Obama, if he has the courage, should invite these rebel interrogators to the White House to confer with him on Kleinman’s advice from the field: “We have to look back to show our utmost vulnerabilities.”

And I hope that Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, would also be there. He might tell the president about Vermont’s patriot of the American Revolution, Ethan Allen, and the Green Mountain Boys: They weren’t afraid to speak up.

How many of us across the land will speak up for a nonpartisan independent commission so that, with terrorists around the world not going away, we get it right next time?

Nat Hentoff writes on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.