Tag: cia

Interrogations Done Right: A DESERT STORM Story

During yesterday’s Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) confirmation hearing on Gina Haspel’s nomination to become director of the CIA, I noted on Twitter that the Army and the CIA had literally walked away from the lessons and successes on detainee/POW interrogations learned during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. That prompted responses like this:

Jason Beale ex-interrogator critique of PGE

Fair critique or missing my point?

I agree with Beale that the circumstances of the capture of Iraqi soldiers and officers in the 1991 Gulf War were different than the rendition, detention, and interrogation (RDI) program run by the CIA, and the people (actual terrorists or innocents) swept up in it. But the notion that one group of captives (cooperative, captured Iraqi general officers) should be subjected to one standard while another group (uncooperative, captured alleged/actual terrorists) should be subjected to a different, violent, and brutal standard is wrong–on moral, legal, and effectiveness grounds.

As Senator (and former tortured POW) John McCain (R-AZ) noted in 2014 when the SSCI Torture Report summary was released:

But in the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.

The other refrain we’ve heard in the debate over Haspel’s nomination is the same one we’ve heard from torture proponents (like President Trump), namely that torture works. Let’s take another look at what the SSCI torture report summary had to say about the difference in results between the FBI and CIA interrogators when dealing with an alleged or actual “dedicated jihadist” that Mr. Beale describes. From p. 208 of that report:

SSCI Torture Report Summary Extract p. 208

As anyone who knows my work understands, I have lots of problems with the way the FBI often conducts itself. But there’s one thing that Bureau agents are generally quite good at–eliciting information, including confessions, from even hardened murderers. How much more useful, accurate information would we have received in the wake of the 9/11 attacks if the FBI had been responsible for all such interrogations? My guess is, a lot.

But there was a time when the Army itself–which has its own dark chapter on torture in the post-9/11 era–knew how to do interrogations right. It’s what I was referring to in my tweet regarding the operations of the Army’s Joint Debriefing Center (JDC) during the Gulf War. While I was still at CIA, I filed a FOIA to try to get those reports released. Not surprisingly, in 1994 the Army wasn’t keen on doing so, but I did manage to get a heavily redacted version released, which you can read here.

One reason I filed the FOIA was that as an Army Reserve officer, I was deeply proud of how my fellow soldiers had comported themselves during the campaign. This extract from the Intelligence Information Report (IIR) titled “The Gulf War: An Iraqi General Officer’s Perspective” shows why:

Extract from IIR 6 072 0052 91 The Gulf War-An Iraqi General Officer's Perspective

Doing interrogations right is about us, not our enemies. But when we do interrogations right, it only helps us. Whether that lesson has truly been learned will be revealed in the Senate floor vote on Haspel’s nomination. 

To Prevent Torture Redux, Look Beyond Haspel

On May 9, CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel will get her chance to shape–or reshape–the narrative surrounding one particular episode in her 30+ year CIA career: her time running one of the now-infamous Agency “black site” interrogation centers used in the Bush administration’s torture program. Haspel’s challenge will be in getting Senators and the public to look beyond existing media accounts about her alleged role in running the “black site” at which al Qaeda suspect Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was repeatedly waterboarded, and her role in carrying out the destruction of videotapes showing the gruesome sessions. 

Despite the benefit of an unprecendeted (and in my view very legally questionable) CIA domestic influence operation on her behalf, Haspel has her work cut out for her. It’s unlikely that the “I was just following orders” line will do anything other than sink her nomination. If she has and claims to Senators, as former CIA Station Chief John Bennett has suggested, that she has learned the proper lessons from the episode (i.e., that torture is wrong, that she would refuse a Trump order to restart a new torture program, etc.), should she get the chance to lead the Agency? Would she actually serve as a check on Trump? On the latter question at least, I think the answer is a resounding “no.” The reason is that America’s first torture program got off the ground because lots of people in government–not just at the CIA–elected to not only go along with it, but facilitated it.

It took a pliant Secretary of State to not make waves about the “black sites” being set up and run outside the control of the local U.S. ambassadors, generally the person in charge of all U.S. government activities, programs, and relationships with the host nation. It took an eager group of lawyers in the Department of Justice’ Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to write the opinions effectively redefining torture out of existence, thus providing a legal shield for anyone participating in the program. If there’s one issue that is more important than who is running the CIA, it is who is in charge at DoJ, and especially what kind of lawyers populate OLC. Just because the McCain-Feinstein anti-torture amendment is law does not mean the next John Yoo or Jay Bybee won’t try to redefine it for executive branch agencies charged with starting a new torture program. 

In the first torture program’s aftermath, a new and untested president insisted that Americans “….look forward as opposed to looking backward” on the U.S. torture program. Because the CIA is one of the federal agencies exempted from normal Office of Personnel Management rules (i.e., CIA is an excepted service), Obama didn’t actually need to have a federal prosecutor file charges to get rid of CIA personnel involved in the torture program. He could’ve fired them himself. He didn’t, and that’s one reason why Gina Haspel now has a shot to run the CIA. 

To recap: At the State Department, we now have a pliant Secretary who in the past has clearly stated his support for the first torture program, like President Trump. We have a Justice Department that is constantly under siege from a White House that clearly has a “loyalty test” it tries to impose on those working there. And we have a previous manager of America’s first torture program teed up to lead the federal agency that ran that same program. The conditions are certainly ripe for a Torture Redux. The question now is whether the Senate recognizes the danger and will act accordingly. We will know soon enough.

Farewell, Rex

Nothing about Rex Tillerson’s firing should surprise us, except perhaps its timing. Tillerson has often been at odds with his boss in the White House, whether on Russia, Iran, or North Korea. Though widely hailed as one of the ‘adults in the room,’ it’s not clear he had much influence at all on Trump’s biggest foreign policy decisions. He was widely disliked inside his own agency; civil servants at Foggy Bottom hated his insularity and his plans to massively cut the State Department’s budget and diplomatic capacity.

Even the casual cruelty of the firing should not surprise us. Sure, the President fired his Secretary of State via Twitter, while Tillerson was abroad, without apparently offering him any explanation or courtesy phone call. But from the man who fired James Comey, his FBI Director, via television while Comey was on-stage giving a public speech, this was almost polite. 

But while Tillerson’s firing has been expected for some time, it will have big implications. Tillerson may not have had much influence with the President, but he was one of the administration’s more reasonable voices. He apparently had a good relationship with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, acting as a sounding board for ideas, and both men have advocated against some of Trump’s more disastrous foreign policy decisions.

It’s always been questionable the extent to which these so-called ‘adults in the room’ could actually constrain Trump on foreign policy issues. But with the loss of Tillerson and – last week – of Gary Cohn of the National Economic Council, we will see them replaced by advisors who appear to be trying not to restrain the President’s worst impulses, but instead to indulge them. On tariffs, conflict and more, things have the potential to get a lot worse.

GAO Weighs In On “Countering Violent Extremism”

The ongoing controversy and litigation over the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban” has reignited a debate that has raged since the 9/11 attacks: Who commits more domestic terrorism–violent Salafists or traditional “right wing” extremists? According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, it’s the latter and by a very wide margin. From p. 4 of GAO’s report:

Of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001, far right wing violent extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73 percent) while radical Islamist violent extremists were responsible for 23 (27 percent). 

But as researchers at the Georgia State recently reported, media coverage of terrorist incidents makes it seem as if terrorism is almost exclusively perpetrated by Muslims:

We examined news coverage from LexisNexis Academic and CNN.com for all terrorist attacks in the United States between 2011 and 2015. Controlling for target type, fatalities, and being arrested, attacks by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449% more coverage than other attacks. Given the disproportionate quantity of news coverage for these attacks, it is no wonder that people are afraid of the Muslim terrorist. More representative media coverage could help to bring public perception of terrorism in line with reality.

That incident-media reporting disconnect is matched by another: the notion that Arab/Muslim-Americans are more susceptible to radicalization, and thus to becoming terrorists, and that there are a discreet set of reliable indicators that will tell authorities who is or is not more likely to become a terrorist. 

The same month the Georgia State researchers released their terrorism-media bias findings, the Brennan Center released a report on the state of the debate and federal “countering violent extremism” (CVE) programs. Citing dozens of empirical studies and recognized experts in the fields of criminology, psychology, and intelligence, the report states “Extreme or radical views are often assumed to lie at the heart of terrorism. But evidence shows that the overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in, nor support, violence.”

Obama Right to Resist Arming Syrian Rebels

In a front-page story for the Wall Street Journal, Adam Entous reports that President Obama rejected a plan to arm Syrian rebels presented by officials at the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department. It seems that despite the advice of the most senior members of his national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and then-CIA director David Petraeus, the president decided against becoming more deeply embroiled in a brutal civil war. 

The president’s caution is welcome news for those of us who are skeptical of the United States’ ability to pick winners and losers in distant conflicts. I am also deeply sympathetic with the president’s dilemma, which is the theme of my book The Power Problem. “With great power comes great responsibility,” as the saying goes. But true responsibility means acting wisely, not simply acting. It takes enormous discipline and courage for a president to resist the incessant demands that he do something—anything—when horrible things occur. He should only act (1) in those rare cases when vital U.S. national security interests are at stake, and (2) when it is clear that the action being taken has a reasonable chance of delivering tangible results at a reasonable cost. 

Neither of those criteria is satisfied with respect to the Syrian conflict. 

Indeed, as the Journal story notes, the president appreciated that armed support for individuals and factions within the Syrian opposition was likely to have a number of unintended consequences. Specifically, the White House was dissatisfied with the answers to “lingering questions” including “which rebels could be trusted with the arms, whether the transfers would make a difference in the campaign to remove Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and whether the weapons would add to the suffering.” And the president apparently didn’t listen only to those making the case for expanded U.S. involvement; an anonymous U.S. official told the Journal that a team of CIA analysts cast doubt on the impact of arming the rebels in the conflict. 

Although the United States is providing non-lethal support to Syrian rebels, there are other good reasons to avoid doing more. One is the United States’ terrible track record in providing material, and lethal, support to opposition groups and figures. We have often mistaken power-hungry thugs, or simply manipulative charlatans, for committed democrats, and it is unreasonable to expect that our ability to separate the true patriots from the phonies has improved markedly since Iraq. 

What’s So Great about a Heavy Footprint?

I generally like David Sanger’s reporting. His recent books (The Inheritance and Confront and Conceal) provide an excellent overview of U.S. foreign policy, and his analysis of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s approach to world affairs, filed just before the two men faced off in their third and final debate, was one of the best that I had seen.

But I’m confused by this passage from his story in yesterday’s New York Times:

Mr. Obama’s reluctance to put American forces on the ground during the fight, and his decision to keep America’s diplomatic and C.I.A. presence minimal in post-Qaddafi Libya, may have helped lead the United States to miss signals and get caught unaware in the attack on the American mission in Benghazi.

We have had many tens of thousands of U.S. troops, and a sizable CIA presence, on the ground in Afghanistan for years, and that hasn’t stopped attacks on Americans. Ditto for the massive troop presence in Iraq, when we had one there. We have been caught unaware in other places where we have had a massive and long-standing presence on the ground; meanwhile, some places that boast no U.S. presence at all have been quiescent for decades.

In short, what happened in Benghazi is certainly a tragedy, and possibly an avoidable one, but that one instance hardly proves that a heavy footprint (i.e. sending U.S. ground troops into the middle of distant civil wars) should be the preferred option going forward.

The American people’s opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a broad, bipartisan desire to avoid future such wars, constrains the president’s options. And that is a good thing. If policymakers understand that they can’t accomplish ambitious goals with small numbers of troops on the ground—or with none at all—that should compel them to focus on more limited objectives, missions that advance U.S. security, and avoid those that do not.

New Underwear Bomb, New Threat Information

It’s a good bet that news of a new thwarted underwear bomber will underlie more than one argument for the strip-search machines American travelers encounter even at the domestic terminals of our airports. According to the AP:

The plot involved an upgrade of the underwear bomb that failed to detonate aboard a jetliner over Detroit on Christmas 2009. This new bomb was also designed to be used in a passenger’s underwear, but this time al-Qaida developed a more refined detonation system, U.S. officials said. … The would-be suicide bomber, based in Yemen, had not yet picked a target or bought his plane tickets when the CIA stepped in and seized the bomb, officials said.

Reading this, you’ve been reminded of the fact that, somewhere in a remote Middle Eastern backwater, someone would like to bomb an aircraft flying into the United States. For many, this will induce a bout of probability neglect, making it very hard to process the upshot of this news: This type of attack, which was already very unlikely to succeed, has been made even less likely to succeed.

How did it become less likely to succeed? Let’s use the Transportation Security Administration’s layered security concept to examine things.

In December 2009, the underwear bomber (well—he failed: the “underwear bomb plotter”), managed to get a deformed bomb onto a plane. It was so deformed that he could not cause it to explode. Instead, he burned himself while other passengers subdued him. In the TSA’s formulation, the plot was foiled by the last security layer (it’s hard to read in the graphic): passengers.

(This is not actually the last security layer. The design of planes to withstand shocks to the fuselage is a preventive against downings that small smuggled bombs will have a hard time overcoming.)

The latest news has it that an updated underwear bomb was seized in Yemen by the CIA. That’s the first layer of security in the TSA’s graphic. Intelligence—the first layer.

(This is not actually the first security layer. A benign, phlegmatic foreign policy would produce fewer people worldwide wishing to do the United States harm and more people intolerant of those who do.)

Now, it is not all 100%, unalloyed good security news. As the AP report says:

The FBI is examining the latest bomb to see whether it could have passed through airport security and brought down an airplane, officials said. They said the device did not contain metal, meaning it probably could have passed through an airport metal detector. But it was not clear whether new body scanners used in many airports would have detected it.

There may be an innovation in underwear bombs that make them easier to smuggle on to planes. At its best, this innovation may render the body scanners useless against them. (Again, watch for arguments that, despite their impotence, this news makes body scanners all the more essential. A news report yesterday said that new vulnerabilities in the machines have been unearthed by government investigators.)

On balance, I think this news shows just how much the threat is diminished. Innovations in bomb-making, happening on the far outskirts of modern society, are being thwarted at their source, long before they begin the journey through the many other security layers that protect aviation and air travelers. You may continue to move about the country even more confident of your safety than you did before. I’m hopping on a plane again Friday morning, and I will be just as polite and cheerful as ever in declining to go through the strip-search machines.

Pages