Out With It

Americans deserve to hear the dirty secrets of the CIA’s war on terror. We’ll all be better off with the truth.

In April 1975, Sen. Frank Church impaneled a special investigative committee to look into shocking accounts of CIA dirty tricks. The Church Committee ultimately published 14 reports over two years revealing a clandestine agency that was a law unto itself -- plotting to assassinate heads of state (Castro, Diem, Lumumba, Trujillo), carrying out weird experiments with LSD, and suborning American journalists. As a result, President Gerald Ford issued an executive order banning the assassination of foreign leaders, the House and Senate established standing intelligence committees, and the United States set up the so-called FISA courts, which oversee request for surveillance warrants against suspected foreign agents.

But the war on terror unleashed the CIA once again to carry out dark deeds against America's enemies -- torture, secret detention, and "rendition" to "black sites" across the world. How have Americans reckoned, this time, with the immoral and illegal acts carried out in their name? They have not: the CIA has retained control over the narrative. As the Constitution Project's Detainee Treatment report describes in great detail, the CIA falsely reported -- to the White House as well as to the public -- that torture "worked" in wresting crucial information from high-level detainees, and thus needed to be an instrument available to interrogators. Officials like Vice President Dick Cheney repeated ad nauseum that the CIA's dark arts had saved thousands of lives. Is it any wonder that a plurality of Americans think the United States should torture terrorists?

I wrote last month about the detainee treatment report, but I find it incredibly frustrating -- and all too telling -- that the findings were overwhelmed by the tidal wave of coverage of the Boston bombing. Because we fear terrorism far more viscerally than we feared communism -- certainly by 1975 -- we are all too susceptible to the view that America cannot afford to live by its own professed values. But of course that's what Chileans and Brazilians thought in the 1970s. That's why Sri Lankans have granted themselves the right to slaughter homegrown terrorists wholesale, and react furiously to any hint of criticism.

People give themselves a pass unless and until they are forced to face the truth, which is why a public airing of history is so important -- and so politically fraught. There's always a compelling reason to avoid facing the ugly truth. In early 2009, Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called for an independent commission to investigate allegations of torture.  But President Barack Obama's spokesman said that the proposal would not be "workable." We know what he meant: you can hardly blame the president for avoiding a colossal fight with Republicans over the past, especially, when he had so many fights he needed to wage over the future.

Obama probably thought that he could put the problem to rest by ending torture as well as the cult of secrecy surrounding CIA practices. He succeeded on the first count, but failed on the latter. In April 2009, he agreed to release the so-called "torture" memos written by President George W. Bush's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), as well as photos of prisoner abuse from Iraq and Afghanistan. But then, after a fierce debate inside the White House said to pit Obama's military commanders against his counselor, Gregory Craig, among others, the administration reversed itself. The president later signed legislation allowing him to withhold the pictures if he determined that the release would harm national security.

Once adopted, the logic of national security carries all before it. The release of the OLC memos, the detainee treatment report notes, was the high-water mark of Obama-era transparency on torture. CIA reports on the death of three prisoners in custody as well as on broad policy towards detainees remain classified; so do the results of inquiries by the armed forces criminal investigation division. The agency's ability to withhold information probably contributed to the Justice Department's decision not to pursue indictments on any of the 100 or so cases of CIA mistreatment which it investigated. Defense lawyers in the military trial of the "9/11 defendants" held at Guantanamo have had to work around a "protection order" which classifies entire subject areas -- including anything related to the defendants' arrest or capture, the conditions in which they were held, or the interrogation techniques to which they were subjected. Whatever becomes of the defendants, Americans will learn nothing from the trials.

On matters of secrecy, Obama has been little better than Bush. This has become notorious in the case of the drone program, a centerpiece of Obama's prosecution of the war on terror. In a recent speech at the Oxford Union, Harold Koh, the former chief counsel of the State Department, said that the administration has failed to be "transparent about legal standards and the decision-making process that it has been applying."

I asked Koh why the White House has so regularly deferred to the CIA on issues of transparency and accountability. Koh pointed out that the CIA's concern that exposing past bad acts could serve as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda was hardly trivial. But, he said of the White House: "They don't have a good balancing mechanism on the value of disclosures. It's almost like if nobody's clamoring for it, the pressure can be resisted." The pressure comes from the outside -- from the press, from civil-liberties groups, and activists -- but not from the inside. So the CIA carries the day.

And yet it's not too late to expose, and learn from, the sorry history of the last decade. Last December, the Senate Intelligence Committee approved a 6,000-page report on the finding of its secret investigation into the treatment of detainees. The report, which has not been made public, describes the CIA's detention program in minute detail. Among other things, it puts to rest the canard that torture works. In his confirmation hearings, CIA director John Brennan admitted that the report had led him to question "the information that I was given at the time" that so-called "enhanced techniques" had saved lives.

Brennan has learned this; other Americans may not have the chance. The CIA is likely to both dispute the findings and to try to keep them secret. In a letter to Obama, Sen. Mark Udall complained that Brennan had shown "little to no interest" in working with his staff, and had already missed the deadline for response by more than two months. A congressional aide said that there was no sign that the White House had even examined the report, much less prepared a response.

The good news is that the irrepressible Vice President Joe Biden recently advocated publishing the findings, saying that Americans needed to "excise the demons" through a full disclosure of past abuses. Biden even compared the redemptive value of facing the truth on torture to the effect of the war-crimes tribunals on Germany. Obama probably didn't authorize the analogy, but he may well have signed off on the position -- in which case the comment should be read as a pre-emptive shot across the CIA's bow.

In the course of questioning Brennan during Senate hearings, Sen. Udall quoted Howard Baker, the widely admired Republican moderate from the bygone age of Republican moderates, to the effect that the Church Committee report may well have weakened the CIA in the short run, but strengthened it in the long run -- by reminding the agency of what it should as well as shouldn't do. Apparently even the CIA agrees, since its website carries an admiring description of the committee's findings. If and when the Senate Intelligence Committee report is made public, in whole or in part, current and former CIA officials, conservative pundits, and Republican politicians will no doubt join as one to warn that America's national security has been compromised, its enemies emboldened, its intelligence operatives compromised. That's what they said in 1975. They were wrong then, and they will be wrong now.

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Terms of Engagement

Slouching Toward Damascus

In Syria's implosion, Secretary of State John Kerry already faces a defining task. How hard is he prepared to push against Obama's weary realism? 

Last week, I suggested that Secretary of State John Kerry might turn out to be a diplomat on the order of James Baker or George Schultz. I meant that as a compliment.

But Baker was also the statesman who airily dismissed any effort to stop the Serbian slaughter in Bosnia by saying, "We don't have a dog in that fight." Baker understood his job as promoting America's national interests -- tout court. Now, as the Obama administration steers its dainty way around the butchery in Syria, which looks more and more like the Balkan war, we need to ask whether Kerry is that Baker brand of realist -- and if so, whether we should be grateful that he is.

Certainly he is regarded that way, both by those who welcome a dose of realism and those who don't. Sergei Lavrov, Kerry's Russian counterpart, recently praised him -- in Foreign Policy's May/June issue -- as a "pragmatic" professional, like himself. That's the kind of celebrity endorsement Kerry could probably do without. From the other side, the Middle East analyst Shadi Hamid has caustically noted that "if an alien came from outer space and was only allowed to read transcripts of Secretary Kerry's regional press conferences, it would probably have no idea that something called the ‘Arab Spring' happened."

That's only slightly hyperbolic. In a press conference with Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal, Kerry actually said: "Across the Arab world, men and women have spoken out demanding their universal rights and greater opportunity.... So I want to recognize the Saudi government for appointing 30 women to the Shura Council and promoting greater economic opportunity for women." (He did add that he hoped to see "further inclusive reforms.")

American statesmen have been lavishing inane praise on the Saudis for decades now, as once they lavished praise on autocratic allies in Brazil and Greece. Nevertheless, it is a fact that Kerry has spent a great deal of time over the last 30 or so years holding quiet chats with Middle Eastern dictators and their courtiers. He is, indeed, a pragmatic professional comfortable with other professionals. He told me proudly how well he knew men like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Syria's Bashar al-Assad -- just before the bottom fell out on the bragging value of those relationships.

As I said last week, Kerry has plunged bravely into the most intractable diplomatic problems America faces. That's why the comparison to James Baker seems as least potentially fair. But the world has changed drastically since the last days of the Cold War. Global populations are no longer mute spectators of a statecraft practiced over their heads. The way America is seen, and not simply by elites, restrains or enables America's behavior far more than it did a generation ago.

Barack Obama is himself acutely aware of this transformation: In one of his first foreign policy speeches as a candidate, he said that when he flew low over a disaster zone or conflict area, he saw children looking back at him and wondered, "when those faces look up at an American helicopter, do they feel hope, or do they feel hate?" Perhaps the president who finds himself soft-pedaling criticism of Bahrain, an important regional ally which is crushing its own Arab Spring uprising, would say that he has found the world to be more complicated than he thought. But he was right in thinking that we do have a dog in those fights, and not just in a moral sense. That's why the war in Iraq remains a calamity for America's national interests long after the last soldier has withdrawn -- and why the president is trying yet again to close the prison at Guantanamo.

Nobody had to tell Kerry that the world is complicated and intransigent; he knows that from all those years of closed-door diplomacy. But neither can I imagine Kerry saying, or thinking, "We have no dog in that fight." He is too morally driven to be that kind of realist. This is, after all, the man who first came to prominence denouncing the Vietnam War in a Senate hearing. Kerry did not absorb from the war Colin Powell's lesson that the United States should use force only massively and with a certain endgame, or Chuck Hagel's that we should do less rather than more. Kerry was prepared to see America use force to advance moral goals. He supported the NATO bombing of Bosnia in 1995, and favored a no-fly-zone in Libya before Obama came around to it.

And this is why Syria is a crucible for Kerry. Until now, Obama has made the cold-eyed judgment that America's national interest is best served by keeping a distance from Syria's civil war; he designated the regime's use of chemical weapons as a "game changer" not because it would make the violence intolerable but because it would threaten the region, and thus America's own interests. Is Kerry equally prepared to view Syria as a dreadful tar baby?

On the evidence so far, I think not. In early March -- well before the chemical weapons "red line" had been crossed -- Kerry said that the "reservations" about "who we are dealing with" in the Syrian opposition had been answered, permitting the United States to funnel non-lethal aid directly to the rebels. At the time, Martin Dempsey, the head of the Joint Chiefs, was making the opposite argument. The secretary of state then helped win an increase in assistance, and hinted that Washington might begin to supply weapons, or help others do so, if President Assad continued his onslaught. Both a State Department official and an outside expert told me that they believe Kerry is now pushing Obama to ramp up supplies to the rebels, though it's unclear if, as has been reported, that will involve weapons.

Of course, the labels don't matter if you make the wrong call. There are innumerable voices (see here, here, and here, for example) advising Obama to keep clear of Syria. If Syria is like Iraq -- a sectarian civil war just waiting to happen -- then Obama's instincts have been sound. If, on the other hand, Syria is something more like Bosnia, where an outside thumb on the scale might tip the balance far enough to force a cessation of violence, leading in turn to some kind of separation of forces and peoples, no matter how sullen and dangerous -- then we should wish that Obama had listened to figures like David Petraeus and Hillary Clinton when they argued a year ago for a more decisive American presence. And we should wish that Kerry makes, and wins, the case for actually having a dog in that fight.

That's what I wish, anyway. Since mid-2012 I have argued for a no-fly zone and military aid for the rebels. The question has become hugely complicated by the Islamization of the opposition and the increasing fragmentation of the country into semi-sovereign armed cantons; the hope that rebels might defeat Assad and rule over a unified, much less secular and democratic, state seems increasingly forlorn. Nevertheless, Assad must go; and there's no indication that will happen soon unless outsiders put their thumb on the opposition side of the scale.

So I come back to my original question about Kerry: Yes, it is fair to say that he has a legacy worldview in which gentlemen hash out the world's problems. But no, he is not the kind of realist who believes that America can do the greatest good in the world by adhering to the strictest possible definition of national self-interest -- or that "in difficult, uncertain times," as Robert Kaplan writes in his admiring article of Henry Kissinger in the current issue of The Atlantic, "the preservation of the status quo should constitute the highest morality." Kerry is something like the president he serves, uneasily perched between the wish to extricate America from the hash it has made and a romantic sense of what the country has been and can be. That is, at the very least, a good place to start.

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