Human Rights Groups to Obama: Don’t Let John Brennan Cover Up the Torture He Condoned

Eight human rights organizations just sent a letter to President Obama urging him to appoint a high level White House official to coordinate the Senate Intelligence Committee torture report out of the White House. Like the letter Mark Udall already sent, this one implies releasing the report is crucial to delivering on Obama’s 2009 promise to end torture.

As one of your very first acts as President, you signed an Executive Order that closed the CIA’s “black sites” and restricted the agency to the techniques in the Army Field Manual.


We believe the public release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence study is critical to upholding your 2009 Executive Order. Safeguarding your Executive Order from being overturned by a future administration or Congress will help ensure that the United States does not return to policies of torture and cruelty again.

But here’s the key paragraph.

Most importantly, your administration has a responsibility to ensure that the Executive Branch response to the study is not driven by individuals who might be implicated in the CIA’s use of torture. While it is appropriate for individuals who have direct knowledge of the program to provide input, others with knowledge of the program should also be consulted. We urge you to ensure that a consolidated response representing the considered view of all parts of the Executive Branch is submitted to the Committee for review. [my emphasis]

Let’s name names, shall we?

The person currently driving the Torture Report declassification process is a guy by the name of John Brennan (indeed, as Goldman and Apuzzo note in their coverage of the Clandestine Service decision, few other high ranking torturers are left).

At the time the torture program was instituted, he was CIA’s Deputy Executive Director, in charge of things like logistics and personnel. He was, at a minimum, read into the torture techniques as they were being approved. Few people around at the time remember him expressing any opposition to them — aside from wanting the politicians who approved torture to be held responsible for it. Brennan also admits to knowing the torture was taped, and his forgetfulness about whether he sought information on CIA lawyer John McPherson’s review of the torture tape leads me to suspect he learned, at the time, that the torturers were destroying the record of them exceeding torture guidelines. Brennan also — after he had moved on to the Terrorist Threat Integration Center — relied on information derived from torture in sworn declarations submitted to the FISA court.

I’d say all that qualifies Brennan as an “individual who might be implicated in the CIA’s use of torture.” (It should also have disqualified him for the job, but you fight torture with the Senate you have, not the one that might be a functioning oversight body.)

That is, these human rights groups, though far more polite than I am, are basically saying that John Brennan shouldn’t be entrusted with this declassification decision because he’d be covering up his own role in it (he is mentioned, though not badly implicated, in the report).

But that same line is also where the logic of this letter fails.

After all, as I have pointed out, torture was not CIA’s baby. It was the White House’s. And while Obama personally had no role in authorizing torture (except insofar as the government relies on Appendix M to use techniques that amount to torture, and outsources it to countries like Somalia), the President — President Bush — did. So while, unlike Brennan, Obama isn’t personally implicated in what the report shows, his office — one whose authority he has jealously guarded — is. Every appeal to the White House to declassify this report should be clear about that fact.

Particularly given the one objection Brennan is reported to have expressed back in the early days of torture:

He expressed concern, according to these officials, that if details of the program became public, it would be CIA officers who would face criticism, rather than the politicians and lawyers who approved them.

The one objection Brennan had to torture, it seems, is that the CIA — not the White House — would be blamed for it.

I would imagine the White House knows that well.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

8 replies
  1. Jeff Kaye says:

    Ah, so this letter explains why I’m getting mostly crickets back from these groups in relation to my finding that Obama did not rescind Bradbury’s memo on Appendix M and AFM, with findings that endorse isolation, sleep deprivation and other techniques.

    Their appeals to the Executive Branch are wearing thin, precisely because they keep submarining such small things as the torture allowed in Appendix M. Hint: It ain’t gonna work. It hasn’t worked. We need leadership and not craven begging from these people.

    Hey, American Civil Liberties Union
    Human Rights First
    Human Rights Watch
    National Religious Campaign Against Torture
    Open Society Policy Center
    Physicians for Human Rights
    The Center for Victims of Torture
    The Constitution Project… Obama made Brennan director of CIA. He knew the story on torture. He’s not on your side and won’t be. He’s doing nothing on Guantanamo while detainees die.


  2. Frank33 says:

    @Jeff Kaye:

    And I could name a few other craven cowards. But to be positive, there are freedom fighters such as Valtin, and EmptyWheel.

  3. joanneleon says:

    Great post. I’d love to see more coordinated letters about releasing the torture report. They are just going to let more and more time pass, and hope people kind of forget about it. The CIA is doing their investigation, or documenting their objections. Will that stay classified too? Who are they really writing these things for?

    And, off topic. This gives me a feeling of dread:

    At around 18:45 UTC the OpenDNS resolvers saw a significant drop in traffic from Syria. On closer inspection, it seems Syria has largely disappeared from the Internet.

    Does this mean cell phone access to the net as well?

  4. Hmmm says:

    @joannelson – Coverage says either Syrian telecom providers turned off connections, or int’l cables were cut, with the result that all Internet traffic to/from the rest of the world broke. That would affect all internet connected devices (computers, phones, tablets, Nest connected thermostats, etc.) alike. No way of knowing from that alone whether Internet connectivity is still working for connections where both ends are within Syria’s borders. Would need in-country reporting to know that.

    EW tweeted tonight: “Remember the last time Syria lost its Internet preceded allegations it was mixing CW.

  5. emptywheel says:

    @Hmmm: Right. And as I suggested then, I agree here. This is not necessarily Assad. In fact, in this case, I think it’s NOT him. The rebels largely rely on Sat phones. Which means they’re on line and Assad’s base is not.

    Just my gut feel. I do maintain it is a VERY bad idea to assume Assad is always behind abuse at this point.

  6. What Constitution? says:

    There are so many festering sores out there in the realm of US torture. But I can’t agree that it is pointless for the “acronym soup” of human rights organizations to join together in focusing attention upon the need for public release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture right now. Nor can I agree that attention to this issue at this time means that the importance of the AFM/Appendix M problems is diminished. Rather, I have to view these as part of a whole — and I would expect that release of the SIC torture review would have a greater likelihood of focusing attention on the Appendix M problem than would continued withholding of that report from public scrutiny. Certainly there’s some frustration inherent in any choice of prioritization of attention, but for that we’ll always have Monty Python to keep everyone grounded, right? Up the rebels. Appendix M must be dealt with; so, too, must the SIC torture review be made public, and the latter can (and must) be advocated without sacrifice of the former. I hope so, anyway.

  7. Jeff Kaye says:

    @What Constitution?: Of course I am not against petitioning the government for a redress of grievances, and support all the organizations mentioned in pressuring the government to give up its torture practice. It was the overly respectful tone of the letter that bothered me. Really, there is a time to speak plainly and with justifiable anger, within bounds.

    In addition, I think these groups do unfortunately feed the illusion that the state can modify its practices on this through the existing political setup. As all our recent history has shown us, the continued rule of the two primary political parties has demonstrated an inability to resist the commands of the military and national security apparatus, an apparatus that started out as a tool of the civilian order.

    But Eisenhower told us all that in 1960, didn’t he? Do we have to learn it all over again?

  8. What Constitution says:

    @Jeff Kaye: I like that. Especially since you’re one of the people I’d most like to never appear to disagree with. On the Eisenhower point, though, what is it they say about people who ignore history????? That they think it’s a good idea to “look forward, not backward?” No, I’m pretty sure it was something else.

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