On March 20, 2013, I wrote one of several stories calling bullshit on reports that CIA would get out of the drone business. Not only did John Brennan’s actions up to that point (as opposed to what had been leaked to journalists anonymously) make it clear he intended for CIA to keep that portfolio. But his confirmation testimony made it clear he intended to retain and use CIA’s paramilitary — as distinct from traditional military — capabilities (and no, I’m not sure where the line between the two lies).
Today, the NYT has another of those stories reporting that — shock!! — I was right after all. It has a new twist though. It selectively quotes from Brennan’s confirmation materials to suggest he testified he would get CIA out of paramilitary operations.
During his confirmation hearings, Mr. Brennan obliquely criticized the performance of American spy agencies in providing intelligence and analysis of the Arab revolutions that began in 2009, and said the C.I.A. needed to cede some of its paramilitary role to the Pentagon.
“The C.I.A. should not be doing traditional military activities and operations,” he said.
This is what the quote actually looked like in context.
MIKULSKI: So, let me get to my questions. I have been concerned for some time that there is a changing nature of the CIA, and that instead of it being America’s top spy agency, top human spy agency to make sure that we have no strategic surprises, that it has become more and more executing paramilitary operations.
And I discussed this with you in our conversation. How do you see this? I see this as mission-creep. I see this as overriding the original mission of the CIA, for which you’re so well versed, and more a function of the Special Operations Command. Could you share with me how you see the CIA and what you think about this militarization of the CIA that’s going on?
BRENNAN: Senator, the principal mission of the agency is to collect intelligence, uncover those secrets, as you say, to prevent those strategic surprises and to be the best analytic component within the U.S. government, to do the allsource analysis that CIA has done so well for many, many years. At times, the president asks and directs the CIA to do covert action. That covert action can take any number of forms, to include paramilitary.
And the CIA should not be doing traditional military activities and operations. [my emphasis]
That is, Brennan was not suggesting CIA should get out of paramilitary ops. On the contrary, he said CIA should retain that ability but not do traditional military activities.
His responses to questions for the record were even more clear.
What role do you see for the CIA in paramilitary-style intelligence activities or covert action?
The CIA, a successor to the Office of Strategic Services, has a long history of carrying out paramilitary-style intelligence activities and must continue to be able to provide the President with this option should he want to employ it to accomplish critical national security objectives.
How do you distinguish between the appropriate roles of the CIA and elements of the Department of Defense in paramilitary-style covert action?
As stated in my response to Question 6 above, the CIA and DOD must be ready to carry out missions at the direction of the President. The President must be able to select which element is best suited. Factors that should be considered include the capabilities sought, the experience and skills needed, the material required, and whether the activity must be conducted covertly.
The NYT quotes one more Brennan claim with much more fidelity, however, and in a way that is far more illuminating to the story it tells.
“Despite rampant rumors that the C.I.A. is getting out of the counterterrorism business, nothing could be further from the truth,” the C.I.A. director said during a speech last month at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The agency’s covert action authorities and relationships with foreign spy services, Mr. Brennan said, “will keep the C.I.A. on the front lines of our counterterrorism efforts for many years to come.”
Those lines come from this speech, which was most closely watched as Brennan’s rebuttal to Dianne Feinstein on the torture report, but which in fact declared the war on terror would continue along the same lines as it had since 9/11.
And despite rampant rumors that the CIA is getting out of the counterterrorism business, nothing could be further from the truth. CIA’s global mission, our intelligence collection, analysis, and covert action authorities and capabilities, as well as our extensive liaison relationships with intelligence and security services worldwide, will keep CIA on the frontlines of our counterterrorism efforts for many years to come.
Which is interesting, because the items reported in NYT’s story all say more about the US remaining hostage to the way we outsourced certain intelligence activities after 9/11 than anything else.
As a reminder, the Gloves Come Off Memorandum crafted by Cofer Black and signed on September 17, 2001 included a number of different activities. In addition to capturing and detaining top al Qaeda leaders (which became the torture program) and killing top al Qaeda figures using Predator drones (which remains in CIA hands), it authorized heavily subsidizing (“buying” was the word Bob Woodward used) Arab liaison services, originally including Jordan and Egypt but presumably adding Saudi Arabia once we got over the fact that the Saudis had ties to the attack. In a 2006 interview, John Brennan echoed and endorsed Cofer Black’s plan when discussing the war on terror.
With that in mind, consider the real scope of the details described in the NYT story:
That is, the NYT is really reporting that, in spite of nominal efforts to change things, we remain captive to those relationships with liaison services, almost 13 years after 9/11. And that happens to also translate into operating drone strikes in such a way that two countries which were implicated in the 9/11 attacks — Pakistan and especially Saudi Arabia — have managed to stay relevant and above criticism by sustaining (perhaps artificially) our dependence on them.
And, almost certainly, the President’s implicit role in all these actions gives the CIA the institutional clout to make sure it retains whatever parts of this portfolio it cares to.
This, at least, should be the story.
In all of these countries, it’s not clear whether our reliance on these long-term partners helps or exacerbates the war on terror. But no one should maintain any illusions that it will change.
Update: Let me make this clear: I am not commenting on the content of the movie. I am commenting on the content of John Rizzo’s reactions to the movie, particularly his depiction about when and how and by whom “the box” was approved, which — as I say several times — get to the core of the legal problems with torture.
In a development I could have predicted, one of former CIA Acting General Counsel John Rizzo’s chief complaints with Zero Dark Thirty has to do with how the movie depicted “the box.” (This exchange comes from the first comments Rizzo made at an AEI event with him, Dick Cheney flack Marc Thiessen, former CIA Director Michael Hayden, and the director of the torture program, Jose Rodriguez).
MR. RIZZO: The interrogation scenes – I mean, they were – they were striking. They were hard to watch for me, having lived through this and how the – how the actual techniques came to be, and all the safeguards we put on them, all the monitoring by medical personnel during the course of the interrogation – you know, again, it’s a movie, so you know, the character in the movie, the interrogator, seemingly making stuff up as you went along, you’re not talking – OK, bring on the water and –
MR. : (Off mic) – get the buckets.
MR. RIZZO: – and get the buckets – now, the box – people have asked me about the box. And since this whole thing has been declassified now, most of you probably know that one of the techniques was a box, putting a detainee in a box for a – for a limited duration. Now, the box in the movie is not the kind of box that was – that was used. When I say all this, I don’t want to downplay or leave any impression that the actual program, the actual – the actual waterboarding was, you know, was tame or benign. I mean, it was a very aggressive technique, as were all the – all the others. But – so on the whole, I mean, I went into it – I went into it telling myself it was going to be a movie. I was frankly relieved that there were no lawyers involved in the movie. (Laughter.) I would have just spent the next four years at cocktail parties explaining why I wasn’t that lawyer. So I was – so I mean, on the whole, it’s as they said. It was a mixed bag, but it was a terrific movie. And you know, I think it did really take no sides and Miss Bigelow and Mr. Boal, I think, skillfully teed up the complicated moral questions of all of this we’re facing, especially in those first few scary months after the 9/11 attacks.
MR. THIESSEN: Can I – just to follow up on that. I mean, you know, you were the chief legal officer at the time. I mean, would you have authorized the interrogation techniques the way they were depicted? I mean, explain the difference in the box – (chuckles) – explain the – you know, explain that you – do people just throw somebody on a mat and start pouring water over their heads? I mean –
MR. RIZZO: No, no, the – first of all, you know, it was – it was “Mother, May I.” Those interrogators were not allowed to adlib. There were certain specific –as the memos – OLC memos show at the time, I mean, it was a – there was a meticulous procedure to undertake. And before the use of the waterboard – they will confirm this – the interrogators at the site would have to come back in writing, explain why they thought the waterboard was necessary, it would be approved at headquarters. During the time the waterboard was used, which was only until mid-2003, it took the CIA director to approve the use. So it was a much more modern program. Now, the box – I mean, a box is not pleasant. First of all, there is – there was a big box authorized that the detainee could stand in and a smaller box. It wasn’t – it didn’t appear to me to be quite as small as what was depicted in the movie. But yes, there was a box technique. But again, the – I mean, when I – you know, everyone can look at this in a different way. I just had the impression from the scene that the guy was sort of, you know adlibbing as he went along, which was, believe me, far from the – far from the reality. [my emphasis]
The box — particularly the apparent portrayal (I haven’t yet seen the movie) that the torturer ad-libbed when he introduced the box — is as big a concern of Rizzo’s as waterboarding is.
Of course it is.
That’s because the coffin — later dubbed a small box to give it legal cover — used to conduct a mock burial with Abu Zubaydah is the at the heart of the legal problems with torture.
As these posts lay out (one, two, three, four), one of several main reasons CIA asked the Office of Legal Counsel for a memo authorizing torture is because Ali Soufan saw Abu Zubaydah’s torturers prepare to put Abu Zubaydah in a coffin (it’s unclear whether he or his partner Steve Gaudin saw them actually use the coffin). That is one of the things — perhaps the thing — that Soufan labeled “borderline torture.” And because an FBI officer had told CIA’s contractors he might need to prosecute them for what he had seen, CIA needed more durable legal cover than the daily approvals given by Alberto Gonzales every night.
Because an FBI officer had labeled the things approved by the White House, on the President’s authority, illegal.
Which is why John Rizzo and John Yoo started writing first the July 13, 2002 memo generally authorizing torture (this memo is what the CIA would ultimately rely on to claim things like the murder of Gul Rahman were legal) and then, several weeks later, the Bybee Memo laying out the approved torture techniques in detail.
John Rizzo tried to get John Yoo to approve the technique that had already been used on Abu Zubaydah, the one Ali Soufan had labeled illegal. He tried to get mock burial approved as a technique; he kept trying right up until the last days before the Bybee Memo was finalized. But for some reason — I suspect, because Michael Chertoff had already agreed with the FBI that the mock burial Ali Soufan complained about was illegal — it was not included in the final list.
Instead, John Yoo and Jay Bybee approved “small box confinement.” Something that, if everyone remained silent about the intent and desired effect of shoving someone in a coffin-shaped box and leading them to believe they’d be buried alive, would both retroactively approve the use of a coffin that Abu Zubadayh’s (and Ibn Sheikh al-Libi’s) torturers had already used, but also let them use mock burial in the future, in spite of the fact that John Yoo — even John Yoo — had deemed it illegal.
One of the main things an FBI officer judged illegal — mock burial, a technique that had already been used, on the authority of the President — is the only single torture technique John Yoo ever deemed illegal.
Again, I have not yet paid to see the CIA’s propaganda effort. But John Rizzo, at least — the man who tried so hard to get the OLC to approve mock burial — is very concerned both about the size of the box in question (the SERE document used to label it “small box confinement” prescribed size and time limits), but more importantly that torturer in the movie is depicted as using the coffin-shaped box without first getting approval for it.
The movie, it seems, shows a torturer using a coffin before John Yoo and John Rizzo would have deliberated for weeks and decided to call it small box confinement. The movie, it seems, shows a torturer using a coffin to conduct a mock burial [Update: I’ve been told they don’t do a burial in the movie, though it does depict adlib], and doing so in terms that make it clear that the coffin preceded the DOJ approval for it.
I’m extrapolating from Rizzo’s comments, but it seems likely that his problem with the box is that ZD30 depicts its use in precisely the terms that make it illegal, the one act of torture labeled illegal as it was happening, one of the main acts of torture the OLC memos were designed to provide legal cover for.
Frankly, I’m sympathetic to Rizzo’s complaint that this depiction of a torturer ad-libbing by using a coffin is inaccurate (though not to his claim that it was an OLC memo that limited the torture). After all, we know that the White House was responding to the torturers’ “Mother, May I” on a daily or near-daily basis.
We know that the White House was renewing its Gloves Come Off Memorandum of Notification approval for things like mock burial at each step of the process. So it’s not like the torturers executed a mock burial without approval.
The problem, however, is that they executed a mock burial with the President’s approval, weeks and months before the DOJ would deem that one torture technique illegal.