CIA Officers Didn’t Carry Out Waterboarding

A lot of people are pointing to John Brennan’s assurances that CIA won’t ever torture again as if it means anything (usually ignoring Brennan’s motivation from institutional preservation, not efficacy or morality or legality).

CIA Director John Brennan told NBC News in an exclusive interview that his agency will not engage in harsh “enhanced interrogation” practices, including waterboarding, which critics call torture — even if ordered to by a future president.

“I will not agree to carry out some of these tactics and techniques I’ve heard bandied about because this institution needs to endure,” Brennan said.

[snip]

When asked specifically about waterboarding Brennan could not have been clearer.

“Absolutely, I would not agree to having any CIA officer carrying out waterboarding again,” he said.

There are a lot of reasons this doesn’t mean anything, starting with the fact that President Trump could easily fire Brennan and replace him with someone pro torture.

But it’s funny, too, because Brennan’s assurances about waterboarding would hold true even for the period when CIA was waterboarding detainees. Because CIA officers didn’t do the waterboarding.

As a reminder, at least four detainees were known to be waterboarded under the Gloves Come Off Memorandum of Notification. The first, Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, was waterboarded by Egyptian intelligence, though with Americans present.

The others were waterboarded as part of torture led by Mitchell and Jessen, who were not CIA officers, but instead contractors. CIA officers were definitely involved in that torture (as they were present for our outsourced Egyptian torture). But the torture was technically done by contractors.

Don’t get me wrong: CIA officers did engage in a whole lot of torture directly.

But Brennan’s squirmy language should only emphasize the fact that even when CIA was in the business of waterboarding, CIA officers didn’t do the waterboarding. So Brennan’s guarantees that CIA officers won’t do so in the future are pretty meaningless guarantees.

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.

6 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    Reading about this at SFGate, several of the comments I saw were along the lines of ‘yeah, right‘. His history of lies is catching up to him.

  2. GKJames says:

    Johnny Boy just can’t get enough of the limelight. A dramatic faux moral utterance is probably all it takes for Feinstein to rekindle her passion for him. And for all we know, with now at least two circuits (1 and 9) seeded — for the next several decades at least — with pro-torture boys, JB’s hedging his bets; if the sinecures don’t come fast enough for the other circuits, he may need the rhetorical groundwork he’s laying now to fend off legal liability. He knows that the worm COULD turn, and if there’s anything the boys at Langley are good at is insulating themselves from a reckoning.

  3. Peterr says:

    Kind of makes me want to see the contract that the CIA wrote for Mitchell and Jessen. I’m guessing that what might be seen as standard “You will obey all laws and international treaties” language is somehow missing.

    • GKJames says:

      It’s probably in there, if only because the parties to the agreement know it’s never going to be enforced. It’s the indemnification provision I’d want to see because it’s likely that the USG will defend any claim … at the taxpayer’s expense.

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