Obama Picks a Conscience for the CIA

Consortium News

January 8, 2009 – At long last. Change we can believe in.

In choosing Leon Panetta to take charge of the CIA, President-elect Barak Obama has shown he is determined to put an abrupt end to the lawlessness and deceit with which the administration of George W. Bush has corrupted intelligence operations and analysis.

First and foremost, the appointment gives hope that torture and “rendition” (a euphemism for kidnapping people for delivery to foreign torture chambers) is over – or will be in less than two weeks.

Character counts. And so does integrity.

With those qualities, and the backing of a new President, Panetta is equipped to lead the CIA out of the wilderness into which it was driven by sycophantic directors with very flexible attitudes toward truth, honesty and the law – directors who deemed it their duty to do the President’s bidding – legal or illegal; honest or dishonest.  In a city in which lapel-flags have been seen as adequate substitutes for the Constitution, Panetta will bring a rigid adherence to the rule of law.

For Panetta this is no battlefield conversion. On torture, for example, this is what he wrote a year ago:

“We cannot simply suspend [American ideals of human rights] in the name of national security. Those who support torture may believe that we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values.  But that is a false compromise. We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don’t. There is no middle ground.

“We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.”

Please tell those of your friends who rely solely on the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM) that torture is a crime – not only under international law, but also under the War Crimes Act (18 U.S.C. 2441) passed by a Republican-dominated Congress in 1996. And besides that, torture can never be counted upon to yield trustworthy intelligence – never.

As for integrity, this is nothing new for Leon Panetta. As head of President Richard Nixon’s Office of Civil Rights, he insisted on enforcing laws to protect minorities even under pressure from Nixon to get in line with the Republican “southern strategy” of neglecting civil rights. Rather than buckle to these demands, Panetta resigned and later became a Democrat.

How Did We Get Here?

Political courage — like that demonstrated by Panetta as a young man — was what was lacking as the Bush administration turned America’s principled repudiation of torture inside out, from the top down.

Unfortunately for President Bush, he cannot feign ignorance of this process, since the White House itself has released a Memorandum for the President dated Jan. 25. 2002, in which his lawyers apprised him of the seriousness of the War Crimes Act and even noted, “punishments for violations of Section 2441 include the death penalty.”

That memorandum, signed by then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales (but drafted by Vice President Dick Cheney’s lawyer, David Addington) warned specifically of “prosecutors and independent counsels who may in the future decide to pursue unwarranted charges based on Section 2441.”

They then told Bush not to worry; that all he needed to do was to make a “determination that the GPW [Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War] does not apply.” They added cheerily, “Your determination would create a reasonable basis in law that Section 2441 does not apply, which would provide a solid defense to any future prosecution.”

It is a safe bet that Bush now wishes he had gotten a second opinion.  Instead, he went ahead and signed an executive memorandum on Feb. 7, 2002, incorporating the Mafia-style advice of his lawyers.  He then sent it to Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Chief of Staff to the President Andrew Card, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Condoleezza Rice, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers.

It seems strangely appropriate that it bore the Orwellian title: Humane Treatment of al-Qaeda and Taliban Detainees.  In the memorandum, Bush lifts language verbatim from the Gonzales/Addington memo of Jan. 25 and makes it his own. He claims, for example, “the war against terrorism ushers in a new paradigm [that] requires new thinking in the law of war.”

He then attempts to square a circle, directing (twice in the two-page memo) that “detainees be treated humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva.”

Exegesis by the Senate

On Dec. 11, 2008, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, and Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, of the Senate Armed Services Committee released a report on the abuse of detainees – a report 18 months in the making and approved by the committee by voice vote without dissent.

Not surprisingly, every organ of the Fawning Corporate Media draped a smokescreen around President Bush’s own role, by blaming everyone’s favorite bête noire, former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. [For a non-FCM approach, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Torture Trail Seen Starting with Bush.”]

It was not as though the President’s own fingerprints were missing. The first subhead was: Presidential Order Opens Door to Considering Aggressive Techniques, and the first words of the first sentence of the first paragraph were, “On Feb. 7, 2002, President Bush signed a memorandum stating – ”  Later in that same paragraph the committee report again refers to “the President’s order,” adding that “the decision to replace well-established military doctrine, i.e., legal compliance with the Geneva Conventions, with a policy subject to interpretation, impacted the treatment of detainees.”

“Conclusion 1” of the Senate Armed Services Committee report states:

“Following the President’s determination [of Feb. 7, 2002], techniques such as waterboarding, nudity, and stress positions – were authorized for use in interrogations of detainees in U.S. custody.”


Participants in detainee interrogations understood that the basis for the harsh tactics stemmed from policies approved by Bush.

According to a report by a panel headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger on the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top commander in Iraq, instituted a “dozen interrogation methods beyond” the Army’s standard practice under the Geneva Convention.  Sanchez explained that he based his decision on “the President’s memorandum,” which he said allowed for “additional, tougher measures” against detainees, the Schlesinger report said.

In addition, an FBI e-mail of May 22, 2004 from a senior FBI agent in Iraq stated that President Bush had signed an Executive Order approving the use of military dogs, sleep deprivation, and other tactics to intimidate Iraqi detainees.

In the e-mail, the FBI official sought guidance in confronting an unwelcome dilemma. He asked if FBI personnel in Iraq were required to report the U.S. military’s harsh interrogation of detainees when such treatment violated FBI standards but fit within the guidelines of a presidential Executive Order.

Thus, what happened in many of the jail cells and interrogation chambers stemmed directly from of Bush’s Feb. 7, 2002, memo and other presidential and vice presidential decisions.

No doubt it has long since occurred to Bush that he was mistaken to have put his fate in the dubious hands of his sadistic lawyers; foolish to sign his name to an executive order clearly in violation of international law as well as the U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996; and foolish in the extreme to continue to let Gonzales roam the White House without adult supervision.

Shifting Blame

Ironies abound. In June 2004, after the obscene photos surfaced from Abu Ghraib, Gonzales screwed up again – royally.

Casting about to show that the President never authorized torture, Gonzales came up with the bright idea of adducing the Feb. 7, 2002, executive order as proof! No, I’m not kidding.

Gonzales apparently thought no one would read beyond the overly clever, first-word adjectival euphemism in the memo’s title: Humane Treatment of al-Qaeda and Taliban Detainees.

So on June 22, 2004, the White House had the Feb 7, 2002, memorandum, together with other memos, declassified and released. At a press conference that day, Gonzales said the release was motivated by a desire to address “confusion” over whether the torture techniques on display in the Abu Ghraib photos had been approved by higher-ups.

Gonzales explained that the government felt that the confusion “was harmful to this country, in terms of the notion that perhaps we may be engaging in torture. That’s contrary to the values of this President and this administration. And we felt that was harmful, also.”

Harmful in more ways than one. It appears that the chickens may now be coming home to roost, as those who are informed by alternative media, including many supporters of President-elect Obama, are demanding accountability for Bush’s torture policies and are objecting strongly to any appointments tainted by complicity in those policies.

That sentiment led Obama to look for a CIA director outside the usual list of intelligence professionals who had carefully positioned themselves – and their careers – so as not to offend the Bush administration the past eight years.

Placing managerial skills and personal integrity over direct intelligence experience, Obama made the surprise choice of Leon Panetta, who followed up his resignation from the Nixon administration with a varied career as a congressman, federal budget director, White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, and a member of the Iraq Study Group.

Opposing Panetta

It was no surprise that the current and former intelligence officials on the Washington Post’s contact list have been upset at the naming of Panetta and the imminent cleaning and disinfecting of the Augean stables in Langley.  A lot of horse___ and bull___ is to be found on the ground there, and Panetta will need heavy equipment – and some time – to clean it up.

As flagship of the FCM, the Post seldom checks with us in Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, so let me simply state that those in our movement are virtually unanimous in welcoming the naming of Panetta.

The clean-up is likely to begin before the end of the month, and the Post will be losing many of its inside sources, since they will no longer be in the swing of things. Those tightly tied to torture will be gone. And good riddance.

Understanding the importance for change, Tyler Drumheller, former chief of the European Division in the operations directorate, has warned that “the problem with the agency is that people will be defending what they’ve done” in the realm of interrogations and detentions.

Drumheller, who was not directly involved in those activities, said he thinks Panetta will make a fine director. Still, by force of habit, he used the collective “we” in stating matter-of-factly: “We did what we did because we were told to by the President.”

That is clearly the case. It is also the case that Nuremburg put the kibosh on the we-were-only-following-orders defense.  People shall have to be reminded of that. And I mean people on “both sides of the house,” as the CIA saying goes – analysis as well as operations.

To “justify” Bush’s Iraq War, CIA Director George Tenet – along with his deputy John McLaughlin and the malleable managers in the CIA’s analysis directorate – supervised the “fixing” of intelligence.  The head of State Department intelligence at the time, Carl Ford, later said, “They should have been shot” for the way they served up “fundamentally dishonest” intelligence to please the White House.

Over at the Washington Post’s editorial section, however, the big worry is that the CIA (and, gosh, maybe even the Post) will be held to account for complicity in, and minimizing the significance of, the many misdeeds.

One of the Post’s neoconservative columnists, David Ignatius, has pleaded for someone to “protect the agency and help rebuild it after a traumatic eight years under George Bush, when it became a kind of national pincushion.”  Sorry, David. Under the direction of Cheney and Bush, the CIA became more like a kind of Gestapo than pincushion, doing the White House’s bidding – while the co-opted leaders of the House and Senate “overlook committees” sat by silently. It is high time your editorial page commented on that sorry story.

The Take From Torture

One of the high ironies in all this is the fact that, as Lt. Gen. John Kimmons, head of Army intelligence, put it publicly on Sept. 6, 2006:

“No good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think history tells us that. I think the empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years, tells us that.”

Now if it’s inaccurate “intelligence” you’re after – to “justify” a preordained policy like invading Iraq – well, that’s another story. Then, torturing captives on your own or rendering them to countries skilled in torture practices can be quite effective indeed.

Take Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, for example, who was captured and rendered to Egyptian intelligence. And, wouldn’t you know, he “confessed” to knowing that Iraq was training al-Qaeda members in the use of terror techniques and illicit weapons, just the “evidence” the Bush administration was looking for.  Al-Libi became a poster child for the Cheney/Bush propaganda machine – that is, until he publicly recanted and explained that he only told his interrogators what he knew they wanted to hear, in order to stop the torture.

Covert Action

Without proper congressional oversight — or a strong ethos among intelligence professionals — a rogue President and brown-nose director can use the CIA at will – all of this enabled by an ill-starred sentence that was inserted into the National Security Act of 1947 to find a home for “covert action.”

The inserted language charged the CIA director with performing “such other functions and duties related to intelligence” as the President might assign.

Reflecting on this after he left office, President Harry Truman, in a Washington Post op-ed on Dec. 22, 1963, publicly bemoaned that the CIA had been “diverted from its original assignment – from its intended role.”  Mincing few words, Truman argued that the CIA’s “operational duties be terminated or properly used elsewhere.”

That was a good idea in 1963.  And today, 45 years later, it is still a good idea.

Whether or not President-elect Obama decides to curtail or move the covert action functions of the agency, it is a truly encouraging thought that the country will soon have a President well versed in the Constitution and respect for the law, a President whose most recent appointments also spell the end of a corrupted Department of Justice.

Fair warning: Obama can expect little if any help from the co-opted chairpersons of the intelligence overlook committees in the House and Senate – Silvestre Reyes and Dianne Feinstein, respectively. Obama and Panetta will have to do it themselves.

The incoming President has his work cut out for him, but he has an excellent model in the late Barbara Jordan, an African-American educator and member of Congress from Texas. Jordan made an extremely valuable contribution on the House Judiciary Committee during the hearings on impeaching President Nixon – at a time when that committee was not the lamentable laughingstock it has now become.

I will not soon forget Jordan’s words on July 25, 1974, two days before articles of impeachment of Nixon were approved and sent to the full House:

“My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution” [As was said at] the North Carolina ratification convention, ‘No one need be afraid that [government] officers who commit oppression will pass with immunity.'”

Obama and Panetta will have to devote attention to repair work on the CIA at first. But part of that process, sooner or later, will have to include holding accountable those guilty of war crimes as well as corrupting both the analysis and operations functions of U.S. intelligence.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. As a CIA analyst for 27 years, he worked under nine directors, several of them at close remove. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

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