"Let's tell, let's everybody tell the truth," said our country's former Director of Central Intelligence during his interview on Sunday night's 60 Minutes. But George Tenet is over 5 1/2 years late and still seems to suffer from a terrible case of selective memory that even a $4 million book contract can't remedy. The bulk of the job of refuting and correcting Tenet's story will have to come from former CIA and other intelligence insiders who knew him and the whole of his situation better. (See "An Open Letter to George Tenet and Michael Scheuer's op-ed "Tenet Tries to Shift Blame. Don't Buy It.") I also have a little first-hand experience that contradicts what Tenet has pulled out to explain the post 9/11 need to torture.
In the interview, 60 Minutes reporter Scott Pelley, to his credit, asked Tenet over and over about his authorizing torture. The CIA's so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" that Tenet signed off on are said to include sleep deprivation, extreme cold and water boarding which causes a severe gag reflex, as water is continuously poured over the face. Tenet admitted losing sleep over his role in authorizing such "new territory" but refused to call it torture saying he didn't want to "engage in a semantic debate" with Pelley. (You know, trying to figure out what the meaning of the word "is" is or whether water boarding is torture, those type of semantic debates.) Anyway in the midst of their semantic debate, Tenet launched into an explanation of the "tension" he was under:
"The context is it's post-9/11. I've got reports of nuclear weapons in New York City, apartment buildings that are gonna be blown up, planes that are gonna fly into airports all over again. Plot lines that I don't know - I don't know what's going on inside the United States. And I'm struggling to find out where the next disaster is going to occur. Everybody forgets one central context of what we lived through. The palpable fear that we felt on the basis of the fact that there was so much we did not know . . . 'Cause these are people that will never, ever, ever tell you a thing. These are people who know who's responsible for the next terrorist attack. These are hardened people that would kill you and me 30 seconds after they got out of wherever they were being held and wouldn't blink an eyelash. . . . You can sit there after, you can sit there five years later, and have this debate with me, all I'm asking you to do, walk a mile in my shoes when I'm dealing with these realities."
One little problem, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the person Tenet is discussing and who reportedly was water boarded, was not arrested until March 1, 2003, eighteen months after 9/11. His arrest and torture was post 9/11 like it will always be post 9/11. The actual context was that by March 2003, the bulk of our troops had already been diverted away from the war against Al Qaeda and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan. Our troops were already poised on Iraq's borders, awaiting Bush's order to commence the invasion of a country which didn't even have ties to Al Qaeda terrorism. That's the context of the actual "tension" under which Tenet signed off on torturing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others. When former Attorney General Ashcroft was questioned about the "post 9-11 round-up" of innocents in New York City--after the Department of Justice's Inspector General found that hundreds of innocent people had been improperly detained for 6 to 9 months--AG Ashcroft similarly refused to apologize "for protecting the American people." But at least AG Ashcroft's explanation fit better timing-wise with the confusion and fear that existed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 than the context Tenet said existed 18 months afterward.
It must also be remembered that we already had one actual 9/11 terrorist suspect, Zacarias Moussaoui, in custody over three weeks before 9/11. And George Tenet was briefed on the facts of the investigation surrounding his detention in August 2001 with a powerpoint entitled something like "Fundamentalist Learns to Fly." At the time, DCI Tenet inexplicably took no action and did not even seek to confer with the Acting FBI Director about the case. But Tenet IS reported to have immediately linked Moussaoui to the Al Qaeda attack on 9/11 as soon as he was informed at breakfast of planes flying into the World Trade Center.
Moussaoui was not tortured however. Nor were "enhanced interrogation techniques" ever used on him. In fact FBI agents could not even get permission to attempt a plain interview of Moussaoui which permission I asked for on 9/11/01 and again on 9/12/01. I tried to argue with the Acting United States Attorney as well as with Department of Justice attorneys that the "public safety exception" to the Miranda rule pertained, not of course to engage in any "enhanced techniques" that might coerce a confession or produce unreliable information but just to circumvent the prophylactic component of the Miranda Rule so that he might be questioned about other Al Qaeda plans to hijack planes or attack U.S. citizens. But they all said no, there was no emergency. I argued harder on the morning of 9/12/01 when the full scope of what had happened was more apparent. This caused DOJ attorneys to discuss the situation a little longer than the U.S. Attorney had the day before, but I was ultimately told that whatever emergency had existed, it was over. We were so flabbergasted about the fact we were told no public safety emergency existed just hours after the attacks that my boss advised me to document it in a memo which became the first document in the legal subfile of the FBI's "Penttbom" case.
Nothing changed after Moussaoui's laptop and personal effects were searched revealing the fact that he had collected data on cropdusting and wind patterns and establishing his connections to the 9-11 masterminds. In early July 2002, when Moussaoui was making overtures that he WANTED to talk and was still the only 9-11 terrorist in custody--it would be months more before the real masterminds of the attack, either Ramzi Binalshibh or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were arrested--I called to both Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff's office as well as to FBI Director Mueller's office to renew the request to attempt a plain interview of Moussaoui. (At the time Chertoff, as head of the Justice Department's criminal division and one of the chief architects of the Bush Administration's legal strategies in the War on Terror, supervised the prosecution's case against Moussaoui. Chertoff also reportedly advised the Central Intelligence Agency on the outer limits of legality in coercive interrogation sessions.) I talked to assistants for both Chertoff and Mueller, trying to impress on them the need to interview Moussaoui, someone who would likely know of plans for a second strike. I pointed to the suspicious nature of the cropdusting information found (which of course they were well aware of) and argued we needed to find out more about that to possibly prevent future attacks. But by that time Moussaoui had been charged with the death penalty and I deduced that AG Ashcroft would not allow any potential for bargaining leverage to be injected into the case.
And so it rang hollow when these same officials, including Tenet, would constantly say they were doing everything in their power to prevent another terrorist attack, when they said in early 2003 that's why we needed, of all things, to launch a brand new pre-emptive invasion of Iraq; when I had been told there was no "public safety emergency" on the day of the attacks; and when it seemed that death penalty considerations outweighed the need to find out information about possible second strikes. It rang hollow then and it still rings hollow when Tenet pulls it out to try to explain that's why we needed to begin torturing people.
In contrast to what Tenet stated about the efficacy of the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques," it's also worth repeating that the considered wisdom of expert FBI investigators is that torture doesn't work to produce reliable, timely information. Interviewing, on the other hand, is more likely to produce solid information. One of the FBI's most experienced agents in Al Qaeda terrorism and one of the few Arabic speaking ones has made this same point in discussing prior successful investigations of Al Qaeda operatives.
There are certainly other questions that arise if Tenet's description of "the palpable fear that we felt (post 9/11) on the basis of the fact that there was so much we did not know" did in fact drive his signing off--and presumably the new Director of Central Intelligence's continued signing off--on the use of torture and other illegal actions. For starters, if we allow that "palpable fear" to eliminate due process, we are opening ourselves up to real mistakes. For how do we even know we are torturing true terrorists? The use of torture or "taking the gloves off" was first suggested with regard to those swept up in the post 9-11 detentions who were later shown to be innocent. Already at least two individuals who were victims of the CIA's "extraordinary renditions" and who were subsequently tortured, Khalid El Masri and Maher Arar, have turned out innocent. CIA operatives have been or are to be indicted in both Germany and Italy for violating these allied countries' laws.
It's certainly safe to say that reversing the terrible mistakes of Bush, his neo-con ideologues and those like Tenet who knuckled under to their pressure, is going to require a lot more "truth" than George Tenet was willing to provide for $4 million and a presidential medal of freedom.