The crisis involving the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a Godsend to politicians, which is probably why the threat actually posed by the group is being hyped as it is while the White House and Pentagon continue to change the meaning of commonly used English expressions to enable the attacking of just about anyone anywhere. We are told that the United States will have a free hand in bombing Syria, an independent nation with which Washington is not at war. The Administration has warned that if Damascus attempts to defend itself from the air armada there will be consequences in the form of “retaliation,” suggesting that the US would be striking back after being attacked. Oddly enough, my dictionary suggests that it would be the Syrians who would be retaliating, but one supposes that in the Emerald City everything is not as it seems and certain words have little or no meaning.
The welcome distraction afforded by ISIS means that the issue of Gaza, which was recently devastated by the Israelis, has largely disappeared from the mainstream media, enabling Benjamin Netanyahu to steal still more land on the West Bank for new settlements. And remember MH-17? Still a whodunit and nobody cares anymore.
Back here at home, the dispute over the Senate Intelligence Committee report on Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) torture, a hot button issue earlier this year, has also benefited, largely disappearing from sight. The meticulously researched Senate report, covering 6000 pages and including 35,000 footnotes, apparently concluded that torturing terrorist suspects was not only illegal under the United Nations Convention on Torture, to which Washington is a signatory, it was also ineffective, producing no intelligence that was otherwise unobtainable.
Since a “forgive and forget” forward-looking White House has already indicated that no one will ever be punished for illegal actions undertaken in the wake of 9/11, why is the torture issue important beyond the prima facie case that a war crime that was authorized by the highest levels of the federal government? It is important because of its constitutional implications and its impact on rule of law in the United States, which is again being flouted by the Administration in its rush to “destroy” ISIS, which is little more than a terrorist group du jour being exploited to terrify the American public. The constitutional issue, in its simplest terms, is that the CIA works for the president and when it operates without legally mandated oversight by the legislative branch and judiciary it does so in defiance of separation of powers, making the Agency little better than a secret army run by POTUS.
The inability of the Senate Committee to compel the Agency and White House to come up with an acceptable draft of its report and agreement over what parts of it can be made public is also important because it reveals that the best the US Congress can do to oversee the country’s intelligence agencies is not very good at all. The past 22 months of delay in the report’s release have demonstrated that the intel community, with the support of the White House, can stonewall any issue until the cows come home.
The latest account of the head butting between the Agency and Congress reveals a bad working relationship between the Senate and CIA while also suggesting that Langley is again closing ranks against its critics. At a top secret behind closed doors meeting on September 9th Agency Director John Brennan refused to divulge who at CIA authorized the actual intrusion into the computers being used by Senate staffers to compile their report. Brennan would also not address what the presumed legal authority to do so was. A shouting match with several Senators, all Democrats, ensued with several Senators demanding to know how Brennan could refuse to answer their questions.
The Agency had initially contended in its defense that the computer search was motivated by the alleged accessing and removal of restricted CIA reports by the Senate staffers, but it is no longer making that claim. Brennan reportedly refused to answer the two questions posed by the Senators because he did not want to “compromise” the ongoing investigations by the Justice Department and the CIA Inspector General into the computer hacking, but the committee felt he was stonewalling over questions that invited a relatively simple response. If he did not know the answers he could have said so. It might also be noted in passing that the two investigations are hardly independent, one being conducted in house by CIA and the other by a highly politicized Attorney General who will be inclined to protect the president.
CIA has also been working on its own rebuttal of the Senate report which is intended to demonstrate that torture actually worked and that no one at the Agency broke any laws. It is also reportedly seeking to redact major sections of the sixty page summary, which is the part most likely to see the light of day, an effort, which, if successful, will likely make the end product largely unreadable. It would probably also avoid including any blame or suggestion of “mission failure” which would be damaging to broader Agency political interests.
There also has been some speculation that the CIA would like to drag out the process in hopes that the Republicans will take control of the Senate in November, making any release of any part of the report unlikely. The White House has been brokering the review process between the intelligence community and Senate but has been largely mum about its preferences. It would likely want the report to remain classified or in limbo as its release might increase pressure on President Barack Obama to do something about criminal activity that might be revealed, which would be politically dangerous ground.
CIA has also welcomed back former Director George Tenet to help in crafting its own rebuttal report that it hopes will exonerate it from any blame, or at least point the finger elsewhere. Tenet was in charge of the Agency when the torture took place, so on one hand he would be a logical choice to craft a defense though on the other hand he would be keen to conceal any direct role on the part of himself and his accomplices, if only to preserve what remains of their reputations since there is no chance that any of them will be going to jail.
Let’s review who George Tenet is. He is a Greek American from Queens who never was an actual spy or analyst but made his way upwards in the intelligence community through a series of staff positions in Congress. As senior staffer for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence he got to know many important politicians. George could talk the talk in an affable way with Bill Clinton, who eventually named him Director of Central Intelligence in 1997, and then went on to discuss baseball minutiae with George W Bush, cementing his tenure with the new Republican administration. Tenet also presided over 9/11, which was a bit of an embarrassment for the Agency. He later utterly destroyed his own credibility when he declared that making a case for war with Iraq was a “slam dunk” before misleading both the United Nations and Secretary of State Colin Powell about the threat posed by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Tenet later retired into some well remunerated directorships before writing a book called At the Center of the Storm which reportedly earned him an advance of $4 million while demonstrating clearly that he is a great American hero.
So George will be reviewing what George did when he was good ol’ George DCI. When I was with the government I once served in a foreign city where a new United States Consul General’s residence was being built. It was so poorly constructed that there were holes in the ceilings and water running down inside the walls but the State Department Admin officer who was responsible left post before the project was completed. He came back a year later, after complaints, as the inspector to review the project. He determined that everything was just fine. That is sort of like putting George in charge of investigating George, but if the ISIS thing continues to pick up steam everyone in the media and among the public will in any event forget that there was ever a Senate torture report. In intelligence slang, it will “be disappeared.”