George Tenet, who presided over the CIA when terrorist suspects were waterboarded and subjected to other forms of brutal "enhanced interrogation," has set himself a near-impossible task. He is leading an effort to discredit an impending Senate committee report expected to lay out a case that the intelligence agency tortured suspects and then misled Congress, the White House and the public about its detention and interrogation program.
Tenet, working with other senior officials who ran the CIA in the years after September 11, is said to be trying to develop a "strategy" to counter the findings of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's 6,300-page report that was five years in the making.
But how do you strategize against the truth?
It is now well-established that the CIA ran several "black sites" in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia where al Qaeda suspects were subjected to forms of harsh interrogation that were banned as "torture" by President Barack Obama after he took office in 2009.
The "enhanced interrogation" techniques included waterboarding; making prisoners stand naked in a cell kept around 50 degrees and dousing them with cold water, and forcing suspects to stand shackled for hours in painful "stress positions."
By all accounts, however, the Senate report will detail how some interrogation methods were far worse than these previously revealed techniques.
Tenet's efforts to refute the coming report look like classic spycraft. In espionage tradition, spies, if caught, are trained to deny everything — no matter how overwhelming the evidence against them. CIA Director John Brennan, for example, at first vigorously denied that the agency had hacked into the computers used by the Senate Intelligence Committee to compile its voluminous report. "Let me assure you," Brennan told the senators in March, "the CIA was in no way spying on [the Senate committee]." On Thursday, however, Brennan was forced to admit that five CIA officers — including two lawyers — had done just that.
Yet his original denial followed storied espionage tradition. When FBI agents surrounded CIA officer Aldrich Ames in 1994 and arrested him for spying for Russia, his first words were: "There must be some mistake."
For years, Kim Philby, the notorious British spy, repeatedly denied his secret role as a mole for Moscow while serving as a high-placed official in the British intelligence service throughout the postwar years. He kept up his denials right up until he finally fled to the Soviet Union in 1963.
The culture of denial still pervades the CIA, and likely most intelligence agencies. True, Tenet was never a clandestine operator. But he understands the trade. He came to espionage through his work as staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the very oversight panel now criticizing the agency. He later served as a White House adviser on intelligence during the Clinton administration, before being appointed first deputy director of the CIA and then director in 1997. Loyal to the agency, he is hardly likely to agree that the organization he ran did anything wrong.
Tenet will likely now argue, as he has in the past, that the harsh interrogations "saved lives" and "disrupted plots." However, the Senate report may seriously question this view. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), who heads the Senate committee, has said the harsh interrogations did not, for example, lead to the most important intelligence success – the capture and death of Osama bin Laden.
Tenet can also be expected to argue that the methods used by CIA interrogators were adopted in the desperate days after Sept. 11, when U.S. intelligence — having failed to predict or prevent the tragedy at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — was determined to extract from prisoners any hint of future attacks. Yet other intelligence veterans, including FBI agents who witnessed some harsh interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, insist that establishing a rapport with suspects works better than torture — in part because prisoners subjected to painful techniques may tell their tormenters anything, including false information, to get them to stop.
The full Senate report, said to be a devastating critique of the intelligence agency, is not actually going to be released. What may be made public is a far shorter — and heavily redacted — summary of the report. "Redacted," a word much-favored by Washington bureaucrats, is a more benign word than "censored," which is what it really means. In the case of the Senate report, the CIA itself is doing the redacting. The process has moved so glacially that the report has so far been bottled up for 20 months.
Despite the exposure of CIA black sites, where suspects were subject to brutal interrogations on his watch, Tenet has insisted, "We don't torture people." But his credibility is low. When he was CIA director, Tenet assured Bush that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction — which turned out not to be true. That faulty premise allowed the United States to go to war with Iraq, a misjudgment that cost the lives of some 4,400 American soldiers and 32,000 wounded.
Tenet assured President George W. Bush before the war, according to Bob Woodward's book, Plan of Attack, that the fact that Iraq had WMD was "a slam dunk." In his own memoir, Tenet does not deny he used the phrase but insists it applied only to whether the agency could improve its public case that Iraq had WMD.
Some terrorism suspects were kidnapped by the intelligence agency in a program known as "rendition" and sent to other countries, such as Egypt, where the CIA was aware that they would be tortured. But Tenet and some of his successors as CIA director looked the other way, relying on those countries' sham assurances that the suspects would not be harmed.
Against this background, Tenet is understandably unhappy about the looming and exhaustive Senate report. What makes Tenet's counter-report effort even more intriguing is that Brennan is his protégé and served as Tenet's chief of staff. Though an analyst by background, and not a clandestine operator, Brennan rose to prominence under Tenet and later served as the White House counterrorism adviser, before Obama appointed him to the top job at CIA.
While White House adviser, Brennan said in a 2012 speech, "enhanced interrogation techniques … are not needed to keep our country safe." Yet he originally withdrew his name from consideration for the CIA post in 2008 when some liberal groups charged that he was deeply involved with the interrogation program. Brennan, however, has said he strongly opposed those techniques. Brennan had served as a campaign adviser to Obama that year and was in line for the CIA post until he withdrew.
Proof of just how bad the interrogation methods were might be available but for the fact that Jose Rodriguez, then the head of the CIA's National Clandestine Service, ordered the destruction 0f 92 videotapes of the interrogations. The reason, he said, was to protect the safety of the CIA officers who ran the program. He said he destroyed "some ugly visuals that could put the lives of my people at risk." He used an "industrial-size disintegrator," he said. He added that afterward, "I felt good."
Rodriguez has a law degree from the University of Florida, which apparently did not give him pause about destroying evidence.
When the sanitized summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee is made public, it will likely be attacked by those who feel any torture or "enhanced interrogation" is justified against those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Tenet and other high former officials of the CIA are apparently unwilling to concede that sometimes in an effort to protect the country, an intelligence agency can go too far — that it may, in the process, violate the law, the Constitution and human decency.
PHOTO (TOP): Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan participates in a Council on Foreign Relations forum in Washington, March 11, 2014. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
PHOTO (INSERT 1): George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, watches as the coffin containing the body of CIA agent Johnny "Mike" Spann being carried at Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, December 2, 2001. REUTERS/Pool/Joe Marquette
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Kim Philby in a portrait taken from a 1990 Soviet stamp. WIKIMEDIA/Commons
PHOTO (INSERT 3): Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, speaks to reporters after leaving a Senate national security briefing at the Capitol in Washington, June 13, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
PHOTO (INSERT 4): President George W. Bush awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former CIA Director George Tenet in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, December 14, 2004. REUTERS/Larry Downing
PHOTO (INSERT 5): Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan speaks at a Council on Foreign Relations forum in Washington, March 11, 2014. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas