Miller Center panel addresses CIA torture practices

Event participants consider recent Senate report, historical context

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The Miller Center hosted an event Friday titled “The CIA and the Question of Torture: Reading the Senate Report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program.” The program included a panel of professional experts who debated the significance of the Senate’s recent torture report and placed them into broad historical context.

Prof. Richard Immerman, former assistant deputy director of national intelligence at the U.S. State Department, said the original mission of the CIA when it was first established in 1947 was to provide policy makers with intelligence analysis, not to collect intelligence or engage in covert activities. He claimed this was one of the underlying issues the report grappled with.

“The agency acquired these responsibilities incrementally and largely by default,” Immerman said. “The debate over the program and all the reports and responses have ignored the question of whether these activities are the best use of the CIA’s resources and what have been the effects on the agency.”

Frederick Hitz, the CIA's first statutory inspector general, went further to emphasize that another important consideration in analyzing the procedures of the agency is addressing the ineffectiveness of using operators who have not been prepared for what is done during interrogations.

“The CIA, having gone through the Iran-Contra business and several other difficult situations, determined that it needed some strong legal support for what it was going to do,” he said. “What were the limits of the methods we could use to conduct a so-called lawful but hostile interrogation?”

Hitz said one of the CIA’s failings was the amount of training given to employees compared to what was actually needed for interrogations. He said interrogators received only two weeks of training.

“We had one essential positive going for us, and that is this could all take place out of the eye of cameras, reporters, and the world in these secret prisons,” he said. “We have created a situation which we should have avoided.”

Hitz also said that concern surrounding interrogation techniques and the availability of information were not directly responsible for sparking concern about CIA operations, but rather cited an incident in the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib in which pictures were leaked of reserve officers dressing prisoners in “girly underwear.”

Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow at the Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, said an often overlooked feature of the Senate findings is that the CIA not only misrepresented its program to its congressional overseers, but also misrepresented it to the Bush administration.

“The normal pattern, when Congress blows the whistle on a terrible overreach by one of the intelligence agencies, is that the political echelon runs for cover,” he said. “Here the opposite is happening. Congress is saying the political echelon really didn’t know what was going on, and the political echelon is rushing to say ‘yes we did, and we stand by it.’”

Wittes said this is a unique occurrence in the history of intelligence scandals.

“It’s happening for two reasons,” he said. “One is because I think the Bush administration understands that this program is part of their legacy, whether they take responsibility for it or not, and so they’re being smart and taking responsibility for it.”

Wittes notes the second reason as being that he thinks the Bush administration knew about as much as they wanted to know.

Immerman said categorical answers are almost impossible to reach.

“The issue is not settled,” he said. “It’s a he-said, she-said type of thing, which I think is unfortunate. I also think will contribute to the lack of anything particularly constructive coming out of this exercise, other than perhaps conversations like we’re having now.”

Immerman also said the report had its failings, mentioning its heavy influence by partisan politics.

“What happened is that the Republican party didn’t really zero in on CIA behavior as much as it did the Democrats themselves, criticizing the report,” he said. “It did not raise questions about morality, it didn’t refer to the preparation, it didn’t really do any of that.”

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