When President Obama took office, one of his first official acts was to sign an executive order banning the Bush Administration's torture techniques and the CIA black sites where they were used. That was a major victory for human rights and American values, and is an important part of the President's legacy. It also could be considered a moment when we finally turned the page on this shameful chapter of our history.
The operative word here is "could," because although we may think of the CIA's so-called enhanced interrogation program as a relic of the dark and lawless post-9/11 days, we have yet to fully deal with the fact that our government tortured prisoners held in American custody. As 28 of our nation's most respected retired generals and admirals put it: "This kind of self-examination is indispensable to ensuring a durable national consensus against torture."
What little self-examination we have engaged in has revealed that torture actually undermined our national security. General Petraeus, as the top military commander in Iraq, warned that not only is torture illegal, but it risks turning the local population against American troops. Professional interrogators have long opposed these enhanced interrogation techniques, noting that they don't systematically produce reliable intelligence in the way that traditional, rapport-based techniques do.
As far as I can tell, no CIA official has faced criminal, civil, or administrative sanction for implementing the torture program. That's largely because the President determined that as country "we must look forward, not backward" when it comes to torture.
And now according to the Washington Post and New York Times, an unnamed CIA official who ran one of the infamous CIA black sites and worked to destroy video tapes documenting brutal torture sessions may be "looking forward" to a promotion as director of the National Clandestine Service, one of the CIA's top leadership posts.
I want to be careful here. According to news reports, this unnamed official hasn't yet been named director of the clandestine service and is merely under consideration at this time. Director Brennan has reportedly established a panel of former senior CIA officials to help evaluate the candidates, though a CIA spokesperson has stated that the individual in question is a serious candidate. The panel may decide to recommend someone else for the job, and Brennan may ultimately adopt that recommendation. We'll have to wait and see.
However, that someone who was allegedly so integrally involved in implementing the CIA's torture program would even be considered for a top post in the Obama Administration's CIA is deeply disturbing, though not particularly surprising given that the question of whether the CIA unlawfully tortured people has essentially been relegated to a policy dispute between Obama Administration officials and former Bush Administration officials.
A group of human rights organizations, including Human Rights First, have written a letter to Director Brennan expressing concern that this candidate is being seriously considered for the job. The letter comes on the heels of concerns about the proposed promotion from former CIA interrogator Glenn Carle. "Appointing someone who directly supported the enhanced interrogation program--as opposed to having been part of the system that engaged in it--would be a mistake," Carle told Foreign Policy magazine.
Whatever happens with respect to this particular staffing decision, I'm convinced that the real way forward here is to have a full accounting of the CIA's detention and interrogation program, beginning with public release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's multi-year study of it. That study--based on a review of 6 million pages of CIA and other official records--promises to be the most comprehensive documentary assessment of the program to-date. Director Brennan needs to take the study--and the lessons within it--seriously, and support its public release. Further, the President needs to make sure that review of the intelligence committee's report is neutral and reflective of the views of the various stakeholder agencies and departments, not just the CIA, which has an institutional interest in hiding information that could expose unlawful or embarrassing actions on the part of the Agency.
Burying or obscuring the facts will only prove costly for the CIA in the long run, whatever short-term pressures Brennan might be facing internally within the CIA now. Influential members of Congress and presidential candidates have been calling for a return to "enhanced interrogation techniques" and someday in the not too distant future they may get what they want if Director Brennan and President Obama don't pay attention and act now.