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The CIA: A Radical Bureaucracy Requires Radical Reform

by Joshua Alvarez, published

This was 23-year-old Khadija al-Saadi on Gawker Wednesday: 

“[A flight] landed at Mitiga military airport in Libya just over a decade ago. [It] was organized by the CIA and MI6. On board were a family of six surrounded by guards, the frightened children separated from their parents, the father chained to a seat in a rear compartment with a needle stuck in his arm. I was 12 years old, and was trying to keep my younger brothers and my six year-old sister calm. The guards took us to see our mother once on the 16-hour flight. She was crying, and told us that we were being taken to Gaddafi's Libya. Shortly before the plane landed, a guard told me to say goodbye to my father…I forced myself ahead and saw him with a needle in his arm. I remember guards laughing at me. Then I fainted. We were taken off the plane and bundled into cars. Hoods were pulled over my parents' heads. Libyans forced my mother, sister and I into one car, my brothers and father another. The convoy drove to a secret prison outside Tripoli, where I was certain we were all going to be executed. All I knew about Libya at that time was that Colonel Gaddafi wanted to hurt my father, and that our family had always been moving from country to country to avoid being taken to him. Now we had been kidnapped, flown to Libya, and his people had us at their mercy.”

Khadija and her family survived though her father was brutally tortured and two of her uncles were executed. Her family recently won a settlement with the British government, though part of the deal was that Britain did not publicly admit to any wrongdoing and inquiries were halted.

The CIA has never admitted to being part of the operation despite documents found in a compound in Libya by Human Rights Watch investigators that show communications between the CIA and Libyan agents coordinating the rendition.

Khadija and reportedly hundreds of other victims of the CIA’s Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation program (RDI) are at the center of a 6,000-page investigative report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), based off an investigation started in 2009 after President Obama ordered the RDI to be shut down.

The investigation and report is, in turn, the object of a tangled wrestling match between Congress, the CIA, party politics, and bureaucratic scheming that has come to a head over the past four months. The chronology of events are easily lost, but the conclusion is unequivocal: the CIA is in need of radical reform.

The reasoning for the SSCI investigation was straightforward: the CIA is legally barred from torturing people. The techniques euphemistically referred to as “enhanced-interrogation” during the Bush administration (i.e. water boarding, blaring loud music, sleep deprivation, placing people into small, cramped spaces for hours, etc.) are, in fact, torture tactics.

Additionally, the CIA’s actions since 9/11 are heavily shrouded in secrecy and must be held to public account. It’s simply what any country that would like to think of itself as democratic would do.

The spark that set off the national debate on torture and the Senate inquiry are the dubious actions of Jose Rodriguez, the CIA officer in charge of the RDI program, who destroyed 92 videotape recordings of the torture of detained suspects, including Khaled Sheikh Mohammed (he was cleared of wrongdoing by the Justice Department). Rodriguez, of course, claims to have done no wrong and has since cashed in on a book defending the CIA’s crimes.

According to the New York Times:

“Though the committee’s investigation began as a bipartisan effort, Republicans dropped out in August 2009 after Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that the Justice Department was reviewing the interrogation program.”

In other words, the report became just another small part of a partisan strategy.

Meanwhile, the CIA employed layers of bureaucratic measures to drag down the momentum of the investigation by “insisting that [SSCI] committee staff members be allowed to pore over thousands of classified agency cables only at a secure facility in Northern Virginia -- and only after a team of outside contractors had examined the cables first.

Government officials said that between paying for the facility and for the contractors, "the C.I.A. had spent more than $40 million on the study." Besides throwing corporate middlemen in the way, it enabled partisans and the media to criticize Congress for the huge cost of the investigation.

As the SSCI finally prepared to release the 6,000-page report in 2013, unnamed CIA officials began repeatedly leaking to the press parts of its own in-house rebuttal report as an attempt to discredit the SSCI report.

“I am appalled by the persistent media leaks by anonymous officials regarding the C.I.A.’s response to the committee’s study," Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said. "Leaks defending the C.I.A. interrogation program regardless of underlying facts or costs have been a persistent problem for many years. This behavior was, and remains, unacceptable.”

Part of the deal between SSCI and the CIA was that Senate staffers would be able to access documents and communicate with each other using CIA computers without obstruction. A few months ago, Dianne Feinstein publicly accused the CIA of spying on Senate staffers through the computers they were using in Virginia.

The CIA countered that no such thing happened and accused Senate staffers of breaking the law by accessing documents that were restricted to them. The Justice Department investigated and found that no staffers broke the law.

The CIA’s own inspector general, meanwhile, reported that several CIA officers did, in fact, access the staffers’ server and inappropriately monitored their communications. CIA Director John Brennan, who initially made a full-throated denial about the spying, has since publicly admitted that spying indeed occurred and personally apologized to Feinstein.

Simultaneously, the CIA, in one of the most staggering cases of conflict-of-interest, was given the privilege of reviewing the 6,000-page report and redacting information it did not want declassified. The result, according to Senators Feinstein, Levin (D-Mich.), Udall (D-Colo.), and Wyden (D-Ore.) was little more than a brazen display of chutzpah.

From The Wall Street Journal:

"The redactions that CIA has proposed to the Intelligence Committee's report on CIA interrogations are totally unacceptable," said Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Classification should be used to protect sources and methods or the disclosure of information which could compromise national security, not to avoid disclosure of improper acts or embarrassing information."

Levin said a number of the proposed redactions consisted of information that had appeared in a report his committee released in 2009.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who already stands disgraced for repeatedly lying to the public and Congress (a felony transgression) about the “non-existence” and scope of the NSA spying program, retorted that 85 percent of the report remains unclassified and that the intelligence community acted in good faith.

”While Director Clapper may be technically correct that the document has been 85% declassified, it is also true that strategically placed redactions can make a narrative incomprehensible and can certainly make it more difficult to understand the basis for the findings and conclusions reached in the report," Sen. Udall said.

Feinstein announced that release of the full, declassified report would be delayed until the redaction process has been redone in (better) faith.

What should be made of all this? We are witnessing radical behavior on the part of the CIA: it has aligned itself against Congress, reasonable government transparency, and U.S. and international law.

For those knowledgeable about CIA history, the bureaucracy’s contemporary hostility to domestic institutions is unsurprising and mostly foreseeable. It’s a combination of decades of “free passes” by succeeding administrations during the Cold War and, since 9/11, rapid mission creep.

The corrupt, bloated and radically undemocratic character of the bureaucracy should be enough grounds to consider radical reform measures, including “restarting” the agency -- literally rebuilding it from the ground up. New structure, new refortified oversight measures, new strictly defined mission. It may not be the answer, but it should be part of the conversation at this point.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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