"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty to Alice, "which is to be master — that’s all."
It was a peculiar Through the Looking Glass moment. CIA Director John Brennan had finally confessed, notwithstanding his previous angry and emphatic denials, that the agency had, in fact, spied on a Senate committee investigating CIA torture. Knowing that his CIA had decided it would sneak peeks into congressional computers — a reversal of oversight roles nowhere sanctioned by law — President Obama declared that Brennan has his "full confidence." Pivoting, Obama then declared, "In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we did some things that were wrong. We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did things that were contrary to our values."
Humpty Dumpty’s question nails it: is the Central Intelligence Agency, now and henceforth, to be a law unto itself in matters foreign and domestic? Despite these two (and other) detours into criminality, this president’s full confidence in his CIA director is undiminished.
At what point does a president abrogate his duty to "faithfully execute the Office of President" when, knowing that an agency he directs has egregiously violated federal and international law, he does nothing to determine the extent of the violations and whether those responsible should be accountable. The question is hardly academic, because the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) has produced the most comprehensive analysis and report yet undertaken of the CIA’s unlawful detention and interrogation practices. This classified report has touched off a firestorm, presumably because it describes horrific practices which would meet the legal definition of torture, and, in all probability, shock and outrage the collective American conscience.
It also, according to many who have read it, contradicts the myth that this descent into barbarity produced intelligence that was worth the detour to the Dark Side. Perhaps the greater damage to various reputations lies in the CIA’s own secret assessment of the SSCI report (the Panetta Review), which evidently concedes the accuracy of the SSCI report.
With the president’s blessing, the CIA has put itself in charge of determining whether the materials cited in the SSCI report can be declassified. As is Obama’s default leadership mode, he is absent from this battlefield, having expressed his full confidence in Brennan, who is orchestrating the PR campaign to discredit the unreleased report. In Humpty Dumpty’s power narrative, the CIA comes out on top.
Ho-hum, one might say. However, Obama did something here that ought not to pass without rigorous objection. By saying "we tortured some folks," he casually laid upon every single American an undivided measure of responsibility for systemic acts of torture which "we" never consented to, never knew the truth about, and which were, evidently, concealed even from Congress and, possibly, President George W. Bush. "We" all have a considerable stake in the damning SSCI report, because "we" deserve to know what, exactly, "we" did. The president should come clean about it.
And what should "we" make of "some folks" who were tortured? Is "some" three? Three hundred? Three thousand? Was Charles Manson’s criminality only minimal because he was responsible for just "some" murders? What about the few hundred "folks" who ended up getting the full Guantanamo treatment who were guilty of exactly nothing, and who were released without ever having been charged with being a threat to Americans? Did the president’s "some folks" include those who were killed for sport or because their torture was ham-handed? If "we" all are now responsible for that abandonment of "our" values, Mr. President, where are yours? End the cover-up. Now.
David R. Irvine is a Salt Lake City attorney and a retired Army brigadier general.
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