Support for a wide-ranging criminal investigation into the Bush administration’s use of torture has grown to include a former top FBI interrogator and a career military intelligence officer with more than two decades of experience conducting interrogations.
Jack Cloonan, a former FBI security and counterterrorism expert who was assigned to the agency’s elite Bin Laden Unit, Col. Steve Kleinman, a career military intelligence officer recognized as one of the Defense Department’s most effective interrogators, and Matthew Alexander,who was the senior interrogator for the task force in Iraq that tracked down al-Qaeda-in-Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006, said ignoring clear-cut evidence of interrogation-related crimes would encourage more law-breaking in the future. Alexander uses a pseudonym for security reasons.
Cloonan and Kleinman, who conducted interrogations of terror suspects after 9/11, disputed claims by former CIA Director Michael Hayden and Republican lawmakers that a criminal investigation would damage intelligence gathering and could lead to another 9/11-type attack on the United States.
In an interview, Cloonan and Kleinman said Hayden and the lawmakers were sounding “false alarms” in an effort to keep serious crimes from being exposed. “What this is really about is cover your ass,” Cloonan said. “To suggest [intelligence gathering] will come to a screeching halt if there were an investigation is not accurate.”
Last Wednesday, nine Republican senators sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder saying a criminal investigation into the CIA’s interrogation practices would jeopardize the “security for all Americans, “chill future intelligence activities,” and could “leave us more vulnerable to attack.”
A day later, at a panel discussion held at the National Press Club, Hayden said an investigation, “no matter how narrowly defined” will “start pulling threads.
“Continuing looking back, continuing to pull these good people through a knothole will teach people never to play to the edge, will teach people ‘yeah I got an opinion from Justice and I know the president wants me to do it and the director [of the CIA] says it’s a good thing and I know I’m capable of doing it but I just don’t think so.’ We will teach timidity to a workforce we need to be vigorous and active. And no matter how narrowly defined this look back might be it’ll start pulling threads, you’ll have a significant number of agency folks being pulled through this process, in my mind, to no good,” he said.
Cloonan and Kleinman said Hayden and the GOP senators were sounding “false alarms” in an effort to keep serious crimes from being exposed and prosecuted. Cloonan, who retired in 2002 after more than 25 years in the FBI, said neither he nor the intelligence community believes that an investigation into torture will result in a threat to national security.
“What this is really about is cover your ass,” Cloonan said about the senators’ letter. “To suggest [intelligence gathering] will come to a screeching halt if there were an investigation is not accurate.”
Kleinman, who most recently served as a senior adviser on a Director of National Intelligence-commissioned study on strategic interrogation, agreed.
“I respectfully disagree profoundly with the assessment that any effort to look back would make us more vulnerable, Kleinman said. “In fact, we have to look back to show our utmost vulnerabilities.
“I’ve had the honor of testifying before four committees of Congress and I am always astounded at the profound political partisan politics that surround this issue. I’m a professional interrogator I have 25 years of experience in this and I don’t have any concern whatsoever that an investigation into how we conducted ourselves since 9/11 would in any way undermine our ability to continue gathering intelligence.”
Furthermore, Kleinman and Cloonan believe their colleagues in the intelligence community share their views. But many are unable to speak out publicly.
“I have friends in the intelligence community who won’t speak up because to do so is almost a career ender,” Kleinman, who has more than two decades of experience in the field of interrogation, said. “Sometimes they’re in a secured status where they couldn’t admit to their job anyway. The one’s who I talked to who are experienced they’re right on board with this” possible investigation.
Kleinman and Cloonan added that the outside contractors and the interrogators who lacked the training and experience are the ones who saw the use of torture as a means to gain valuable information. Moreover, they are likely the ones who fear an investigation.
“The people who are true professionals don’t see anything wrong with an investigation,” Kleinman said. “I conducted interrogations in three separate military campaigns. I can look back if they called me in tomorrow and I would not even be thinking about getting liability insurance.
Cloonan, Kleinman and Alexander sent a letter Friday to the chairs of the House and Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees calling for the creation of a bipartisan commission to “assess policy making that led to use of torture and cruelty in interrogations.”
They wrote that if Holder appoints a special counsel it will mark an “important step forward” by reaffirming “the enduring power of our system of checks and balances.”
“The prohibition on torture in this country is unequivocal,” Cloonan, Alexander and Kleinman wrote. “To ignore evidence of criminal wrongdoing would incentivize future breaches of law.”
However, they added that an investigation and the potential for prosecutions “of individuals who violated anti-torture statutes alone…will not prevent policy makers from making similar mistakes in the future.”
“At the heart of the policy decisions buttressing interrogators’ use of torture and cruelty lay closed processes that have yet to be scrutinized with cool heads and wise counsel. Instead of putting in place the best policies for protecting American lives, policy makers ignored the advice of experienced interrogators, counterterrorism experts and respected military leaders who warned that using torture and cruelty would be ineffective and counter-productive.”
House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers and his counterpart in the Senate, Patrick Leahy, have both advocated for a truth commission to look into the use of torture, and other abuses, that took place during the Bush administration’s tenure. Leahy said he would not follow through on his plan without the support of Republicans, which he does not have, and Conyers’ proposal never even attracted the support of Democrats. President Obama had told the lawmakers in closed-door meetings earlier this year that he did not support those efforts.
But Kleinman, Cloonan, and Alexander said that’s a mistake. In their letter, they wrote that the path the U.S. chose to take, specifically related to interrogations, “came with heavy costs.”
“Key allies, in some instances, refused to share needed intelligence, terrorists attacks increased world wide, and al Qaeda and like-minded groups recruited a new generation of Jihadists,” they wrote.
“A nonpartisan, independent commission with subpoena power should assess the deeply flawed policy making framework behind the decision to permit torture and cruelty. Our system of checks and balances is designed to produce sound policy decisions which advance our strategic interests and are in accordance with our core values of due process.
“Many important decisions that were made during the Bush administration were done so without the consent and the advice of key Congressional leaders, Department of Justice officials, and other officials with the expertise to provide informed thinking and critical analysis. An independent commission can present recommendations for fixing this process going forward. Reviewing our policies and actions concerning detention and treatment of detainees after 9/11 will strengthen our system of checks and balances so that when faced with the next challenge, we get it right.”
Kleinman said “looking back” is not just a human rights matter.
“We absolutely have to look back otherwise if we’re attacked again or we get into a conventional war we run the risk of the same problems. It’s not just human rights. It’s operational. We squandered opportunities to collect vital intelligence” because the U.S. government chose to use torture.
Kleinman said he was “disappointed” with an op-ed column CIA Director Leon Panetta published in the Washington Post urging lawmakers to “move on” from talk of investigations and to resist focusing on the past.
“Every world class intelligence organization look at where they come from to get better,” Kleinman said. “I think it’s critical. A lot of people say this is a witch hunt. I think they’re wrong.”
No Actionable Intelligence
Cloonan and Kleinman also doubt claims, like those leveled by Dick Cheney, that the use of torture produced actionable intelligence, the type that helped prevent another terrorist attack on U.S. soil and “saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” to quote the former vice president.
“The ticking time bomb scenario is great for books and television but it didn’t exist. There wasn’t a ticking time bomb. Gen. [Michael] Hayden and Vice President Cheney are making this argument that nobody I know of thinks is true. They say they got substantial information from [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed” through torture. But Mohammed gave up “information that everybody already knew. At least on the FBI side. There was nothing new there. [The FBI] would have heard about it if his” torture produced valuable intelligence.
Alexander, who published a book about the capture and interrogation of Zarqawi titled How to Break A Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down The Deadliest Man in Iraq, agreed.
In an interview last December with Jon Stewart, host of the The Daily Show, Alexander said he “never saw coercive methods [pay off]…When I was in Iraq, the few times I saw people use harsh methods, it was always counterproductive.”
“The person just hunkered down, they were expecting us to do that, and they just shut up,” he said. “And then I’d have to send somebody in, build back up rapport, reverse that process, and it would take us longer to get information.”
Cheney claims he has a file that contains classified smoking-gun documents that will show that torture staved off an imminent terrorist attack. Those documents may be released Monday along with a declassified version of a 2004 CIA inspector general’s report on the agency’s torture program that raised doubts about the legality of the methods used. The report says the CIA conducted mock executions and threatened a high-value detainee with a gun and power drill.
Cloonan said he had a “long conversation” with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee after he testified before the panel last year and was told that there isn’t a smoking-gun document that will show torture was effective on any of the high-value detainees who were brutally tortured. He said soon the public will find that it out too.
“I think at a minimum you’ll see a third party review that it’s ambiguous at best,” Cloonan said. He added that the best way to get “actionable intelligence is rapport building. It’s the only way.
“Unfortunately, a lot of time and effort was squandered” by using coercive methods. “There were a lot of interrogators—contractors—who would not take no for an answer and and wouldn’t accept that these detainees did not know anything. They stumbled. They resorted to the easiest means. They were being pressured.”
In a stunning reversal, Hayden, who has said that torture, or “enhanced interrogation” methods, thwarted attacks admitted during his panel discussion at the National Press Club, that the torture of high-level detainees didn’t stop imminent attacks, but was successful “in terms of our learning of the basic infrastructure of al-Qaeda and then enabling the agency counterattack against both the infrastructure and the leadership of al-Qaeda.”
Hayden, who said he “pushed back” on the release of the report, added that in the 200-page document there are a mere “half-a-dozen paragraphs that talk about the success of the [torture] program” from the perspective of learning about the way al-Qaeda operates.
Hayden added that report has been “down on the Hill” since 2004 and available to Congress since 2006 so “why would the release of this report prompt us to have a special prosecutor and any other kind of activity? I just think it’s destructive of the agency and unfair to the good people who did what they did out of duty not out of enthusiasm and did what the nation asked them to do.”
CIA IG Report
Kleinman said the news reported over the weekend by several publications that the CIA’s IG report will show that agency interrogators conducted a mock execution, brandished a gun and a power drill during the interrogation of at least one detainee underscores how haphazard the intelligence gathering process turned out to be and why the policies that resulted in such horrific acts warrants a thorough public vetting.
“I defy anybody in the intelligence community to bring forward the research, the thoughtful objective analysis that purports to support that mock executions is a consistent and effective means of getting accurate information from people,” Kleinman said. “Show me the studies that say causing a great deal of fear is consistently successful in getting useful information. Because there won’t be.
“What people are doing is they’re just scrambling because they don’t know what else to do. They’re scrambling for some sort of technique and they’re just using things that they think ‘well that will scare me so it must scare them. It would make me talk so it must make them talk.’ Sure, they’ll talk. But they’re talking because they are afraid they are going to die. And they will say anything to keep from dying.”