Is the CIA's Excessive Secrecy Near an End?

Tuesday, 08 September 2009 20:11 By Robert Weiner and Jordan Osserman, The Cleveland Plain Dealer | name.

Is the CIA
Attorney General Eric Holder has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate CIA interrogation abuses. However, some human rights groups worry the investigation will avoid going beyond looking into low-ranking officials. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)

    On May 28, President Obama mandated a 90-day review of classification policy, with the goal of creating an "unprecedented level of openness" in government. He'll soon let us know how many fewer government secrets we'll have. He has a lot to do.

    Attorney General Eric Holder has just appointed a special prosecutor to investigate CIA interrogation abuses in the War on Terror, including secret waterboarding, which had until recently been prosecuted in U.S. courts as a war crime. He also will track the truth of the possibly 100 prisoners tortured to death in Abu Ghraib. Often, to hide accountability, it was not the CIA but its contractors who did the interrogations - they were able to go over the top with a wink and a nod from their agency overseers.

    On Aug. 20, Bush's former CIA Director Michael Hayden told the National Press Club that contractors were necessary to "fill a need" as the "best talent" and "not to deflect responsibility." As Shakespeare wrote, "The lady doth protest too much methinks."

    The House Intelligence Committee has launched an investigation into whether the CIA's secret program to assassinate al-Qaida leaders broke the law because it was hidden from Congress at Vice President Dick Cheney's request. The Abu Ghraib deaths by torture were related.

    The administration's decision to address the excess of government secrecy couldn't come at a better time. However, human rights and civil liberties groups including the ACLU and Amnesty International are concerned. Rather than focusing on a comprehensive review of the Bush administration's torture program, the investigation may only look into individual abuses conducted by low-ranking officials. Obama's team must ensure that a full investigation occurs into the actions of the "deciders." It's not a matter of politics - it's the law.

    On Aug. 30, while claiming his pending book will be "terrific" and people will "have to read it," Cheney stated that the probe is "political." When was the last time that lawmakers-turned-lawbreakers did not assert that any investigations into their actions were "political"? What a surprise that Cheney does not like that the investigation may lead to his guidance and instruction for incorrectly defining the law in meetings with White House, Justice and CIA staffers. If that proves true, the other laws that say you cannot ignore them must also be upheld.

    Cheney also claims that investigating the Bush administration's torture program "is a loss of focus on national security." His assertion is a thinly veiled attempt to escape accountability and hide his leadership in misdoings. As even Admiral Stansfield Turner, CIA's director from 1977 to 1981, said, Dick Cheney was "vice president for torture." We want to know, did Cheney urge White House and DOJ staff to change the legal definition of torture before any court agreed, and then get CIA and its contractors to carry it out? Cheney told Chris Wallace, "What I miss most is having the CIA show up on my doorstep six days a week."

    Congressman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said, "Investigations are not a matter of payback or political revenge - it is our responsibility to examine what has occurred and to set an appropriate baseline of conduct for future administrations." Time and time again, the CIA and others have invoked secrecy not for national security but to prevent agency embarrassment.

    Declassified documents reveal that the highest echelons of the Bush administration approved the use of torture on hundreds of prisoners in the custody of the CIA and the Department of Defense, starting with Alberto Gonzalez's 2002 memo to President Bush, where he asserted that the Geneva Conventions were "quaint" and "obsolete." From testimony of prisoners released years later, it turned out many detainees were imprisoned because corrupt informers were paid to implicate them regardless of the merits - no wonder CIA and DOD don't want true trials.

    Four memos released in April 2009, written by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, authorized interrogators to use sensory deprivation, sexual humiliation and waterboarding. Actual methods used won't be described in this family-friendly newspaper.

    The CIA acknowledges that it destroyed 92 interrogation videotapes that showed use of "enhanced interrogation methods." Is the CIA really protecting the American people or just its own skin when it hides photographic evidence of its own egregious misdeeds?

    The CIA maintains such a tight clamp on information that it requires former employees to submit their writing to agency counsel or a Publications Review Board whenever they want to publish anything - even columns advocating new policies on current events after they served at the CIA, and even if the subject matter is public knowledge. That's not security, that's restriction of First Amendment rights. Congress should condemn the agency's censorship and change the law.

    In the uninhibited mind-set of baby boomers' college days, there was a kind of paranoia about the CIA conducting dark and conspiratorial activities. The government said the allegations were myths. At least in the last administration, the "dark side" became reality. President Obama, Congress and Attorney General Holder should seize the opportunity to open the full truth to scrutiny. The legal duty includes reaching as high as the facts show. As Holder himself said, it's a "duty to examine the facts and follow the law."

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    Robert Weiner, an Oberlin College graduate, is a former spokesman for the Clinton White House and US House Government Operations Committee. Jordan Osserman is a policy analyst at Robert Weiner Associates.

Last modified on Tuesday, 08 September 2009 20:35