Ex-CIA Official: Torture Ban a ‘Great Leap Forward’

Created: January 22, 2009 17:16 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

President Barack Obama took a major step toward undoing the interrogation and detention policies of the Bush administration on Thursday, issuing four executive orders that lay out an unequivocal path to closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, constructing a new legal and policy architecture for terrorism detainees, and ending the CIA’s so-called “enhanced interrogation” regime.

Both civil libertarians and ex-CIA officials involved in interrogations and detentions policies hailed the changes.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

“It’s a great leap forward in terms of respect for human rights,” said John Kiriakou, the retired CIA official who supervised the early interrogation of Al Qaeda detainee Abu Zubaydah in 2002. “From the very beginning, the CIA should not have been in the business of enhanced interrogation techniques and detentions.” CIA interrogators waterboarded Abu Zubaydah, but not while Kiriakou supervised the interrogation.

Under the executive orders issued Thursday, the CIA’s interrogators cannot question detainees using “any interrogation technique or approach, or any treatment related to interrogation, that is not authorized by and listed in Army Field Manual 2 22.3.” That manual was rewritten by the Army in 2006 to reemphasize its compliance with the Geneva Conventions and U.S. laws banning torture. The Bush administration took an unyielding stance toward exempting CIA interrogations from that manual and those laws. But the Obama administration revoked all Bush administration executive orders from September 11, 2001 onward “concerning detention or the interrogation of detained individuals,” and directed the attorney general to conduct a thorough review of all other “directives, orders, and regulations” on the subject issued by the Bush administration that are no longer applicable.

Obama further instructed the military to close Guantanamo Bay within a year. A different executive order empanelled a cabinet-level task force to determine what should be done with the roughly 245 detainees still held at the Cuban naval base, as well as determining “lawful options for the disposition of individuals captured or apprehended in connection with armed conflicts and counterterrorism operations” in the future.

In testimony Thursday morning to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, ret. Adm. Dennis Blair, Obama’s nominee to lead the 16-agency intelligence community, repeatedly underscored his opposition to torture. “Torture is not moral, it’s not legal and it’s not effective,” Blair stated. While the director of national intelligence-designate would not say whether he considered waterboarding torture, he told Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), “There will be no waterboarding on my watch, there will be no torture on my watch.”

Kiriakou said that the reaction to Obama’s harmonization of interrogations policy would get “a very positive reaction” inside the CIA. “There are people at CIA who engaged in what were certified as enhanced [interrogation] techniques, but were never supportive of it,” he said. “This should make people very happy. No one wants to be in harm’s way [legally]. Despite what the Bush White House and Bush Justice Department said was legal, I think people at the CIA understood that this was not legal and [the techniques] were torture.”

Tyler Drumheller, a former chief of CIA operations in Europe during the Bush administration’s first term, agreed. “These people aren’t monsters,” Drumheller said. “They were doing what they were told, and what was the policy of the [Bush] administration.”

The reaction from civil libertarians was uniformly jubilant. Linda Gustitus, president of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said Obama “has already changed the world with respect to America’s use of torture.” Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies said the orders represented an “extraordinary first step towards ending the illegalities and abuses of the last seven years.” Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch, said the interrogations order “makes meaningful the US commitment not to torture detainees” and that “President Obama has rejected the abusive practices of the last seven-and-a-half years.” Caroline Fredrickson, Washington director of the ACLU, said Obama had given the U.S. “a much-needed and significant break from the Bush administration policies that, with utter disregard for our Constitution, trampled our nation’s values and ideals.”

Progressive members of Congress who fought against the Bush administration’s detentions and interrogations apparatus joined in their enthusiasm for Obama’s move. “President Obama’s first days in office have been a triumph for the rule of law,” said Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), a member of both the intelligence and the judiciary committees. Added Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), a member of the House intelligence committee and chairman of a special House panel on intelligence oversight, “Today’s orders will begin the process of putting our detainee policies back on sound legal footing while maintaining our ability to get actionable intelligence.”

Holt added in a phone interview, “If you outlaw torture in all its specifics [as the executive order does], I don’t really care about a general statement. I’m really pleased.” He noted that when Obama was an Illinois state senator, Obama wrote a law requiring all police interrogations to be videotaped, which Holt has long argued should be standard CIA and military practice as well.

Senators at Blair’s hearing expressed some concern over whether Obama’s executive orders had left loopholes for CIA interrogations and detentions that would contravene the bans on abuse and cruel and unusual punishment. Officials scrambled to reassure senators and journalists that there would be no such exemptions. While Blair testified that he would not wish to see operational specifics of interrogation techniques made public, he declared that he was “not saying ‘Here’s the document, and then, just kidding, here’s the real stuff.’” Similarly, at a background briefing at the White House on the new orders, a White House legal official told reporters that there would be no “reintroducing techniques that are inconsistent with the Army Field Manual.”

The Center for National Security Studies’ Martin agreed. “I don’t think there’s a real loophole for the CIA, although any president can always undo an order that he’s signed,” she said. “But

ordering the CIA to close its detenion centers is an enormous step, as it would take substantial time and resources to open them again.”

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, blasted the closure of Guantanamo Bay as irresponsible. “During these troubled times, GITMO facilitates the necessary function of gathering intelligence and keeping America’s most dangerous enemies in custody,” Price said in a statement. “Closing the facility without a plan in place to replicate those functions is irresponsible.” Yet Obama’s order directs both the military and the cabinet to come up with precisely such plans.

Drumheller hoped that the administration would engage in some sort of reckoning with the notion, put forward without evidence by senior Bush officials for seven years, that the Bush administration’s interrogation program actually provided valuable intelligence in the struggle against Al Qaeda. “What really did come out?” Drumheller asked. “There should be an honest appraisal of [the program] not just the first few months, but all these years. It would give an idea why [the use of torture] probably isn’t a good idea.”

Kiriakou, who has more experience with the interrogation regime than most in the intelligence community, was satisfied simply to see the program end. “It’s finally time that regulations fell in line with reality,” he said.

Updated: This piece has been edited for clarity.