Holding the CIA accountable

The trouble with public entities is the trouble with human nature: It’s the product of fallible people.

The Central Intelligence Agency throws the problem into relief. The CIA plays a critical role flagging international security threats and briefing the president and National Security Council. But the post-9/11 fog also whet the agency’s appetite for pushing boundaries (code for violating its charter and breaking the law.) Now, all too slowly, we’re learning the how, when and where.

As The Washington Post reports, the Senate Intelligence Committee has determined that that the CIA lied about the extent of its use of torture, exaggerated the importance of various prisoners and purported plots, and claimed credit for intelligence extracted from prisoners actually offered up prior to “enhanced” interrogation.

The normative lesson is that torture doesn’t work. The Post quotes a source who said, “The CIA described [its program] repeatedly both to the Department of Justice and eventually to Congress as getting unique, otherwise unobtainable intelligence that helped disrupt terrorist plots and save thousands of lives. Was that actually true? The answer is no.”

The overarching questions were anticipated by the University of Washington’s Rob Crawford, who has agitated for immediate release of the Senate report detailing torture and extraordinary rendition. In a Herald guest commentary last month, Crawford wrote, “The report will likely disclose the extent of CIA torture far beyond the horrific practices already revealed. It will document the harm to the country and the stain on national character. Not least, it will challenge the perpetrators and their supporters’ assertion that torture ‘works.’”

CIA watchdogs playfully mimic Claude Rains in “Casablanca,” that they are shocked, shocked! by all the lying going on here. Tributes to former Defense Secretary and CIA director James Schlesinger , who died last week, underscored his concern about agency activity after the 1971 break-in to Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. Schlesinger demanded information on similar lawlessness dating back to 1959. The agency detailed at least 700 instances of charter violations.

Little of this registers with Americans who watched the film, “Zero Dark Thirty,” which shows CIA torturers extracting information that leads directly to Osama bin Laden. That’s a myth, yet it’s part of the public narrative. As historian Lynn Hunt notes in “Inventing Human Rights,” novels, art and popular culture contour opinion on right behavior. Today, we need a movie that illustrates what the CIA does best: The tedious human intelligence, the recruiting of agents, the policy analysis. The truth, however unsexy, is what bolsters American security.

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