With the Senate gearing up to release a sharply critical report about the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation and detention practices, a group of former senior intelligence officials is planning to rebut those criticisms with a flurry of op-eds, media interviews, and newly declassified documents. The backbone of the media campaign will be a newly launched website with a rather blunt and straightforward title: “CIASavedLives.com.”
“It’s a one-stop shopping place for the other side,” Bill Harlow, a top CIA spokesman during the George W. Bush administration, told Foreign Policy. “With the website … we’ll be able to put out newly declassified documents, documents that were previously released but not well read, and host a repository for op-eds and media appearances by various officials.”
Joined by other senior CIA alumni, including former directors Michael Hayden and George Tenet, Harlow is coordinating an aggressive response to the release of the 500-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, which includes new and disturbing details about the scale and severity of the Bush administration’s enhanced interrogation program. With the summary expected to drop on Tuesday, Harlow plans to make his site live the very same day. (At the moment, typing in the URL brings users to a page administered by the caddish web hosting company GoDaddy.com).
“We have plans to correct the record as we see it and help the people whose names are being dragged through the mud,” said Harlow.
For more than a year, the CIA and Senate Democrats have been sparring aggressively over this document, a summary of a 6,000-plus-page report, which concludes that no significant intelligence was derived from the use of enhanced interrogation techniques and that the CIA actively misled Congress and other U.S. officials about the success and brutality of the program.
On the day the summary drops, the CIA will push back sharply against the notion that the program had no value and that the agency lied about its effectiveness in a formal rebuttal. However, given that the Obama administration has acknowledged that CIA interrogation methods like waterboarding constituted torture, and formally barred their use going forward, some former CIA officials believe the agency will be in a difficult position to defend itself.
“I do understand that people in government have to choose their words carefully because they are, in fact, in government,” Hayden told FP in a phone interview on Sunday. “All the formers understand that, which is one of the reasons the formers are willing to say more. We do feel there’s a role for us to play here in trying to make sure the historical record is accurate.”
In advance of the document’s release, former CIA directors and deputy directors were given a small window to review the summary in a controlled room. The review of the summary was contingent on the signing of a nondisclosure, agreement so many of the former officials are limited in what they can say about the report prior to its release. But there’s no question that they’re profoundly resentful of its findings. Other current and former officials are angry that the Senate investigators never interviewed them during the five years spent preparing the mammoth report.
“I think the report is dishonest and shameful,” said one former senior intelligence officer. “They gave us 10 days to look at them … and then I had to sign a nondisclosure agreement to not talk about it so they really tried to box us in here and make it hard for us to have anything to say.”
Others, though, have felt quite liberated to speak their minds, which is why Sunday’s top political shows were stocked full of Bush-era officials trying to defend themselves and the administration ahead of the report.
On CNN’s State of the Union, former President George W. Bush gave a full-throated defense of the agency. “These are patriots and whatever the report says, if it diminishes their contributions to our country, it is way off base.”
Hayden made similar arguments on CBS’s Face the Nation. In a Washington Post op-ed, Jose Rodriguez, who was in charge of the interrogation program, also pushed back against criticism that his operatives kept lawmakers in the dark about what he insisted was a highly successful effort to prevent future attacks. Rodriguez has long been a controversial figure because of his role in destroying tapes of the brutal interrogation of an al Qaeda suspect named Abu Zubaydah. “We did what we were asked to do, we did what we were assured was legal, and we know our actions were effective,” he wrote in the op-ed.
The debate about the report’s release has also seeped into the diplomatic world. On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, to delay the report’s release due to concerns about a backlash in the Muslim world at a time when Americans are being held hostage by Islamic militant groups. That request will likely go unheeded, as many Senate Democrats fear that if they don’t release the report before the end of the year, Republicans will bury it when they take control of the committee and the Senate in January, thanks to sweeping victories at the ballot box in November.
Human rights groups also oppose any delay of the report’s release. “Last minute attempts to delay the release of the Senate torture report show just how important this document is to understanding the CIA’s horrific torture program,” Sarah Margon, Washington director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “US foreign policy is better served by coming clean about US abuses rather than continuing to bury the truth.”