Senate Torture Report and CIA Spin

In a recent discussion with my friend, Ron Roizen, we talked (like most of Americans have in recent days) about the release of the Senate CIA Torture Report  at “black sites” and particularly Guantanamo Bay. Ron had this to say, which he said I could share with readers of my blog:

“The CIA torture story is of course a national disgrace.  I feel ashamed of myself, personally, for doing nothing – no letter to the editor, no call to a congressman, no self-imposed fasting, even – while these abuses were going on.  I remember as a kid watching “Victory at Sea” and other WWII newsreel-type films, and always thinking, deep down somewhere in my young soul, how proud I was that we did not engage in atrocities the way our enemies did.  I was naïve of course, but that feeling stuck – and later on generated part of the shame and guilt I felt over Abu Ghraib and other news that leaked out about obscene conduct done in our name and ostensibly in our behalf.  Incidentally, it was particularly annoying to me that a Berkeley law professor, John Yoo, was one of the legal architects of “enhanced interrogation.”  Apparently, moreover, he’s still supportive of that dark enterprise (see here).  The only bright spot in all this is of course that a probing and candid report was done and that people from as far apart on the political spectrum as Feinstein and McCain are decrying the CIA’s actions.  Still, it astonishes and deeply unsettles me that my countrymen were capable of this disgraceful program of acts.”

I don’t need to add the moral outrage that Ron feels and expresses so eloquently. I think everyone agrees that the acts committed fit the definition of torture. I don’t think that is a debatable point. But I do have some points to add about what is also reprehensible–and that is the CIA’s attempt at spin.

As a nation, we have had a lot of changing attitudes about war. In WWII, the heroes came home to kiss the girls in Times Square. By Vietnam, gritty images appeared in Life Magazine of comrades shot in the head or girls running down roads, clothes burned away by napalm. These were the last drafted troops. Now, an Army of volunteers and contractors supports the nation and it is important to remember how drastically our propaganda has evolved, while policies stay the same.

After the Second World War, the American populace was understandably furious about the propaganda campaigns utilized by the Germans to influence the public support of their military ideologies. But then we adopted some of their techniques in our own foreign policy.

26 July 1947 National Security Act of 1947, signed by President Truman, creates the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The Act also forms the National Security Council, the Office of Secretary of Defense, and the US Air Force.
18 September 1947 CIA formally comes into existence, replacing CIG (Central Intelligence Group—January, 1946).
17 December 1947 National Security Council authorizes CIA to perform covert action.

“What is Covert Action?

According to National Security Act Sec. 503 (e), covert action is, “An activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.” Proper covert actions are undertaken because policymakers—not the intelligence agencies—believe that secret means are the best way to achieve a desired end or a specific policy goal.

Covert action encompasses a broad spectrum of activities, but may include:

  • Propaganda: Intelligence agencies covertly disseminate specific information to advance foreign policy goals. United States law prohibits, however, the use of intelligence agencies to influence domestic media and opinion.
  • Political/Economic Action: Intelligence agencies covertly influence the political or economic workings of a foreign nation.
  • Paramilitary Operations: Intelligence agencies covertly train and equip personnel to attack an adversary or to conduct intelligence operations. These operations normally do not involve the use of uniformed military personnel as combatants.
  • Lethal Action: During times of war or armed conflict, the U.S. may need to use covert lethal force against enemies who pose a threat. The U.S. formally banned the use of political assassinations in 1976.

One distinction between covert action and other overt activities, such as traditional diplomatic or military operations, is that U.S. officials could plausibly deny involvement in the activity. This “plausible deniability,” however, is predicated upon the covert action remaining secret.

  • Example: American involvement in the 1961 Bay of Pigs operation could not be kept secret once the results became public, so President Kennedy publicly admitted responsibility afterwards at a White House press conference.”

The leaders of the CIG and the CIA were military men—Lt. Colonels and the like. And then, according to Stephen Kinzer’s The Brothers, then-President Eisenhower appointed a civilian, Allen Dulles (brother to Secretary of State Stephen Foster Dulles), as the head of the Agency. The CIA began to adopt the same propaganda techniques employed by the Third Reich to influence the American public’s view of foreign policy decisions that did not comport with domestic business concerns, in clear conflict of the National Security Act. Since the era of Eisenhower, the CIA has been engaging in propaganda campaigns like what we are experiencing with the push-back to the release of the Senate Torture Report. This is not an anomaly, but a systematic training. The good news is that Senate report has brought the issue to the public forefront and the people are beginning to speak up. However, I firmly believe that the public cannot understand the charter of the CIA without some of the background outlined in Kinzer’s illuminating case studies. The push-back from those in government to the Senate Report is just an illustration of how deeply that this philosophy is entrenched in the governmental policy and how the CIA has been using propaganda campaigns to further goals for decades.

It is important not to get lost in the minutiae of “What happened?” and “When did it happen?” to realize the political implications of the history of who we are as a country. If we do not allow room for moral outrage about behaviors that we find reprehensible, we will doom ourselves. We should not allow the sound bites of the propaganda machine to overwhelm us.

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