The CIA's Version of Failing Upward: Torturing Upward

The rise of spy-agency officials who played a role in its "enhanced interrogation" years

As I reflect on the fight between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA (one I'll return to soon), I can't help but marvel at a detail that Senator Dianne Feinstein revealed.

"I should note that for most, if not all, of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, the now-acting general counsel was a lawyer in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center—the unit within which the CIA managed and carried out this program," she said. "From mid-2004 until the official termination of the detention and interrogation program in January 2009, he was the unit’s chief lawyer. He is mentioned by name more than 1,600 times in our study."

For the appropriate reaction, here's Andrew Sullivan, a longtime torture critic: "Think about that for a moment. A man who was once the lawyer for the torture unit is now the lawyer for the CIA as a whole!" he writes. "If that alone doesn’t tell you how utterly unrepentant the CIA is over its past, and how determined it is to keep its actions concealed, as well as immune to prosecution, what would? And how do we know that the lawyer is not just protecting his own posterior, because the report could lead to consequences for those who enabled such war crimes? We don’t." 

In fact, as Marcy Wheeler points out, Robert Eatinger, the CIA lawyer to whom Feinstein alludes but does not name, was also involved in the destruction of tapes documenting CIA torture, so "protecting his own posterior" is a plausible explanation.

Once again we're seeing the consequences not only of the Bush Administration's illegal torture, but also President Obama's decision to "look forward," an approach that has caused him to default on his legal obligation to enforce an important-to-civilization anti-torture treaty and to leave in place an alarming number of CIA staffers who, a few short years ago, were complicit in torturing humans. They haven't merely escaped legal consequences. They've kept their CIA jobs! In fact, they haven't just kept their jobs. They've risen to leadership positions!

I say "they" in part because I'm thinking of John Brennan, who recently became head of the CIA despite working for the agency during the height of its post-9/11 torturing. Years later, he claimed that he opposed torture, though there's reason to doubt him. At minimum, the allegedly "priest-like" Brennan favored rendition and what he called "enhanced-interrogation tactics" other than water-boarding. 

Much like how Obama insisted Iraq was a stupid war to launch, then proceeded to fill his foreign-policy team with men and women who supported it, he has insisted that torture is illegal and immoral without taking the logical step of trying to remove folks complicit in past war crimes from leading America's spy agency.

Face it: America is likely to torture again, if we aren't doing it already.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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