The CIA Director's Unwitting Case for Torture Prosecutions

John Brennan admits that interrogators at his agency did abhorrent things and were never held accountable.

CIA Director John Brennan spoke out after the release of the Senate torture report to defend the intelligence agency that he leads. In his telling, the CIA interrogations after the September 11 terrorist attacks saved lives and mostly conformed to legal standards set by permissive lawyers at the Office of Legal Counsel.

Yet hiding in his remarks was a clear admission of wrongdoing.

"Over the years, internal agency reviews, including numerous investigations by our Office of the Inspector General, found fault in CIA's running of the program," he said. "We have acknowledged many of these mistakes in our response to the study last year and I will touch on some of them today... in a limited number of instances, agency officers used interrogation techniques that had not been authorized, were abhorrent, and rightly should be repudiated by all. And we fell short when it came to holding some officers accountable for their mistakes. It is vitally important to recognize, however, that the overwhelming majority of officers involved in the program at CIA carried out their responsibilities faithfully and in accordance with the legal and policy guidance they were provided. They did what they were asked to do..."

So why not punish them now?

If CIA officers did abhorrent things that even their waterboarding colleagues managed to avoid, exceeding the orders and legal strictures they were given, why haven't they been prosecuted for torture as a duly ratified treaty compels the U.S. to do? Why hasn't Brennan ever remedied the failure to hold those men accountable? Why has he allowed people even he regards as criminals to remain at the CIA?

The reason is that he does not believe the rule of law should apply to the CIA.

Dick Cheney, Michael Hayden, and Brennan make a big show of invoking the legal cover given by John Yoo and others, as if they respect the rule of law. But beneath the posturing, they oppose jailing CIA officers no matter what, perhaps because those officers know things that could put them in prison. Among torturers, there can be only one code: Stop Snitchin'. Do you think that I exaggerate? As The Week notes, the only person in jail over CIA torture is a man who tried to expose it.

In the end, Andrew Sullivan comes close to the mark. "There is no organization in the US government that exercises the kind of power the CIA does–over the presidency, Congress, and the media," he writes. "It is unimaginable that any other agency in government could commit war crimes, torture innocents, murder people, wreck this country’s moral standing… and yet escape any consequences... There is no other government agency that launches elaborate public relations campaigns to discredit and undermine its Senate oversight committee. There is no other organization whose head can tell blatant lies about spying on its overseers and receive the president’s wholehearted support. There is no other agency where you can murder someone already in your captivity and get away with it."

The head of the CIA can go on national television, acknowledge that some CIA officers tortured using "abhorrent" tactics, admit that those tactics went beyond their orders and the law, note that they were never held accountable... and then do nothing more. This is a man President Obama still wants to head the intelligence agency, perhaps because while Brennan may not know "where all the bodies are buried," he knows where they were droned to death on sometimes illegal Obama orders.

Lawlessness begets lawlessness begets lawlessness.