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Advice Too Secret to Ignore

Posted on Mar 20, 2014

Photo by The National Guard (CC BY 2.0)

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch.

[Editor’s note: Our old friend Colonel Manners (ret.) made his first appearance at TomDispatch last October.  Today, he’s back for the third time.  We have yet to run into anyone more knowledgeable in the mores, manners, and linguistic habits of the national security state.  His CV (unfortunately redacted) would blow you away.  At a time of heightened tension among the U.S. Intelligence Community, the White House, Congress, and the American people, who better to explain the workings and thought patterns of the inner world of official Washington than the Colonel?  Once again, he answers the questions of ordinary citizens about how their secret government actually works.  Among advice columnists, he’s a nonpareil.  Here’s just a sampling of his answers to recent correspondence.]

Dear Col. Manners,

When Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, he insisted that we “look forward,” not backward.  While he rejected the widespread use of torture and abuse by the CIA in the Bush years, his Department of Justice refused to prosecute a single torture case, even when death was the result.  (The only CIA agent to go to jail during the Obama presidency was the guy who blew the whistle on the CIA torture program!) 

Jump ahead five years, and instead of looking forward, it seems that we’re again looking backward big time.  The head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, usually the staunchest backer of U.S. intelligence, seems to have sworn a vendetta against the CIA on the Senate floor for spying on her oversight committee as it prepared its still-unreleased report on the Agency’s torture program.  The CIA denies it all and claims committee staffers spied on them.  Once again, the Justice Department faces the issue of charges over the Agency’s torture program!  It seems like little short of a constitutional catfight.


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What gives, Colonel?  Shouldn’t President Obama have prosecuted CIA torturers in the first place and isn’t it time that he and his Justice Department finally take all this to court?

Tortured in Tacoma

Dear Tortured,

You’ve hit the nail on the head!  When Senator Feinstein turns on the CIA, the situation couldn’t be more disturbing—or out of hand.  But believe me, the answer is not to call on the Justice Department (of all places!) to sort this out.  After all, as you indicate, it was incapable of prosecuting the killing of tortured prisoners, so it’s hardly likely to adopt a take-no-prisoners attitude toward either the CIA or the Senate Intelligence Committee over possible computer spying. 

Instead, as the president long ago suggested, we need to look forward, not backward.  And with that in mind, Senator John McCain has, I believe, made the most useful suggestion: that an independent investigative body be empaneled to get to the bottom of the dispute between Feinstein and the CIA.  As you know, over the last five years, the Senate Intelligence Committee has managed to write a still-incomplete report on the CIA’s black sites and torture campaign.  Though unreleased to the public even in redacted or summary form, it is reportedly 6,300 pages long.  By comparison, the first novel in history, the Tale of Genji, is only 1,200 pages, and War and Peace only 1,800 pages.  (And yes, Tortured, we in the secret world do have a certain attraction to fiction.)

6.2 million documents on its interrogation program and related matters that the CIA also reputedly turned over to the committee. (That, of course, doesn’t include the videos of its interrogations that the Agency destroyed back in 2005 because they took up too much shelf space.)  Sorting through this sort of documentation will take time.  Let’s conservatively estimate that the panel doesn’t finish hearing witnesses and going over documents until mid-2015.  Next, it has to write up its report, which will obviously have to be more than 6,300 pages long.  It, in turn, will have to be read and vetted by numerous people in the intelligence community and elsewhere before it can be made public, lest someone find blood on their hands.

A reasonable time estimate for the whole process? Perhaps a heavily edited and redacted summary of the panel’s findings could see the light by late 2017 by which time—and here’s the great benefit—passions will have cooled, some of the participants will be dead, and the rest of us will have other things on our minds than a panel reporting on possible crimes committed in relation to a report about possible crimes committed a decade and a half earlier.  In short, this is a stellar example of effective long-term problem-solving the national security way.

Yours looking forward,

Col. Manners (ret.)


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