In an era when the public is demanding accountability, how accountable is the intelligence sphere? Employing hundreds of thousands and spending hundreds of billions each year, it essentially answers to no one. Even the people’s representatives tasked with riding herd, the congressional intelligence committees, have nearly always been kept in the dark, sworn to silence, compromised, deceived or otherwise neutralized.
The reason we cannot call this leviathan to account is because, we are told again and again, it must be left alone to do in secrecy what it does in our interest. But how well does it do its work?
Let’s go to the Washington Post:
When CIA officials subjected their first high-value captive, Abu Zubaida, to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, they were convinced that they had in their custody an al-Qaeda leader who knew details of operations yet to be unleashed, and they were facing increasing pressure from the White House to get those secrets out of him.
The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads.
In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.
Moreover, within weeks of his capture, U.S. officials had gained evidence that made clear they had misjudged Abu Zubaida. President George W. Bush had publicly described him as “al-Qaeda’s chief of operations,” and other top officials called him a “trusted associate” of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a major figure in the planning of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. None of that was accurate, the new evidence showed.
Abu Zubaida was not even an official member of al-Qaeda, according to a portrait of the man that emerges from court documents and interviews with current and former intelligence, law enforcement and military sources. Rather, he was a “fixer” for radical Muslim ideologues, and he ended up working directly with al-Qaeda only after Sept. 11 — and that was because the United States stood ready to invade Afghanistan…..
“We spent millions of dollars chasing false alarms,” one former intelligence official said.
Despite the poor results, Bush White House officials and CIA leaders continued to insist that the harsh measures applied against Abu Zubaida and others produced useful intelligence that disrupted terrorist plots and saved American lives.
Two weeks ago, Bush’s vice president, Richard B. Cheney, renewed that assertion in an interview with CNN, saying that “the enhanced interrogation program” stopped “a great many” terrorist attacks on the level of Sept. 11.
“I’ve seen a report that was written, based upon the intelligence that we collected then, that itemizes the specific attacks that were stopped by virtue of what we learned through those programs,” Cheney asserted, adding that the report is “still classified,” and, “I can’t give you the details of it without violating classification.”
Since 2006, Senate intelligence committee members have pressed the CIA, in classified briefings, to provide examples of specific leads that were obtained from Abu Zubaida through the use of waterboarding and other methods, according to officials familiar with the requests.
The agency provided none, the officials said.
To be sure, part of this story is the pressure applied by the Bush White House on the CIA. But there’s a broader issue: the efficacy of the overall enterprise—how well it is run, what it does, how much of what it does is in the long-term interest of the American people. Getting this tiger by the toe should have always been a top priority, not just of government, but also of journalism. Yet even in the most flush of times, news organizations have rarely had more than one or a handful of reporters on this beat—and much of their work has been manipulated by sources with agendas. Rarely do we see such important revelations as those contained in the Post article. And the mere fact that they are coming out now has more to do with the changing of the guard at the White House than to any substantive changes.