Panetta Too Deferential to Congress

"I am a creature of Congress," said Leon Panetta with a broad smile, which was returned by equally wide smiles from members of the Senate intelligence committee meeting yesterday to consider his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

I really wish he hadn’t said that.  For that sobriquet fits the worst of the worst, so to speak, of former CIA directors – the tarnished Medal of Freedom awardee, George Tenet.  He too mastered the art of grinning in Congress.

When nominated to lead the CIA, his distinctive cachet was said to be that, as staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee, George was "equally popular on both sides of the aisle."  Those of us who had been around a while knew this to be no cachet, but rather the kiss of death for intelligence work.  His insatiable need to please his masters famously led George in Dec. 2002 to yell "slam dunk," when former president George W. Bush asked about evidence of "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq.

That same desire to please, bordering on the obsequious, showed through Panetta’s performance at his nomination hearing on Thursday and Friday.  There was little sense that the man who nominated him, Barack Obama, had won a decisive election victory and was determined to exorcise the flock of evil spirits possessing the White House of Bush and Cheney, in whose abuses many of those same Senators had acquiesced.

Obama did set the stage for the hearing by issuing executive orders against torture and other crimes. And, to his credit, Panetta did stand firm in defending the new policies and exposing as a false choice the one between greater security and preserving our nation’s values.

Otherwise, though, the nominee appeared unnecessarily deferential.  Worse still, he let a number of familiar lies fly by without challenge.

"Everyone Thought There Were WMD"

There was no real need for him to let the unreconstructed partisan Orrin Hatch (R, Utah) browbeat him into supporting one of the familiar canards promoted by the late Bush administration.  Hatch insisted, twice, that Panetta subscribe to the bromide that CIA analysts "were relying on world-wide intelligence at the time," and that "every major intelligence community" in the world shared the view of U.S. intelligence regarding WMD in Iraq.

Can we not, at long last, dispense with this canard?  Repeating it does not make it true.  And were it to have been true, then how does one explain why Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair could not get the U.N. Security Council approval they knew would be required in order to make an attack on Iraq legal.

Those foreign intelligence services that chose to give credibility to the "intelligence" coming from the U.S. and U.K. did so because they had little or no independent evidence of their own, and their governments wished not to alienate Washington.  And some intelligence analysts – in the Australian and Danish services, for example – did warn their governments about what the British press ended up calling the "dodgy dossier" of U.S.-U.K. faux intelligence on WMD in Iraq.

Did You Do Your Homework, Leon?

At the risk of damning with faint praise, Panetta is clearly twice as bright as the folks he will replace as CIA director.  So, it should have been easy – had he been paying closer attention, or had he insisted upon being adequately briefed – to cite the Senate intelligence committee’s own report, released on June 5, 2008, on prewar intelligence on Iraq.

That study, five years in the making, was approved by a vote of 10 to 5, with Sen. Chuck Hagel (R, Nebraska) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R, Maine) joining the majority.  It concluded that the public statements of the highest Bush administration officials on WMD were not supported by the intelligence.

In releasing the report, then-chair Jay Rockefeller (D, West Virginia) stepped out of character and spoke plainly:  "In making the case for war, the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact, when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent."  And Diane Feinstein (D, CA), who is now committee chair, attached this note to the report:  "The results are now in…this administration distorted the intelligence in order to build its case to go to war."

Thus, it was hardly the case that "everybody" believed there were WMD in Iraq, but rather just those who chose to acquiesce in the distortion of intelligence and those countries that used to trust the intelligence coming from Washington.  It is a safe bet that Feinstein and Rockefeller were disappointed by Panetta’s inability or unwillingness to cite the committee’s own official findings as a way to squelch Hatch.

Kit (alias James) Bond

Committee ranking member, Christopher Bond (R, Missouri) met no challenge from Panetta when Bond enlisted another familiar canard; i. e., that the Bush-era harsh interrogation programs – described by Bush as an "alternative set of procedures" – helped to prevent future attacks.  There is not a shred of evidence to support this claim.  On the contrary, there is abundant evidence that those same interrogation programs have been the most effective recruiting tool for al-Qaeda and other terrorists.

Again, Panetta’s ignorance on this key issue, or – more likely – his bending over backwards to be conciliatory, can hardly have impressed committee members.

Replying Thursday to a question from committee chair, Sen. Diane Feinstein, Panetta gave assurance that the CIA would perform no more extraordinary "renditions for torture."  The very suggestion that this might have been the case in the past raised hackles with Sen. Bond, who went off in dogged pursuit.  And at Friday’s session, Bond was able to squeeze a retraction out of Panetta, who would not stick to his guns.

Rendition Can Be Useful

It took Sen. Levin to adduce on Friday the quintessential example of the "effectiveness" of extraordinary rendition.  "When you mistreat or torture people, particularly with waterboarding, then they can give you false information and you can end up taking action on the basis of false information," said Levin – a little too subtly for the TV audience.  With tongue in cheek, Levin referred to the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an al-Qaeda functionary who was captured and "rendered" to Egypt, where, under torture, he told his interrogators what he knew they wanted to hear.

Levin duly noted that al-Libi’s "false information was part of the reason adduced for going to war."  But then – too much the gentleman to risk causing unpleasantness with Bond and his colleagues on the other side – Levin pretended not to remember whether al-Libi had been tortured.

Al-Libi had been identified by the Defense Intelligence Agency as a likely fabricator months before the Bush administration began to use his statements to "prove" that Iraq had been training al-Qaeda.  Without mentioning al-Libi by name, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and other administration officials repeatedly cited information from his interrogation as credible evidence that Iraq was training al-Qaeda members in the use of explosives and chemical weapons.

So, you see, torture can indeed provide the information you may lust after to grease the skids for war. Al-Libi was the poster boy for the Cheney/Bush torture regime; that is, until he publicly recanted and explained that he only told his interrogators the magic words he knew would stop the torture.

Where’s Your Homework, Leon?

A pity that Panetta appeared completely unaware of the case of al-Libi and how the proceeds of his extraordinary rendition and interrogation in Egypt had been used.  Or perhaps he was aware, but reluctant to feed Bond’s distemper.

A pity, too, that the nominee did not consult with former intelligence officers like Milt Bearden, a 30-year veteran of CIA’s operations directorate who rose to the most senior managerial ranks.  He has written:

"The administration’s claims of [torture] having ‘saved thousands of Americans’ can be dismissed out of hand because credible evidence has never been offered … It is irresponsible for any administration not to tell a credible story that would convince critics at home and abroad that this torture has served some useful purpose … this is not just because the old [intelligence] hands overwhelmingly believe that torture doesn’t work – it doesn’t – but also because they know that torture creates more terrorists and fosters more acts of terror than it could possibly neutralize."

Bearden argued that if the claims of the Bush White House were true, it ought to stop hiding always behind the all-too-readily-adduced need to protect sources and methods. He noted that in 1986 after the U. S. bombed Libya in retaliation for a Libyan operation that killed U.S. servicemen in Berlin, there was worldwide skepticism and consternation.

The Reagan administration decided it owed the world an explanation and decided it would be worth sacrificing a very sensitive method; namely, the ability to intercept Libyan encoded messages. Ironically, the Libyan message that was made public bragged that the operation had been carried out "without leaving a trace behind."

Prosecution Worries

In his opening remarks Thursday, Sen. Bond expressed concern that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D, CA) has said, as Bond put it, "certain people associated with the interrogation program should be prosecuted."  Bond wondered aloud if Panetta would agree with Pelosi, but then droned on and did not afford him a chance to answer.

But the possibility of prosecution quickly moved front and center in a line of questioning from Sen. Carl Levin (D, Michigan).  Here Panetta did some squirming in trying to square a circle.  In an obvious effort to avoid fouling the nest he is about to occupy at CIA, he tried mightily to argue that individuals who were told that torture techniques like waterboarding were legal "ought not to be prosecuted or investigated" for following the guidelines from the attorney general and department of justice.

Pursued by Sen. Bond like a junkyard dog at Friday’s session, Panetta went further, disavowing any intention to "go into the past."  Bond tacked on a gratuitous warning to the effect that, were Panetta to delve into the past, he (Bond) could "not imagine anything more detrimental to morale at the CIA."

But Sen. Levin would not let Panetta off the hook.  "Can torture be made legal by a legal opinion?" he asked.  Panetta replied that, as a lawyer, his view was that those guidelines were "a stretch."

Levin extracted a commitment from Panetta to cooperate with the committee in looking into past practice.  (It remains unclear which promise Panetta intends to keep – the Thursday one to Levin, or the Friday one to Bond.)

The nominee eventually conceded under Levin’s questioning that, as both Obama and newly confirmed Attorney General Eric Holder have emphasized, "no one is above the law."  Panetta added that, for those eventually shown to have deliberately violated the law, "obviously in those cases there should be prosecutions."  But that was Thursday.

Horton and Ratner: Shedding Some Light

Thursday turned out to be a full day of pondering what happens when Mafia-style lawyers are cited by the actual "deciders" on issues like torture.  On Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, human rights lawyer Scott Horton noted that both Bush and Cheney have acknowledged on TV their involvement in decisions on torture, justifying their decisions (on waterboarding, for example) thusly:  "We talked to the lawyers, and the lawyers told us it was okay."

Horton noted that the most senior Bush administration official responsible for dealing with the Guantanamo tribunals, Susan Crawford, had concluded that detainee al-Kahtani had in fact been tortured.  Since his treatment had been approved by Cheney and Bush, "Both are linked to a case that their own principal agent considers to have been torture," said Horton.

He and Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, stressed that Attorney General Holder thus has "an absolute obligation to begin a criminal investigation," under Articles 4 and 5 of the Convention Against Torture.

Ratner offered the following as "the best argument as to why you need criminal prosecutions."  Referring to the prominent photo showing Obama signing the executive orders prohibiting torture, Ratner said all he could think of was that the next president might sign executive orders going the other way.  Ratner:

"Our fundamental rights, the right to be free from torture, should not be dependent on the length of the president’s arm.  The only real deterrent is prosecution."

"Looking Forward." Not Back

Michael Ratner added that he found it difficult to listen to the president suggesting we have to look forward and not backward, because to him (Ratner) prosecutions are precisely the things needed to look forward.  "They tell you why we are not going to have torture in the future."  He and Horton called for the immediate appointment of a special prosecutor who can begin to open investigations; Ratner also noted "the Obama administration is in violation of the Convention Against Torture if it does not commence an investigation."

Now this is the last thing the James and Kit Bonds of this world wish to see, for then their efforts to muzzle potential whistleblowers would founder on the rocks of subpoena and oath.  Meanwhile, though, we can expect the Bush-Cheney apologists to do all they can to intimidate those in the ranks who may be prompted to come forward voluntarily.

On the Hunt for Whistleblowers

Sen. Bond has done all he can to put a price on the head of whistleblowers in the intelligence community. On Aug. 2, 2006, for example, he actually suggested that leakers be Guantanamo-ized:  "There is nothing like an orange jumpsuit on a deliberate leaker to discourage others from going down that path," said Bond.

At the recent confirmation hearings for Dennis Blair for the post of Director of National Intelligence, Bond pressed the nominee on whether he would try to prosecute leakers of classified information.  Blair passed Bond’s test:  "If I could ever catch one of those [leakers], it would be very good to prosecute them; we need to make sure that people who leak are held accountable," said Blair

It is a measure of what Washington has become that there is bipartisan consensus on the need to prosecute leakers but not torturers.

Panetta, Blair, and others may wish to consider this:  had there been some real teeth in whistleblower protection for members of national security agencies, chances would have increased that some courageous soul would have come forward and exposed the lies that led to catastrophe in Iraq – and might conceivably have headed it off.  Perhaps most would now agree that this kind of person would truly merit a Medal of Freedom – not an orange jumpsuit.

A shorter version of this article appeared first on

Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).