The Dark Core of the Empire
AMONG THE MAJOR OBSTACLES to both criminal prosecutions and a truth commission regarding the CIA’s torture program is the underlying reluctance of U.S. officials to focus attention on the super-secret operations of the CIA. A criminal prosecution, after all, could get out of control, especially one that is being prosecuted by a genuinely honest, independent prosecutor. Prospective defendants might threaten to reveal things that everyone would want to keep quiet.
At truth commission hearings, witnesses could slip up and disclose things that public officials hoped would be kept secret. Or disclosure of wrongdoing could invite retaliation by disclosure of other wrongdoing.
Given that the distinguishing characteristic of government is force, the CIA is the pure essence of such force. Here is where the federal government is able to initiate force with impunity. Through the CIA, it can kidnap, murder, assassinate, sexually abuse, torture, and steal, without accountability, liability, explanation, defense, justification, or even disclosure.
A good example was the CIA complicity in the murder of a young American journalist, Charles Horman. … Although the U.S. government acknowledged that the CIA participated in that murder, has there ever been any grand-jury subpoenas or congressional subpoenas issued to the CIA agents who participated in that murder or who possibly issued the orders to do so? No. The Horman case is proof positive that at its core, the federal government is immune from acts of force initiated against others, citizen and noncitizens alike.
A good example was the CIA complicity in the murder of a young American journalist, Charles Horman. … Although the U.S. government acknowledged that the CIA participated in that murder, has there ever been any grand-jury subpoenas or congressional subpoenas issued to the CIA agents who participated in that murder or who possibly issued the orders to do so?
A more recent example involves the kidnapping by CIA agents of a man in Italy and his forcible transfer to Egypt for the purpose of torture. Although the CIA agents have been indicted in Italy and although there is an extradition treaty between Italy and the United States, U.S. officials have steadfastly maintained that the agents will not be extradited to Italy for trial.
It is impossible to know all of the horrific things that the CIA has done over the years, and the reason it’s impossible is because the CIA is empowered to keep its operations secret from the American people. If there is any truth to Lord Acton’s dictum that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then the CIA has got to be the most corrupt government agency in history, because its power is indeed absolute.
As the core of the U.S. Empire, the CIA is in fact the dark rot of the empire. No light is ever shined into its operations. Its agents can be ordered to initiate force against anyone anywhere in the world and, as we all now know, they will faithfully follow such orders without challenge or question, knowing that they will never be called to account for doing so, either criminally, civilly, or by Congress.
When I was growing up and learning about Nazi Germany, one of laments I often heard was, “How could the German people have let it happen?” The suggestion was that the German people were somehow different from other people in the world.
Nonsense. Human nature is human nature. How many Americans have demanded to visit the secret CIA prisons that have been situated in former communist countries? How many members of Congress have visited such prisons or even demanded the right to inspect them? How many American journalists have reported on what has gone on in those prisons? Of course, not that it would have made any difference anyway since the CIA would have blocked entry into its prisons.
But there’s another reason that no one knows what has gone on inside those super-secret CIA prisons, one that is much more insidious: Americans just don’t want to know what the CIA is doing and has been doing.
Long ago, the CIA and the American people, both directly and indirectly through their elected representatives in Congress, reached a tacit agreement. We’ll give you omnipotent power to do whatever you think is necessary to keep us safe, but all we ask in return is that you keep what you do secret from us. We won’t ask and we don’t want to know.
The reason that criminal prosecutions or a truth commission into the CIA torture scandal are unlikely is because things could easily spiral out of control, permitting Americans to learn things about the dark core of their empire that they hoped would never enter their consciousness. Better to continue maintaining the darkness and the rot … while keeping the core of the empire intact and operational, ready to be used when once again necessary.
JACOB G. HORNBERGER has published and posted his work at the Washington Post, Miami Herald, Antiwar.com and elsewhere in the United States and in Latin America.
Reporting on the intelligence community is very interesting to read. Since intelligence activities are, by definition, secret, there’s a lot of interest in journalism that pierces the veil of secrecy. But this leads to frustrating situations. To do intelligence reporting you need intelligence sources. And to have intelligence sources, you need to be pretty kind to the institutional interests of the intelligence people who are serving as your sources. What’s more, since the whole thing is supposed to be shrouded in secrecy, there’s an incredibly low bar for what constitutes a journalistically viable level of sourcing.
Which is how you get things like this David Ignatius column warning darkly of the pernicious impact on CIA morale of the release of the torture memos and the even more dire impact that further pursuit of legal accountability would have. His main example is, however, pretty unconvincing:
For a taste of what’s ahead, recall the chilling effects of past CIA scandals. In 1995, then-Director John Deutch ordered a “scrub” of the agency’s assets after revelations of past links to Guatemalan death squads. Officers were told they shouldn’t jettison sources who had provided truly valuable intelligence. But the practical message, recalls one former division chief, was: “Don’t deal with assets who could pose political risks.” A similar signal is being sent now, he warns.
Lets get real here. Guatemalan security forces killed hundreds of thousands of people. I would like to see David Ignatius go visit the mother of someone killed by a death squad in Guatemala and explain to her why it is that making the CIA feel good about taking “political risks” was more important than making the CIA feel bad about killing her kid. He could do it tomorrow. Then visit another mom the following day. Then another the following day. It would take him well over 400 years to finish explaining himself to everyone.
By “political risks,” in other words, we’re talking about the risk of complicitly in mass murder and it strikes me as eminently reasonable to want the CIA to be wary of that kind of thing. And to be wary about torture, too! A lot of commentary sort of regrets that the torturing happened, but says you have to understand what a tough position the torturers were in, and so we should let them off the hook. But what about the next time a CIA operative is asked to torture someone? If he can say “sorry, boss, that’s illegal the last guys who tortured people on the basis of flimsy and absurd legal reasoning went to jail” then he’ll be in a strong position to avoid following illegal and immoral orders. But if he can’t say that, if his boss can say to him “look, everyone knows this isn’t really illegal; nobody’s ever been punsihed for anything” then he’s really in quite a pickle.
If the CIA had a sterling track record as a hugely effective agency that had made one random slip-up, I’d be sympathetic to this view. But the evidence is overwhelming that that’s not the case. Instead, alongside occasional doses of incompetence, the CIA veers between out-of-control behavior (death squads, torture) and whining that past efforts to prevent it from going rogue are the reason that it can’t do its job. As Spencer Ackerman has written:
Truman didn’t want to institutionalize the OSS for the cold war, yet the only people with experience in the shadows to staff the espionage organization he wanted were OSS veterans, and they quickly took charge of the nascent agency. These unsentimental elitists did not wait for Congress to authorize such an entity through legislation, since they were used to simply taking the money they needed and doing as they pleased. State Department appropriations became slush funds to finance disinformation efforts, bribe foreign officials and pay for three-martini lunches in European capitals. By the time Congress passed an act creating the CIA in 1949, the agency had already become a playground for paranoid alcoholics like Frank Wisner and James Jesus Angleton to tinker with the US-Soviet balance in Europe. The only ironclad provision in the agency’s deliberately vague charter was that it could not spy on US citizens domestically. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to violate that prohibition.
The CIA’s successes were meager. After numerous “missteps”–which, in practice, meant getting local proxies killed–the CIA managed to oust Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala and Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran. Perhaps the agency’s most competent director, Richard Helms, kept the criminally insane Angleton on as head of counterintelligence because he stopped the Soviets from penetrating the agency’s highest levels. Meanwhile, Angleton told nearly every secret the agency had about its European assets to his drinking buddy, the Soviet agent Kim Philby.
To call the CIA comically incompetent in its early years would be to diminish the considerable achievements of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. In 1950 William Wolf Weisband, an employee in the CIA’s cryptanalysis division whose job was to translate intercepted Soviet communications, gave the agency’s code-breaking secrets to the USSR. The catastrophe had more than one fateful consequence: in addition to what an official history later called “perhaps the most significant intelligence loss in U.S. history,” it led to the creation of the National Security Agency, which under George W. Bush implemented a constellation of illegal, unconstitutional programs for warrantless domestic surveillance. It should be clear that even at that early date, CIA analysis was a sideshow to the much sexier realm of covert action.
Men like Wisner and Helms knew that public exposure of the agency’s failures would mean the agency’s end. Their solution, and that of their colleagues and successors, was to lie. In 1961 Johnson toured the CIA station in Berlin. The Berlin chief, Bill Graver, wowed the Vice President with stories about how many East Germans, Czechs and Poles, military officers and civilians, were snitching on the Soviet empire. “However, if you knew what we had,” recalled Graver’s subordinate Haviland Smith, “you knew that the penetration of the Polish military mission was the guy who sold newspapers on the corner,” not the roster of well-placed finks peddled to a starry-eyed LBJ. The only thing more routine than lying to Congress was ignoring it. Helms, as luminous a star as the CIA ever produced, was eventually convicted of lying to Congress under oath.
You sometimes hear that we should “get rid of” the CIA, but I don’t think it makes sense to say that you’re not going to have an intelligence agency. And the CIA’s basic intelligence analysis work, though at times wrong, is definitely better to have than not to have. But to worry that the CIA will somehow feel “constrained” about undertaking illegal operations is nuts. The problem has always been the reverse; that the CIA, in order to curry favor with the President-of-the-moment, is too inclined to bend over and agree to undertake illegal operations.