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CIA morale 'deeply hurt'

Gero Schliess / cmk
December 12, 2014

The US Senate report on the CIA's interrogation methods has unleashed a fierce debate about America's intelligence services. CIA director John Brennan has defended his agency's program, in contrast to President Obama.

Symbolbild - CIA
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"The CIA is going through a huge morale problem," said US security expert Harlan Ullman in an interview with DW, commenting on the recent US Senate report on the CIA's interrogation methods, which has made serious torture allegations against the secret service. "CIA employees believed they were doing what they were supposed to be doing. They find this to be a devastating critique."

But it's not just the CIA's morale that has been deeply affected, said Ullman, who has worked for NATO and advises several Western governments on security issues. In the wake of the report, he said that "the ability of the CIA to do its duty is going to be damaged and going to be restrained because people want to be very risk-averse."

Cracks in the Obama administration

The Senate report has also exposed cracks in the administration of President Barack Obama, even between CIA Director John Brennan and Obama himself. The president has, in no uncertain terms, condemned the interrogation methods and called them "torture" - on the second day of his first term in office he signed an executive order banning torture - but Brennan has defended the actions, making no mention of the "T" word.

For CIA expert and journalist James Bamford this refusal is "a classic case of denial over what happened." And Brennan was involved, he added, referring to Brennan's former position as the CIA's deputy director at the time.

James Bamford
Bamford: Brennan's defense of the CIA is "a classic case of denial"Image: Getty Images

On Thursday, a defiant Brennan told the press that the CIA had "did a lot of things right" after the 9/11 terror attacks. His position was in sharp contrast to the Senate report, released Tuesday, which has outlined allegations of torture and misuse of powers against the CIA. But at the same time, Brennan admitted that CIA officials had used "abhorrent" interrogation methods.

That the shockwaves of the Senate report have divided even the CIA is proof of the deep uncertainty. Many government agencies were very "emotional" after 9/11, bordering on "hysteria", said Joseph Wippl, a former CIA officer.

Wippl said that there was a feeling that the intelligence had failed, and the agency wanted to make up for the lapse after the attacks, and things "got out off hand."

Contractors did the dirty work

According to the New York Times, the CIA was acting on instructions from the White House when it came to its controversial techniques. At the time, then President George W. Bush instructed the CIA six days after the 9/11 attacks to hunt down suspected terrorists and imprison them. However, the president left it up to the agency to decide how and with what legal basis. The result: a frenzy of activity.

Another revelation was the construction of prisons abroad to detain suspects in countries beyond the reach of the US Department of Justice. In addition, the CIA hired numerous contractors to operate the prisons and do the "dirty work."

Abu Zubaydah
Abu Zubaydah was subject to "brutal interrogation techniques"Image: picture-alliance/AP

According to Ullman, the US government employed many outside companies following the 9/11 attacks, and not all were in secret. It was simply the result of a lack of available staff for all the new tasks, he said.

But Wippl believes it was also an effective way to disguise ultimate responsibility, pointing out that contractors can be held less responsible than someone working for a government agency.

On February 2, 2002, Bush decreed that the al Qaeda terror suspects were not considered prisoners of war, and consequently would not enjoy the same protection, thereby opening the door to the atrocities that are now the center of discussion.

Just two months later, according to the New York Times, Bush approved a plan for a secret CIA prison in Thailand. It was there that one of the main terror suspects, Abu Zubaydah, and others were subject to "brutal interrogation techniques" that included waterboarding.

Can the CIA be reformed?

John Brennan
Brennan defended the CIA's program on ThursdayImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Watson

At his press conference on Thursday, Brennan pointed out that reforms had been implemented long ago to help avoid the excesses of the post-9/11 interrogation methods. But Ullman remains skeptical.

"The report will not have any long-standing consequences other than having done damage to the reputation of the United States," he said. "Presidents will do what presidents have to do. And when they have covert means of operating, they will implicitly use those means and those means will become distorted and go wrong."

With a reference to history, Ullman said he expects little to change in the future. "We had the attempted assassination of Fidel Castro by two administrations. We had Jack Kennedy working with the Mafia. I mean, it's absurd. But the fact of the matter is this is unfortunately the way governments operate."

Bamford called it outrageous that there will apparently not be any legal consequences for the perpetrators of the murder and torture. Ullman, however, sees things differently.

"They had the findings of the president, the authorization of the president, and the findings of the attorney general that this was legal," he said. "If anybody is to be prosecuted, it seems to me it should be the president."