President Obama’s release of memos detailing CIA coercive interrogation techniques is having a “chilling” effect on the agency, to the point where officers will decline to be assigned to fight terrorism, Michael Hayden, who was CIA director until February, tells Newsmax.
In his only interview about the CIA memos since his appearance on Fox News with Chris Wallace on April 20, Hayden described the success of the interrogation program and said the release of the memos is harmful on a number of fronts, making us “less safe.”
First, the action “puts a chill on CIA officers’ willingness to take risks,” Hayden said. “Second, it informs the enemy of our outer limits. Third, it hampers the president’s own flexibility. Fourth, it hampers the flexibility of future presidents. Fifth, it teaches liaison services to be careful working with the Americans because they can’t keep secrets. Any one of those,” Hayden said, “is a big deal.”
When Obama spoke at CIA headquarters after releasing the memos, he referred to coercive interrogation as a mistake, even though CIA officers were told the techniques had been approved by the president, the Justice Department, and key members of Congress. At the same time, Obama said he fully supports their efforts.
While his comments were directed at clandestine officers, due to the need to protect their identities, none of them was present because Obama wanted the talk to be televised.
As a result of Obama’s decision to release the memos, Hayden said, “What you’ll see is people saying I can’t go into that counterterrorism office, or I can’t go on to that high risk track. You’ve got officers there now who wonder about the future, who wonder, What’s going to happen in five years with regard to the things I’m doing now? What kind of changes might I have to weather then — even though I have assurances now that what I am doing is appropriate, effective, and lawful.”
Hayden said people can have honest differences about whether such methods should be used. But clearly, “The judgment was made at the time, based upon the demands of the time, that we didn’t have that luxury [to wait for a prolonged period to see if detainees would eventually cooperate],” Hayden says. “I, for one, am not willing to second guess that.”
Releasing the memos is a separate issue from whether the tactics should have been used, Hayden noted.
“When the memos go out there, it makes the agency’s people more vulnerable and makes them lose confidence that the confidentiality, which is the core of their work, will be protected in the future,” Hayden said. “There’s just no way around that.”
Besides Hayden, Obama’s CIA Director Leon Panetta, four former CIA directors, and John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser who almost got the job of CIA director, opposed release of the memos.
Hayden rebutted a claim by some media outlets that the CIA resorted to harsh interrogation methods before determining if a detained terrorist would cooperate. He noted that fewer than one-third of the nearly 100 terrorists detained by the CIA were subjected to coercive interrogation, so clearly the majority cooperated without the need for harsh methods.
“By the Justice opinion and by agency policy, we were to use enhanced techniques only when they were required, and only when our view of the information to be gained warranted taking such action,” Hayden said. “And we were to begin with giving the detainee every opportunity to cooperate. If the detainee continued to be in what I’ll call a condition of defiance rather than one of cooperation, we had to use the least intrusive techniques first, and then move forward, always under the close supervision of headquarters.”
Obviously, Hayden said, “A guy didn’t get off the airplane and we started with technique No. 1,” Hayden said. “In over two-thirds of the cases, it was never done. So how could you imagine that we would just jump to those kinds of techniques?”
Another claim is that coercive interrogation never stopped any plots. Hayden said that while none of the detainees who was subjected to coercive techniques handed over an ongoing plot on a silver platter, they provided information about other terrorists and gave other details that led to rolling up a series of al-Qaida plots.
Calling it frustrating, Hayden said, “It seems as if we only get credit if we sprint up on to the roof and tackle the sniper as he’s chambering the round. That’s not the way this works. That’s a little bit like saying the only wins that count are the ones you win with a last-second field goal.”
Hayden said former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet was correct in saying in his book that the information provided by the interrogation program was far more valuable than the information the National Security Agency, which Hayden once headed, obtained by intercepting terrorists’ communications.
Like Hayden, Dennis Blair, Obama’s director of National Intelligence, has said that “high value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al-Qaida organization that was attacking this country.”
But in a Vanity Fair article, David Rose said he interviewed FBI Director Robert Mueller in April 2008 and asked him if any attacks on America had been disrupted “thanks to intelligence obtained through what the administration still calls ‘enhanced techniques.’”
“I don’t believe that has been the case,” the article quoted Mueller as saying.
Asked about that, Hayden said, “I don’t want to trash Bob Mueller, but Bob’s not an intel officer. Bob’s a prosecutor.” If Mueller meant that the techniques did not lead to breaking up an imminent plot, “We’d kind of shrug our shoulders and say, how imminent does imminent have to be?” Hayden said.
Hayden recited a long list of terrorists who were rolled up as a result of the coercive interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and others. Abu Zubaydah was one of three detainees who was subjected to waterboarding. As described in one of the memos written by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, the technique entails applying water to a cloth placed over the subject’s nose and mouth. Air flow is slightly restricted for 20 to 40 seconds. The cloth is then lifted. According to the memos, no water is breathed into the lungs.
During initial interrogations, Abu Zubaydah was reluctant to give up individuals who were close to him. After he was waterboarded — which is inflicted on our own special forces during training — he gave up Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a member of Osama bin Laden’s inner circle. In turn, that led to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 plot, and to the uncovering of a plot to target the West Coast in a second wave of attacks.
“That’s pretty actionable intelligence,” Hayden said.
Asked if Mueller would clarify whether he meant to say that none of those interrogated revealed a plot or whether he meant that nothing from the interrogations led to a plot being rolled up, an FBI spokesman said, “We’re going to let his comment stand as is.”
In describing what CIA officers do and how they will “opt out” of risky assignments, Hayden cited the Newsmax article Obama Has Paralyzed the CIA..
CIA officers “meet with terrorists in dark alleys to try to enlist them to spy for the agency,” the article said. “They break into foreign embassies to steal secret codes and install listening devices in homes of terrorists. They pick up top secret military plans from clandestine hiding places. They recruit arms dealers to report on efforts to steal nuclear weapons. If their work is uncovered, they may be arrested by a foreign power or murdered by a terrorist.”
Because of the release of the memos, the Newsmax story said, CIA officers are “‘slow rolling,’ something they may do with politically sensitive assignments: They go through the motions, stall, and ask for lawyer approval at every turn.”
“I don’t want to suggest that people won’t do their duty,” Hayden said. “Let me just say, to do their very best, they need to be acting with the full confidence that their government has their back and will have their back in the future. Whenever that is eroded, it hurts.”
Hayden would not take a position on former Vice President Dick Cheney’s request that the CIA release reports of plots rolled up as a result of the interrogation program. He said releasing all the details would be a tough decision.
“I never saw a document that listed the top 10 successes of the renditions, detentions, and interrogation program,” Hayden said. “All I know is, when I talked to agency officers in 2006, when we were deciding whether this is worth continuing — and that judgment had to be based on what we may have gotten from it in the past — they convinced me that it was worth continuing, despite the great political challenges that continuing would present.”
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which has been investigating the issue, has seen the memos Cheney referred to. Memos from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel also refer to the success of the program.
Hayden, who is now consulting for the Chertoff Group and will be a distinguished visiting professor at George Mason University, said when he reads claims that the interrogations were not successful, he wonders what some people are thinking.
“Do they think we’re lying? Do they think we’re just making this up?” he said. “I had one reporter who said, ‘Well, we’ll never know whether these methods had to be used because you didn’t set up a control group.’ Can you imagine?”
In the same theoretical vein, at his press conference Wednesday night, Obama said the intelligence obtained through coercive interrogation could have been acquired “in other ways.” He offered no specifics.
“We did this out of duty, not out of enthusiasm,” Hayden said. “If we had not done this, what would the nation think of us?”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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