On CIA torture, the President must take action


By John Kiriakou

John Kiriakou was interviewed Oct. 27, 2015, by WRAL journalist David Crabtree at University of North Carolina.  (Photo credit: © Jerry Markatos)

John Kiriakou was interviewed Oct. 27, 2015, by WRAL journalist David Crabtree at University of North Carolina.  (Photo credit: © Jerry Markatos)

It has been my personal experience that, with only one or two exceptions since the creation of the Church Committee in 1975, Congress has been generally loathe to challenge the CIA. There’s very little oversight, and, certainly, there are few, if any, examples of Congress telling the CIA “no.” 

That’s why the release last year of the Senate torture report was such a momentous event. Why was it momentous? Because the CIA’s torture program was worse than most Americans expected. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said that Agency officers used interrogation methods that had not been approved by either the Justice Department or by CIA Headquarters; the Agency actively impeded investigations and oversight of the program, not only by the White House and Congress, but even by its own Inspector General; and CIA officers tortured as many as 26 people who didn’t meet the legal standards for detention. Many were likely innocent of any ties to terrorism. 

There is no room for a middle ground response. There is still time for the President to order the Justice Department to prosecute violations of the law.

The CIA has admitted only to waterboarding three prisoners—Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, Abu Zubaydah, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. But it took the Senate report to tell us about Ammar al-Baluchi, who was arrested in Pakistan and sent to a secret CIA prison, where he was repeatedly dunked in a tub of ice water.  Interrogators held his head under the water, beat him repeatedly with a truncheon-like object, and slammed his head against the wall.  Baluchi’s attorneys say he suffered head trauma during CIA interrogations. This was not authorized by the Justice Department. So why weren’t the perpetrators charged with a crime?

The SSCI’s chairwoman at the time of the report’s release, Senator Dianne Feinstein, said the report “exposes brutality that stands in stark contrast to our values as a nation. It chronicles a stain on our history that must never be allowed to happen again.” She’s right. 

And there’s a precedent for how the government has confronted similar actions in the past. The Washington Post on January 21, 1968 published a photo of a U.S. soldier waterboarding a North Vietnamese prisoner. The Defense Department investigated, court-martialed the soldier, and convicted him of torture. It was wrong in 1968 to commit torture and it was wrong in 2002. It should still be wrong—and prosecutable—in 2015.

Some current and former CIA leaders will argue that they had the legal authority to carry out what they euphemistically call “enhanced interrogation techniques” and that torture allowed us to collect actionable intelligence that saved American lives. I was working in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center at the same time they were and I can tell you that they’re lying. 

Torture may have made some of us feel better in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. It may have made us feel that we were avenging our fallen compatriots who were killed that day. But there was no information gathered through torture that saved American lives. The report found that “the harsh interrogation methods did not succeed in exacting useful intelligence.”  That’s a categorical statement.  Torture didn’t work.  Period.

Useful intelligence, however, shouldn’t even be the criterion. The question isn’t really whether torture works. The question is whether it is right, whether it is moral.

After all, murder works. But we don’t murder people.  At least, we’re not supposed to. Rape works. But we don’t rape people. Beating children in front of their parents works. But we don’t do that. There has to be a red line. If we are to maintain our role as a beacon of hope for the rest of the world, as a nation where human rights are respected, then we have to oppose torture absolutely. That begins with the President. And it’s past time for him to take action.


John Kiriakou is a former CIA Counterterrorism Officer and former Senior Investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. To learn more about John Kiriakou, please visit his website.