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American Democracy After Torture

A new piece on the still-delayed Senate torture report reveals the depth of the CIA's contempt for democratic accountability.

By Nathan Pippenger

The Huffington Post has a deeply reported, behind-the-scenes look at the delicate three-part negotiation taking place among the White House, the CIA, and the Senate Intelligence Committee over the latter’s forthcoming report on Bush-era torture programs. At one level, the piece is about personnel: The Obama Administration, it notes, clearly ascribes huge importance to these discussions, as evidenced by the heavy involvement of White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (who already has “a broad array of urgent responsibilities” and is not, to say the least, the only national security expert in the Administration). But this observation about personnel is just one part of the article. It also illustrates, in damning and subtle detail, the rancid legacy of Bush-era abuses.

Torture brings out some of the worst aspects of American political discourse. The debate that followed revelations of the Bush Administration’s torture regime exposed a deep rot within America’s media and political elite. Some wanted to replace centuries of legal practice and constitutional theory with a simple lust for vengeance, or a mindless deference to presidential power. Others were so easily cowed that they would submit to Orwellian euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation.” And some simply revealed themselves to be moral idiots. There are few other debates which have similarly discredited so many people in positions of influence and prestige.

As the issue has faded from prominence, so have the worst elements of the surrounding debate. But they linger on, lurking just behind official discourse, in the background assumptions, the semi-conscious euphemisms, the habituated comfort with which officials voice absurd and offensive opinions. In other words, the worst parts of this debate have receded, but they haven’t disappeared. The Huffington Post article is full of examples—just read it for yourself. McDonough, whose “coziness” with CIA Director John Brennan is “widely known,” is reportedly urging key Senate figures “not to go after [him] in the expected furor that would follow the release of the report’s 500-page executive summary.” In other words, by the time the American public has access to the report summary, which is “expected to be damning in its findings against the CIA,” it will already be too late to demand accountability for the most obvious figure—the agency’s own director—because the White House is acting to preempt that very step among the senators who could make a difference.

That would be bad enough even if Brennan’s CIA hadn’t treated its Senate investigators—who, in contrast to unelected intelligence officials, actually represent the American people—with utter contempt. Brennan actually had to apologize to Senator Dianne Feinstein after CIA agents were found to have spied on Senate staffers, hacking into their computers in an apparent effort to tamper with their work. When Feinstein initially leveled the accusations, Brennan publicly denied them, insisting at the time that “nothing could be further from the truth.” As the HuffPo article summarizes it, the hacking “took place in the context of an interbranch bureaucratic battle between the committee, charged with overseeing the agency, and the CIA, which bristles at oversight.” Take a moment to ponder that phrase—“bristles at oversight.” Then consider this defensive quote from an intelligence community source, who complained to the reporters that “the Senate committee ‘went about the report like an inquisition,’ which led to ‘an enemy vs. enemy adversarial relationship.’” The nerve!

The article ends, in perfect fashion, with a quote from Robert Grenier, “a veteran CIA officer who was the top counterterrorism official from 2004 to 2006.” Speculating on the delayed release of the report, Grenier confidently predicts that no Democrat would be stupid enough to try and subject the CIA to oversight while terrorism dominates the headlines. Don’t focus just on the substance of Grenier’s statement; remember that he evidently didn’t think twice of voicing it to the media.

“At a time when ISIS is on the march and beheading American journalists, some Democrats apparently think now is not the time to be advocating going soft on terrorists. The speculation I hear is that the Senate Democrats will wait until the elections are safely over,” Grenier said.

There you have it. To reveal the CIA’s abuses to the American public is the same as “advocating going soft on terrorists.” It doesn’t even really matter if Grenier is expressing this view himself, or merely reporting a widely held opinion. The sentiment just drips with contempt for democratic accountability and the rule of law. It’s utterly remarkable—precisely because it will strike much of America’s media and policy elite as perfectly banal.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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