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Obama Ruling Shields Torturers--What Horrors From the CIA Can We Expect Next?

Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision not to prosecute CIA torturers in two high-profile homicides bows to the political difficulty of going after field agents while sparing superiors.

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In any case, whether out of fear of a jilted Brennan or regard for his experience on what Cheney called the “dark side,” Obama decided to give Brennan a White House job in which he could still wield considerable influence on intelligence operations without having to go through a contentious confirmation proceeding.

Brennan became deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism, with White House writ over several key functions related to “covert action” – like compiling lists of terrorism “suspects,” including American citizens, to be summarily assassinated – and CIA-led drone operations.

A Congenital Structural Fault in CIA

It was an unfortunate accident of history that, after World War II, covert action operatives were given a home in a CIA created by President Harry Truman for a completely different purpose – to give him prompt, no-holds-barred intelligence analysis and prevent another surprise attack like Pearl Harbor. The State Department’s George Kennan, on the other hand, wanted to create a strong capability to checkmate the U.S.S.R. by covert action, including overthrowing governments (known today as “regime change”).

Kennan and his supporters cleverly shoehorned the covert operations function and its practitioners into the CIA by inserting one sentence into the National Security Act of 1947. That sentence charged the CIA director with performing “such other functions and duties related to intelligence” as the President might assign.

Presidents like George W. Bush have interpreted that sentence as carte blanche to use the CIA as their own personal Gestapo. Do not blanche before the word G estapo, the name for Adolf Hitler’s secret police. Once out of office, Truman himself was quoted as using it while bemoaning what had become of the CIA he created to provide him with objective intelligence upon which to base well informed policy decisions.

In a Washington Post op-ed on Dec. 22, 1963, titled “Limit CIA Role to Intelligence,” Truman complained that the CIA had been “diverted from its original assignment … from its intended role.” He argued that the CIA’s “operational duties be terminated or properly used elsewhere.”

Correspondence between Truman and a former intelligence aide, Admiral Sidney Souers, suggests that the timing of the op-ed, one month after President John Kennedy’s assassination, was no accident.  Documents in the Truman Library show that nine days after the assassination, Truman sketched out what he wanted to say in the op-ed.

The mainstream media moved quickly to prevent further distribution of Truman’s op-ed. Moreover, it was reportedly pulled from subsequent editions of that day’s Washington Post itself. Apparently, covert action, including the use of “agents of influence” within the U.S. media, was alive and well in 1963.

Accumulated Evil

Fast forward four decades to George W. Bush’s decision to mount a “global war on terror” and to attack Iraq under conditions identical to what the post-WWII Nuremberg Tribunal defined as a “war of aggression.” Nuremberg depicted such a war as the “supreme international crime, differing from other war crimes only in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

It fell to then-CIA Director George Tenet to structure and staff the accumulated evils of kidnapping, torture, secret prisons – and God knows what else. Tenet performed “such other functions and duties” with aplomb – with only a tiny trace of soul searching.

In his memoir, At the Center of the Storm, Tenet notes that the CIA needed “the right authorities” to do the President’s bidding: “We would be given as many authorities as CIA had ever had. Things could blow up. People, me among them, could end up spending some of the worst days of our lives justifying before congressional overseers our new freedom to act.” (p. 178)

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