From Drone Strikes to Black Sites: How U.S. Foreign Policy Runs Under a Cloak of Secrecy

In an interview with Democracy Now!, Scott Horton, a human rights attorney and author of "Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America’s Stealth Foreign Policy," touched on the debate over national security and secrecy. He agreed with the comments of outgoing Democratic Senator Mark Udall, who accused the CIA of lying and that officials of the agency who approved or committed acts related to the detention and interrogation program are in positions of power. "People who were involved in this torture and black sites program rose absolutely to the top of the agency," Horton told Amy Goodman, "and they’re still there. And that’s shocking. I think had the public known, or had even most of the senior leadership in Washington known, what they did and their mistakes, they never could have achieved these positions. So, I think it’s obviously the case that there should be a review of the senior echelons of the agency to remove those who made serious errors and who broke the law." As for the recent news of nine Pakistanis who were killed in a U.S. drone strike, Horton said that the CIA is being given more leeway in waging covert war: "Now it’s focused very heavily on operations, and many of them sustained, like this drone war, which is a 10-year war."

Below is an interview with Horton, followed by a transcript:

AMY GOODMAN: At least nine Pakistanis were killed Sunday in a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan. It was the first reported U.S. drone strike of 2015. News accounts of the strike are based on unnamed Pakistani government and security officials. The Obama administration has said nothing so far.

For years, the United States did not even publicly acknowledge the existence of the drone strikes. The drone program is just one example the national security state’s reliance on secret operations. The recent Senate Intelligence Committee report revealed another example: the shadowy network of overseas CIA black sites where the U.S. held and tortured prisoners. The report also noted the CIA shrouded itself in a cloak of secrecy, keeping policymakers largely in the dark about the brutality of its prisoner interrogations. The agency reportedly deceived the White House, the National Security Council, the Justice Department and Congress about the efficacy of its controversial interrogation techniques.

Our next guest has closely followed the debate over national security and secrecy. Scott Horton is a human rights attorney, contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine, lecturer at Columbia Law School. He’s out this week with a new book; it’s called Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America’s Stealth Foreign Policy.

Scott Horton, welcome to Democracy Now!

SCOTT HORTON: Great to be with you, and happy new year.

AMY GOODMAN: Happy new year to you. Who are the lords of secrecy?

SCOTT HORTON: The lords of secrecy are the leaders of the nation’s national security and intelligence institutions. They’re the people who have the power to create secrets under American law, and they use this power to enhance their own position in Washington and to seize the ability to make critical decisions about national security matters, that used to be made as part of our democratic process.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Gravel, the former Alaska senator who read the Pentagon—or put the Pentagon Papers into the record, making them public, called on Mark Udall, the outgoing Colorado senator—though it could be any senator, for example, like Senator Wyden of Oregon, who’s also expressed deep concern about the torture report and intelligence—to make the whole report public. Your thoughts on this?

SCOTT HORTON: I think that’s an important next step. I would say the entire report needs to be public, although I think even those advocating that would agree that there would probably be some redactions of names of individual personnel, for instance, names of countries and of some sites. But I would go beyond that, and I’d say also the Panetta report needs to be made public. That is the independent document that was prepared inside the CIA as the Senate Intelligence Committee was preparing its study, which reaches, on the basis of the same materials, exactly the same conclusions and shows that even the CIA does not believe what is being claimed in its name by Director Panetta, as well as by the former directors, Tenet and Hayden.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, outgoing Democratic Senator Udall called for a purge of top CIA officials implicated in the abuses and the ensuing cover-up, including the current director, John Brennan. In stark language, Udall accused the CIA of lying.

SEN. MARK UDALL: The CIA has lied to its overseers in the public, destroyed and tried to hold back evidence, spied on the Senate, made false charges against our staff, and lied about torture and the results of torture. And no one has been held to account. ... There are right now people serving in high-level positions at the agency who approved, directed or committed acts related to the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. It’s bad enough not to prosecute these officials, but to reward or promote them and risk the integrity of the U.S. government to protect them is incomprehensible. The president needs to purge his administration of high-level officials who were instrumental to the development and running of this program.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s outgoing Democratic Senator Mark Udall. Do you think John Brennan should be fired? Do you think George Bush, Dick Cheney, George Tenet and others should be put on trial?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I’ll start just with the CIA and the senior leadership of the CIA. About a hundred years ago, a famous German sociologist, Max Weber, wrote a thesis in which he said that national security bureaucracies will use secrecy to cover up their mistakes and errors, and as a result, incompetent people will invariably rise to the top. And this is a reason why the use of secrecy has to be checked very carefully. And I think Udall is correct, because we see this very, very clearly in what’s happened within our CIA over the course of the last 10 years. People who were involved in this torture and black sites program rose absolutely to the top of the agency, and they’re still there. And that’s shocking. I think had the public known, or had even most of the senior leadership in Washington known, what they did and their mistakes, they never could have achieved these positions. So, I think it’s obviously the case that there should be a review of the senior echelons of the agency to remove those who made serious errors and who broke the law.

And I think there’s a very, very serious question about John Brennan. He may or may not have been involved in the program—he certainly tells us he wasn’t—but he has misled the president and the Congress about what’s going on, and in responding to the Senate committee report, he strode to a podium at the CIA and shoveled an amazing load of falsehoods, I mean obviously untruthful statements, in response. That’s just shocking conduct that really should not be tolerated.

And as for Dick Cheney and George Bush, I really don’t think I can add anything to what Colonel Wilkerson and Richard Clarke have said. I mean, I think if you look at the report, it provides very persuasive evidence that torture was used to produce false evidence to justify the invasion of Iraq. That’s buried in footnotes in the report, but it’s there. It’s very, very clear. And that’s a shocking, it’s a humiliating fact for the United States, and it’s a fact that should have consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: Over the weekend, nine Pakistanis were killed, as far as we know, in yet another drone strike, perhaps the first of 2015, though we don’t absolutely know this. Talk about drones and the art of stealth warfare.

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think that the use of drones are—it’s very significant. It points to the way we’ve redirected our entire attitude towards waging war today. We prefer covert war. We give the CIA a greater and greater role in waging this war. The CIA has become the opposite of what it was established to be in 1947, which is an intelligence analysis shop. Now it’s focused very heavily on operations, and many of them sustained, like this drone war, which is a 10-year war.

Now, the CIA gets to exercise that control by saying everything is secret, it’s covert, it can’t be discussed publicly. And as a result of saying that, the American people actually know much less about what’s going on in Pakistan and about the strikes and the consequence of the strikes than people in Pakistan know or even people in Europe and other nations know. And that’s because of the American media’s hesitancy to report on it. So, we have not had the sort of policy discussion that we really should be having in this country about whether the use of drones in Pakistan is effective or whether it makes sense in terms of U.S. foreign policy.

And I think the case against drones is a very, very powerful case, certainly in the case of Pakistan, because in the bottom line what you’ve seen since the drone war began is a transition in public opinion in Pakistan where the entire political spectrum is united against the United States, really an unbelievable feat for the U.S. to have accomplished. So we’ve turned a major nuclear power against us. And whereas these terrorist groups were operating at the margins in tribal society with friction with many of the tribal leaders, we have allowed them to consolidate their relationship with the tribals by striking these areas and killing a large number and wounding a large number of people who are innocent or not connected to the terrorists. So it’s caused a bonding. So, that’s all unforeseen consequences, but foreseeable consequences. And a public debate probably would lead to a decision to discontinue this operation.

AMY GOODMAN: You write about the path to quasi-war, Libya and Syria. What’s happening today?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think the most disturbing thing overall is the way the country now processes a case for a new war. And I discuss at some length what happened with respect to Libya in 2011 and what’s happened repeatedly now with respect to Syria. Historically, the administration would make a case for war. The president would go on television with an Oval Office address and explain why he thinks operations are correct. Congress would have debates and would vote support or vote its opposition to the war effort.

And what we have now is a president, a White House, that wants to avoid this sort of framing—we do not get these sort of Oval Office speeches from President Obama anymore—and a Congress that uses this as a political game, so people want to score partisan points off of it one way or the other. But Congress does not engage in its important deliberative function. So, the democratic process of decision making about war and peace has simply been short-circuited.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking to NBC’s Meet the Press last month after the Senate torture report was released, former Vice President Dick Cheney said he would do it all again.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: With respect to trying to define that as torture, I come back to the proposition torture was what the al-Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. There is no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogation. ... It worked. It worked now. For 13 years we’ve avoided another mass casualty attack against the United States. We did capture bin Laden. We did capture an awful lot of the senior guys of al-Qaeda who were responsible for that attack on 9/11. I’d do it again in a minute.

AMY GOODMAN: "I’d do it again in a minute," Vice President Cheney said.

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think, you know, that interview, in my mind, was really striking for the ineffectiveness with which questioning was conducted. You saw no follow-up from Chuck Todd to these statements, even though it’s the same statements that Cheney has made over and over again, in which he assumes that torture techniques are effective when in fact all the evidence shows exactly the opposite, and in which he acts with an attitude that is expressed by the legal term "depravity." So, depravity in law means total indifference to serious harm that occurs to innocent people as a result of your conduct. And, of course, he was asked specifically by Todd about the case of Gul Rahman, a person who was picked up as a result of mistaken identity, a completely innocent person, and who was tortured to death in Afghanistan in CIA custody. And what was the response of Cheney? He’d do it again in a minute, and all this is justified by 9/11. Of course, that’s utter nonsense. It’s also morally reprehensible nonsense. And the fact that Vice President Cheney, former Director Hayden, Jose Rodriguez and similar people command so much of the airtime in the United States to discuss this issue, in my mind, is amazing. They command it. They’ve had the lion’s share for many, many months now. And we see ineffective questioning. And we don’t see their statements being balanced by criticism—by critics in any effective way.

AMY GOODMAN: Are CIA agents, officials, afraid to go abroad now?

SCOTT HORTON: I think those—and I have recently interviewed two CIA agents who were involved in the program, who tell me that they have been advised by the CIA’s legal counsel office that they should not leave the country. So I think there’s obvious serious legal risk for anyone who was involved in this program in traveling abroad, but particularly those who were involved in running the black site stations in Poland, for instance, which is under criminal investigation right now, or who were involved in the El-Masri operation.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott, you have been looking at these issues in deep detail for years. What surprised you in the torture report?

SCOTT HORTON: I wouldn’t say anything particularly surprised me. In fact, it was confirmation of what we’d seen before, in fact confirmation that actually the situation was worse than we had ever suspected before, consistently. But if anything surprised me a bit, it was the role of the media, because one thing the Senate committee did an excellent job of was research the way the CIA had interacted with and manipulated the media, including some very prominent journalists. Doug Jehl, for instance, a well-known national security writer from The New York Times, now editor at The Washington Post, comes up repeatedly in the report, as do many others. And what we saw was a repeated pattern in which the CIA fed them false information in the form of leaks. I think this is a huge problem with national security reporting in the United States, generally, this idea of pseudo-leaks that are put out by the CIA. While the CIA is telling the courts, "Don’t release the actual files, for national security reasons," it puts out adulterated or falsified versions to ostensibly credible reporters.

AMY GOODMAN: What needs to be done?

SCOTT HORTON: I think what needs to be done is a lot more information needs to be in the public sector. So, right now, we’re just drowning in this sea of secrets. There’s a need for much more information in real time to be available, so that people can be well informed and can have a good, meaningful, consequential discussion of these many issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you for helping to inform us with your new book, Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America’s Stealth Foreign Policy, Scott Horton, human rights attorney, contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine.


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