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Age of Obama
Barack Obama's presidency

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George W. Bush's presidency since 2007

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George W. Bush's presidency from 2005-06

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George W. Bush's presidency, 2000-04

Who Is Bob Gates?
The secret world of Defense Secretary Gates

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Bush Bests Kerry

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Gauging Powell's reputation.

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Recounting the controversial campaign.

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Is the national media a danger to democracy?

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Behind President Clinton's impeachment.

Nazi Echo
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The Dark Side of Rev. Moon
Rev. Sun Myung Moon and American politics.

Contra Crack
Contra drug stories uncovered

Lost History
America's tainted historical record

The October Surprise "X-Files"
The 1980 election scandal exposed.

From free trade to the Kosovo crisis.

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Real World Reasons Against Torture

By Coleen Rowley
April 24, 2009

Editor’s Note: Former Vice President Dick Cheney and other Bush administration defenders keep insisting that their “enhanced interrogation techniques” worked and that people would feel differently about these tactics if they only knew the wonderful results.

That, however, is not the view of many professional interrogators who were sickened by the Bush administration’s torture for ethical, legal and practical reasons, as former FBI agent/legal counsel Coleen Rowley notes in this guest essay:

Back in December 2007, when I wrote "Torture is Wrong, Illegal and It Doesn't Work," I mentioned that "the FBI agent who reportedly had the best chance of foiling the 9/11 plot, Ali Soufan, the only Arabic-speaking agent in New York and one of only eight in the country, and who has since resigned from the FBI, could and should tell people the truth of how the CIA's tactics were counterproductive."

Well guess what?! HE FINALLY DID SO on Thursday!

"My Tortured Decision" is how former FBI Agent Soufan titled his New York Times op-ed, speaking out to specifically refute a number of Dick Cheney's lies about how torture "worked". The truth, according to Soufan, is quite the opposite.

Soufan wrote: “There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah [the first al-Qaeda suspect subjected to waterboarding and other harsh tactics] that wasn't, or couldn't have been, gained from regular tactics.

“In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions -- all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.” [For the full op-ed, click here.]

Former Agent Soufan is to be applauded for speaking out after seven years, something even FBI Director Mueller has not really found the courage to do (although Mueller was forced recently to truthfully admit that no attack on America has been disrupted as a result of intelligence obtained through "enhanced techniques").

I agree with almost everything Soufan writes except his wish that no agency officials at the CIA be prosecuted because almost all of them were "good people who felt as I did about the use of enhanced techniques: it is un-American, ineffective and harmful to our national security." But he says (implying, whether he realizes it or not, the Nuremberg Defense), they simply had to follow orders.

No disagreement exists on how difficult -- literally between a rock and a hard place, any government employee finds him or herself when given illegal and wrongful orders.

When the "green light" was turned on to torture, it was akin to the terrible situation that helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr. found himself in when he looked down from his helicopter to see Lt. William Calley and his men massacring Vietnamese villagers at My Lai. [For details, see's "Death of an American Hero."]

It was similar to the horrible situation that Daniel Ellsberg found himself in when he realized what was in the Pentagon Papers undercut several presidential administrations' lies in launching and keeping the Vietnam War going.

There is presently no protection whatsoever for government whistleblowers who find themselves in these situations, especially those who work in intelligence.

As it stands now, if you follow your conscience and speak out internally, you will, at the very least, be retaliated against, possibly fired and at worst, if you speak out publicly as Justice Department Attorney Thomas Tamm did about Bush's illegal warrantless monitoring, you will subject yourself to criminal prosecution as a "leaker."

So it’s quite understandable how former Agent Soufan sees the choice as going along with the illegal orders or resigning to avoid personal direct involvement but maintaining silent complicity.

As I wrote in an April 18 letter published in the New York Times: "It's true, and proved repeatedly in social psychology experiments, that otherwise good people will tend to conform to authority. It's true that people, under such circumstances, often fail to listen to their consciences. But don't conflate this obedience factor with not being able to appreciate the wrongfulness."

On my own personal note, the final thing I did the day I retired from the FBI (in December, 2004) was e-mail my last mini-legal lecture to every employee in the entire Minneapolis FBI office warning my former colleagues how the "green light" would inevitably go out, and when that happens, it always leaves the little guys holding the bag.

Nearly all the little guys in government knew, by that time, about the green-but-evil light that had been turned on. And even though the FBI was not going along with the torture tactics, it was going overboard in other areas involving massive data collection on American citizens.

Because I was already persona non grata in the FBI for having spoken out about wrongful over-reactions and counterproductive responses after 9-11, I would only catch others' hushed whispers about the "green light" stuff, but I think nearly everyone was well aware.

That last warning was the least I could do as I walked out the door but in all probability, many who got my goodbye e-mail immediately deleted it as they dreaded any reminder about "green lights" that always go out.

In the criminal justice system, the mitigating circumstances of such difficult, untenable situations and choices of subordinate government employees are not irrelevant and would be evaluated.

In the course of criminal investigation, it's common to give immunity to underlings who, it is found, had little or no choice but to follow orders and are therefore not as culpable as those in power giving the orders.

Additionally, once the truth of the facts is ascertained, there's room for all kinds of humanitarian arguments as to what, if any, are proper "punishments." With respect to those on the receiving end of illegal orders, I'd volunteer to help explain how absolutely difficult their situation is.

I'd even help the defense find a social psychologist or two who can demonstrate what all the experiments on "group think" and "obedience to authority" have proven with regard to human behavior.

But this would go to evaluating relative responsibility and mitigating punishments and should not be used as a reason to jump over the most crucial first phase of the criminal justice process: the fact-finding ascertainment of truth.

We've already heard enough from fictional characters like Jack Bauer. It's time to hear from real agents who operated in the real world like Ali Soufan.

After we hear the facts, then let's also hear the mitigating circumstances of how difficult, how very difficult it is not to follow a President's orders in the real world.

Coleen Rowley, a FBI special agent for almost 24 years, was legal counsel to the FBI Field Office in Minneapolis from 1990 to 2003.  She came to national attention in June 2002, when she testified before Congress about serious lapses before 9/11 that helped account for the failure to prevent the attacks.  She now writes and speaks on ethical decision-making and on balancing civil liberties with the need for effective investigation.

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