Memo to President Obama on Torture
MEMORANDUM FOR: The President
FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity
This memorandum is VIPS’ first attempt to inform you on a major intelligence issue, as we did your predecessor; thus, some background might be helpful.
Five former CIA officers established Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) in January 2003, when we saw our profession being corrupted to justify an attack on Iraq. Since then, our numbers have grown to 70 intelligence professionals, mostly retired, who have served in virtually all U.S. civilian and military intelligence agencies.
In our first Memorandum for the President (George W. Bush), dated February 5, 2002, we provided a same-day commentary on Colin Powell’s U.N. speech. We warned the president that “an invasion of Iraq would ensure overflowing recruitment centers for terrorists into the indefinite future [and that] far from eliminating the [terrorist] threat, it would enhance it exponentially.”
We strongly urged the former president to widen the discussion on Iraq “beyond the circle of those advisers clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason and from which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be catastrophic.” VIPS’ second pre-war Memorandum for the President was titled, “Forgery, Hyperbole, Half-Truth: A Problem” — a reference to the bogus intelligence we saw being ginned up to “justify” war.
President Bush ignored our warning and the warnings of other informed individuals and groups. The corporate media uncritically echoed the Bush administration’s misuse and misrepresentation of the intelligence, despite the questions raised — including those raised by our unique movement.
(It was the first time an alumni group of intelligence officials had formed expressly to chronicle and to halt the corruption of intelligence.)
The cheerleading for war had begun — a war that would fit the post-WWII Nuremberg Tribunal’s description of a “war of aggression.” Nuremberg defined 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.”
Torture: An Accumulated Evil
Torture is one of those accumulated evils. Violating domestic laws like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 is another.
You were right to unceremoniously jettison former CIA director Michael Hayden, who betrayed the thousands of NSA professionals who, until he directed that domestic law could be ignored, had adhered scrupulously to the 1978 FISA law as NSA’s “First Commandment” — Thou Shalt Not Eavesdrop on Americans Without a Court Warrant.
In contrast, we believe you were badly misguided in giving a prominent White House post to former CIA director George Tenet’s protégé John Brennan, who has publicly defended “extraordinary rendition” in full knowledge that its purpose was torture.
Brennan also had complicit knowledge of the lengths to which Tenet conspired with the Department of Justice to distort history and the law in drafting opinions that attempted to “justify” torture.
With all due respect, Mr. President, it would be another mistake for you to believe what you are hearing from the likes of Brennan and Hayden and the journalists they have fed and domesticated.
Please do not be deceived into thinking that most intelligence officials, past and present, condone torture — still less that they are angry that you have put a stop to such techniques.
We are referring, of course, to what President Bush called “an alternative set of procedures” involving cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment that violates domestic and international law.
We focus on torture in the VIPS statement that follows these introductory remarks.
The Senate Armed Services Committee recently concluded that it was President Bush himself who, by Executive Memorandum of February 7, 2002 exempting al-Qaeda and the Taliban from Geneva protections, “opened the door” to the abuse that ensued.
You need to know that the vast majority of intelligence professionals deplore “extraordinary rendition” and the other torture procedures that were subsequently ordered by senior Bush administration officials.
Sadly, President Bush was not the first chief executive to find a small cabal of superpatriots, amateur thugs, and contractors to do his administration’s bidding. But never before in this country were lawless thugs given such free rein. The congressional “oversight” committees looked the other way.
Tenet and his acolytes successfully ingratiated themselves with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and the faux lawyers who devised what actually amounts to a very porous “legal” shield for those who carried out the torture.
It was a shield designed for and applied exclusively to those “just following orders” at the CIA black sites, and not for the low-ranking soldiers doing similar things at Abu Ghraib.
Some of the latter have done time in prison; one is still there. It would appear that some are less equal than others. And, to this day, the organizers and apologists for torture have managed to escape the consequences of their actions.
No doubt you appreciate better than anyone that the official Department of Justice memoranda you insisted be released last week are a national disgrace. Worse still are the first-hand accounts by young soldiers at Guantanamo of perversions like “rape by instrumentality.”
You should be aware that this was a practice adamantly defended by former White House lawyers when Congress attempted to draft legislation expressly prohibiting it.
Asked to explain their objection, Bush administration lawyers acknowledged that they were worried that such legislation might subject practitioners to prosecution under state and federal criminal statutes.
The Morale Myth
Finally, we want to address the self-serving myth being propagated by Brennan, Hayden, and others to the effect that exposing torture and other abuses would damage morale at the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
You may recall that Hayden, while still CIA director, was already going around town telling folks he had warned you “personally and forcefully” that if you authorize an investigation into controversial activities like waterboarding, “no one in Langley will ever take a risk again.”
Hayden was blowing smoke, as we say in the trade, but also gravely insulting all those who have served, and continue to serve, with honor. You need no help from us in interpreting Hayden’s outrageous threat. But the red herring about damage to agency morale does need to be addressed.
On April 28, former Vice President Walter Mondale exposed the speciousness of that argument during an interview in Minneapolis. Mondale was one of the senators on the Church Committee, which during the mid-Seventies unearthed the unlawful activities of COINTELPRO and other abuses by intelligence agencies.
Speaking from that experience, Mondale noted that concern over the effect on agency morale — a concern that is widely expressed now — was also voiced both before the Church investigation got under way and while it was proceeding.
The concern proved totally unfounded, according to Mondale, as it quickly became apparent that agency personnel called before the Church Committee were thankful for the chance to get the truth out, get a heavy burden off their shoulders, and put the scandal behind them.
Most important, the truth that was brought to light made it possible for the country to resolve how national security issues should be addressed in the future. Much of that wisdom and many of the legal protections introduced at that time were simply disregarded by your predecessor and the people he picked to run his administration.
As for the need for holding people to account, Mondale had this to say:
"Holding people responsible in some way for what happened is very important. If the verdict here is that you can do these kinds of things and there are no consequences, then that leaves a precedent. I've been around the federal government long enough to know that if there is a bad precedent, it's like leaving a loaded pistol on the kitchen table. You don't know who is going to pick it up and pull the trigger. There need to be consequences for violating the law.”
* * *
Inasmuch as we have gone on record as strongly opposed to torture, both on moral and practical grounds, from the first public awareness that the Bush administration had decided to violate international and domestic law, treaty provisions, and American tradition;
As former intelligence officials we understand that unless intelligence is “actionable” — accurate, specific, and timely enough to be acted upon with some confidence — it is ineffective.
Equally important, we acknowledge our responsibility to expose fallacious reasoning regarding the utility of torture in acquiring actionable intelligence. This issue comes to the fore especially in the celebrated, but specious “ticking time-bomb hypothetical”—a regular feature of Jack Bauer TV fiction.
The fact that the exploits of Jack Bauer have injected a dangerous level of fiction and fear among impressionable viewers, and have misled not only interrogators at Guantanamo but also the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Silvestre Reyes — not to mention Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — leaves no doubt that such illusionary scenarios need to be addressed by professionals with real-life experience.
Inasmuch as the recently released legal memos that comprised part of the “golden shield” constructed by Bush Administration lawyers do shed some light but also provide inadequate information on “harsh interrogation tactics,” and that the memos sow confusion regarding which officials were responsible for institutionalizing those methods — not to mention whether they were actually effective, as former Vice President Cheney continues to insist;
Inasmuch as it has come to light that two detainees were waterboarded at least 266 times, throwing strong doubt on various rationalizations regarding the effectiveness of waterboarding in providing timely actionable intelligence (in a “ticking time-bomb” scenario, for example);
Whereas CIA Director Leon Panetta has insisted that the “harsh interrogation tactics that some officials have declared to be torture” (the circumlocution now in vogue in the corporate media) might again be used in a future “ticking time-bomb hypothetical;”
Whereas, when the torture technique of waterboarding, a practice with antecedents in the Spanish Inquisition, was applied by Japanese troops in WWII to American and British prisoners — Japanese officers were later tried and executed;
Whereas there has been no better system devised — despite some shortcomings — to ascertain the truth of potential wrongdoing than the criminal investigative and judicial adversary process, which provides the right to attorney and right to jury and is governed by judicial rules which attempt to ensure fairness;
Whereas we recognize that the criminal justice process serves the important goal of stopping and deterring criminal actions and cannot be dismissed as merely “retribution;”
Whereas 92 videotapes showing application and results of the “harsh interrogation tactics that some officials have declared to be torture” have already been destroyed, and there is understandable concern that other evidence is being destroyed as the days go by;
Whereas other civilian and military intelligence professionals have also gone on record (see Annex below) with respect to how torture tactics are not only ineffective in terms of getting reliable, actionable intelligence but have fueled recruitment by Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to the point that, arguably, more U.S. troops have been killed by terrorists bent on revenge for torture than the 3,000 civilians killed on 9/11;
Whereas the false confessions that were elicited by the torture of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, for example, were used by the president, vice president, and the secretary of state (at the U.N.) to claim that proof existed of operational ties between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, and whereas such false confessions also diverted limited investigative resources to pursue bogus leads;
We of VIPS call for a full, truthful and public fact-finding process to begin without delay. We ask that you give careful consideration to Senator Carl Levin’s suggestion that the attorney general appoint retired judges with solid reputations for integrity to begin the process.
Another viable possibility would be the appointment of an independent “blue-ribbon commission,” perhaps modeled on the Church Committee of the mid-Seventies, to assess any illegal or improper activities and make recommendations for reform in government operations against terrorism.
We commend the administration for releasing the Department of Justice memos attempting to legalize torture. We believe the remaining relevant information must be released promptly so that the citizenry can make informed judgments about what was done in our name and, if warranted, an independent prosecutor can be appointed without unnecessary delay.
We believe strongly that any judgments regarding amnesty, forgiveness or pardon can only be made on the basis of a fully developed, public record — and not used as some sort of political bargaining chip.
Finally, we firmly oppose the notion that anyone can arrogate a right to ignore the Nuremberg Tribunal’s rejection of “only-following-orders” as an acceptable defense.
(signatories are listed alphabetically with former intelligence affiliations)
Gene Betit, US Army, DIA, Arlington, VA
Ray Close, National Clandestine Service (CIA), Princeton, NJ
Phil Giraldi, National Clandestine Service (CIA), Purcellville, VA
Larry Johnson, CIA & Department of State, Bethesda, MD
Pat Lang, US Army (Special Forces), DIA, Alexandria, VA
David MacMichael, National Intelligence Council, Linden, VA
Tom Maertens, Department of State, Mankato, MN
Ray McGovern, US Army, CIA, Arlington, VA
Sam Provance, US Army (Abu Ghraib), Greenville, SC
Coleen Rowley, FBI, Apple Valley, MN
Greg Thielmann, Department of State & Senate Intel. Committee staff, Arlington, VA
Ann Wright, US Army, Department of State, Honolulu, HI
We list below additional experienced intelligence personnel and a few others, who have spoken out/written publicly about the inefficacy and counter productiveness of torture:
FBI: Ali Soufan, Dan Coleman, Jack Cloonan
CIA: John Helgerson (former Inspector General), Bob Baer, Haviland Smith, Mel Goodman
Military: Navy General Counsel Alberto J. Mora; Major General Antonio Taguba (who probed Abu Ghraib and concluded that Bush officials committed war crimes: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/251/story/41514.html); Air Force Col Steven M. Kleinman; Rear Admiral (ret) and former Judge Advocate General for the Navy John Hutson; former Naval Intelligence officer and Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Reagan Administration Lawrence Korb; former U.S. military interrogator (pseudonym) Matthew Alexander; and former military intelligence officer Malcolm Nance.
Journalists: Scott Horton, Patrick Cockburn
References and Links
Ali Soufan: F.B.I. supervisory special agent from 1997 to 2005; op-ed contributor; My Tortured Decision; Reclaiming America’s Soul – New York Times.com Apr 23, 2009
Dan Coleman; The Torture Memos Are Not Just Sick, They're Full of Lies:
FBI veteran Coleman says, “I can give you two reasons why Cheney wants more torture memos…”
Jack Cloonan: How to Break a Terrorist: Foreign Policy: FPTV
Cloonan is a veteran FBI interrogator who spent 25 years as an FBI special agent and interrogated members of al Qaeda
John Helgerson: CIA official: no proof harsh techniques stopped terror attacks
The CIA inspector general (Helgerson) in 2004 found that there was no conclusive proof that waterboarding or other harsh interrogation techniques.
Ray Close (VIPS) and Haviland Smith
Two former top CIA officials on the efficacy of torture, by Stephen Soldz
Close and Smith are former CIA Station Chiefs who served in various senior positions in the Operations Directorate (now the National Clandestine Service). Their service included assignments in Europe, the Middle East—and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff (Smith).
Melvin Goodman: CIA and the Washington Post: Joined at the Hip
The Public Record, 27 April 2009
Melvin Goodman: Obama's Search For A Moral Compass
The Public Record, April 13, 2009
Former Navy General Counsel Alberto J. Mora:
Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are the “first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq.”
Air Force Col Steven Kleinman, a senior intelligence officer
Malcolm Nance: “Why the Bush torture architects must be prosecuted”
Nance is a former military intelligence officer, founding director of the International Counterterrorism Center for Excellence at Hudson N.Y. and author of "The Terrorist Recognition Handbook - A Practitioner's Manual for Predicting and Identifying Terrorist Activity."
Former U.S. Interrogator Matthew Alexander (pseudonym), author of
How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq writes, “I'm Still Tortured by What I Saw in Iraq,” Washington Post, November 30, 2008
Matthew Alexander, US Interrogator in Iraq Says Torture Policy Has Led to Deaths of Thousands of American Soldiers
December 3, 2008
Scott Horton: The American Public has a Right to Know That They Do Not Have to Choose Between Torture and Terror: Six questions for Matthew Alexander,
Scott Horton: Justice After Bush: Prosecuting an Outlaw Administration
December 3, 2008
Patrick Cockburn: Torture? It probably killed more Americans than 9/11
“‘The reason why foreign fighters joined al-Qa'ida in Iraq was overwhelmingly
because of abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and not Islamic ideology,’
says Major Matthew Alexander, who personally conducted 300 interrogations of prisoners in Iraq. It was the team led by Major Alexander [a named assumed
for security reasons] that obtained the information that led to the US
military being able to locate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qa'ida in
The Independent, April 26, 2009
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