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July 15, 2015

On Guard with the CIA

Reuel S. Amdur

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Michael Morell's book The Great War of our Time (New York: 12 Press, 2015), about his career in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), is an intriguing account which illuminates the work of the agency, its relationship with the president and the halls of power, and its role in world affairs. In this review we will focus on a few matters touched upon.

The issues we will consider are as follows: CIA aid to al- Qaida, American attitude to Mubarak, its attitude toward Israel and Palestine, the role of Vice-President Dick Cheney, and “enhanced interrogation techniques” (i.e., torture).  We start with the CIA and al-Qaida.

According to Morell, “CIA never worked with Bin Laden” to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan.  There has been considerable controversy over the years on that question. 

However, it is without question that the CIA did back the Taliban.  The Taliban were not and are not a monolithic entity, and al-Qaida-influenced elements would have been present at the ouster of the Communist government and its Soviet military forces. 

The closeness between the Taliban and al-Qaida was demonstrated when, after 9-11, the US demanded that the Taliban government to turn bin Laden over.  The hemming and hawing in response led immediately into the US invasion. 

Whether or not there was direct assistance from the CIA to bin Laden, it would hardly be farfetched to say that CIA supplied assistance to elements committed to al-Qaida.

On a related question, one might ask, with the additional benefit of hindsight, if the United States, Afghanistan, or anyone else was better off with the CIA’s successful support of forces that threw out the Communists and the Soviet military forces aiding that government.  The CIA sure showed them Russkies, but what did they end up with?  A Pyrrhic victory indeed.  In light of the current state of affairs, no victory of any sort.

Morell’s comments about the fall of Mubarak cast a clear light on the American attitude toward reactionary allies. 

The attitude toward him was sadness over having to give up on a good ally, but the Americans recognized that the game was up.  They had no choice but to drop him. 

Essentially, the United States attempts to be loyal to local friendly despots, so long as possible.  Syria may be seen as an exception, perhaps as a result of miscalculation of the relative strength of the power of the Assad régime and the opposing forces. 

The Israel/Palestine situation gets only a few passing references, but these are noteworthy. 

President George W. Bush remarked to Morell, who did his daily security briefing, that Israel’s response to terrorism is one he could understand after 9-11. 

Morell also noted that the intifada seemed largely focused on certain cities.  These comments suggest a commitment to status quo where possible.  For Mubarak, it was no longer possible. 

On the other hand, supporting Israel was still possible.  No doubt the analysis of the concentration of intifada activity is one that American diplomats or intelligence agents would have discussed helpfully with their Israeli counterparts.  The issue of terrorism will be pertinent to our discussion of torture later in this review.  

But first, a look at the influence of Vice-President Dick Cheney and his allies. 

Morell makes it clear that he sees Cheney and company as an ideologically-driven, bungling bunch with an unsettling role on the careful work of the CIA. 

One example was the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq fiasco, which left Colin Powell with egg on his face at the United Nations. 

Morell accepts that the CIA bears responsibility because of sloppy work, not Powell, who pursued the issue carefully and in detail in meetings with CIA agents.  He points to Cheney and his claque as an unfortunate influence. 

Contrary to what others have charged, Morell doubts that Bush started out with a commitment to topple Hussein, though he acknowledges that there were others in his camp who may have had such intentions in mind.  Take a bow, Mr. Cheney. 

Perhaps the most important section of the book is in its discussion of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  That is a euphemism for torture.  He makes a distinction between rendition and torture, not acknowledging that torture took place during rendition.  Just ask Canadian Maher Arar.

Legitimizing torture and the attacks on Gaza have a common basis in social psychology. 

Morell puts the case as one of desperation.  What should one do if faced with a life-or-death prospect for the country when one person holds the key to salvation and will only give it up under torture? 

And even the euphemism of enhanced interrogation techniques is further euphemized into EIT.  He argues forcibly that torture can provide useful intelligence, citing information obtained under torture that led to finding bin Laden.  But note, we are moving from an immediate life-or-death situation to the elimination of a powerful opponent--not the same thing.

Here’s where social psychology comes into play. 

Those in power in a country are in a position in which the stakes are very high.  In the final analysis, they can rely only on their own resources in a situation of extreme danger, actual or potential. 

That is why the rationale for torture expands—from immediate life or death to getting the intelligence to let us take out bin Laden.  And a slap on the face, which Morell seems to support, leads to waterboarding, with which he is more uncomfortable.

Mikhail Gorbachev was able to move beyond the fear and anxiety that afflicts heads of government in dangerous situations. 

As a result, he brought an end to the Cold War, at least for the time.  Other national leaders had a hard time believing that Gorbachev was for real.  Surely he must be up to something. Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said that we needed more vigilance than ever.  There are no Gorbachevs on the scene today.

Morell had a very interesting conversation with an unnamed law professor at a cocktail party on the subject of EIT. 

They talked about the various techniques that had been used by the Americans.  The lawyer was categorical: each and every one of them was illegal. 

But, he added, a leader faced with dire circumstances, including the safety of the state under threat, might decide to use such forbidden methods, being prepared to take the consequences after. 

But no one in the Bush administration, including Bush, faced consequences of their illegal behavior.  Obama refuses to pursue Bush and his associates.  Perhaps he fears setting a precedent.

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