Torture Report Reveals CIA’s Manipulation of US Media
Agency Used Classified Information As Currency For Deception
The recently released Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report pillorying the CIA’s Bush-era detention and interrogation program is replete with lurid details of what would commonly be called torture, if those practices were carried out on you or me.
Waterboarding, rectal feeding, sleep deprivation, coffin-size cells and forcing detainees to stand in stress positions, even with broken bones, is the stuff of a horror movie. But there is another revelation in the long-awaited, and controversial, Senate committee report that so far seems to have slipped past much examination in the public spotlight.
The Senate report makes clear that CIA officials attempted to play the media like a fiddle by selectively releasing classified information about the detention and interrogation program.
“The CIA manipulated rules on classified information to serve it’s own interests,” Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, said. “And the Senate report cites several examples of that.”
In fact, one of the findings of the report is quite blunt on that front:
“The CIA's Office of Public Affairs and senior CIA officials coordinated to share classified information on the CIA' s Detention and Interrogation Program to select members of the media to counter public criticism, shape public opinion, and avoid potential congressional action to restrict the CIA's … authorities and budget. These disclosures occurred when the program was a classified covert action program.”
This finding is troubling in light of the ongoing efforts to prosecute well-known whistleblowers, such as Edward Snowden of NSA-leak fame, and some half dozen others in separate cases, all of whom could face (or are facing) years in prison for allegedly disclosing classified information to the media. To be sure, there are nuances in each of the cases and the comparison is not perfect, but at the heart of it all is a set of rules on the release of classified information that are marked with double standards.
“If you have no security clearance, and there is not a need to know, then you’re not supposed to get classified information,” Aftergood said. “The Senate committee found that CIA officials leaked classified information [to the media] and no further investigation was conducted.”
The Senate report describes the practice as follows:
“In seeking to shape press reporting on the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program, CIA officers and the CIA's Office of Public Affairs (OPA) provided unattributed background information on the program to journalists for books, articles, and broadcasts, including when the existence of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program was still classified.When the journalists to whom the CIA had provided background information published classified information, the CIA did not, as a matter of policy, submit crimes reports.”
One example illustrative of the practice, cited in the report, is found in correspondence penned by the deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center in 2005, as the torture program was beginning to unravel:
“We either get out and sell, or we get hammered, which has implications beyond the media. [C]ongress reads it, cuts our authorities. messes up our budget. …We either put out our story or we get eaten. [T]here is no middle ground.”
The same CIA officer explained to a colleague that "when the [Washington Post]/[New York T]imes quotes ‘senior intelligence official,’ it’s us ... authorized and directed by opa [CIA's Office of Public Affairs].”
And much of the information leaked to the media via these authorized leaks “on the operation of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program and the effectiveness of its enhanced interrogation techniques was inaccurate…,” the Senate report states.
So, in essence, the CIA operated as a propaganda machine, utilizing classified information as part of a larger effort to deceive the American public about the shortcomings of its torture program, if the Senate report is to be believed. Now, none of this is really new in the big picture of how the government and the media work with respect to classified information. The simple rule to remember is that the higher up in the government the leaker is, the less risk they face.
As far back as 1974, politicians were pointing out this basic flaw in the system. A Congressional Research Service (CRS) report released last year touches on the reality:
As Representative William Moorhead, at the time chairman of the Foreign Operations and Government Information Subcommittee of the House Government Operations Committee, stated in 1974:
… On one hand, the full power of the Government’s legal system is exercised against certain newspapers for publishing portions of the Pentagon Papers and against someone like Daniel Ellsberg for his alleged role in their being made public. This is contrasted with other actions by top Executive officials who utilize the technique of "instant declassification" of information they want leaked. Sometimes it is an "off-the-record" press briefing or "backgrounders" that becomes "on-the-record" at the conclusion of the briefing or at some future politically strategic time.
That is how the game really works, and when you throw in a little deception, as the CIA is accused of doing in the case of its torture program, you often wind up with not only the continuation of bad policy, but also a basic undermining of the premise that democracy works best when the people are well informed.
The reality is that if you are high enough up in the government, and have the power to classify and declassify information, you face little risk of prosecution if you cherry pick what national-security information to release outside the normal declassification process — for which there are tedious rules.
And, according to a recent White House “background only” press briefing, the Obama administration’s stance is that the normal declassification process should be followed, as opposed to the “instant declassification” approach. A senior administration official told reporters gathered for the briefing on Tuesday, Dec. 9, when asked about the systematic release of classified information by the CIA, that there is a “very rigorous” process “that needs to be undertaken in order to declassify information and release it to the public.”
“… We do believe that there’s value in declassification where we can provide additional transparency, but we believe that that should take place through normal channels and procedures,” the White House official added.
Still, the reality on the ground is that preferring a practice be followed isn’t enough.
“… There is little to stop agency heads and other high-ranking officials from releasing classified information to persons without a security clearance when it is seen as suiting government needs,” the CRS report concludes. “The Attorney General has prosecutorial discretion to choose which leaks to prosecute. If in fact a case can be made that a senior official has made or authorized the disclosure of classified information, successful prosecution under current laws may be impossible….”
On the other hand, there is no such de facto protection afforded a low-level government whistleblower who leaks classified information to the media that actually shines a light on corruption or fraud.
Solving this problem is not so easy, since crafting laws to contain it, and all the potential derivations of the practice, while still assuring press freedom, might be beyond the reach of our national politics. My best bet is that we simply reduce the volume of information deemed classified, so it’s less useful overall as a currency of deception and control in the bureaucracy, and start there.
Until we evolve to that point, though, it is important to realize how the process works now. As a critical reader of media reports, it makes sense to use your nose.
“The practice of authorized leaks of classified information “is anomalous to say the least,” FAS’ Aftergood said. “Once you declassify something, it’s supposed to be available to everyone, not just one reporter. But that’s not what happens, and so it smells bad.”