"It was a toe-to-toe, behind-the-scenes battle": Inside the war over the CIA torture report

Filmmaker Michael Kirk tells Salon about his new "Frontline" documentary "Secrets, Politics and Torture"

Published May 19, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

Barack Obama, John Brennan              (AP/Carolyn Kaster/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Barack Obama, John Brennan (AP/Carolyn Kaster/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The phrase may seem overwrought, because, at the time, so few people noticed — but before Democrats on the intelligence committee released the so-called torture report as one of their final acts while in control of the Senate, a subterranean battle fought between them and the CIA was intense enough to count as a borderline constitutional crisis.

That's certainly the argument that California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who ran the committee until 2015 and was generally known as a friend to the intelligence community, made in dramatic fashion on the Senate floor. And perhaps, given the history of the U.S. and torture, it was only fitting that the the story should come to a (temporary) conclusion in such a painful, opaque fashion. If nothing else, the story of the report makes for an appropriate addition to "Frontline" filmmaker Michael Kirk's work on America's dalliance with "enhanced interrogation," which continues Tuesday night with his new film, "Secrets, Politics and Torture."

Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Kirk to discuss his new film, torture and President Obama's complicated relationship with the CIA. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

This isn't your first time covering torture under the Bush administration. What made you want to return to the subject?

Ever since 9/11, we've been fascinated and worried about and interested in what happened in our country and what happens in many countries after some incredible event occurs that causes fear and anxiety in people. How does the government react? What does it do after 9/11? To that end, we've been making films since just after 9/11 about all the various ways that the Bush administration and even now the Obama administration has reacted.

There was "United States of Secrets," a film we made last year about the National Security Agency and what Edward Snowden and others famously revealed; there was the Defense Department in our film "Rumsfeld's War"; there was "Torture Question" in 2005, where we dealt with Abu Ghraib; in "Bush's War" and "Cheney's Law," we dealt with the way laws and other things were changed to accommodate the government's response to the fear of al-Qaida and the fear that something else would occur. The CIA was really the last part of it that we hadn't dealt with, partly because so much of what the CIA did was deeply classified.

Once the Senate report came out in December, we knew we could finally fill in the blanks on some of that. We managed to get to the top attorneys for the CIA to give us seven hours of interview, so that we could kind of break open this fight that's been going on really publicly since about 2006, this fight over who owns the history of what happened with what the CIA calls 'enhanced interrogation' and what almost everybody else is now calling torture.

Why do you think these former CIA officials were willing to speak with you? You certainly weren't the first to ask.

I think there really is an open warfare between Senate Democrats like Dianne Feinstein and former Senator Mark Udall, in their official capacity, and the Central Intelligence veterans like John Rizzo and John McLaughlin and others, who have an open argument about who owns the history of this period of time and what the stakes were. From the CIA's perspective, they're always talking about how hard it is to put it in the context of what the times were like. The Senate, especially the Democratic Senators, who really felt hard-done-by, who felt lied to by the CIA during that time period. There is an impulse on both sides to want to get their story out, and if you were a journalist interested in long-form, connect-the-dots, big-story journalism, it was the perfect opportunity.

It was fortunate for us that some of the CIA officers — especially high-ranking people like Rizzo and McLaughlin — were willing to talk to us on the record so that we could do more than just get the statements that some of them were offering in the immediate aftermath of the report. We spent many hours with Rizzo, and he was very generous with his time. I think it was, in some ways, central to the telling of this story that we had the perspective of somebody who sat right in the middle of all those 5 o'clock meetings on the seventh floor of the CIA and watched it all unfold, and who was mentioned more than 200 times in the Senate report.

Is it accurate to describe the struggle between Senate Democrats and the CIA over the report as a "battle"? Was it that intense? Or is it hyperbole?

I think the Democrats on the Senate committee were extremely angry to discover how the CIA did what they did, how the program worked, and whether it did work. When they found out in 2006 that the program existed at all, and the extent to which it was much more brutal than they had been led to believe, I think that's when the Democrats in the Senate at least decided, we gotta get to the bottom of this. When they did, the CIA, under pressure, allowed them access to all of the CIA's files, more than 6 million pages of top-secret, classified documents, emails, cables, Telexes — everything. At that moment, the way it was described to me was that it curled the hairs on people.

They were just stunned at how the CIA had acted, and stunned even more profoundly when they discovered that, from their point of view, it hadn't worked. For years, it was under the surface like a bog fire, and those of us who report in this world began to know about it and eagerly await whatever was going to come. For a couple of years there was a fight within the Obama administration itself about whether to release the Democrats' report, and that was also fascinating to watch and wait for as the CIA continued to try to stop it from coming out. So yes, it was a toe-to-toe, behind-the-scenes battle between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Democrats on the Intelligence Committee for years, and the result was the highly redacted but nevertheless unbelievably revealing 450-page Senate report that came out in December.

 The exact role in all of this of the White House under President Obama  has been widely discussed. What's the best way to understand the Obama White House's role here? 

Barack Obama was the candidate who really ran saying that torture is a terrible thing and we shouldn't be doing it, and that the CIA has really overstepped its mandate. Like many newly elected presidents, he very strongly wanted to rein in the reach of the Central Intelligence Agency — almost all presidents are a little worried about how far off the reservation the CIA has been. This president ... very quickly — and I mean very quickly — shut the [torture] program down. It was already down to almost nothing, but he really stopped it. He certainly encouraged the investigation of the torture program and wanted to know how it went.

The CIA in the early days really doesn't like Obama, and he says a few things that worry them and anger them, and it isn't until the story of the capture and killing of bin Laden that the president feels, in some way, indebted to or appreciative of the Central Intelligence Agency. He, too, feels that he wants to get closer to them; he visits the CIA and a kind of pact is made; all is forgiven.

President Obama's first choice to run the CIA, John Brennan, becomes the counterterrorism czar at the White House ... Brennan and Obama become close, and [Brennan] becomes very important to President Obama, who has initiated a drone-war mentality, as he makes the announcement that his administration is going to lead the way out of Iraq and Afghanistan. They begin to rely on the CIA and, slowly but surely over the years, President Obama becomes, like almost every president, increasingly reliant on the Central Intelligence Agency as an instrument in his toolkit of worldwide diplomacy.

He's therefore feeling somewhat sympathetic toward them when, suddenly, Sen. Dianne Feinstein says, Look, I've got this 6,400-page report that says they've been torturing people, that they don't really know what they're doing, that they're totally amoral, that they didn't really get Osama bin Laden [through torture], and that they've really been brutal and ineffective and mismanaged. The president finds himself, at about that moment, right between the rock of John Brennan and that hard place of Dianne Feinstein ... Obama had to give Dianne Feinstein and the Senate Democrats something, but he really didn't want to harm in any fundamental way his relationship with Brennan and the CIA itself, which is doing a lot of what the President would consider important and secret work for him.

You alluded before to this idea that the CIA and its critics are fighting over who gets to write or own the history of this era. To that point, one of the central battles, it seems to me, is over whether the word "rogue" would be an accurate descriptor for the CIA. What do you think?

Having done this for three decades, I resist applying an adjective to the Central Intelligence Agency. The thing not to forget is that people in the CIA have known for a long time that the nature of what they do walks the line of abnegating civil liberties and committing all kinds of crimes. They always know they're out there on the edge, and I think they worry increasingly about the extent to which they might find themselves under criminal liability for some of the things they've done.

Rizzo explored the legality of what he was doing; he found people at the Justice Department who helped him legalize what they wanted to do. That was all taken to Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney, who supported it; it was taken to the president, who may not have known the particulars but said yes. Almost nobody said no in the executive branch of the American government; the attorney general didn't say no, the president's attorney's didn't say no. Rizzo and the CIA had plenty of cover, so it's hard to use the word "rogue" in that sense.

Did all of these people actually know what was actually going on in those interrogation rooms at the black sites? Hard to say. I don't think anybody really knows what people knew. One thing we know is that the Congress was not told in any way what was really going on. One thing we do know is that they kept it all very secret, except within the highest reaches of the executive branch, all of whom apparently signed off, and said, Go forth and do what you've gotta do. They never, as far as I can tell, engaged in the answering — or even the asking — of the question, Should we do it? But they did answer the question Can we do it? and they said yes. Form your own conclusions.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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