There may be reason for optimism following the CIA torture report

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. The president says it’s bad, even the CIA says it’s bad.


John Brennan: Acknowledging our mistakes and absorbing the lessons of the past is fundamental to our ability to succeed in our mission and it’s one of the great strengths of this organization.


Werman: That’s CIA director John Brennan in a rare appearance today on Capitol Hill.


Brennan: Even today, we know there are further organizational improvements to be made and we are pursuing them.


Werman: But you know what? The reality is it’s pretty unlikely law enforcement will ever really stop torturing people. History bears that out and in a few minutes, we’ll look at the evolution of waterboarding. But first, can the CIA be reformed? I ask because one of the more disturbing issues raised by the Senate Intelligence Committee report is not just that the CIA had a torture program but how dysfunctional the CIA seems. David Cole is a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington.


David Cole: I actually am optimistic that this report will lead to some change within the agency because what the report reveals is that, notwithstanding that the Justice Department approved this program, notwithstanding that the president, the vice president, the defense secretary all personally signed off on the program, the agency nonetheless seemed to feel the need to misrepresent facts about the program consistently to the Senate Committee, to the White House, even to the Justice Department. I think the simple revelation of that in cold, hard facts should have a deterrent effect on the agency going forward in terms of how it relates to the other branches of government.


Werman: That is one of the amazing things about that report is just what it lays bear about a pattern of lying at the CIA, and yet this is a clandestine agency. Can we expect a clandestine agency to remove a culture of lying if that’s what it is?


Cole: I think you can. There may be a culture of lying but they don’t lie to themselves, presumably. So, I think they should be able to distinguish between the enemy and us, and they should understand that while deception may be appropriate in particular covert operations, the branches of government that oversee them, that are supposed to control them, need to know what’s going on so that their programs can be controlled and legitimized.


Werman: We’re talking about the CIA generally here, but are we really talking about a bad apple scenario or are the problems endemic through the whole agency?


Cole: I think the problems are endemic, at least that’s what this report suggests. It wasn’t as if one or two or three particular members of the agency were consistently providing misrepresentations and inaccurate information to the other branches, but that it was a consistent effort to hide the ugly truth of torture. It really will require a kind of systemic correction and not simply the removal of one or two bad apples.


Werman: So, Obama wants to leave the past behind, does not seem inclined to prosecute Bush Administration officials for the torture program, but do you think the United States can move forward psychically on the torture issue, on reforming the CIA without some kind of reckoning of past misdeeds and the people who committed them?


Cole: I think there absolutely needs to be a reckoning. I think, in some respects, this is a reckoning -- the laying out in very graphic detail of the horrific abuses that we inflicted on human beings and the uselessness of it in almost all cases -- I think that’s already a reckoning in an important way.


Werman: As far as prosecution though?


Cole: I think prosecution is one way of reckoning with wrongdoing but it’s not the only way. In the UK, in the early days of the IRA troubles, it rounded up lots of Irish men essentially and then subjected them to torture because they thought they might have information about the IRA. Thereafter, they appointed a bipartisan high level commission which conducted an inquiry and wrote a very powerful report that laid out what the UK had done, condemned it as illegal and counterproductive. Nobody went to jail, nobody was prosecuted but that report had a lasting effect on the legal and political culture in the UK with respect to torture. That’s the kind of reckoning that I think we need going forward in this country.


Werman: That was Georgetown University law professor David Cole.