Franz Kafka’s “Trial” is the story of a nobody tried for crimes never made clear by faceless authorities upholding secret laws that never fail to get their guilty verdict. You could read it to understand how easily reality is distorted and justice impersonated, even in “civilized” nations. Or you could read the inspector general’s recent report on CIA interrogations.
The Bush administration’s great insight wasn’t to evade the law. It was to secretly create new laws and follow those while using an agency designed to operate above the law anyway. Precision and control would stand in for legitimacy and lofty intentions (“keeping you secure”) for legality. Every interrogation would be regulated down to the wattage of bulbs in inmates’ cells (17), the lowest water temperature they could be doused with (41 degrees), the number of hours they could be locked in a box (eight), the number of times they could be slapped or thrown against the wall (unclear), the amount of water that should be used during waterboarding and the amount of time they could be so tortured (two hours per day).
The mock executions, the threats with power drills or to off inmates’ families – those were unfortunate extras – not approved by the hotline to the White House that reportedly hummed through every interrogation. But the rest was legal. The Justice Department said so. George Bush and Dick Cheney, channeling Richard Nixon, said so: “If the president does it, it’s legal.”
There’s no sense arguing the absurd. It’ll defeat you every time, as Kafka’s Josef finds out in “The Trial.” There’s no sense prosecuting interrogators, either. They didn’t re-write the book on torture. Their bosses and their lawyers did. Their prosecution, which will never take place, may be a useful disinfection of national ideals. But it wouldn’t get at the founding rot. Presidents come and go, even bad ones. The CIA remains. It’s time to ask if it should.
The CIA wasn’t created to run cloak-and-dagger operations, rig elections, overthrow governments, cozy up to thuggish regimes or run secret prisons. That’s what it’s done for 60 years, to the detriment of its original mission and at catastrophic costs to this country. The CIA was created in 1947 to prevent another Pearl Harbor. Harry Truman wanted presidents informed of dangers over the horizons.
The CIA hasn’t improved matters. It’s often made them worse. The spy agency’s history of failures makes a parody of its motto – “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” from the Gospel according to John. This is the agency that failed to warn of the Soviet Bomb in 1949, of the Korean war the following year and of Soviet ballistic missile capabilities in 1957 while inventing a “missile gap” three years later, overstating Soviet military capabilities for 40 years thereafter and predicting, within weeks of its downfall, that the Soviet empire would last well into the 21st century.
The agency’s record in the Islamic world is even more dismal. The agency also failed to warn of the Egyptian-Israeli war of 1956 or the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 and assured President Carter that the Soviets would not invade Afghanistan in 1979. Its agents, who’d propped up the shah of Iran’s secret police and trained its torture-chamber goons for 25 years, also assured Carter weeks before the shah was deposed that Islamist militants agitating in the streets were not endangering the regime. The consequences of that failure are with us still, as are those of Afghanistan, where the CIA failed to detect how the jihadists it had nursed during the Afghan war were America’s next-greatest threat. All that – a mere fraction of the agency’s failures – before the CIA’s ultimate failures of 9/11, of Iraqi WMDs and subsequent torture scandals at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere (after it had outsourced half the agency’s responsibilities to private contractors).
“Amateur hour” is over, Michael Hayden, the 18th CIA director, promised senators at his 2006 confirmation hearing. You can bet the next 10 years’ $9 trillion deficit and yet-unimagined failures that it isn’t.