Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With
It was 8:46 a.m. on the morning of September 11th, 2001, when the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City was struck by an aircraft commandeered by al-Qa’ida terrorists. Seventeen minutes later, the clear blue skies over Manhattan were pierced yet again by another hijacked aircraft, this one tearing into the adjacent South Tower.
At 9:37, the Pentagon—the proud symbol and heart of our Nation’s military—suffered a similar attack. And at 10:03 a fourth plane shattered the serene landscape of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, as its passengers refused to allow al-Qa’ida to use one more plane as a missile to strike our Homeland.
In the short span of 77 minutes, four terrorist attacks would forever change the history of our country. They would rob us of nearly three thousand lives. They would ultimately cost us trillions of dollars. And they would plunge us into a seemingly never-ending war against a globally dispersed collection of terrorists with a murderous agenda.
As Deputy Executive Director of CIA on the morning of 9/11, I knew what it was like to belong to an intelligence agency that had been ringing the bell for many months about al-Qa’ida’s plans to attack. All of us at CIA were devastated that al-Qa’ida operatives were able to carry out such horrific attacks in near simultaneous fashion….on American soil.
And while I remember walking the halls of CIA that day to ensure that as many Agency officers as possible had left the building, as our Headquarters here in Langley, Virginia was reportedly on al-Qa’ida’s target list, I also remember that the men and women in our Counterterrorism Center stayed at their posts despite the danger. They worked through that day and that night and the following days and nights to piece together the clues as to what plans were underway to carry out yet more attacks. Their CIA brothers and sisters who were dispersed around the globe, many in dangerous environments, did the same thing.
Only 15 days after 9/11, on September 26th, it was CIA that put the first American boots on the ground in Afghanistan. And less than two months after arriving, the United States suffered its first casualty in Afghanistan when a 32-year-old CIA officer named Mike Spann was killed in action on November 25th near Mazar-e-Sharif. Since Mike’s death, twenty other CIA officers have lost their lives around the world at the hands of terrorists.
The events of 9/11 will be forever seared into the memories of all Americans who bore witness to the single greatest tragedy to befall our Homeland in recent history. Not only were our consciences shocked and our hearts and souls ripped open. So too, our collective national sense of homeland security was shattered, much like the steel, concrete, flesh, bone, and lives during those fateful 77 minutes.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, our Nation ached……cried…..and prayed. And, in our pain, we pledged to come together as one and to do what we could to prevent Usama Bin Laden and his killing machine from ever carrying out another attack against our beautiful country. Never again, we vowed. Never again.
But al-Qa’ida had other ideas, as well as additional operatives and more plans to strike us, again and again. With a globally distributed network that had stealthily concealed itself in many countries over many continents, al-Qa’ida was poised, ready, and prepared to pursue its violent agenda.
Our Government and our citizens recognized the urgency of the task—to find and stop al-Qa’ida before it could shed the blood of more innocent men, women, and children, be it in America or in any other corner of the world. And, as had been the case throughout its then 54-year history, CIA was looked to for answers—not only to questions on the threats we faced, but also to questions about what we were going to do to stop future attacks.
CIA’s mission in the wake of the 9/11 attacks would be a multidimensional one. Stopping al-Qa’ida would require the CIA to work closely with its Intelligence Community, military, homeland security, and law enforcement partners, as well as with numerous intelligence and security services around the globe. To be successful, CIA officers knew that they needed speed, agility, courage, resources, and, most importantly, intelligence. Their mission was to acquire through human and technical operations—and then to analyze with deep expertise—whatever bits and pieces of information might help fill out the menacing yet still incomplete puzzle of al-Qa’ida’s terrorist plans.
Indeed, there were numerous, credible, and very worrisome reports about a second and third wave of major attacks against the United States. And while we grieved, honored our dead, tended to our injured, and embarked on the long process of recovery, we feared more blows from an enemy we couldn’t see…..and an evil we couldn’t fathom.
This is the backdrop against which the Agency was directed by President Bush to carry out a program to detain terrorist suspects around the world.
In many respects, the program was uncharted territory for the CIA, and we were not prepared. We had little experience housing detainees, and precious few of our officers were trained interrogators. But the President authorized the effort six days after 9/11, and it was our job to carry it out. Over time, enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs), which the Department of Justice determined at the time to be lawful and which were duly authorized by the Bush Administration, were introduced as a method of interrogation. As concerns about al-Qa’ida’s terrorist plans endured, a variety of these techniques were employed by CIA officers on several dozen detainees over the course of five years before they ended in December 2007. The legal advice under which they were authorized subsequently has been revoked.
When the President came into office in January 2009, he took the position that these techniques were contrary to our values and unequivocally banned their use. He has consistently expressed the view that these techniques did significant damage to America’s standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners – something I have experienced first-hand. But as the President stated this week, the previous administration faced agonizing choices about how to pursue al Qa’ida and prevent additional terrorist attacks against our country, while facing fears of further attacks and carrying the responsibility to prevent more catastrophic loss of life. There were no easy answers. And whatever your views are on EITs, our Nation – and in particular this Agency – did a lot of things right during this difficult time to keep the country strong and secure.
The same year the techniques were banned by the President, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) initiated an in-depth review of the Detention and Interrogation Program. The CIA’s implementation of the program is a legitimate oversight issue, and we gave the effort our full support, providing an unprecedented amount of sensitive CIA documents to the Committee and devoting considerable resources to help it with its review. Our hope was that it would offer an impartial and authoritative assessment of the program, help us learn from our mistakes, and inform how we conduct sensitive activities in the future. Unfortunately, the Committee could not agree on a bipartisan way forward, and no CIA personnel were interviewed by the Committee.
This was unusual. In the vast majority of cases, SSCI’s congressional reports have been the result of collaborative, bipartisan investigations. Over the course of my career, I have seen the value of the Committee’s reviews. Even on politically sensitive matters such as the SSCI’s investigation into the intelligence failures regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Committee succeeded in producing a report that was supported unanimously. In that case, the Committee reviewed tens of thousands of documents and conducted interviews with more than 200 officers from the Intelligence Community, some of whom were interviewed up to four times.
This week, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released the Executive Summary, Findings, and Conclusions of its study of the Agency’s former detention and interrogation program. Vice Chairman Chambliss, joined by five other Senators, also released the Minority Views. The authors clearly worked very hard to produce a report of this magnitude. Over several years, they sorted through over a million documents provided by the CIA, and their commitment to the task is obvious.
Although we view the process undertaken by the Committee when investigating the program as flawed, many aspects of their conclusions are sound and consistent with our own prior findings. Over the years, internal Agency reviews—including numerous investigations by our Office of Inspector General—found fault in CIA’s running of the program. We have acknowledged many of these in our response to the study last year, and I will touch on some of them today. Acknowledging our mistakes and absorbing the lessons of the past is fundamental to our ability to succeed in our mission and is one of the great strengths of our organization. Even today, we know there are further organizational improvements to be made as a result of our review of the study, and we are addressing them.
As I have already noted, the CIA was unprepared to conduct a detention and interrogation program, and our officers inadequately developed and monitored its initial activities. The Agency failed to establish quickly the operational guidelines needed to govern the whole effort. In a limited number of cases, Agency officers used interrogation techniques that had not been authorized, were abhorrent, and rightly should be repudiated by all. And we fell short when it came to holding some officers accountable for their mistakes.
It is vitally important to recognize, however, that the overwhelming majority of officers involved in the program carried out their responsibilities faithfully and in accordance with the legal and policy guidance they were provided. They did what they were asked to do in the service of our Nation. In fact, some of these officers raised objections and concerns with the program and with its implementation, which is crucial to ensuring that the system works as it should and that we are able to adjust when needed. But those officers’ actions should neither be criticized nor conflated with the actions of the few who did not follow the guidance issued.
At the same time, none of these lapses should be excused, downplayed, or denied. In some instances, we simply failed to live up to the standards that we set for ourselves and that the American people expect of us.
To address the concerns identified, the CIA has implemented a number of reforms in an effort to make sure those mistakes never happen again.
For example, as a result of our own investigations and our review of the Committee’s report, CIA has taken steps to broaden the scope of our accountability reviews; strengthen the planning, management, oversight, and evaluation of our covert action programs; systematically reexamine the legal opinions underlying our sensitive programs; and improve recordkeeping for interactions with the Congress.
We are also carefully observing the new statutory requirement to provide our oversight committees with notice of any significant legal interpretation of the Constitution or other U.S. law affecting intelligence activities conducted by the CIA.
As to the issues on which we part ways with the Committee, I have already stated that our reviews indicate that the detention and interrogation program produced useful intelligence that helped the United States thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives. But let me be clear. We have not concluded that it was the use of EITs within that program that allowed us to obtain useful information from detainees subjected to them. The cause and effect relationship between the use of EITs and useful information subsequently provided by the detainee is, in my view, unknowable.
Irrespective of the role EITs might play in a detainee’s provision of useful information, I believe effective non-coercive methods are available to elicit such information—methods that do not have a counterproductive impact on our national security and on our international standing. It is for these reasons that I fully support the President’s decision to prohibit the use of EITs.
Another key point with which we take issue is the Study’s characterization of how CIA briefed the program to the Congress, the media, and within the Executive Branch, including the White House. The record does not support the Study’s inference that the Agency repeatedly, systematically, and intentionally misled others on the effectiveness of the program.
To be clear, there were instances where representations about the program that were used or approved by Agency officers were inaccurate, imprecise, or fell short of our tradecraft standards. We have acknowledged such mistakes, and I have been firm in declaring that they were unacceptable for an Agency whose reputation and value to the policymaker rests on the precision of the language it uses every day in intelligence reporting and analysis.
Primarily, however, the Study’s contention that we repeatedly and intentionally misled the public and the rest of the U.S. government rests on the Committee’s view that detainees subjected to EITs did not produce useful intelligence – a point on which we disagree.
There should be sufficient trust and credibility between our institutions, enabling us to disagree at times but also to come together and listen to each other’s perspectives. Our partnership with Congress is crucial. In my view, there is no more important oversight relationship than the CIA relationship with its Intelligence Committees. Particularly because we do so much of our work in secret, the Congress serves as a critical check on our activities, closely monitoring the Agency’s reporting and programs when the public cannot.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the Study is that it conveys a broader view of the CIA and its officers as untrustworthy. That the institution and the workforce were willing to forego their integrity in order to preserve a program they were invested in and supposedly believed to be right. This in no way comports with my experience in the CIA. While the Agency has a traditional bias for action and a determined focus on achieving our mission, we take exceptional pride in providing “truth to power,” whether that power likes or agrees with what we believe and say or not. And regardless of whether that power is affiliated with any particular political party, as long as I am Director, I will continue to defend and fight for these ideals, as CIA’s legitimacy is closely tied to its credibility, and we can afford to lose neither.
We know we have room to improve, and I am committed to addressing the issues identified by the Committee that remain a concern. In light of the fact that these techniques were abandoned seven years ago, however, my fervent hope is that we can put aside this debate and move forward to focus on issues that are relevant to our current national security challenges. In doing so, this Agency will only grow stronger, and it is my hope that we can do so under the oversight of the Committee in the collaborative and constructive manner that the American people expect of us. I pledge to do my part to facilitate such a relationship as we move forward to address the many challenging national security issues we face.
I first joined the CIA in 1980. Over the course of my career, I have come to experience and appreciate the CIA’s many national security accomplishments. Most CIA successes will never be known, as we are an intelligence service that carries out its mission without fanfare and without seeking praise. And I have come to admire greatly the women and men who come from all over the United States to make up the CIA’s workforce. They are among the best and brightest of our Nation.
Over the last several days, we have all been touched by the outpouring of support, confidence, pride, and gratitude our colleagues in government have expressed – both publicly and privately regarding the work of this Agency. These expressions of kindness and support have truly been inspiring. As the President said in his own statement, “[a]s Americans, we owe a profound debt of gratitude to our fellow citizens who serve to keep us safe . . . [the s]olemn rows of stars on the Memorial Wall at the CIA honor those who have given their lives to protect ours. Our intelligence professionals are patriots, and we are safer because of their heroic service and sacrifices.”
These stars are a testament to our history and our spirit and a consistent reminder of the women and men who make sacrifices daily so that they can help keep their fellow Americans safe and our country strong.
Thank you all very much.