Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Former C.I.A. Agents Discuss Politics, Disrepute and Torture at the New School

Two former CIA agents joined New School President Bob Kerrey in a panel discussion at 55 West 13th Street earlier today, saying that the Bush Administration disregarded tried-and-true spying techniques to justify the invasion of Iraq, that Congressional oversight is good for the CIA, and that "enhanced interrogation" techniques are ineffective and legally questionable when adopted by the CIA.

The event could not have come at a more appropriate time. Today, the front pages of U.S. newspapers bore articles about a National Intelligence Estimate released the day before, which said Iran had halted its efforts to build nuclear weapons in 2003. The report, an assessment compiled by America's 16 intelligence agencies, stood in marked contrast to George W. Bush's comments in October that Iran is currently working to enrich uranium for nuclear bombs and propelling the United States towards "World War III."

Tyler Drumheller, the former director of covert operations for the CIA's division in Europe, who retired from the CIA in 2005, said that the Bush Administration has shirked the intelligence community's normal methods of "agent work, reporting and data collection."

"Intelligence is a story, a never-ending story," Drumheller said. Agents, analysts and policy experts constantly need to reassess their conclusions, he said, because their subjects of inquiry--for instance, states like Iran--are naturally given to making changes in their interests and policies.

But the Bush administration, Drumheller said, pursues "the magic bullet."

"This is the truth, the way it's gotta be," he said, elaborating.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, Drumheller worked with other agents to investigate whether Iraq was hoarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. He later wrote On the Brink, an insider's account of how the Bush Administration relied on an unreliable Iraqi defector nicknamed "Curveball" to justify the war in Iraq, which hit bookstores in 2006.

He said that another Iraqi source kept "telling us that there were no weapons of mass destruction."

"If they could do it," the source told them, "they would do it."

He said that this source did not find a way into a National Intelligence Estimate released in 2002, which concluded that Iraq was manufacturing chemical and biological weapons and planned to revive its nuclear weapons program. After the United States invaded Iraq, it turned out that the NIE's conclusions were erroneously flawed.

There is a simple message this new intelligence report intends to send, Kerrey said: "We can be nonpartisan. You can trust us again."

A few moments after Drumheller started speaking, Lang sophomore Alex Cline and two students wearing orange jumpsuits and black hoods entered the room.

"We're the people you torture," Cline announced. The mock prisoners posted themselves to the left of the panel speakers, facing the audience, and stood in silence for the rest of the hour-and-fifteen minute long discussion.

Drumheller continued speaking, seemingly unfazed. Eventually the subject turned to the CIA's reputation in America. Margaret Henoch, who worked as an agent in Washington D.C. and across the world for twenty years, and who retired in early 2007, said that ever since the days of George Washington, Americans have felt a sense of "ambivalence, dislike, distrust" for their spy agencies.

"Americans like to know what their government is doing," Drumheller added, gesturing towards the two mock detainees in the room—who held signs saying things like, "Abolish the CIA," "We All Live in a Racist Police State," and "Close Guantanamo."

Kerrey said that, in some ways, the United States has never had a reliable intelligence agency—in part, because Congressional oversight limits the work of intelligence agencies here. Regardless, the two former agents and Kerrey agreed that they would not like to have it any other way.

Congressional oversight can make being a spy a "frightening, terrifying experience," Drumheller said, "but it makes you sharper."

During the question and answer session, asked if he thought the term "enhanced interrogation" justified the use of torture in interrogations, Drumheller said that he did not believe such techniques—which include water-boarding, stripping prisoners, threatening detainees with dogs, and putting them in rooms that are brightly lit or extremely cold for long periods of time—constitute acts of torture.

Using torture during civil and international conflicts violates the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which bans, "Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture," as well as, "Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment."

Drumheller said "enhanced interrogation" techniques are ineffective, since they usually yield unreliable information. He added that holding prisoners is not the "province of the CIA"—and Henoch nodded emphatically in agreement—since the FBI and the military are trained to interrogate prisoners and maintain prisons.

"The minute you get an intelligence service into prisoner, holding, interrogation, you're in a very murky, dangerous world," he said.

"Who should be held responsible? I don't know," he continued. "I could give you a list of people. But that would just be my personal prejudice."

The audience laughed.

Photo: New School President Bob Kerrey with former CIA agents Margaret Henoch and Tyler Drumheller. By them stand two mock detainees and Lang sophomore Alex Cline. By Sam Lewis.

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