The CIA and Interrogations: A Bad Fit from the Start

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Aerial view of the CIA headquarters in Virginia.

Is CIA morale going to suffer from the Justice Department's opening of an investigation into the agency's use of harsh interrogation methods under the Bush Administration? To a degree, yes. But there's a stronger case that the CIA was damaged the moment the White House picked it to conduct the interrogation of "high value" al-Qaeda prisoners. What everyone seems to forget is that the CIA is a civilian intelligence organization never designed, trained, or staffed to interrogate prisoners of war. The program could never have gone any way other than badly.

In the CIA Inspector General's report released Monday there are references to the considerable doubt inside the CIA about interrogating prisoners of war. Although CIA management apparently never raised those doubts with its political bosses, the rank and file understood how little they themselves knew about interrogation. Few had ever conducted an interrogation, let alone an interrogation employing physical coercion. They also worried about the legal guidance coming out of the Department of Justice.

As I've been told, many CIA employees believed this was an accident waiting to happen. They knew from years of experience that it would be the CIA and nobody else in Washington who would pay the price. A CIA officer who left the agency in 2004 wrote to me this week: "I knew the Agency crazies and their contractors would eventually pay legally or politically for torture. Many folks were talking about it. But management did nothing. The right wing nuts did not make us proud, and hid behind Cheney authorities to conduct crimes which added nothing and probably were counter-productive sadism, period."

A former CIA senior officer told me it was not as simple as that. CIA management had its doubts from the beginning. Its first choice to handle the interrogations was the Office of Security. But the idea was quickly rejected when management realized security officers — who conduct background investigations, operate polygraph machines, and supervise the guard force that protects CIA facilities — also knew nothing about "hostile interrogations," as they once were referred to in the CIA.

As these things usually go in the CIA, management then turned to the agency's operatives and told them, in short, to design an interrogation program from scratch. The operatives had few illusions about their own capabilities. Their CIA training is about persuasion rather than coercion. You either pay an informant or recruit him on ideological grounds. But you never twist arms. (Incidentally, I was one of those liberal arts majors who also does not have a clue how to conduct a hostile interrogation.)

It shouldn't come as a surprise then that the operatives turned to contractors, ex-military who had the merit of having gone through survival training, where among other things they picked up a familiarity with waterboarding. But the problem was that they were neither steeped in the culture of a civilian intelligence agency nor closely vetted. And since the entire program was handled on the fly, it was easy for a bad apple to get through CIA screening, especially when he came under a corporate contract. It's not a coincidence the only CIA employee convicted in the abuse of a prisoner was a contractor. (David A. Passaro was convicted for assaulting in 2003 an Afghan detainee who later died.)

I suspect the Los Angeles Times has it right when it reported Thursday the newly appointed prosecutor will be focusing on the alleged abuses of contractors rather than staff CIA officers. At the same time it would of course be a mistake to lay responsibility for the Bush Administration's torture policies solely at the doorstep of contractors. The Bush Administration is more culpable than anyone at the CIA or in corporate America. Still, the point remains that it was political expediency — the White House's asking the CIA to do something it couldn't do — that has damaged CIA morale more than a DOJ probe that was the all but inevitable outcome of the Bush Administration's actions.

Not surprisingly, many Republicans this week have attacked Obama for creating an interagency team that appears to effectively take interrogations away from the CIA and gave it to the FBI, and to some degree, the National Security Council. But if I were CIA Director Leon Panetta I would be secretly relieved at this change. The CIA is not suited for this kind of work, and an interagency effort is the only way to spread blame for an inherently risky program like this. And this is not to mention that if the program is ever launched again you can count on it that a Department of Justice attorney will be sitting in on each and every interrogation.

Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, is's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.