The Real Story Behind the CIA's Torture Policy
by Scott Horton
The Daily Beast's Scott Horton gets the inside scoop from Jane Mayer on CIA chief Leon Panetta—and how he advocated for a truth commission on torture but was rebuffed by Obama, who saw it as a potentially dangerous political distraction.
On Monday, The New Yorker hits newsstands featuring “The Secret History,” an article by Jane Mayer that takes a close look at the CIA under its new director, former congressman and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta.
Following up on the pioneering work in her prize-winning book The Dark Side, Mayer examines the legacy of the Bush years—torture practices and a series of secret detention facilities around the world. Over the objections of senior players in the agency, President Obama shut them down, but the Obama White House and Director Panetta continue a struggle on two fronts. On one hand, they face relentless attacks from former Vice President Dick Cheney, who says America’s security was compromised by the decision. On the other hand, they struggle to keep the door to the CIA’s vault of Bush-era secrets firmly shut—avoiding demands for disclosure of documents and records, calls for an independent investigation, and even the suggestion that a criminal investigation is called for.
I interviewed Mayer about the major findings in her article and a few things she learned after the piece had gone to press.
Your current piece is in some respects an effort to assess how Leon Panetta, a man with vast experience in Washington insider politics but little background in foreign-intelligence operations, is grappling with his new job as director of central intelligence. He has been squarely at the center of a string of controversies about disclosure of CIA’s black sites and torture programs. His earlier statements showed he favored transparency, and there are some suggestions that he supported proposals for a commission of inquiry into the formation and implementation of torture policy. Did he? And if he did, how does he reconcile this with his position now—strenuously insisting on keeping the lid on everything?
Panetta told me that he did in fact at first favor some sort of “truth commission” to review the CIA’s history, but he said that once it became clear that President Obama was against the idea, he and other supporters basically backed off. He told me also that he doesn’t see much chance it will be revived at this point. In part, his support was for political reasons—he saw the commission as a way to delegate these politically toxic issues to experts outside the administration.
He mentioned former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former Congressman Lee Hamilton as the types of nonpartisan experts he thought could be commissioners. It’s an irony that while Panetta is known for his political experience—on this issue President Obama decided against him—because he and his own political team thought a commission would just embroil Obama further in Bush’s mistakes. In particular, they didn’t want to arouse the ire of Bush and Cheney, Panetta told me. So they squelched the idea of looking back. Any serious look back at how American came to embrace torture would inevitably lead to Cheney. It would also likely end up having to reexamine the false confessions from coerced detainees that helped get us into the war in Iraq. They just see too much partisan political peril in it.
What was the breakdown on this issue in the Obama White House—who else spoke against the commission concept, and what were their arguments?
The opposition really came from Obama’s political advisers. David Axelrod, I know, thinks a commission would be a mistake. Basically, they regard their ability to hold the support of independent and conservative Democratic voters as essential politically for their very ambitious agenda. They dread any issue that could launch a divisive culture war. An exploration of Bush’s use of torture, seen from this perspective, is a potentially dangerous political distraction.
The Real Story Behind the CIA's Torture Policy - The Daily Beast