Forty years ago, Senator Frank Church suggested that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was “a rogue elephant rampaging out of control, over which no effective direction was being given.” Church’s “rogue elephant” was a myth, although a plausible one at that, in that neither Dwight D. Eisenhower, nor John F. Kennedy left a paper trail conclusively linking them to plots to murder Fidel Castro. The absence of any paper trail was designed to allow presidents to “plausibly deny” any operation, should it be exposed. This was seen as a prudent step to protect the United States government, particularly its chief executive, from repercussions stemming from violations of international law.
Senator Church and his investigative committee went on to propose, as did their House counterparts, that permanent intelligence committees be created to prevent future “rogue” CIA operations. American presidents would no longer be able to “plausibly deny” their approval of covert operations; congressionally mandated procedures would ensure that the CIA was placed under “effective direction” and held accountable for its operations by intelligence committee overseers.
Instead of enhancing accountability, the intelligence committees adopted plausible deniability as a means of protecting themselves from domestic political blowback. The examples are legion, but two stand out: In 1984, Ronald Reagan’s CIA mined the harbors of Nicaragua as part of an American campaign to undermine the Sandinista government. Reagan’s CIA Director briefed the House intelligence committee in January, 1984, shortly after the mining began, while the Senate intelligence committee was briefed twice in March, but when the media revealed the operation on April 6, 1984, committee members were “outraged” and “shocked” at the “news.” Senator Patrick Leahy, no friend of Reagan’s policies, noted that members of the committees voted one way prior to the exposure of the operation, and another after the media revelations. This was, according to Leahy, “a lousy job of legislative action.”
This pattern of running for cover reemerged in the aftermath of 9/11 with the use of waterboarding on the architect of that operation, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and two other Al Qaeda members. In September 2002, ranking members of the intelligence committees were briefed on the use of waterboarding and other techniques, which prompted either silent acquiescence or hints from some members that more aggressive measures were needed. As longtime CIA watcher Steve Coll observed, “Agency officials briefed Nancy Pelosi in September, 2002, about waterboarding that was then underway, notes of that meeting show, but Pelosi later claimed that she had heard no such thing. Other senior Democrats who were briefed about brutal C.I.A. interrogations . . . have suffered from similar impairments.” Officials in the room that day attest to Congresswoman Pelosi’s involvement, and President Obama’s CIA Director Leon Panetta later confirmed her participation. Nonetheless, the former Speaker of the House claims, “We were not, I repeat, not, told that waterboarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used.”
Pelosi’s assent to waterboarding was perfectly defensible, for as former CIA Director George Tenet noted, his agency was receiving “reports of nuclear weapons in New York City, apartment buildings that are going to be blown up. . . . Everybody forgets one central context of what we lived through—the palpable fear that we felt . . . that there was so much that we did not know.” Echoing this theme, Senator Dianne Feinstein seemed to defend the use of extraordinary measures:
I think it’s a tempest in a teapot really to say: Well, Speaker Pelosi should have known all of this, she should have stopped this, she should have done this or done that. I don’t want to make an apology for anybody, but in 2002, it wasn’t 2006, 07, 08 or 09. It was right after 9/11, and there were in fact discussions about a second wave of attacks.
In 2011, when the danger appeared to have passed, Feinstein was suddenly aghast at the use of these measures, “I happen to know a good deal about how those interrogations were conducted, and in my view nothing justifies the kind of procedures that were used.”
The protracted struggle over the release of the classified report on the use of waterboarding stems from the CIA’s fear that it is about to be thrown under the bus again. This fear is justified, for the intelligence committees have perfected the art of plausibly denying responsibility for controversial operations, all the while demanding greater “oversight.” In March, 2014, veterans of the original Church committee proposed that a new committee with a similar mandate be convened to engage in “searching reviews” of today’s intelligence community. Should it come to pass, these reviews will once again ignore the role of the intelligence committees, blaming the agencies that do their bidding and resurrecting Frank Church’s myth of a rogue CIA.
Stephen F. Knott is the author of Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics.