Spy v. Spy

Videotaping would be “subject to too much scrutiny in court,” one DIA officer suggested in Thailand and CIA counsel concurred: “Even totally legal techniques will look ugly.”

Twenty minutes into the interview, listening to rationales for torture euphemistically branded ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (EIT), 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl put on her schoolmarm scold: “This is Orwellian stuff.  The United States doesn’t do that.”

José Rodriguez, the former Deputy Director/Operations CIA, clenched his jaw offering the pugnacious look of a Latin Ray Kelly and retorted, “Well, we do!”

Of course we do.  Any bleeding-heart ACLU type, including the Inspector General of the CIA, who takes exception, should know that Rodriguez doesn’t give “a rat’s ass.”  And neither do ‘tough-tawkin,’ real Americans who, like 24hrs devotees in the Bush-Cheney White House, are in thrall to visions of agent Jack Bauer  tracking down the “ticking time bomb” before it is too late.  It is a variation of the Nam-era battle cry, “Kill ‘Em All – Let God Sort Out the Innocent,” variously called The One Percent Doctrine or the Mosaic Theory.   

In 2002, when a high-value detainee (HVD) named Abu Zubaydah was captured during a firefight in Pakistan, he was, as Rodriguez stated, taken to a “black site,” so that “we could elicit intelligence.”  Code-named ‘Cat’s Eye,’ the site was a disused warehouse, in proximity to a SIGINT complex, just off Udon Royal Thai Air Force base, in northeastern Thailand.  The US Air Force based out of this location during the Vietnam War, as did CIA proprietary, Air America.

The American epitaph in Vietnam is an iconic 1975 photo depicting the scramble for the last helicopter out of Saigon.  Evacuees are clambering up a ladder to the roof of an apartment building serving as a makeshift landing pad for an Air America UH-1 Huey.  As the chopper lifted off, leaving behind thousands of desperate Vietnamese US-proxies to the advancing North Vietnamese Army (NVA), CIA officer Frank Snepp watched.  The mayhem had manifested in the most personal way, as his Miss Saigon, thinking herself abandoned by him, had just killed herself along with the child she claimed was his. 

Snepp was awarded the Intelligence Medal of Merit by D/CIA at the end of ’75, in part for his analysis laying out the collapse, but also for his interrogation of one HVD.  In late ‘72, 29yrs-old Snepp was dispatched by Langley HQ to Station in Saigon to conduct the interrogation of Nguyen Tai, an NVA colonel characterized as “one of the most hostile counterintelligence prisoners ever to fall in allied hands.”  Snepp came on the heels of other interrogators, including the South Vietnamese who used electric shocks, clubs, all manner of privation, waterboarding and “Chinese Water Torture.”  

For a field officer whose first assignment in ’69 had been profiling targets for strike teams in the notorious Phoenix Program, harsh interrogation may have seemed tame fair indeed.  For Snepp’s stint at interrogating, conditions were tempered to an all-white cell, brightly lit 24/7 with maxed-out air-conditioning, as Tai, like many Vietnamese, thought cooling poisonous. But if “interrogation is a hunt for the game of the human mind,” Tai’s revelations yielded small quarry, as he was convinced cooperation would spell his demise once all of Vietnam fell to his comrades. 

For Snepp “our handling of the evacuation was an institutional disgrace” so he set down all its hairy details in “Decent Interval”, published without clearance from CIA’s Publications Review Board.  He suffered the consequences.  When I ran into Snepp in Manhattan in the early ‘80s, all his royalties had been clawed back.   He was a remote figure, estranged from almost everyone, his moral outrage muted.

No such fate awaits José Rodriguez for publishing “Hard Measures” which touts EIT and boasts of destroying 92 tapes of the EIT of Abu Zubaydah.  “We needed to get everybody in government to put their big boy pants on and provide the authorities that we needed,” Rodriguez told 60 Minutes.  “I had had a lot of experience in the agency where we had been left to hold the bag.  And I was not about to let that happen for the people that work for me.” 

Rodriguez got to look out for his people, Snepp did not.  But what was the real tale of the tapes?  For one thing Zubaydah was a guinea pig, Rodriguez testified, and EIT was very much a questionable work in progress.  But videotaping would be “subject to too much scrutiny in court,” one DIA officer suggested in Thailand and CIA counsel concurred: “Even totally legal techniques will look ugly.”  But maybe the tapes revealed that EIT simply didn’t deliver as claimed. Maybe EIT is less about information and more about messaging to what depth of hopelessness captured terrorists will be reduced. 

The FBI’s Arabic-speaking lead interrogator, Ali Soufan, like Snepp, favored “informed interrogation technique” that involves “engaging and outwitting” the subject into believing more is known than actually is, thus providing that delta of actionable intelligence.  He believes “people in Washington rewrote the results” to give undue credit to EIT; Zubaydah gave up dirty nuke wannabe Jose Padilla prior to his 83 waterboardings, says Soufan, as well as identifying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) as the mastermind of 9/11.  

Though KSM was waterboarded 183 times, Leslie Stahl pointed out that, “you really didn’t break him…. He didn’t tell you about Osama bin Laden.”  Rodriguez did a rare retreat: “there is a limit to what they will tell us….  That was the one secret he was going to take to the grave, and that was the protection of the Sheikh.”  So much for EIT leading to the ticking time bomb.

Cofer Black, a classmate of Rodriguez’s from the Farm and his predecessor at CIA/CTC, famously proclaimed that he was going to bring back Osama bin Laden’s head on a stick with flies walking across his eyeballs.  Mission Unaccomplished, Cofer now serves on Team Romney as their Black Ops, flies-on-the-eyeballs guy.  His Sancho Panza goes on 60 Minutes to lay claim for the ultimate reckoning of bin Laden, followed two weeks later by a fawning interview of another high-ranking Black acolyte, Hank Crumpton.  

What kind of domestic psyops are in the offing here?  This Spy v Spy tradecraft debate between Manchurian Candidate and Machiavelli presents a classic divide writ large: the distinction between uncertainty, a law of physics, and certainty, an article of faith.  The Company Man v the mission minded; the morally righteous v the morally outraged.


Photos: (Top) Frank Snepp, (Bottom) Jose Rodriguez