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Former Deputy CIA Director Says 'Torture Report' Misses The Point


We go now to John McLaughlin. He's a former deputy CIA director under George Tenet and also served as acting director in 2004. Welcome to the program.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: This report has very, very serious allegations. And I know you have objections to this. But, just to start, the central thrust of the charges - do you find them to be off-base?

MCLAUGHLIN: Oh, very much so. I think every charge in here is off-base. The fact that this information we obtained was not valuable - that's off-base. The fact that the committee says we misled the Congress and the White House and the Department of Justice - that's off-base. I think it misses the point and misses an opportunity to have a really serious discussion on an important public policy issue, because you've got here a report from the Democratic Party, but you have a minority report from the Republican Party and a CIA rebuttal. I'm not sure what the American public is supposed to make of that when the two major parties can't even agree on the facts.

CORNISH: Let's take on some of those, though. You had Senator John McCain on the Senate floor today saying torture produces more misleading information than actionable intelligence. And that is one major argument throughout this report - that there's intelligence there that could have been yielded through other means - that some of the intelligence, using brutal techniques, was fabricated or not useful.

MCLAUGHLIN: Let's start with the word torture. Torture is an ethical concept, but it's also a legal concept. And we went to the Department of Justice at least four times to make sure that what we were doing was not torture in a legal sense and that it was consistent with the U.S. Constitution. We insisted on those two points. And if they ever wavered on those points, we stop this program. Now, let me go to the question of effectiveness. The information we got - it was critical to not only capturing terrorists but disrupting plots.

CORNISH: What about the issue, then, of the brutality itself? Another charge here is that the program was just much more brutal than the CIA represented to law makers or to the public, and gets fairly graphic in terms of things like abuse of detainees rectally and things like that. I mean, what's your response to the idea of the brutality being far worse than represented?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, people need to read the CIA rebuttal on this. There will be things in this report that will be disturbing graphically, but I suspect if you had a similarly graphic description of what happens when innocents are killed in a drone strike, you would be equally disturbed by what you read. The examples they cite are, in all likelihood, among those that we reported when we discovered them to the Department of Justice. We made at least 20 referrals to the Department of Justice asking that those cases be examined. And, on top of that, John Durham, one of the toughest professional prosecutors in the Department of Justice, was asked by the Obama Administration to look at this program in detail, which he did. And he came back and said - no prosecutable offenses. So, yes, you can find, in any wartime situation, some examples that are unpleasant to read about.

CORNISH: It sounds like you're essentially arguing that, yes, it was brutal, yes it happened, but, because it's legal or your - the Justice Department determined it was legal, it was OK.

MCLAUGHLIN: I think the report overemphasizes the degree to which there was something you would call brutality, to the extent that there were problems in the management of the program. They came very early in the program. You know, it's important to realize here that we may have made a few terrorists uncomfortable for a short period of time in order to get information that we felt was essential to protecting the United States. Remember the context of the times. We had credible, reliable, confirmed reporting that Bin Laden had met with Pakistani nuclear scientists. We had the equivalent of a ticking time bomb here throughout these early years after 9/11. And I think there's something really regretful about our government, at least in the form of the Congress, throwing a bunch of CIA officers under the bus here.

CORNISH: Isn't the argument from the report, essentially, not that information couldn't be gained but that it could be gained in a more humane way and that, essentially, the techniques and tactics that have been described could be criminal violations?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, as the program went on, there was less and less use of these so-called techniques - as we learned more about al-Qaeda, as we knew more about what to ask. But remember...

CORNISH: But I ask because you said sort of uncomfortable. Uncomfortable seems fairly dismissive of what some people characterize as abuse.

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I don't deny that some of these techniques were harsh. I don't deny that. But they were very clearly defined and they were judged by the Department of Justice and the White House legal advisor and everyone in the chain to be legal. So I don't deny that there were times when the program was harsh, but I think the committee overemphasizes that and picks out those things and throws a spotlight on them to the exclusion of times when it was not at all that.

CORNISH: As you go through the report, are there aspects of this that you believe are essentially true - that the Senate gets right?

MCLAUGHLIN: Yes. We're the first to say this program was not perfect. We're the first to say that, in the early months of it, we struggled to understand how to do it and how to do it in a proper way. And I would say, yes, we would not have reported close to 20 cases to the Department of Justice ourselves if I were - if anyone was claiming that we were perfect here. In a way, I would say we self-policed this program.

CORNISH: Are you confident that what happened in the field was what was approved by the Department of Justice?

MCLAUGHLIN: Insofar as we had visibility into that, yes. And when we discovered that something was not as approved by the Department of Justice, we reported it to both the inspector general at the CIA, independently confirmed by Congress and to the Department of Justice.

CORNISH: At the end of the day, if, essentially, you're arguing that the program was useful and, essentially, that you feel confident in the action that was taken, why the objections to more transparency and why the objections to having the American people see the program for what it is?

MCLAUGHLIN: I don't object to anyone reading this report and reading the minority report...

CORNISH: ...from the Republicans in the Senate.

MCLAUGHLIN: ...From the Republican side - and reading the CIA rebuttal. I wish the Senate had talked to everyone involved. I wish that the two parties, as traditionally happened in oversight, been able to come together and reach a consensus on this. I don't think there's anything wrong with transparency, provided it's honest and provided it reflects the combined view of the members of this committee, which this clearly does not.

CORNISH: John McLaughlin. He's a former deputy director of the CIA. Thank you for coming in to speak with us.

MCLAUGHLIN: It's a pleasure, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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