The CIA Problem

1 March 2007

I've become increasingly troubled by the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) lately, and I have come to think that it is a major threat to democracy in the United States. Here are some thoughts. Note that the activities described below have spanned the entire existence of the CIA, and have not been limited to the direction of one President or one political party.

The first way in which the CIA is a threat to democracy is by acting covertly and illegally overseas: assassinating leaders who do not agree with current US policy, trafficking in illegal drugs and weapons, and generally carrying out actions that would be impossible for our government to do by legal and open means. Chalmers Johnson has called the CIA "the President’s private army" -- you can read what he has to say in his new book Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. Or, listen to a recent radio interview, where he states that no US president has been able to resist the temptation to use the CIA to carry out illegal and covert actions. This is clearly not part of how a real democracy would operate.

The second way in which the CIA is a threat to US democracy is through its mistreatment of prisoners. Since its founding around 1950, as described in great detail in A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror by Alfred McCoy, the CIA has been developing brutal physical and psychological methods of torturing prisoners, using these methods on thousands of people, and promoting their use around the world. McCoy notes that the consequences of the CIA's psychological methods are at least as damaging as brutal beatings and other physical methods, so they really cannot be considered any better or worse than any other type of torture. Also, McCoy documents that the CIA tortured and killed at least 20,000 people during the Viet Nam War, and has tortured at least 15,000 people so far in the current Gulf action, with at least 100 (and probably many more) people killed during this process. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also just released a report on the practice of torture by the CIA in the Gulf region, which corroborates what McCoy wrote about; the HRW report also documents that the CIA has practiced "enforced disappearance" of detained people, where they are held without notifying anyone where they are. Finally, as documented by McCoy, the CIA has also trained police and military personnel around the world in their methods, notably in Latin America, the Philippines, Malaysia, Eastern Europe, and Iran.

Part of the reason that using torture is a threat to democracy in the US is that the deliberate torture of any human being for any reason is an internationally-recognized violation of human rights, and we cannot claim to be a functioning democracy if we do not have basic social justice and human rights protection. Furthermore, at least in my opinion, these rights must apply in all situations involving our government, not just to US citizens on US soil -- I do not believe that the Constitution gives any branch of the government the right to violate its provisions under any circumstances. Similarly, when laws are passed, all branches of government must observe the laws, or democracy will be undermined.

And torturing prisoners of all types is definitely illegal under both US and international law, as is "enforced disappearance" (see the HWR report cited above for details). The CIA (again, as documented by McCoy and the HRW report) has attempted to circumvent the law through several tactics. First, they have advocated for a very narrow and harsh interpretation of words in the laws, such as "torture", "cruel", "degrading", and "inhuman", thereby trying to define their practices as legal. Second, they have claimed that the people being detained in the present conflict fall outside the laws banning torture, specifically the Geneva Convention, because they are "unlawful combatants" rather than "prisoners of war". However, the President has justified using wartime executive powers by saying we are at war -- so are we at war or not? Also the international laws against torture of detained people are not actually limited to prisoners of war. Third, the CIA has tortured people in places that are not officially part of the United States (such as the prison at Guantanamo Bay), claiming that the law doesn't apply to non-Americans being held outside the US (which is not true). And finally, in some cases the CIA has made its torture harder to trace by illegally (without the extradition hearings required by both US and international law) transporting people to foreign countries, where they are tortured. While the CIA might argue that these four tactics have kept them within the law, I believe that they are operating outside the law, and therefore are a threat to democracy.

Another reason that using torture is a threat to US democracy is that there is no real, valid justification for it. Democracies, and moral nations in general, must carefully consider violent actions (such as the use of torture and acts of war), to see if they are justified. It is generally accepted around the world (though not by passionate pacifists such as myself) that some violent actions can be considered justified, but only if the reason for the action (the foreseen end result) is valid and acceptable, and if the proposed action has a good chance of achieving its targeted result. In the case of torture, the justification given by the CIA and others in the US government has been that we need to torture people in order to obtain information that we cannot get as quickly or at all by other means. But in fact, as detailed by McCoy, torturing a few individual people is not an effective means for obtaining reliable information, and non-violent interrogation methods (used by US agencies such as the FBI) are much more effective. On the other hand, mass torture, as practiced by the CIA during the Viet Nam War, can be effective at obtaining information, but to carry this out, many fully innocent people must be brutally tortured to get at the few who might have information, so it is probably never a justifiable level of violence for a moral nation. Therefore, a real justification cannot be found for engaging in such a violent practice, and if part of our government uses torture, it indicates that our democracy is not functioning properly.

So, what is there to do? Lately, I have not been impressed with the CIA's ability to perform its stated, legal function of gathering intelligence on threats to the US, as CIA intelligence did not prevent our one major terrorist disaster in 2001, and the CIA was presumably involved in the misinformation surrounding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Certainly the illegal functions and methods of the CIA (assassinations, illegal trafficking in drugs and weapons, torture, enforced disappearance, etc.) also need to be stopped. So probably the best thing to do would be to disband the CIA entirely, and divide its legitimate responsibilities between the FBI and other agencies that confine themselves to at least mostly legal, humane, and effective methods of interrogation and intelligence gathering. We'll see... I doubt any President will propose, or even agree to eliminate what Chalmers calls the "President's private army" any time soon.