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August 26, 2009

Pawlenty's Painful Misstatement on CIA Interrogations
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty wants to be President. Therefore, the rules of Republican presidential political aspirations dictate that Tim Pawlenty needs to comment on national security matters, even though he knows very little about and has virtually no experience with this set of issues. For instance, Pawlenty weighed in on the recent debate over the Justice Department's decision to look into CIA interrogation transgressions and detainee abuse:

"As bad as the health care plan is, and it's bad for all the reasons you've been highlighting to your viewers, this decision by Eric Holder today to politicize interrogations, to bring it into the White House, we should be prosecuting individuals who are involved in the war on terror as terrorists. They are cold blood killers.

"We should not be prosecuting individuals who are working hard day in and day out to protect this country. In many cases, risking their own lives. These individuals should be, you know, encouraged and supported in their roles. But to have — see the CIA basically have this taken away from them I think is outrageous.

"The attorney general should be reminded we are still a nation at war and CIA shouldn't stand for "can't interrogate anyone."

Cute turn of phrase. But completely wrongheaded and misguided. If Pawlenty had even the slightest bit of knowledge of our intelligence community, he would know that the CIA in recent history barely had the experience nor capacity to interrogate terror suspects, something that was traditionally done by the FBI or military. For instance:

U.S. intelligence officials say the CIA, contrary to the glamorized view from movies and novels, had no real interrogation specialists on hand to deal with the number of valuable suspects it captured after Sept. 11

That was from a 2004 Washington Post article,and Pawlenty is clearly transfixed by that cinematically glamorized view of the CIA. Spencer Ackerman shed more light on the lack of CIA interrogation expertise:

Yet, until 9/11, the agency had limited experience with interrogation, and had few people on staff who had even conducted one. Most of the CIA’s experience had involved consulting with partner intelligence agencies on how to torture, sometimes using methods learned from the Nazis, instead of conducting interrogations itself — as demonstrated by the infamous Kubark torture instruction manual of the 1960s.

Young CIA officers weren’t trained in interrogations. "How to resist torture was the only thing related to interrogation at the training program", said one former senior official in the Directorate of Operations. "There was no thought, no commentary, or any practicality on how to apply it." The landmark Church and Pike commissions of the 1970s that examined illegal CIA programs further reinforced the CIA’s impulse to avoid, whenever possible, activity with a high political cost and marginal benefit.

The recently released CIA IG report on interrogations further exposes the fact that the CIA was never the interrogation powerhouse Pawlenty portrays it as:

The report reveals how the CIA, which had no previous experience of so broad an interrogation programme, was sending people out into the field whose only relevant prior experience was debriefing, which by definition means getting information from people who willingly participate.

In fact, the IG report states quite clearly that:

"In effect, they [the various CIA components tasked with interrogation] began with almost no foundation, as the agency had discontinued virtually all involvement in interrogations after encountering difficult issues with earlier interrogation programs in Central America and the Near East. Inevitably, there also have been some problems with current activities."

CIA veteran Bob Baer sums up the CIA's traditional participation in interrogations, or lack thereof, quite nicely:

"[T]he CIA does not specialize in the interrogation of war prisoners...the FBI has done a very good job after 9/11.  Its interrogators used normal interrogation techniques, got a lot of information, and I think we’re going to see in the CIA report that we didn’t get much out of the abusive interrogations.”

Pawlenty's whole notion that the CIA "shouldn't stand for "can't interrogate anyone" is wrong on so many levels, least of which is the Agency's lack of historical interrogation capability, lack of resources, lack of internal cultural desire to actually participate in these interrogations, and most of all, lack of quantifiable success at interrogating terror suspects as compared to the FBI's strong track record. This is not a criticism of the CIA, rather a realistic snapshot that the traditional role of the CIA, intelligence collection and analysis, was dangerously subverted by the political leadership in the White House in exchange for these interrogations which the CIA had no experience or capability to participate in. 

Pawlenty's misreading of CIA interrogation history and the traditional role of CIA displays a pretty superficial understanding of national security. He may want to become a little more educated before he again makes obtuse and erroneous statements which are antithetical to the reality of America's national security apparatus and imperatives.

Or maybe he should simply stop going to the movies.

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