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The International Spy Museum in DC: Lies, Spies, and Paranoia

Photograph Source: Farragutful – CC BY-SA 4.0

The mainstream media have given rave notices to the new International Spy Museum, a striking edifice that is close by the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  The New York Times finds the museum “remarkable,” and the Washington Post credits the museum with taking an objective look at both intelligence analysis and clandestine operations.  However, there are serious shortcomings in a curation that has given the entire intelligence community a remarkable and stunning recruitment tool.

The most loathsome aspect of the museum is the exhibit on torture and abuse, a section that is euphemistically referred to as “Interrogations.”  The museum offers filmed interviews with both Jose Rodriguez and James Mitchell to justify and even praise what the Central Intelligence Agency refers to as “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  Mitchell designed the program for the CIA, and Rodriguez managed the program.

Mitchell formed a company that received $81million in contracts to develop and conduct techniques to instill fear and apprehension in captives.  Mitchell developed at least 20 of these techniques, and personally oversaw and participated in the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.  In his interviews, Mitchell denied that this was his program, maintaining that it was “America’s program.”  He also contends that the program was vetted by “well-intended people,” and that, as a psychologist, he had a “moral obligation” to use his expertise regarding the program.

Rodriguez is best known for ordering the destruction of the 92 torture tapes, which amounted to obstruction of justice.  Cases had been filed in federal court to gain access to the tapes, and the White House had ordered the CIA to safeguard them.  The CIA director, Porter Goss, called for safeguarding the tapes, and several CIA lawyers echoed his remarks.  There was no accountability, let alone punishment, for Rodriguez’s actions, and he received full support from the CIA’s Publication Review Board for his book that essentially denied that the agency ever conducted torture and abuse.

Rodriguez defends the sadistic torture and abuse program for gathering intelligence, arguing that it prevented future acts of terrorism.  He concludes that historians will corroborate his arguments in the future when the documentation is declassified.  Fortunately, we already have an authoritative document that exposes Rodriguez’s unconscionable support for torture and abuse as well as the fact that there was no acquisition of intelligence that provided warning of terrorist acts.

What is missing from the exhibit is any reference to the comprehensive 6,300-page study prepared by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that documented the torture of many innocent individuals held in CIA’s secret prisons.  Then CIA director John Brennan went to unusual lengths to block the release of the report, including his lies to the chairwoman of the intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and his order to hack Senate computers and staffer emails to withdraw documents from the committee’s purview.

As soon as Republicans regained control of the Senate in the election of 2014, the new committee chairman, Richard Burr (R-NC), recalled all copies of the report and even blocked the confirmation of a leading staffer of the Senate intelligence committee, Alissa Stark, as general counsel of the United States Army.  President Barack Obama never sought accountability for the crimes associated with torture and abuse, and now we have a president and a secretary of state who believe in it.  Moreover, we have a CIA director, Gina Haspel, who wrote the cable that ordered the destruction of the tapes.

Both Mitchell and Rodriguez claim that the torture and abuse program had the full support of the Department of Justice, a reference to the torture memoranda that were prepared by John Yoo, who is the Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California in Berkeley, and Jay Bybee, who was rewarded with a federal judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  What Mitchell and Rodriguez don’t say is that the CIA began the program of torture and abuse before the memoranda were promulgated, and that their techniques went far beyond what even Yoo and Bybee found acceptable.

And then to make matters even worse, the museum allows patrons to vote on whether they would endorse torture and abuse as part of the global war on terror.  Sadly, more than 60% of those participating in the survey endorse the use of torture, which reflects the one-sided nature of the so-called debatge. The museum had an opportunity to examine the moral and legal failings of a program of torture and abuse.  Instead, it is holding a plebiscite that is endorsing its renewal.

The museum’s discussion of CIA’s covert action program is similarly flawed.  It curates the success of the exfiltration of U.S. officials from Iran in the wake of the seizure of the U.S. embassy in 1979.  But it offers no discussion of the overwhelming number of strategic failures involving assassination plots and regime change that led to the installation of tyrants in Iraq, Guatemala, the Congo, and Chile from 1953 to 1973.  There is still much to learn about the CIA’s role in Afghanistan in the 1980s, where the United States funded and trained resistance groups that became venomously anti-American.

Former President Harry Truman was talking about covert action when he said that, “if he knew then what I know now” about the CIA, he would not have created the agency.  Nevertheless, the American public needs to understand that CIA’s covert blunders were directed by U.S. presidents.  They weren’t the acts of a “rogue” agency, which Senator Frank Church opined in the 1970s when he opened his investigation in the wake of CIA domestic crimes during the Vietnam War.

The presentation on intelligence failures is also inadequate with the discussion largely limited to the failures that surround Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks in New York City and Washington.  Former secretary of state Colin Powell is allowed to conclude that “ambiguous information” was responsible for the enormous failure that dominated the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when it was obvious that the politicization of intelligence as well as the circulation of serious disinformation to the American public highlighted the false assessment of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

There is much to be learned from intelligence failures that accompanied the October War of 1973, the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but there is no information to be found in the museum.  The CIA contributed to a phony crisis in 1979 with its warnings of a nonexistent Soviet combat brigade in Cuba, which embarrassed the Carter administration and led to serious setbacks in the arms control dialogue between the United States and the Soviet Union.  Conversely, the agency’s failures regarding the Soviet interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 caught the Eisenhower and Johnson administrations by surprise.  The high rate of failure on tactical intelligence issues points to the need for greater outside review of intelligence assessments.

In view of the increased cost of the intelligence community and the limits of congressional oversight, the American public is sorely in need of some institutional rendering of the real pros and cons of the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence agencies.  The existence of secret intelligence organizations in a democratic government will always be problematic, and calls for objective handling of the difficult issues that accompany intelligence and operational successes and failure. The International Spy Museum is a splendid recruitment tool for the intelligence community, but it doesn’t provide enough information on the huge appropriations that support secret and often illegal activities conducted in the name of the American people.

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Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent book is “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing), and he is the author of the forthcoming “The Dangerous National Security State” (2020).” Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.

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