I resigned from the CIA in the spring of 2003 and penned a memoir, Blowing My Cover, about my admittedly short career at the agency. No matter that the book was largely a personal story meant to convey the surprisingly mundane and often amusing "human" side of being a spy (and no matter that I had had the book cleared by the agency in advance), this relatively light-hearted memoir provoked outrage among many insiders. The then-head of the Prepublication Review Board, the entity that vets CIA-penned manuscripts, confided to me in a phone conversation that he'd received more calls of complaint from within Headquarters about my book than any other during his tenure at the PRB.
Later, when it all came out - that the CIA was using torture techniques (in ironic imitation, by the way, of those that Chinese communists once used on U.S. military officers to elicit false confessions); that Jose Rodriguez, while head of the clandestine service, had unilaterally ordered all videotape recordings of CIA interrogations be destroyed; and that horrifying and senseless abuse had taken place, and been cavalierly photographed, at Abu Ghraib - I wished I'd written a braver kind of book. Less personal and less anemic in exposing the wrongdoing I had seen. I wished I had included, among many others anecdotes - that moment back in 2003 - when I fully comprehended how far from our nation's moral compass the CIA had veered.
I wish I had written about that moment in early 2003, when I was standing in the hallway where "new headquarters building" meets the "old headquarters building" at the CIA, not far from the Agency's cafeteria where I often met fellow ops officers for lunch. A friend - another OO, the official name for what most people commonly think of as a spy - called my name, or rather my pseudonym, "Hey [REDACTED] (Within the Directorate of Operations (DO), we all knew each other by these Agency-issued aliases; I would turn as reflexively for [REDACTED] as I would for Lindsay.)
Did you hear? my friend said. So-and-so is back from [REDACTED] (For obvious reasons, I won't use the real name but suffice it to say it was a well-known mid-level manager within the DO to whom my colleague referred.) Yeah, he just briefed a room full of people on what we're doing [REDACTED] to the detainees. How we're torturing them.
I can only - and perhaps inadequately - describe this moment as Orwellian. I had already decided I would resign from the agency by that time - for a variety of reasons, not least of which was my conviction that the organization was woefully mismanaged; defined by a culture of complete unaccountability; and that the CIA, ultimately, was not serving our country as it was intended to do.
Oh yeah, that, and the fact that we were lying to the American public about Iraq. I had been in Russian language lessons in preparation for a follow-on tour, when I was "surged" into Iraqi Operations at Headquarters, following a kind of "all hands on deck" mandate from the top as we prepared to go to war. Among the first things I learned from Iraqi experts - OOs and analysts alike - when I arrived in Iraqi ops were:
- We didn't have any viable recruited human sources in Iraq, or even Iraqi agents elsewhere, as we led up to the invasion.
- We had no evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
- There was no link whatsoever between Iraq and Al-Qaeda. Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were both evil, maniacal men, yes, but there was no love lost between them. And of the two, Bin Laden, whom we had yet to find, posed the far graver threat to America.
So to have it confirmed, albeit anecdotally, what I already had heard discussed in hushed tones - that we were torturing people - was not altogether shocking. Still, my friend's words shook me to the core. I remember feeling like I wanted to forgo the whole convoluted resignation process, and just run out the door, throwing my badge and care to the wind, and never look back.
During my coming-of-age - the Cold War - I had held fast to the conviction that we, Americans, were the good guys. Our government would never sanction or resort to behavior associated with terrorists and despots - like torture. We were above that. We were better than our enemies.
While that sense had eroded during my time at the CIA, never had I felt so acutely hopeless as at that moment - when it fully sunk in. The thought bubble above my head was: I've got to get out of this place. I didn't want my name - even if was a pseudonym - on anything, any CIA cable, or email correspondence from this period of time. I knew that, eventually, it would all come out, and where the law or even public opinion might not have a long memory, karma sure does. It was bad enough that we were cooking the books as a pretext to go to war. But being part of an organization involved with human rights violations was not what I'd signed up for; it wasn't what any of us in the DO signed up for, I think. In short, I knew that to stay with the Agency would be to end up on the wrong side of history.
Working for the Agency had been the realization of both a lifelong dream and a desire to serve the country in which I so ardently believed. Others, though none within the DO, said I must've been a washout if I wanted to leave after only five years; in fact, although inexperienced, I was a highly effective ops officer: described by more than one station chief as a "natural," and identified by management as one of the DO's most promising junior operatives. Although I knew no one would ever publicly admit it, I was a DO golden child at the time I left.
I knew the truth and have a thick skin so the criticism didn't bother me. So in May 2003, I resigned and spent the next three months writing my mild expose. Later I heard from countless people within the DO - and still do to this day - about how much they liked the book, thought it was funny and true-to-life.
Truth be told, Blowing My Cover now makes me cringe for a number of reasons. In part because it was so unabashedly personal, not to mention written by a woman who doesn't exist anymore. Little did I know how much one changes in her 30s, and even 40s, or how mind-blowingly transformative becoming a mother would be. Once I had kids, the flagrant bureaucracy, incompetence and unaccountability of one of our most important governmental agencies just didn't bother me so much; I had more important things to worry about - like car seat recalls and chokable toys.
Although the book was more revealing of my psychology than that of the CIA, I did, in the words of the PRB chairman, "push the envelope" in terms of including anecdotes that were not particularly flattering to the organization. One story I did not include, because I knew it would never fly, was the anecdote about the DO manager bragging about torture we were inflicting upon [REDACTED] detainees. Of course, that word was never used within CIA - it was clinical terms like "technique" and "methods."
And yet if I had been able to write that kind of book-- the book I now wish I would have written-- I would have warned readers that there was business going on at the Central Intelligence Agency, under the false auspices of "protecting the country" that was far darker than anything they could imagine. And that with this dirty business, the CIA would ultimately lead us down a path toward a morally bereft wasteland, from which this great nation might never be able to return.
Had I been able to write that kind of a book, then perhaps I could have done my small part to prevent the agency from sliding further into the black, amoral hole it finds itself in now. In the past decade, I have been a frequent and vocal critic of the "Enhanced Interrogation Technique" program, along with people who are far more qualified than I to form a judgment on such matters - like John McCain, Ali Soufan and Bob McFadden. Like each of these career public servants, I have maintained that torture is counter to American values; fundamentally inhuman; ultimately ineffective in obtaining actionable or quality intelligence; and actually may do detriment to our national security.
But the summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the program that came out last week shows that, at least until President Obama ended these programs in 2009, the government wasn't really listening. It is damning in its assessment of CIA mismanagement and waste, but not at all surprising to me.
Among passages included in the executive summary that really "brought me back" were:
Indeed, we used to joke that a "reverse Darwinism" was at play within the DO. Career progression wasn't survival of the fittest but rather endurance of the mediocre. Here's another excerpt that rings acutely true:
The above passage actually saddened me as it reminded me of the many dedicated professionals at the Agency, some who no doubt tried to question the efficacy, morality and/or legality of the program, but who were cowed into silence. It also brought to mind an occasion when the person who recruited me to join the CIA said: If you ever see anything you think is just plain wrong, you need to tell your superiors. He should have added: so that we can make sure the Office of Security has its eye on you.
And then the disgusting, but not surprising, revelation that at the end of the day, the EIT program was driven in large part by private contractors' financial gain. We will never be able to calculate in dollars the damage to our country's standing in the world, but sometimes it helps to have a look at the numbers.
But perhaps the most relevant key finding of the Torture Report is its first:
For the past decade, defenders of EIT have maintained that these brutal techniques were effective in gathering intelligence. Jose Rodriguez has written several op-eds arguing precisely that message, all of which seem to rely on the reasoning: because I was in charge of it, and because I say so.
The summary of the torture report includes ample evidence of what people like Steven Kleinman - a career military intelligence officer and an expert in the field of strategic interrogation - have argued: there's absolutely no science to support the efficacy of torture, and yet ample evidence that suggests it's not only ineffective but detrimental to the capacity to recall. Yes, torture will get people to talk; but it won't get them to tell the truth.
I shudder to think how much time and money was wasted chasing down leads after the CIA obtained false information from tortured detainees. Osama bin Laden had long-term goals: one of them was to economically bleed out the United States. Another was to shake the very foundation of American society by subjecting us to terror and fear. It goes without saying that his legacy lives on; and he's probably smiling contentedly from his grave on the ocean floor.
Once we resort to using the inhuman tactics of our enemies, we have granted them their greatest victory. And more than a decade after 9/11, our enemies' principal triumph may not be in the thousands of innocent American lives they took, but in what they prompted us to become.
Lindsay Moran is a former CIA Operative and author who now works as a freelance writer, consultant and television correspondent.