Why there might be change at the CIA, and why there probably won’t

Senator Ron Wyden has allegedly “put CIA Director John Brennan on notice on Sunday after the intelligence chief gave a press conference defending the U.S. torture program.”[1]

“I want to give him the chance to end this culture of denial, to deal with these misrepresentations,” Wyden told host Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”

“If he doesn’t do that, we’ll have to get somebody who will,” he said.[2]

Wyden is a Democrat, Democrats are losing control of the Senate, and it’s unclear how much support for change at the CIA there is now, let alone how much there will be in when Republicans take over.

Republicans, except John McCain, generally support the torture program; President Obama has not really ended it; and it seems to be sufficiently ingrained in our authoritarian culture that police officers and prison guards rely on it.[3] At best, Democrats are divided: CIA Director John Brennan, who continues to defend the agency, refuses to call torture ‘torture,’ refuses to acknowledge the overwhelming social science that says torture is ineffective, and refuses to rule its use out in the future,[4] “is somebody who, I think, adheres to the highest ethical standard that you would expect of a government official, and I don’t think there’s any reason for anybody to question that,” said White House spokesperson Josh Earnest.[5] Indeed, the only person likely to face punishment for conduct that should be unequivocally condemned[6] has already accepted a 30-month prison sentence for “for leaking classified information related to the torture program to reporters.”[7] This suggests that, at most, some superficial changes may occur.

Still, there is another narrative to consider in facing bipartisan and official U.S. government intransigence. I’m not saying that it will happen, only that it might. Further, you might not like the reason it happens, even if it does.

During the Civil Rights era, the deciding factor that led to passage of the Civil Rights Act was probably not recognition of the immorality of Jim Crow or any other systemic discrimination. It probably was that the United States appeals for world hegemony based on its human rights record. The powers it competes against—the Soviet Union then, Russia today—can and did point to U.S. human rights hypocrisy. In short, the U.S. was embarrassed.[8]

These ingredients—and more—are present again. Thanks to Ukraine, we have a new Cold War. That police are too readily violent has never been more clear. And that much of that violence is disproportionately directed against Blacks is also entirely too apparent. And, notably, the U.S. faces criticism from the United Nations for multiple domestic and foreign human rights issues.[9]

But this is not the 1950s or early 1960s. The U.S. seems unembarrassed by those U.N. reports. The U.S. government, as I have previously observed, no longer relies on propaganda to maintain power. It has chosen brute force, as is evident with domestic spying and a militarized police.[10] And that makes it less likely that there will be any significant change at the CIA.

  1. [1]Brendan James, “Dem Senator: John Brennan Needs To Change The CIA Or Get Out,” Talking Points Memo, December 15, 2014, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/ron-wyden-john-brennan-torture-report
  2. [2]Brendan James, “Dem Senator: John Brennan Needs To Change The CIA Or Get Out,” Talking Points Memo, December 15, 2014, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/ron-wyden-john-brennan-torture-report
  3. [3]Rebecca Gordon, “American Torture — Past, Present, and… Future? Beyond the Senate Torture Report,” TomDispatch, December 14, 2014, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175934/tomgram%3A_rebecca_gordon%2C_the_torture_wars/
  4. [4]John Hudson and Gopal Ratnam, “CIA Chief Won’t Rule Out a Return of Torture Techniques,” Foreign Policy, December 11, 2014, http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/12/11/cia-chief-brutal-interrogations-could-come-back/; David Irvine, “Torture: Unreliable and Inestimably Costly,” Just Security, December 9, 2014, http://justsecurity.org/18207/torture-unreliable-inestimably-costly/; Andrew Prokop, “The huge new Senate report on CIA torture, explained,” Vox, December 9, 2014, http://www.vox.com/2014/12/9/7339753/senate-torture-report
  5. [5]Dan Roberts in Washington and Spencer Ackerman, “White House under pressure as calls for CIA accountability grow stronger,” Guardian, December 10, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/dec/10/white-house-cia-torture-report
  6. [6]Rebecca Gordon, “American Torture — Past, Present, and… Future? Beyond the Senate Torture Report,” TomDispatch, December 14, 2014, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175934/tomgram%3A_rebecca_gordon%2C_the_torture_wars/; William Rivers Pitt, “The Rank, Reeking Horror of Torturing Some Folks,” Truthout, December 11, 2014, http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/27939-the-rank-reeking-horror-of-torturing-some-folks; Eugene Robinson, “Senate report shows that the U.S. answered evil with evil,” Washington Post, December 11, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/eugene-robinson-senate-report-shows-that-the-us-answered-evil-with-evil/2014/12/11/7c67ae14-8174-11e4-8882-03cf08410beb_story.html; Amanda Taub, “It doesn’t matter if torture worked. It’s still wrong,” Vox, December 9, 2014, http://www.vox.com/2014/12/9/7361635/torture-wrong
  7. [7]Timothy B. Lee, “Instead of prosecuting torturers, Obama prosecuted the guy who revealed the program,” Vox, December 9, 2014, http://www.vox.com/xpress/2014/12/9/7361667/senate-torture-report-kiriakou
  8. [8]Julia Ioffe, “Ferguson Will Make It Harder for America to Set a Good Example Abroad,” New Republic, August 14, 2014, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/119078/ferguson-civil-rights-cold-war-russia-protests; Charles Lemert, “The Golden Moment: 1945-1963,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 275-286.
  9. [9]Marjorie Cohn, “US Slammed for Failure to Fulfill Legal Obligation to Eliminate All Forms of Race Discrimination,” Truthout, September 5, 2014, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/25990-us-slammed-for-failure-to-fulfill-legal-obligation-to-eliminate-all-forms-of-race-discrimination; Ben Emmerson, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism,” Just Security, February 28, 2014, http://justsecurity.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Special-Rapporteur-Rapporteur-Emmerson-Drones-2014.pdf; Conor Friedersdorf, “UN Drone Investigator: U.S. Must Explain Civilian Deaths,” Atlantic, March 11, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/03/un-drone-investigator-us-must-explain-civilian-deaths/284337/; Ewen MacAskill and Owen Bowcott, “UN report calls for independent investigations of drone attacks,” Guardian, March 10, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/10/un-report-independent-investigations-drone-attacks; David Meyer, “UN human rights report blows apart governments’ pro-surveillance arguments,” Gigaom, July 16, 2014, http://gigaom.com/2014/07/16/un-human-rights-report-blows-apart-governments-pro-surveillance-arguments/; Reuters, “Edward Snowden should not face trial, says UN human rights commissioner,” Guardian, July 16, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/16/edward-snowden-should-not-face-trial-un-human-rights-commissioner-navi-pillay; Jonathan Turley, “United Nation’s Report Condemns The United States For Human Rights Violations, Including Blocking Prosecution Of Those Responsible For Torture,” March 28, 2014, http://jonathanturley.org/2014/03/28/united-nations-report-condemns-the-united-states-for-human-rights-violations-including-blocking-prosecution-of-those-responsible-for-torture/; Matthew Weaver, “US human rights record chastised in UN report,” Guardian, March 27, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/27/us-human-rights-record-chastised-un-report
  10. [10]David Benfell, “Never mind popular consent, nor even the propaganda seeking legitimacy: Rulers now rely on coercion,” Not Housebroken, April 26, 2013, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=5488

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