“I was crushed by the South Tower — my chest was caved in. I was buried, almost suffocated and drowned in my own blood. Then the ambulance that I was in was nearly crushed by the collapsing North Tower. Once in the hospital, my chest was cut open while I was wide awake and I watched the burn victim on the next gurney screaming as the doctors attempted to treat her horrifying injuries. I thought 9/11 might be a cure for American amnesia. I was mistaken.” — Robert Reeg, former FDNY, Engine 44
Gina Haspel’s nomination to lead the Central Intelligence Agency as its first female director has hit a stumbling block because of reports that she played some role in the Rendition, Detention, Interrogation (RDI) program at a so-called CIA black site. After news that some members of the Senate are unhappy that she might have been involved in the harsh but then legal interrogation program, Robert Reeg expressed his anger on Facebook, noting that he was about to undergo his sixth surgery for the injuries he sustained 16 years ago responding to the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Those most personally affected by 9/11 have maintained the perspective and moral clarity that the entire country once shared. The permanence of their losses, the vivid memories of the horrors they witnessed, prevent them from forgetting the ultimate cause of our government’s inability to protect its citizens from the most deadly attack on America in our nation’s history. The 9/11 Commission declared it a “failure of imagination.” But that was a gloss over of the real problem — the refusal of vast government bureaucracies to put aside turf wars, careerism, and more attention to partisan politics than the real threats that face us.
Now we are seeing it again. Politicians are attacking the very people who have done the most to keep America safe for some of the same reasons, and this is a grave danger.
The RDI program has been unfairly branded a rogue operation and Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs) “torture.” Real torture can be seen in videos made by Al Qaeda and ISIS — Daniel Pearl, Nick Berg, humanitarian aid workers and Christian martyrs lined up for beheading, a caged Jordanian pilot burned alive — which testify to the savage inhumanity of the enemy we, and our troops, continue to face. Worse, contradicting hard evidence, critics of the program are advancing the narrative that it didn’t work.
A succession of CIA directors has declared that the RDI program have netted more actionable intelligence than every other source combined. We don’t have to take their word for it, we can turn to the sworn statement of former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara for verification. Appointed by President Barack Obama to head the New York Southern District, he was the lead prosecutor in the 2009 trial of Al Qaeda bomb maker Ahmed Ghailani, captured in Pakistan after a 14-hour gun battle, and charged in a 286 count indictment for his role in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya that killed 224 people and injured 4,000.
In a 132-page legal brief explaining why holding Ghailani for two years in the CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation program hadn’t violated his right to a speedy trial, Bharara described how Ghailani’s status as a senior member of Al Qaeda with knowledge of the organization made him suitable for the program. “[T]he defendant was believed to have, and did have, actionable intelligence about al-Qaeda, by virtue of his longstanding position in al-Qaeda; his assistance to known al-Qaeda terrorists; and his close relationship to long-standing al-Qaeda leaders, including Usama Bin Laden.”
The brief continues, “[T]he United States justifiably treated the defendant as an intelligence asset — to obtain from him whatever information it could concerning terrorists and terrorist plots. This was done, simply put, to save lives. And when significant intelligence had been collected from the defendant, the U.S. made the decision to continue holding him as an alien enemy combatant pursuant to the laws of war….” [Emphasis added.]
The brief added a citation to a 4th Circuit Court ruling in the 2004 Zacarias Moussaoui case (charged for his role in the Al Qaeda plan for a “2nd wave” of aviation attacks) which stated that “the value of the detainees in the CIA’s interrogation program ‘can hardly be overstated.’” This was followed by pages of classified information elicited from Ghailani, further stating that “the results of the CIA’s efforts show that the defendant’s value as an intelligence source was not just speculative.” [Emphasis added.]
Ruling in the government’s favor, presiding judge Lewis A. Kaplan, stated that the government had offered credible evidence not only that it was reasonable to believe Ghailani had valuable information essential to combating al-Qaeda and protecting national security, but that this valuable information “could not have been obtained except by putting him in that program….” [Emphasis added.]
It is important to note that all four Office of Legal Counsel memos describing the Rendition, Detention (RDI), and Interrogation program, detailing EIT methods, as well as two Inspector General reports were part of discovery in the case. Thus, the defense was unable to make the kind of egregious accusations and outright falsehoods which have characterized much of the media’s reporting about the program over the last ten years.
Judge Kaplan further said that the government provided credible evidence that Ghailani continued to provide valuable evidence which didn’t diminish over time. This suggests that the CIA repeatedly went back to him after he began cooperating, as new intelligence was acquired. Indeed, to reduce his sentence, Ghailani’s lead defense attorney actually described his client as a “hero” for providing so much valuable intelligence.
Here we have the Obama Justice Department and two federal courts crediting the work done at CIA black sites and the life-saving intelligence gained in the process. Now we have United States Senators condemning Gina Haspel because she was a part of that process.
The record in the Ghailani case is an important rebuttal to the shameful slander of the men and women of the CIA as they scrambled to defend our county after the devastating attack of September 11. At great personal cost, they did everything asked of them by their government. They repeatedly sought legal confirmation that the RDI/EIT program conformed to policy and law. They repeatedly fulfilled their obligation to inform the legislative branch of government as to the details of the program, even inviting members of Congress to help them shape it. Those members stood silent.
How can Congress ask dedicated CIA officers to fulfill their responsibility to protect the country from future attacks knowing that their careers might be in jeopardy or that they might be subject to prosecution, depending on shifting political winds? Gina Haspel has accumulated an exemplary record of achievement in her 33 years with the agency. The rank and file of the agency and 53 former CIA senior officials who cumulatively served seven presidents endorse her. Senators must show that they respect, support and understand the mission of our defenders.
Gina Haspel answered the call on 9/11. Confirm her, senators.
Debra Burlingame, a former attorney, is the sister of Charles F. Burlingame, III, pilot of American Airlines flight 77, Pentagon attack, September 11, 2001.