For an agency that ordinarily steers clear of major policy debates, the CIA played an unusually prominent role in the showdown between the White House and dissident Republicans over the treatment of detainees.
To many outsiders, the CIA’s position was puzzling.
Why would an agency whose own overseas officers are vulnerable to capture -- and torture -- defend harsh interrogation methods? And how did an organization often criticized for its caution end up pushing the legal envelope, even while the Pentagon was advocating tight new restrictions?
The answers, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials, reflect a cultural and operational fault line that separates the CIA from the other arms of the U.S. government that operate overseas -- mainly the military and the State Department.
The detainee issue has tapped into “a cultural difference,” said Mark Lowenthal, former assistant director of the CIA.
“This whole debate has no meaning for a CIA officer as he understands the world and the nature of the deal he made with the government and the nature of the risks he is willing to accept,” Lowenthal said.
CIA leaders are typically closely aligned with State Department and Pentagon counterparts in their view of the world and their concern for overseas opinion of the United States. But on the detainee issue, the CIA is less swayed by concerns that other nations might retaliate against U.S. prisoners, and more inclined to consider any cost worth paying for the intelligence it generates.
President Bush wanted to reestablish a secret CIA detention and interrogation program and insulate CIA officers from legal peril in pushing this month for new security legislation. Bush’s proposal was opposed by Republican senators, retired military commanders and onetime administration officials such as former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who warned the harsh approaches favored by Bush would further soil the U.S. image.
Leading up to a key compromise on Thursday, CIA officials, including the agency director, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, publicly took Bush’s side in the fight, voicing concerns evidently felt by many CIA officers worldwide.
“There are smart, sensitive people who work in that agency who are bothered by the same sorts of issues as private citizens are,” said Paul Pillar, former deputy director of the CIA counterterrorism center.
But Pillar and others noted that spies, unlike soldiers, are not afforded the protections of the Geneva Convention. Therefore, agency officials are less preoccupied with the concern over reciprocity articulated by Powell and others.
The convention spells out elaborate protections for captured soldiers, and sets minimum standards for others who are captured who are not in uniform.
But spies fall into a separate category. Those engaged in espionage “shall not have the right to the status of prisoner of war,” according to the convention, which also says that an occupying government “may impose the death penalty” in cases when a prisoner is guilty of espionage.
The Supreme Court ruled in June that the Geneva Convention applies even to terrorism suspects under U.S. law. But “if a CIA operative is picked up by terrorists, he is unlikely to benefit under any circumstances from Geneva protections,” said Robert Grenier, who retired earlier this year as head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center.
Indeed, the history of the agency includes gruesome examples. In 1984, William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, was captured, tortured, and ultimately killed by operatives from the Hezbollah terrorist organization.
Some veterans said the agency’s experience fighting terrorists, and the stakes of the interrogations they conduct when suspects are captured, also help explain its more aggressive mindset. While the military has held hundreds of relatively low-level prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other facilities, the CIA has been responsible for detaining a relative handful of high-ranking Al Qaeda operatives.
“The agency is not recommending that these techniques be applied to everybody,” said a former senior CIA official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We’re talking about those very rare cases when you’ve got somebody who you know was the mastermind behind Sept. 11, who gleefully slit the throat of Danny Pearl.”
The former official was referring to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks who is also believed to have executed Wall Street Journal reporter Pearl after he was kidnapped in Pakistan in 2002.
The CIA is said to have used an array of harsh techniques against Mohammed, including “water boarding,” in which a prisoner is strapped to a board and made to believe he is going to drown. Water boarding presumably no longer would be allowed under the new rules under consideration in the Senate. But CIA officials said they believe they will still have access to other methods that have proven effective.
“Overall, you have to characterize them as tough and aggressive,” said a former senior CIA official involved in the program. “Certainly beyond what one would legitimately expect to encounter in a police precinct.”
The CIA view of interrogation policy may also be colored by the fact that it is a principal user of the intelligence it gets from Al Qaeda prisoners -- in contrast to other areas of intelligence where the CIA is a more passive conduit of information to policymakers and the Pentagon.
“If they get information on what the Chinese military is doing, that goes to the Pentagon,” said another former CIA official. “If they get information on China’s likely stance at the United Nations, that goes to the State Department.”
But information from interrogations of high-value detainees has fueled dozens of counterterrorism operations mounted by the CIA, netting what officials have described as important captures.