Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. is the former head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and the author of “Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives.”
People might think it is wrong for me to condemn a report I haven’t read. But since the report condemns a program I ran, I think I have justification.
On Thursday, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to declassify and release hundreds of pages of its report on U.S. terrorist interrogation practices. Certain senators have proclaimed how devastating the findings are, saying the CIA’s program was unproductive, badly managed and misleadingly sold. Unlike the committee’s staff, I don’t have to examine the program through a rearview mirror. I was responsible for administering it, and I know that it produced critical intelligence that helped decimate al-Qaeda and save American lives.
The committee’s staff members started with a conclusion in 2009 and have chased supportive evidence ever since. They never spoke to me or other top CIA leaders involved in the program, or let us see the report. Without reviewing it, I cannot offer a detailed rebuttal. But there are things the public should consider.
The first is context. The detention and interrogation program was not built in a vacuum. It was created in the months after Sept. 11, 2001, when nearly 3,000 men, women and children were murdered. It was constructed shortly after Richard Reid narrowly missed bringing down an airliner with explosives hidden in his shoes. It continued while U.S. intelligence learned that rogue Pakistani scientists had met with Osama bin Laden to discuss the possibility of creating crude nuclear devices.
When we captured high-ranking al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaida in 2002, we knew he could help us track down other terrorists and might provide information to allow us to stop another attack. Those who suggest we should have questioned him more gently have never felt the burden of protecting innocent lives.
Second is effectiveness. I don’t know what the committee thinks it found in the files, but I know what I saw in real time: a program that provided critical information about the operations and leadership of al-Qaeda. Intelligence work is like doing a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box top and with millions of extra pieces. The committee staff started with the box top, the pieces in place, and pronounced the puzzle a snap.
The interrogation program was not flawless. But we identified and rectified our mistakes and, where appropriate, reported suspected wrongdoing to the Justice Department.
Third is authority. This program was approved at the highest levels of the government, judged legal by the Justice Department and regularly briefed to the leaders of our congressional oversight committees. There was never any effort to mislead the administration or Congress about the program. In 2006, then-CIA Director Michael Hayden expanded those fully briefed on the program to include all members of the intelligence oversight committees. It is a travesty that these efforts at transparency are now branded insufficient and misleading.
When portions of the report are released, I hope the CIA’s response, pointing out its flawed analysis, is also made public. But before anything is released, authorities must ensure that we don’t make the job of my successors, who are trying to prevent future terrorist attacks, any harder.
Read more from Outlook: