When the International Spy Museum’s new $162 million facility opened in Washington, D.C. this year, a headline in the New York Times declared, “A Reimagined Spy Museum in Washington Doesn’t Flinch From the Darker Side.” An accompanying photo shows a part of the exhibit with “WHAT IS TORTURE?” emblazoned on a wall and a display featuring a waterboard and a confinement box. These were the tools of America’s darker side, when psychology was weaponized to intensify the anguish of victims and when torture was embraced as an instrument of war.
The opening of the museum was a day I had been looking forward to. Having served as a senior counterintelligence official in the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), I always felt the museum, at its previous location, represented an aspect of my career that the popular television shows about NCIS fail to capture. While the CBS dramas mostly reflect the service’s criminal investigative mission, the world of counterintelligence is one of collecting and disseminating information and disinformation.
As a former “collector,” I gathered information to help decision makers in the Navy and Marine Corps understand issues, and I also spread disinformation to influence our adversaries. A CIA training course I once attended in Strategic Approaches to Counterintelligence taught that America’s first military counterintelligence officer was General George Washington, when he deceived the British at Yorktown about the number of troops he had. The course taught us to think strategically and that actions can have unintended and unanticipated consequences. They were lessons I carried with me through my career.
I no longer reside in the Washington, D.C., area and I’ve yet to visit the new museum. But soon after it opened, contacts from the intelligence community, including the CIA, began sending me photographs of the torture exhibit and videotapes used in the display, both for and against torture.
My virtual tour of the museum was troubling, but what compounded it was that the news media was reporting the museum was addressing tough issues. The torture display is far from it. It seemed to me that the media, and perhaps the museum itself, had bought into the long-established perception-management campaign of the CIA that torture was safe, necessary, and effective. Those deceptions have been repeatedly disproven by continuing revelations about what really occurred in those dark, dank prisons in far-off lands.
Tackling Tough Questions? Not So Much.
Like the New York Times, National Public Radio (NPR) used a similar photo of the exhibit with a headline that read “A New Spy Museum That Tackles Torture and Other Tough Questions.” But the article and segment then reveal that the museum features a video of Jose Rodriquez, the former director of the CIA National Clandestine Service, proclaiming, “This was a very successful program,” and “It protected the homeland and saved American lives.”
Such statements are contrary to the official findings of a six-year investigation of the CIA’s torture program by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI). The comment also fails to grapple with the fact that torture and cruel treatment of detainees had long been outlawed in our domestic law and in international law that America is bound by and had previously championed globally. NPR also failed to point out that it was Rodriguez who sent the cable ordering the destruction of videotapes of the torture of two prisoners held at CIA black sites, or that current CIA Director Gina Haspel never faced disciplinary action for her role in the destruction of that evidence, based on a decision by former Acting CIA Director Mike Morell, who is featured in another exhibit in the museum.
The New York Times report on the exhibit even glossed over its own previous reporting, and NPR failed to mention entirely its numerous accounts that showed 1) the CIA’s methods were more brutal and extensive than the CIA portrayed, 2) the program was mismanaged and was not subject to adequate oversight, 3) the CIA misled members of Congress and the White House about the effectiveness and extent of its brutal interrogation techniques, 4) field personnel who tried to stop the brutal techniques were repeatedly overruled by senior CIA officials, 5) the CIA repeatedly underreported the number of people it detained and subjected to torture or other harsh tactics under the program, 6) at least 26 detainees were wrongfully held and did not even meet the government’s standard for detention, and 7) the CIA leaked classified information to journalists, exaggerating the success of interrogation methods in an effort to gain public support.
The CIA’s attempts to counter the SSCI torture report were also filled with errors. The agency had to issue a “Note to Reader” to correct its response to the report on 13 points, including its contention that information from alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, whose interrogations by the CIA had included waterboarding and other forms of torture, was crucial to finding Riduan Isamuddin, known as Hambali, because the information was otherwise unavailable. The note, instead, acknowledged that detainee Majid Khan already had provided the pivotal information, and as Lawfare noted, that occurred in a debriefing by the FBI.
A Disinformation Campaign
The U.S. has known from the onset of the post-9/11 “war on terror” that torture is a violation of domestic and international law. But in a November 2001 draft legal analysis, the CIA’s position was that “states may be very unwilling to call the U.S. to task for torture when it resulted in saving thousands of lives.” This narrative, effectively a disinformation campaign, continued until it was soundly refuted by the SSCI Torture Report executive summary, yet the museum continues to perpetuate this myth by giving those involved, specifically former military psychologist James Mitchell and Rodriguez, a platform to spread the notion that torture somehow made us more safe. It did not. And the world did indeed call the U.S. to task – the torture program and its aftermath have proven wedge issues in many of our bilateral relationships, damaged our global standing, and led to efforts to extradite some of the senior officials involved in authorizing the program.
The depths of the depravity of the CIA’s torture program continues to be illuminated through official and judicial proceedings. As Scott Roehm wrote for Just Security, the SSCI report described details of the torture inflicted on Khan, including “`sleep deprivation, nudity, and dietary manipulation;’ `rectal feeding,’ in which the CIA `pureed’ Khan’s ‘lunch tray’ of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins,’ and pumped it into his intestines through a tube forced into his rectum against his will; and `immers[ion] in a tub that was filled with ice and water.’”
The New York Times’ extensive reporting as well as the raft of official and journalistic inquiries exposed the origins of the torture program, the horrific brutality involved, the inexperience of those administering the program, and the lack of any meaningful oversight. The resources are available to have a national debate and in fact to conduct criminal trials on torture.
Yet the International Spy Museum has chosen to highlight the torturers and present a pro-torture narrative.
This gives the impression that torture is effective at eliciting reliable information, a notion unsupported by fact. (I have co-edited a forthcoming book that illuminates the recent scientific studies showing rapport-building as the most effective method to gain reliable intelligence.) While the New York Times notes that the exhibit contains a counterpoint to Rodriguez’s claim by also featuring “a military lawyer, a Navy trainer and others” denouncing the torture techniques as “useless and starkly at odds with American and civilized values,” the equivocation itself distorts the reality by suggesting that the truth is open to debate.
Lawsuits Continue Revelations
U.S. government agencies have persisted in a concerted effort to hide, redact and render classified details that would implicate U.S. officials in state-sponsored torture -– long after the detailed SSCI report, and our previous President’s acknowledgement that “we tortured some folks.” But in addition to being named in investigative reports such as that of the Senate committee, Mitchell, the former military psychologist (who is featured in the Spy Museum exhibit) and his business partner, Bruce Jessen, who devised the torture program together, continue to face lawsuits that reveal more and more detail.
An independent review commissioned by the American Psychological Association also revealed how psychologists and others affiliated with the CIA torture program, including former CIA personnel, profited. Federal court records and the summary SSCI Torture Report have found that Mitchell, Jessen and Associates (MJA) made tens of millions of dollars from the torture program and the CIA allowed them to evaluate the “effectiveness” of the program from which they reaped enormous profits. In fact, the CIA also legally indemnified MJA, leaving the taxpayers to pay their legal defense, thus not affecting their profit margins for the human suffering left in their wake. Now, the International Spy Museum is allowing these torture profiteers to continue to promote themselves in the exhibit.
Contrary to how Mitchell, Rodriquez, and the Spy Museum try to shape the issue, the United States is now stained as a country that has sanctioned state-sponsored torture, and disinformation about the efficacy of the program makes such messengers complicit in the deceit.
Recommendations for Accuracy
But it’s not too late for the Spy Museum to redeem itself. It already apparently has removed a highly provocative question to visitors, most of whom are likely to be uninformed about the subject, that asked them, “Would you be willing to have the U.S. government torture suspects if they may know about future attacks?” The museum also should immediately remove the videos featuring Mitchell and Rodriguez and eliminate any references in the exhibit that suggest that the CIA torture program was safe, effective, or lawful.
The museum further should feature the findings of the SSCI Torture Report executive summary and the broad consensus within the law enforcement, military, and intelligence communities that torture is ineffective and harmful to our national security. It should clearly highlight the domestic and international law that prohibits torture and cruel treatment, including the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act and the 2015 McCain-Feinstein Anti-Torture law, which were passed on overwhelming bi-partisan votes to prevent any future misreading of the law to authorize torture. And museum officials should meet with human rights organizations and address the concerns of groups troubled by its actions.
I propose a simple test for evaluating any changes made to the exhibit: if any museum attendee leaves the exhibit without a clear understanding that the CIA torture program was immoral, illegal, and counterproductive from a national security perspective, the museum will have failed in its obligation to present the truth of what this program was. The museum needs to decide if it intends to inform the public honestly or participate in an information-operation campaign of deception.
As our first military counterintelligence officer George Washington wrote on Sept. 14, 1775, about the potential of soldiers abusing citizens during the Continental Army’s march into the British stronghold of Quebec, such conduct would bring “shame,” “disgrace” and “ruin” to themselves and their country. The Spy Museum and any visitors need to ask themselves if such a disgraceful exhibit does just that.
IMAGE: Visitors tour the new International Spy Museum during a media preview ahead of its opening in Washington, DC, May 7, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)