The New Yorker, June 22, 2015
The Inside War
To expose torture, Dianne Feinstein fought the C.I.A.—and the White House.
By Connie Bruck
After Feinstein’s floor speech in mid-March, 2014, the Intelligence Committee voted to send the [CIA torture] report’s executive summary to the White House for a declassification review, anticipating public release. The White House instead said that the C.I.A. would take the lead in redacting information. Feinstein argued that the agency had a conflict of interest—redacting the charges of its own violations—and she appealed to Obama to reconsider. She got no response.
In the six million documents that the C.I.A. had turned over, undercover agents were referred to by their official aliases, and the agency suggested pseudonyms for them that Senate staffers could use. In drafting the report, the staffers used several hundred of those pseudonyms, along with the real names of publicly identified senior C.I.A. officials. Their goal was to create a narrative in which major characters appeared repeatedly, many in various contexts, lending coherence to a complex chain of events and revealing the multifaceted roles that some individuals played. This was not without precedent: previous reports of intelligence failures, including the Church committee report, in 1975, had used pseudonyms for central characters.
But on August 1st, when the C.I.A. delivered the redacted report—a few days before its expected release—Feinstein saw that the agency had redacted all the pseudonyms, arguing that readers might be able to combine them with other details and identify the agency personnel. The report, shot through with black lines, resembled a play where the pivotal actors were unrecognizable from scene to scene, making the action almost impossible to follow. The C.I.A. made one concession. The report had used the real names of the two contract psychologists—already identified in the press—who were paid eighty million dollars to develop the interrogation program. The C.I.A. said that the psychologists could be identified by pseudonyms that the agency had provided.
Feinstein rejected the redacted version, and began negotiating, mainly with Denis McDonough. Since the issue of pseudonyms was the most difficult one, they agreed to leave it for last, and discussed other redactions through the fall. Over Columbus Day weekend, McDonough flew to San Francisco to meet with Feinstein. “This has been a very difficult process,” Feinstein told me, not long afterward. She said that she and McDonough had “settled a lot of problems,” but that some remained, and she was determined not to have the report “decimated.”
Feinstein offered to reduce the number of pseudonyms from several hundred to forty or fifty, but McDonough refused. By mid-November, she was fighting for just fourteen. Many of these people had played major roles in the program and currently occupy high-level positions at the C.I.A. One was Alfreda Bikowsky, an agent who had been named in journalistic accounts as early as 2011. As deputy chief of the unit dedicated to finding Osama bin Laden, Bikowsky had participated in brutal interrogations. She was convinced of the program’s virtues. Its strength, she once wrote, was that potential terrorists expected nothing worse than a “show trial” in America. They “never counted on being detained by us outside the U.S., and being subjected to methods they never dreamed of.”
The former intelligence officer told me, “There was this group of four or five women, at the core of hunting Al Qaeda.” Bikowsky was at the center of it. “They all had this burden of guilt, that they were there and didn’t stop 9/11. They saw their jobs as making America safer—and were willing to go to great lengths.” In statements to the committee in 2006, Porter Goss, the C.I.A. director who preceded Michael Hayden, described the interrogations as “not a brutality. It’s more of an art or a science.” The key, he said, was “knowing what makes someone tick.” He added, “Just the simplest thing will work, a family photograph or something.” In fact, as the report describes, C.I.A. officers threatened at least three detainees with harm to their family members. Other techniques included menacing a subject with a pistol and a cordless drill, and employing “rectal hydration,” which the chief of interrogations later characterized as a marker of “total control over a detainee.” Before one session with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the lead planner of the 9/11 attacks, who was subjected to waterboarding a hundred and eighty-three times, Bikowsky sent an e-mail that referred to him by a nickname: “Mukie is gonna be hatin’ life on this one.”
According to the report, Bikowsky was the chief architect of the C.I.A.’s effort to justify its use of enhanced techniques. In February, 2007, she accompanied Hayden to testify before the Intelligence Committee. The former intelligence officer said that Bikowsky had come because “Hayden was new and didn’t know all the details. She had all the facts stuffed into her head. Unless you knew what questions to ask, she’d run circles around you.” Citing information that she said was obtained from the interrogation program, Bikowsky testified, “There’s no question, in my mind, that having that detainee information has saved hundreds, conservatively speaking, of American lives.” The report lists four major claims she made in the hearing, and provides evidence that all are inaccurate. It also asserts that Bikowsky misled the C.I.A. inspector general and other senior officials about the efficacy of the enhanced techniques. (The C.I.A. stands by all but one of Bikowsky’s claims, and says that her assertions about the techniques reflected a widespread understanding. A spokesman said, “The representations as to the value of the information derived from detainees subject to E.I.T.s”—enhanced interrogation techniques—“were representations made by the agency, not one individual. Suggestions to the contrary only serve to distort the record.”)
The argument over how Bikowsky should be identified in the report was particularly freighted. The main character in the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” was based partly on her, and she was the subject of a Wikipedia page. Still, the C.I.A. and the White House refused to allow a pseudonym for her. She has been promoted to a senior position in the global-jihad unit. “The C.I.A. does not hold people accountable the way I think it should,” Feinstein told me. “You want to support them if the wrong thing happens.” But, she added, that is different from supporting them “for doing wrong.”
On November 20th, McDonough went to a Senate Democratic Caucus meeting, in the Mansfield Room of the Capitol. He was there to brief senators on the President’s immigration policy, but he knew that Feinstein and her colleagues on the Intelligence Committee would want to discuss the torture report. Feinstein delivered a prepared speech, about ten minutes long. “She flat-out called out the White House and the C.I.A.,” the senior Senate staffer recalled. “Then Rockefeller, Wyden, Heinrich, and Udall spoke, and they really went after McDonough.” McDonough, according to the staffer, argued that the report would risk lives, pointing out that, while he had Secret Service protection, C.I.A. families did not. The Senate aide recalled that McDonough defended his impartiality. “He said, ‘Every time I go over to the C.I.A., they tell me I’m doing the Senate’s bidding, and I come over here and you guys tell me I’m doing the C.I.A.’s bidding,’ and neither is true. I’m trying to be an arbitrator.” For many, his protest rang hollow. “Denis and Brennan are very tight, and Denis thinks very highly of Brennan,” someone who knows McDonough well said. “I think whatever Brennan told him, Denis had reason, based on the personal relationship, to trust.” At the close of the meeting, McDonough made it clear that the White House would not allow the remaining, contested pseudonyms to be used, and, if the committee did not agree, the report would not come out.
The pseudonyms for the fourteen key people were deleted. Although Bikowsky was referred to in some places as the “deputy chief of Alec station,” in dozens of other spots any title for her was redacted. Robert Eatinger, the acting general counsel Feinstein mentioned in her floor speech, had all sixteen hundred mentions of his name redacted. It was a bitter defeat, but Feinstein feared that if the report was not released before the Republicans took control of the Senate, in January, 2015, it never would be. Some of her colleagues believed that the White House was deliberately running out the clock. “Obama participated in the slowdown process, and that’s a hard thing to forgive,” Rockefeller said.