This wasn’t always the case—it was Ronald Reagan who signed the U.N. Convention Against Torture, in 1988. But polls show both a growing acceptance of the practice and a widening divide along party lines. “It’s becoming a lot like the death penalty,” [political science professor Darius] Rejali said.
As the revelations from the Senate Intelligence Committee poured forth, depicting even worse brutality than what was previously understood to have happened and a program that could only be described as sadistic, President Obama praised C.I.A. officers as “patriots” and allowed John Brennan, his C.I.A. director, to stop short of calling the tactics “torture.”
The White House spokesman Josh Earnest, meanwhile, shilly-shallied through one embarrassing press briefing after another, doing all he could to duck rather than answer the question of whether the inhumane interrogation tactics that Obama outlawed during his first week in office had proven useful during the Bush years. The message wasn’t just elliptical; the President and his top spokesmen were talking in circles.
It appeared that Obama and Brennan had a single purpose, which was to not “lose Langley,” as people in Washington say, meaning that they didn’t want to alienate those still working at the C.I.A. This calculation—that C.I.A. officers, unlike soldiers, law-enforcement officers, and other public servants who risk their lives to serve the country, are too fragile for criticism, too valuable to fire, and too patriotic to prosecute—somehow tied the Obama Administration in knots.
It didn’t have to be this way. There have been a number of true “torture patriots,” many of them at the C.I.A., who Obama and Brennan could have praised while sending a very clear message to the Agency and to the public. They are the officers who blew the whistle on the program internally and externally, some of whom have paid a very high price for their actions. The Senate report itself describes C.I.A. officers in tears at early interrogations, asking for transfers and, in some instances, expressing doubts and pushing back. By 2004, the internal criticism had grown loud enough that John Helgerson, the C.I.A.’s inspector general, conducted a serious and influential internal investigation.
This, in turn, led the Justice Department to ask the C.I.A. to suspend the torture program until it could be reconciled with the law. Unfortunately, it was renewed for two more years, until the Supreme Court brought it to a halt.
Outside the C.I.A., many others risked their jobs and legal peril in efforts to blow the whistle on a program they found ethically, morally, and legally heinous. These were not only liberal lawyers and human-rights activists—although many of them acted nobly and selflessly—but also soldiers and F.B.I. agents, like Ali Soufan, and even some Bush Administration political appointees, like Alberto Mora, the former general counsel of the U.S. Navy, who risked everything to shine light on the abuses, in the hope of bringing America back from what Vice-President Dick Cheney called “the dark side.”
As David Luban, a professor of law at Georgetown University and the author of “Torture, Power, and Law,” suggested in the Times, there are many forms of accountability for torture, and one of the most meaningful would be to honor the real torture patriots—those who tried to stop it. What a better week it would have been if Obama had.”
“THE CHARMED LIFE OF A CIA TORTURER: HOW FATE DIVERGED FOR MATTHEW ZIRBEL, AKA CIA OFFICER 1, AND GUL RAHMAN
This isn’t the first time Zirbel’s surroundings have wowed someone. Over a decade ago, Zirbel, then a junior CIA officer, was in charge of the Salt Pit, a “black site” in Afghanistan referred to in the recent Senate torture report as “Cobalt,” where detainees were routinely brutalized and which one visitor described as a “dungeon.” A delegation from the Federal Bureau of Prisons was “WOW’ed” by the Salt Pit’s sensory deprivation techniques, and a CIA interrogator said that prisoners there “literally looked like [dogs] that had been kenneled,” according to the report.
In fact, one of the most horrifying stories – and there are many – in the Senate report on torture takes place in the Salt Pit, where Gul Rahman was murdered by the U.S. government in November 2002
Zirbel was on his first foreign tour for the CIA and colleagues had recommended that he not be allowed access to classified material due to his “lack of honesty, judgment, and maturity,” according to the Senate report. A Senate aide who briefed reporters about Zirbel said the CIA officer had “issues” in his background, the Daily Beast reported, and should never have been hired by the CIA.
Zirbel’s initial cable to CIA headquarters about the case was riddled with lies — “misstatements and omissions,” as the Senate report put it. Four months later, a superior at the agency recommended Zirbel for a $2,500 bonus for “consistently superior work.”
The CIA successfully covered up Rahman’s death until 2010 — his wife and four daughters were never notified — when Adam Goldman and Kathy Gannon of the AP revealed his identity. The Senate report identifies Rahman as one of 26 detainees who did not meet the “standard for detention”; Footnote 32 calls his a case of “mistaken identity.”
In 2005, the CIA’s “Accountability Board” suggested that Zirbel be suspended without pay for ten days. But the agency’s then-Executive Director — Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, who later received a prison term of about three years for defrauding the government in a case involving bribes paid to former congressman Randy Cunningham — decided that was excessive, and ruled that no disciplinary action was merited.
A few years later a limited probe of the torture program by the Department of Justice recommended that Rahman’s death be the subject of a full criminal investigation. Attorney General Eric Holder, who was busy not prosecuting Wall Street firms for collapsing the global economy, eventually closed the case.
President Obama still can’t decide whether the CIA got carried away with its interrogation program and former Vice President Dick Cheney and General Michael Hayden are on cable news defending “rectal rehydration” as a dietary aid. But for most people the revelations in the Senate report were appalling. “You interrogate people to get information, not revenge,” Frank Anderson a former CIA Chief of the Near East and South Asia Division, told me. “Torture is counterproductive, illegal and morally repugnant.”
We know what became of Rahman, but what happened to Zirbel?
There’s very little in the public record about him, which suggests he prefers to keep a low profile. However, a notice in the Congressional Record in 2004 shows that he received an executive appointment that year as a State Department foreign service officer, a post that’s often used as CIA cover.
Seven years after his orders led to Rahman’s death, Zirbel, who has been described as unfit for CIA employment, was working for one U.S. government agency or another in Saudi Arabia. In 2009, U.S. Customs records show that Zirbel shipped 26 containers of “House Hold Goods & Personal Effect” from the U.S. Consulate General in Jeddah to a home in Great Falls.
Several news accounts in 2010 said that Zirbel — whom the stories described but did not name — was still working for the agency.
It’s not clear if Zirbel currently works for the CIA, or government, but wherever he is, he certainly doesn’t appear to he hurting for money. Public records show he owns several properties, including the house in Great Falls, which he bought in 2006 for $1.3 million and still owns. The house sits on five wooded acres and is apparently being rented for $4,500 per month, so Zirbel lives elsewhere.
There’s also an “invisible fence,” which is typically used to keep dogs from wandering off the property by delivering an electric shock through a collar.
Incidentally, Zirbel’s estate in Virginia is about 200 miles southeast of Loretto, Pennsylvania. That’s where CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou, the only person ever sentenced to prison time over the torture program, is currently shacked up at a federal correctional institute.
Zirbel did not respond to attempts to reach him at phone numbers listed in public records and via Skype.
“We have no comment on the individual you reference or claims you make about his purported affiliation,” a CIA spokesman said in reply to questions about Zirbel. He said “significant improvements” had been implemented following Rahman’s death, “including far more stringent standards governing interrogations and safety.” Further refinements have been made in response to concerns raised in the Senate report, the spokesman said.
The spokesman also pointed to the CIA’s response to the Senate report, which said that it had been a mistake to delegate management of Salt Pit — the name of the “facility” is redacted in the response — to a junior officer “given the risks inherent in the program.”
“The Agency could have and should have brought in a more experienced officer to assume these responsibilities,” the CIA response said. “The death of Rahman, under conditions that could have been remediated by Agency officers, is a lasting mark on the Agency’s record.”