Dartmouth alum provides clarity on “torture”

Robert Grenier served in the CIA for 27 years. In 2001, as station chief in Islamabad, he developed a CIA war plan for southern Afghanistan that relied on Afghans to drive Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters from Kabul and install Hamid Karzai as the country’s new president. He describes these events in a new book called 88 Days to Kandahar.

Grenier also helped coordinate covert operations in support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He then served as the CIA’s top counterterrorism official from 2004-2006.

Grenier is a 1976 graduate of Dartmouth College. The current issue of Dartmouth’s alumni magazine features an interview with him.

Grenier provides valuable insight into the issue of detainee interrogation. He takes a dim view of the efforts of Dianne Feinstein and other Senate Democrats to mislead the public on the subject. Asked about Feinstein’s 2014 “torture” report, he responded, in part:

The Democrats’ report makes all sorts of charges against the CIA, many of which I consider blatantly spurious, and employs what I regard as a highly selective and misleading narrative in order to manipulate and energize those who are legitimately opposed to the use of harsh interrogations for what I regard as perfectly valid reasons.

I guess I’d say that then-committee chairman Dianne Feinstein set out to write a report that was clearer and more compelling than the truth.

(Emphasis added)

Grenier continued:

I think the report is unfortunate. They were very selective in their use of the facts, and some were presented in a misleading way. Sen. Feinstein made it very clear from the outset that she’s very strongly opposed to these harsh interrogations, so rather than taking an even-handed, dispassionate look at the program and what came from it, she instead used the report as a polemic to make sure that these methods would never be used again.

Given his position as the CIA’s top counterterrorism official, one would expect Feinstein’s staffers to have interviewed Grenier. They did not:

I was dismayed the Democrats didn’t interview any of us. I think that’s why they were able to misuse much of the written record. If somebody gained access to every email that you’d written for the last 10 years, they might find things that could be presented in a way you did not intend, and I think there was a lot of that in the Democratic report.

(Emphasis added)

Not interviewing the key participants is just what you would expect from an operation designed to produce a polemic, rather than an even-handed, dispassionate analysis.

At Dartmouth, Grenier majored in philosophy, as John and I had a few years before. But it doesn’t take a background in philosophy to understand that the debate over “torture” should turn not on labeling (as Grenier says, “there’s torture and there’s torture”), but on a careful analysis of the various interrogation methods to which critics attach the label.

With regard to waterboarding, Grenier noted that it was only used for three individuals — the three the CIA expected to have the greatest amount of threat information after they were captured. And the CIA stopped using this technique once interrogators believed “they had refined their methods to the point where they could be confident that if they hadn’t gotten what was to be gotten using other means, then waterboarding would not be effective either.”

Other techniques that have been characterized as “torture,” such as sleep deprivation, are “not that bad” in Grenier’s view, and should not be ruled out in all instances. He explained:

I have perfect respect for the view that we should never do anything beyond what is permitted in a typical U.S. police precinct, but I think we also need to acknowledge that, in some instances, we will pay a price as a result, and it is absolutely not true that we didn’t gain useful and critical information as a result of these interrogations.

To say that we should never use harsh interrogation means that we need to accept a certain additional risk, which is very difficult for us to quantify, certainly before the fact. And I have yet to hear anyone say, “As a matter of principle, the United States should never use harsh interrogation, and I’m willing to see Americans potentially die in order to uphold that principle.”

Dianne Feinstein doesn’t do that, and that’s why I think she mendaciously tries to make the case that not only is it wrong, but also that it never works. The idea that it never works, frankly, is ridiculous.

(Emphasis added)

Of course it is. Only someone with a personal or a political ax to grind could assert, for example, that interrogators will always get as much useful information from a rested detainee as from a sleep-deprived one.

Unfortunately, Dianne Feinstein has both a personal and a political ax to grind. Grenier has Feinstein’s number. She is, as he says, mendacious. Considering the stakes, she’s also a disgrace.