Journalist Tim Weiner

An expert on intelligence research, Weiner weighs in on the clash between the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA.

A Pulitzer Prize winner for his investigative work on U.S. national security and secret intelligence, Tim Weiner has covered the CIA and the Pentagon in DC and reported on war and terrorism for more than two decades. He spent 10 years in Washington and has traveled to some of the world's hotspots, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Sudan, as a foreign correspondent. He's also a best-selling author, who has chronicled the CIA's history in Legacy of Ashes, winner of the National Book Award, as well as the FBI in the text, Enemies. Weiner has lectured at the CIA, universities, political think tanks and presidential libraries.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Senate Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate’s powerful Intelligence Committee, has denounced the CIA for allegedly spying on Congress to thwart its investigation into CIA wrongdoing, including the agency’s use of enhanced interrogation practices, also known in some quarters as torture, this has erupted into a full-blown crisis, with charges that the CIA has violated the Constitution’s guarantee of separation of powers.

So joining us tonight from New York to talk about the ramifications of these allegations into the future, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Tim Weiner, former national security reporter for “The New York Times” and author of the best-selling text “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.”

Tim, speaking of the history of the CIA, does this surprise you at all, given their history?

Tim Weiner: Doesn’t get a lot worse than this, Tavis. This is the most serious constitutional confrontation between Congress and the CIA since the end of the Cold War. It is a moral problem, it is a political problem, and it goes to the heart of our functioning as an American democracy.

Can we, the United States, run a secret intelligence service under the rule of law? That’s what this boils down to.

Tavis: A moral problem and a political problem, one at a time. First, the moral problem is what?

Weiner: The moral problem is that for the duration of the George Bush presidency from 2002 to the day President Obama banned it on his first day of office in 2009, the United States ran a global system of what they call “dark sites:” secret prison cells, torture chambers.

People were tortured, some people died, and the question at hand is this: One, are we ever going to do this again? Are we going to ban this forever? You can’t just ban it by an executive order signed by the president. That’s one. Two, does torture work?

The CIA says it does; that they got valuable intelligence. But the report that the Senate has issued says no, it is not an effective technique. People will say anything to stop torture. So we’ve got to resolve that.

Third, we’ve got to publish this thing, okay? This is a 6,500-word – pardon me, 6,500-page report. The executive summary might be a couple thousand words. It’s got to be published. The people responsible for this, and I will list them by name if you wish, need to be sworn under oath, and we need to get to the bottom of why we conducted this program and to what end.

Tavis: I’m anxious to get to that second question, what the political problem is, but I can’t pass up an offer like that, for you to name names of who ought to be placed on the hot seat here, so fire away – name names.

Weiner: President Bush’s three directors of Central Intelligence: Porter Goss, George Tenet, Mike Hayden. The man who ran the clandestine service and its counterterrorism division, Jose Rodriguez, who destroyed the videotapes of the torture.

The number three man, the executive director, whose name is – I kid you not – Dusty Foggo, who was sentenced to 37 months in prison for fraud in 2009 for his conduct in office.

These people need to tell us how they ran this program, why they ran this program, and they need to be under oath on whether they got actionable intelligence by torturing people.

Tavis: Tim Weiner, you know as well as I do, that list notwithstanding, that part of what’s wrong with the Obama administration, frankly, and not just to cast aspersion on him, but part of what’s wrong with every presidential administration is that it never turns the tables on the previous administration, even if it’s the guy that you ran against and you beat him in an ugly contest.

One presidential administration never looks back and holds the previous administration accountable. So I love your list, but you and I both know ain’t nothing going to happen here.

Weiner: It is the Senate that must convene these hearings. They have a constitutional obligation to do it, and if they don’t do it, we have to question our ability under law to run a secret intelligence service.

Tavis: But Tim, that kind of – and I’m only playing devil’s advocate because you and I agree here, obviously – but that kind of boy’s club, and as it were, now, girl’s club mentality extends to Capitol Hill.

With all due respect to the Senate from California, Dianne Feinstein, who outed the CIA in this instance, she’d been babysitting them for years. The CIA’s been run amok for quite some time now.

Dianne Feinstein, as chair of the committee, has said nothing about it heretofore. She’s been their staunchest defender in the media. Now she wants to slap them publicly. I ain’t mad at her, but how do you expect the Senate to hold hearings on this?

Weiner: Well, that watchdog broke her chain the other day, didn’t she, and she barked, okay? There’s a reason for this. It’s a complicated story, but the CIA has essentially been using extra-legal and improper techniques to try and block this report, okay?

That’s what put her over the line. That’s why she got up and made that speech. If we, as a nation, cannot act on this, if we’re just going to say oh, man, let’s just turn the page on that, well, you can’t turn the page if you haven’t read it.

If we do turn the page on this without having read it, we’re going to do this again in some other crisis, in some other time, under some other president who has a different moral and constitutional attitude than Barack Obama, and it is a stain upon the honor of the United States, and that stain must out.

Tavis: But the argument for why pages, documents, are never released is an age-old argument, and you know it – national security interests. So tell me how these pages ought to or should, in fact, be released if they’re going to argue that national security is at stake, Tim.

Weiner: Okay. What’s at stake is not national security. We know what went on. What’s at stake is national embarrassment, okay? You can publish the executive summary of this document and the only thing that’s going to happen is that the people who have blood on their hands are going to have to show their hands to the world.

Tavis: How hard should the media – it is the Senate’s responsibility to hold the CIA accountable, and it is our responsibility to hold all of them accountable. How hard should the media push on this, and at the moment, are you seeing an aggressive enough push by those of us in the media to uncover this?

Weiner: I am not. This is not a one-day story. This is a story about how we run our affairs as a nation under the rule of law, and what our standards are. Torture is a stain on our national honor. We must account for this. We must come clean. If we don’t, it’s going to happen again.

Tavis: What is the Bush administration culpable of and complicit in, and how does this go into the Obama years, and what is the Obama administration culpable of and complicit in?

Weiner: Okay. This program, which let’s remember involved torture, secret prisons, kidnapping, and killing, ended on the first day of the Obama administration. He banned it.

The people who know what happened, who can be called to account, served under President Bush. In order for this to happen, in order for this to come clean, those people should be called to account, they should be sworn under oath, and they should be threatened with slammer time, because those are crimes against the laws of God, the laws of man, and the laws of the United States.

Tavis: What about John Brennan, though? What’s his role in this process?

Weiner: John Brennan, who is the current CIA director, is trying to juggle about 13 balls here. He’s got the presidential balls, he’s got the congressional balls, he’s got the CIA balls, he’s got the legal balls, and he’s trying to prevent an outcome that could either destroy the reputation of the CIA or damage its ability to conduct counterterrorism in an effective way.

I have a lot of sympathy for the guy. He’s a CIA lifer; he was involved with some of these programs. But he believed, and I trust him at his word, he says he believes that they were wrong, and he ought to testify to that too.

Tavis: There are some who will no doubt watch this who will say that you sound awfully harsh on the Bush people, but you sound awfully charitable and generous in your words about John Brennan, and not everybody in Washington sees Brennan the way you see him, Tim.

Weiner: Well that is true, but he has a very good reputation, he is a pretty straight shooter for a guy who spent his life in the CIA, where it is your job, I should remind you, to lie, cheat, and steal when you are overseas. That’s your job description.

Tavis: But Tim, that’s my point. When you say he’s a pretty nice guy, this is the same John Brennan who thwarted our getting evidence about drones. He obfuscated, he walked around, he danced around questions, even at his hearings.

These are drones that are killing innocent women and children around the globe, and he’s a “nice guy?”

Weiner: Drones are a different issue than torture. It’s a very complicated subject, and they are a different issue.

Tavis: It’s the cover – it is a different issue, but it’s the cover-up I’m getting at.

Weiner: Yeah, I don’t think you can cover this up, the torture program, the secret prisons, for much longer. Blood will out.

Tavis: We will see in the coming days. This issue, again, is not going anywhere, and as you heard Tim and I discuss a moment ago, the media has a responsibility, I think, in this matter to make sure that we do in fact get to the bottom of this.

This is not a one-day, or for that matter a one-week, story. Tim, good to have you on the program. Thanks for your insights, as always.

Weiner: Thank you so much for having me.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: March 19, 2014 at 11:55 am