A CIA that isn’t afraid to torture?

November 8, 2017

Khury Petersen-Smith takes stock of Mike Pompeo's plans for the CIA under Trump.

MIKE POMPEO, the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under Donald Trump, recently raised the notion of something that's difficult to imagine: an even more violent CIA.

"We've now laid out a strategy for how we're going to execute our strategy with incredible vigor," Pompeo told the Foundation for Defense of Democracies audience on October 19. "We're going to become a much more vicious agency in ensuring that we are delivering this work."

Arousing the feeling of disbelief that's so familiar when Trump or any officials of his administration speak, Pompeo's statement raises many questions. The most obvious is: Was there ever a time when the CIA wasn't vicious?

Steeped in blood over the decades of its existence, the CIA has carried out countless operations the world over, using incredible violence to advance the interests of U.S. empire.

A short list of just the agency's most infamous crimes would be too long to explore here. But its roles in coups against Iran's Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, Guatemala's Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 and Chile's Salvador Allende in 1973 were defining actions carried out by the CIA, earning it notoriety among generations of opponents of U.S. imperialism.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo
CIA Director Mike Pompeo (Mark Taylor | flickr)

Each of these political leaders overthrown with the CIA's critical assistance was democratically elected as part of movements that sought to nationalize key industries in their countries. Their programs were meant to advance social equality and prioritized the well-being of their countries' historically oppressed populations.

In doing so, they departed the norm of conforming to the political and economic guidelines set out by the U.S. in the post-Second World War era called the "Cold War"--which was anything but "cold" for Iran, Guatemala, Chile and many other countries.

For this defiance, these leaders--and the millions whose aspirations they represented--paid a severe price. The coups ushered in decades of unspeakable violence under dictatorships in these and other countries.

TODAY, LIKE in the past, CIA operatives are active in clandestine operations around the world. This fact makes the current conversation about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections--something the Democratic Party and the media have been consumed with for months--a bit absurd.

While no country has the right to interfere in the political processes of another, the indignation of Hillary Clinton and others at Russian intervention in the election comes off as bizarre and hypocritical when the CIA leads the way in covert manipulation and violence to shape other countries' political affairs.

Pompeo's comments are his latest attempt to claim that the Obama administration was too restrictive toward the CIA. In 2014, then-U.S. Rep. Pompeo wrote on his website, "President Obama has continually refused to take the war on radical Islamic terrorism seriously--from ending our interrogation program in 2009 to trying to close Guantánamo Bay."

For the victims of the "war on terror" under Obama, this claim must ring bitterly hollow. As Jeremy Scahill and (too few) other investigative journalists have noted, U.S. covert operations under the heading of "fighting terrorism"--particularly extrajudicial assassination--went up under Obama. They were carried out by the CIA and the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command.

Under the Obama administration, Osama bin Laden was assassinated without trial; Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning was prosecuted; and Edward Snowden was essentially exiled to Russia under the threat of prosecution and imprisonment for decades for exposing the massive expansion of the surveillance state. So Obama can hardly be described as "soft" in his command of the "war on terror."

On the other side of the administration, the U.S. torture camp at Guantánamo Bay remains open. Even when he acknowledged the crimes that CIA agents have committed in the agency's network of dungeons around the world--referred to as "black sites"--Obama fell far short of recognizing the full weight of the horror.

"We tortured some folks," Obama said in a news conference in 2014 in anticipation of the release of a Senate report on CIA interrogation. In the same address, Obama praised CIA torturers as "folks [who] were working hard under enormous pressure," adding that they "are real patriots."

If Obama names the CIA's activities with an uneasy acceptance, Trump and Pompeo unabashedly embrace "torturing folks." On the campaign trail in February 2016, Trump said, "Don't tell me it doesn't work--torture works. Okay, folks? Torture--you know, half these guys [say]: 'Torture doesn't work.' Believe me, it works. Okay?"

Pompeo also called for the Edward Snowden's extradition to the U.S. and believes that he should be executed.

LIKE TRUMP, Pompeo isn't introducing any practices or politics that haven't existed throughout U.S. history. But also like Trump, Pompeo says out loud what was previously understood as conversation unsuitable for the public.

The CIA's whole reason for being is to act as an arm of the U.S. state that carries out violence by methods that are legally and politically outside of the bounds of what is acceptable in a "democratic" society. That is why it's clandestine.

What if that activity is more transparent? While the extrajudicial assassination of Osama bin Laden was made public by the Obama administration--and then dramatized and celebrated in Hollywood--the U.S. program of assassination remains shrouded in secrecy.

Officially, the U.S. does not torture, and its leaders have invented euphemisms--like "enhanced interrogation techniques"--to obscure what the CIA actually does. If the president and his men enthusiastically discuss torturing people, that marks a significant shift in approach.

It remains to be seen how this approach, and Pompeo's leadership, will play out. Like others in the Trump administration--and the president himself--Pompeo is more of an ideologue than a competent administrator of state power.

As a member of Congress, he was backed by the right-wing billionaire Koch brothers. He is a denier of climate change who said in 2013, "There are scientists who think lots of different things about climate change. There's some who think we're warming, there's some who think we're cooling, there's some who think that the last 16 years have shown a pretty stable climate environment."

Pompeo is an Islamophobe who argued in a 2013 speech on the House floor that Muslim leaders who do not denounce terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam are "potentially complicit" in the attacks.

LESS THAN a year into the Trump administration, the ideologues who he has appointed to head up departments and agencies have not been able to carry out everything on their very full agendas.

For example, Betsy DeVos--who fanatically opposes public education and government funding to allow people to access higher education--is doing real damage, most recently attacking Title IX protections for survivors of sexual violence on college campuses.

But her openly right-wing agenda of destroying elements of education that previous generations fought for is running up against the limits of bureaucracy--and provoking protest wherever DeVos goes. Because of those protests, an escort by federal marshals is now a regular feature of her public events.

The jury is still out on how successful (from the capitalist point of view) the Trump way of ruling is, with its full frontal assault that upends the usual conventions of the U.S. political system.

For those of us who oppose U.S. empire--and for countless people around the world who find themselves in areas that the U.S. targets for "intervention"--we already have an idea what the CIA's activity under Pompeo will look like.

Whether he's able to lead a well-oiled machine whose personnel have high morale or the agency is ridden with crisis and scandal--like the administration that it's a part of--Trump and Pompeo's CIA will do what the agency has done under every previous administration: murder, torture, target struggles for justice and subvert democracy.

If Pompeo is open about its "viciousness," it will be that much more urgent for activists around the world to call attention to the violence of U.S. empire and build the resistance against it.

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