Paul Pillar on the Dark Side

Paul PillarIn 2006, Paul Pillar, author of Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform, appeared on the Frontline documentary The Dark Side, which examined how then-Vice President Richard Cheney pushed to expand executive power, transform America’s intelligence agencies and bring the war on terror to Iraq.

In an extended interview posted on the Frontline site, Pillar discusses the problem of politicizing intelligence; the tntelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war; the 2004 National Intelligence Estimate; and politics at the CIA. Pllar also shares his thoughts on renditions and torture.

In the following exchange, Pillar discusses changes at the CIA in the aftermath of 9/11:

What did you think would happen with the agency after 9/11 happened?

Paul Pillar: That there would be a major increase in resources devoted specifically to counterterrorism. That’s the natural reaction to any kind of disaster. But other than that, it’s not a matter of something happening to the agency. The basic mission would stay the same. … What changed drastically overnight was, of course, the policy priority and the public concern.

Did you feel the agency was at all responsible for it?

Paul Pillar: No, no. The lack of tactical information is in large part a reflection of the target itself: small groups, highly secretive, very conscious of operational security, extremely difficult to penetrate. With hindsight, there are some miscues we’re all aware of in terms of tardiness, of people being placed on watch lists, that sort of thing. How much difference would that have made historically? That’s a matter of hypothetical alternative scenarios. But in terms of strategic understanding and strategic warning, it’s hard to get more explicit than [what] the head of the intelligence community was even speaking [about] just publicly, let alone in a classified forum to Congress and to the administration leaders.

And when the critics, the vice president included, say, “Where was the human intelligence?” …

Paul Pillar: There is always no substitute for the well-placed human source when it comes to counterterrorism; there’s also nothing I can think of that’s harder to do than place a human source inside a terrorist group. I don’t mean at the periphery — there have been enough of those; I mean in the innermost circles where plans are laid. It’s not that people haven’t thought of that or haven’t worked on that very hard for a long time. It’s always been extremely difficult; it always will be, no matter how the intelligence community is organized and no matter how many resources you give it. …

Fighting the war on terror, from a Central Intelligence Agency perspective, it’s a war of information, right? And it’s a manhunt. It’s not an Army kind of thing?

Paul Pillar: In part. Intelligence is one of, and only one, of several tools, all of which are very important. … Related to intelligence is covert action, diplomacy, leaning on other governments to be more cooperative, to do things like arrest or roll up terrorist cells and do all manner of other things that we can’t do ourselves is very important. Military action, selectively applied, including … the overthrow of the Taliban and the rousting of Al Qaeda from its former safe haven, was extremely important.

Financial efforts, going after the money and the very aggressive use and extensive use of our law enforcement capabilities, not just because of the investigative powers that they have, but also because it has always been, and still is, one of the tenets of U.S. counterterrorist policies to “bring terrorists to justice,” and that means using our criminal law enforcement system, not as an alternative to military force, … but as one more of an assortment of tools, all of which have to be used.

… Speaking about the war on terror, [torture and renditions], those two items, comment for me, will you, on them as outgrowths of policy. … Were you privy to the fact … that the CIA was involved in this business before you read about them in The Washington Post?

Paul Pillar: Renditions have always been a major part of the counterterrorist effort. When I was working on counterterrorism in the 1990s, it was a major part of the effort, and not a secret one. You can look at old State Department annual reports and get a listing in some of them on the number of terrorists who have been rendered to one place or another, even if the place isn’t mentioned.

An unfortunate thing is how this has been [con]flated with the whole issue of torture and treatment of detainees. You can’t separate the two issues entirely, obviously, but the process of rendition, which has been a useful and important process for the handling of some terrorists … has gotten a bad name because of its involvement with this other issue of how detainees are treated. But we really ought to try to keep them separate. …

Do you have an opinion about whether we should have been doing those things?

Paul Pillar: … I think there are serious questions to be raised about the effectiveness of some of the treatment that had been reported.

And the “black sites”? Where do we put these guys?

Paul Pillar: I really don’t have a perspective on that. It’s a fair question to ask. If someone is captured, either on a battlefield in Afghanistan or someplace else, you have to do something with them. If you have strong reason to suspect this is a terrorist, you don’t just set him free. One of the difficulties involved in bringing people before our ordinary civilian criminal courts of justice is that you want to make sure you’ve got a strong enough prosecution case that you don’t get the worst result, which is to try someone and then he gets acquitted, even if as a matter of intelligence, you still have strong suspicions that he’s a terrorist. That’s the worst of all worlds.

… The typical detainee, if you’re talking about experienced Al Qaeda-type operatives — not someone who’s just a foot soldier who’s been scarfed up on the field of battle — has to be viewed as a formidable opponent in the interrogation room and will use whatever … counter-interrogation techniques to disguise what he continues to want to be disguised.

Take a guy to Egypt, though, we know what’s going to happen to him.

Paul Pillar: Well, sometimes we know; sometimes we don’t. It’s not always that clear cut.

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