Debating Declassification Of CIA Memos President Obama ordered the release of secret memos on harsh interrogation techniques. They reveal that CIA interrogators water-boarded one suspect 183 times, and another 83 times. Is the declassification a first step toward transparency, or a helpful assist to terrorists?
NPR logo

Debating Declassification Of CIA Memos

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Debating Declassification Of CIA Memos

Debating Declassification Of CIA Memos

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. President Obama decided to declassify four memos, prepared by Bush-administration attorneys, which authorized harsh interrogation techniques, what some call torture. One of the memos tells us that the CIA used controlled drowning, or waterboarding, on two al-Qaida suspects a total of 266 times.

In his confirmation hearings, now-Attorney General Eric Holder said he regarded waterboarding as torture. Yesterday, in his first visit to CIA headquarters, President Obama said he would not pursue criminal charges against CIA interrogators who believed they were operating within the law, but at the White House today, the president said he remains open to action against the lawyers, though he said that decision is up to the attorney general.

President BARACK OBAMA: If and when there needs to be a further accounting of what took place during this period, I think for Congress to examine ways that it can be done in a bipartisan fashion, outside of the typical hearing process that can sometimes break down and break entirely along party lines, to the extent there are independent participants who are above reproach and have credibility, that would probably be a more sensible approach to take.

CONAN: Yesterday on Fox News, former Vice President Dick Cheney protested the decision to release the legal memos without also declassifying additional documents that show what we learned from those interrogations.

Former Vice President DICK CHENEY: Up until now, I haven't talked about it, but I know specifically of reports that I read, that I saw, that lay out what we learned through the interrogation process, and what the consequences were for the country. And I've now formally asked the CIA to take steps to declassify those memos so we can lay them out there, and the American people have a chance to see what we obtained and what we learned and how good the intelligence was, as well as to see this debate over the legal opinions.

CONAN: Former CIA officials and former agents have also weighed in on this controversy. We'll hear from two in just a moment. We also want to hear from those of you with experience in intelligence, but these issues do affect everybody.

Does the disclosure of this information help or hurt national security? Would you reconsider if we find proof that intelligence gained through waterboarding prevented another 9/11?

Our phone number, 800-989-8255. E-mail us, You can also join the conversation at our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now by phone from his home in North Carolina is Richard Kerr, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. And Dick Kerr, it's good of you to be with us today.

Mr. RICHARD KERR (Former Deputy Director, Central Intelligence Agency): Thank you. Good to be here.

CONAN: Now what damage has been done? Much of this information has been public already.

Mr. KERR: I think making the information formally public, in documents, is a rather significant step beyond discussion of it in the press or on radio programs or a general discussion of it.

First of all, it provides documentation, and I think if there is going to be some legal action, it would essentially provide the evidential base for such action.

So I think it's quite different. Having it out, having the official documentation available, I think, changes the circumstances considerably.

CONAN: And apparently, the White House believed this would have been forced out under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, and they just decided to go ahead with it.

Mr. KERR: I don't know the facts of that. That's what I understand, but it seems to me that it's quite possible to protect information on national security lines. After all, this was classified top secret. There is a very real statement about what top secret information is. It puts things at jeopardy if released. So I think it has a real meaning. It's not just classification for the fun of it.

CONAN: Is your concern that this is disclosing methods of interrogation? Is your concern that this is something that would affect morale at the Central Intelligence Agency?

Mr. KERR: I think it will. If it doesn't, it should. I think what you put in place is an increasing lack of confidence that those people who provide you the guidance and, if you will, the rules of engagement will, after a period of time, change their mind. So there will be kind of a re-writing not only of the rules of engagement but of history - and there, a new set of standards. I think that's unacceptable for people who work in highly dangerous areas and also in areas that are rather controversial. Clandestine operations, covert operations are always guided by the law, but there's a lot of fuzziness on the border and on the edge.

There's judgment involved. If you're going to change your mind along the way about what you think is appropriate, I think you put people not only at real jeopardy, but you also raise a serious question about how much confidence -they'll be looking over their shoulder at their own administration, not at the enemy.

CONAN: Robert Baer used to have to make some of those decisions in the field as a case officer in the Central Intelligence Agency. He served in, among other places, Iraq and Lebanon. He's now intelligence columnist for and joins us today from a studio at the University of California's Graduate School of Journalism in Berkeley. And Bob Baer, nice to have you with us today.

Mr. ROBERT BAER (Former Case Officer, Directorate Operations, Central Intelligence Agency; Intelligence Correspondent, Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And do you think you, as somebody with experience in the field, would be concerned by the release of these memos?

Mr. BAER: Not so much concerned by the release of the memos but the possibility that the interrogators themselves could be prosecuted. I worked 21 years in the field. At one point, I was investigated for the attempted murder of Saddam Hussein, and I thought I had clear, legal authority to do exactly that. I can't describe what that authority is.

I do know the interrogator involved, and his life is essentially broken today because he thinks he's going to be prosecuted and, you know, as we say, hung out to dry.

CONAN: The president specifically said that the interrogators who believed they acted under the cover of law would not be prosecuted.

Mr. BAER: And I think he's absolutely right. I think we need to take a look at the Justice Department and see whether there's legal malpractice going on, and maybe we should sanction the judge, his judge, federal judge now…

CONAN: You're talking about the lawyers who wrote the memos that authorized these practices.

Mr. BAER: Yes, but I'm not a lawyer. So I'll pass on giving a definitive answer on that.

CONAN: One of the…

Mr. BAER: It does demoralize the CIA. There's no question about that. Mr. Kerr is absolutely right.

CONAN: And nevertheless, is this a good thing to have out in public or a bad thing to have out in public?

Mr. BAER: We need a truth and reconciliation commission on torture. This is a huge threshold we've crossed in torture. This country has never been involved in it before, at least to this degree - sanctioned by the White House. We need to find out precisely what we got out of it, how laws were broken, if they were broken, and what do we do when we're faced with another attack in the future -because we will be faced with another attack. What do we do?

CONAN: And Dick Kerr, that's the question that a lot of people are asking. Is this something that will sustain, or will another president in another time change his mind back again?

Mr. KERR: Well, I think circumstances, to a considerable degree, will dictate the actions. I think there's a base line of conduct and of legal framework that you can follow, but it's very difficult to anticipate every eventuality, every situation where someone has to act and act quickly.

I would say one of the things we've forgotten a bit about is what the tenor of the time was immediately after 9/11: the nervousness, the feel of - the very real feeling of uncertainty about what the next days were going to hold, and the drama involved.

We've tended to relax so much we've kind of forgotten that there's still a real threat out there. And I believe that one of our problems here is that we really do not, nor does this administration - after all, he wasn't president. He wasn't senator. He was - most of the people involved were not part of this dramatic process of how to react to 9/11.

You had to be there to understand it. And I think kind of assuming that this was all done without regard for the law is wrong, but also assuming that it wasn't done under tremendous pressure and in a crisis. Now, I would disagree a little bit with Bob, I think, although I have great respect for him, about a truth and reconciliation session.

I've seen what happened in South Africa, and I'm involved a little bit in the -very deeply in the Northern Ireland process. It's a little bit, as Bob Gates once said, like pulling the plant up to see if it's growing. It is a very painful process. I'm not sure how much you learn, but you certainly raise a whole series of questions. I'm not sure it solves or deals effectively with key questions.

CONAN: What about the point that Bob Baer just made, though, about torture. Yes, people were scared. Yes, people were very worried about another attack. The disclosure of the memos that Vice President Cheney asked for disclosure of might well disclose that another attack was prevented. Nevertheless, does that justify torture when the United States is signatory to a treaty that says, we don't do that?

Mr. KERR: This was not torture, at least according to the people that were making that ruling. We're redefining it, or we have redefined it. Now, each of us may have our own definition of what torture is, and in many cases you can - putting a person alone, naked in a cold room with water spraying on them, I would consider to be very close to that. But that's for lawyers and others to decide what the rules of engagement are.

And I would go back to the point, once you do that, don't keep moving around that goalpost and making people adjust their behavior after the fact.

CONAN: Bob Baer, does the tenor of the times justify torture?

Mr. BAER: I don't think it does. But look back at the memos, the wording, and the CIA came to the Department of Justice and said, there is about to be another 9/11. The only way we know how to stop this right now is to use tough interrogation techniques, enhanced interrogation techniques.

So the Department of Justice, speaking for them, were really put on a hot seat on this, and I don't know what I would do if the CIA came to me and said that - if you don't do something, it's on your head, another attack.

Yes, the tenor of the times is just like the Cold War, and we forget decisions made then were made under pressure, and we suspect them. But the point is, we did violate international treaties.

You know, we have an American journalist today in Tehran. I mean, what's to stop the Iranians from waterboarding her until she confesses she's a spy? You know, once you start this, you open Pandora's box.

CONAN: We're talking with Robert "Bob" Baer, a former case officer in the directorate of operations at the Central Intelligence Agency, and also with Dick Kerr, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

We're talking about the declassification of the torture memos: 800-989-8255. E-mail us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Yesterday, President Obama visited the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, that after he authorized release of the four so-called torture memos written by Bush-administration Justice Department attorneys.

The release has ignited a fierce debate about what the disclosure of this information accomplishes. We're talking about that today with Dick Kerr, a former deputy director of the CIA, also with Bob Baer, a former case officer of the directorate of operations at the CIA.

We want to hear from you, particularly those of you who have worked in intelligence. Does this disclosure hurt or help national security? Would you reconsider if we find proof that intelligence gained through waterboarding prevented another 9/11: 800-989-8255. E-mail You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's go first to Shelley(ph). Shelley's calling us from Fredericktown in Missouri.

SHELLEY (Caller): Hi, Neal, thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

SHELLEY: I'm disturbed. But I think first off, the release of the memos is absolutely necessary. I am a history professor, and they will come out eventually anyway. I think it's very appropriate that they come out.

But what I really wanted to comment on is, this justification that I'm hearing for why the memos shouldn't come out is basically, the ends justify the means, which goes against everything that I was ever taught as a child or anything I would teach children. But more importantly, this idea that the people who are the victims of torture, the type of characters they were or their level of guilt justified the means.

I have a major problem with that because - on two fronts. One, of course, we don't know if they're guilty or not because many of them were there for years suffering whatever treatment they were suffering without anybody determining their guilt.

But more importantly, I have a lot of Christian friends who are saying, you know, this is justified because these are evil people. Well, if you're a Christian, you know, judge not lest ye be judged. Who are we to say that they, you know, to determine how guilty this person is and for, of all things, to be subjected to torture, which is, of course, how Jesus died in the first place.

CONAN: Dick Kerr, we know you disagree with the definition of torture, but Shelley raises a number of points.

Mr. KERR: Well she does. I guess I would look at it from the perspective of the president. If I were faced with an issue that required whatever we want to call this, extreme measures, to save a major attack on the United States of the size and the scope of something like a 9/11, I would take those actions.

So that's a judgment I would make if I were president. That's a judgment I would recommend if I were the director of CIA. I think it is the greater good, quite honestly, and you can always argue the issue of, well, is it fair? Is it sound?

The judgment has to be made at the moment in time. It can't go before a jury and a judge. It has to be made, many of these, on the move, quickly, or it's too late.

CONAN: Shelley, if you were the president and declined to do this, and there was another attack, what would you tell those families? I could have found out this information, but I decided not to?

SHELLEY: Well you know what? That's why I was an avid supporter and even an organizer for Obama because he's not the kind of guy that would do that. He's handled this exactly as I had hoped he would, and I had friends yesterday who were saying oh, now what are you going to say about Obama because, you know, he's not going to allow prosecution of the men even who drafted these memos.

And I told them hang on. Hang on. This is not over. And believe me, he is not going to let this, you know, just walk off from this and let, you know, the issue die. It will be open.

And I must say the gentleman who just addressed my comments, it's a scary thought to think that our moral principles are going to be determined on the fly, based on the circumstances of the moment - you know, any philosophical, ethics person is going to tell you, you know, that goes against the whole concept of ethics.

CONAN: Bob Baer, is there time for philosophy all the time?

Mr. BAER: There is, but I'd like to address - another problem is that essentially with this - abusive tactics. We were on a fishing expedition. Abba Zabeda(ph) turned out not to be as important as we thought he was originally. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind, actually provided little to no information, in spite of being waterboarded 183 times.

You know, the Israelis have dealt with this problem for years, and they've pretty much abandoned abusive tactics because they don't work. You don't get much out of them. They only work when you absolutely know the suspect has an answer to the question you have, and that is so rare it makes me wonder whether we should actually make that exception, violate international law and our own morals.

CONAN: Shelley, thanks for the phone call.

SHELLEY: Great, and thanks for pointing out it is against the law, international law. Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go to Robert(ph), Robert with us from Fort Myers.

ROBERT (Caller): Yes, sir. I do believe that the releasing of the memos did weaken us. I'm really afraid that many agents will second-guess themselves and not take it to an extreme. But furthermore, I think a successful guideline was already established in terms of - and maybe this is my own ignorance - the Geneva Convention was stating that persons that are in uniform are afforded certain protections, but if you've got terrorists, which are essentially anarchists, they do not deserve to have those protections under the same law that a citizen or a person in uniform would have.

Therefore, I submit that it is within ethical and moral guidelines to probably go after these people as far as getting any information you can…

CONAN: Robert, you may be correct in terms of - in or out of uniform - in terms of the Geneva Conventions. However, the United States did sign the treaty, just as important as the treaty that empowered the Geneva Conventions, against torture.

ROBERT: Yes, sir, and I would submit that those agents were operating under counsel. So therefore, that is their saving grace, and I believe that we wouldn't be having this debate had there just been another attack a week prior to this conversation, and that all these idealistic principles go out the door when you can save lots of suffering.

CONAN: Idealistic principles go out the door. Bob Baer, is that right? Do you forget about treaties, the law, the Constitution?

Mr. BAER: I've seen it happen enough, yes. A democracy under pressure is the first to give up its values and unfortunately, that's true.

I mean, we all have to put this in perspective. The French in Algeria were industrious torturers. I mean, they went way beyond, you know, the limits of the United States. And a lot of other countries have as well.

So we shouldn't - we shouldn't hold ourselves out as a special case in this. You know, I still need to go back to the point, did it work? And I think only to the point it works can we have this discussion. Until we prove it works should we then talk about the morality and the legality of it, and I don't think it does work.

CONAN: And some people wonder, what were you going to learn with waterboarding 183 that you didn't learn with waterboarding 182?

Mr. BAER: Well, they destroyed the man, essentially. If you look at his affidavit, once he got to Guantanamo, it's sheer drivel, and was useless as an intelligence document. There's something the matter with the man either before or after waterboarding.

But any case, it did not serve a purpose that anybody's defined until today. And Cheney is absolutely right. We need to know what we got out of these tactics because I don't know.

CONAN: Dick Kerr, should we disclose the documents that Vice President Cheney wants to disclose now?

Mr. KERR: I think we are in the process. We're going to be in the process where they're going to have to be disclosed because I think Bob has a legitimate point.

There is a - what did we get out of it? My understanding is that we got quite a bit. But quite honestly, I don't know the details, and I would expect Bob would know them better than I.

I guess my view is a little more on the side that says you have to react to the situation. Democracies are the most vulnerable of all because they react poorly. They protect themselves through laws, usually in situations where the people they're dealing with have no such limitations.

So it's an uneven combat. And democracies, I think, at times have to stretch themselves a little beyond the kind of neat, moral, systematic things that they used as their guidance in a normal society. You're dealing with people who aren't in a normal society.

CONAN: We heard that a lot during the Cold War, that because of their ruthlessness, the Soviet Union was much more nimble at this sort of stuff. And yet in the end, wasn't it the principles and the ideas of the Western democracies that won the day?

Mr. KERR: It took 50 years and yes, it was. They wore down, and we wore them out. But during that period, you have to go back through an awful lot of history where quite often, we were at a significant disadvantage.

We weren't morally at a disadvantage, I don't think, ever in that process, but we weren't nearly as nimble. We were unwilling to do the things they were quite willing to do.

CONAN: Would we have been on the moral high ground that eventually provided the edge of victory had we been known to use the same, ruthless techniques that they did?

Mr. KERR: No. I don't think we could have or should have done that. But what I'm saying is democracies are much less, are much more vulnerable in this competition and particularly in a world that is far more ruthless, quite honestly, against its enemies than the Soviets ever were. I mean, I think we're dealing, with terrorism, with people that are quite willing to do things that the Russians were never willing to do.

CONAN: Robert, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

ROBERT: Yes sir.

CONAN: Let's go now to Russ(ph). Russ is on the line from Kansas City.

RUSS (Caller): Hello there. You know, as far as the usefulness of declassifying those memos, I think it was very good that they were declassified. If we say, you know, we signed the treaty with our fingers crossed and international law really doesn't apply to us, that feeds the fires under the boiler that shoots darts at us. That makes us more hated. If we are self-accountable, that's a good thing. The only thing that really concerns me is the exoneration of the CIA. I mean, I did what I was told and my country, right or wrong - did not fly too well at Nuremberg. We are obligated to disobey orders that we know to be illegal and this was plainly illegal, whatever the lawyers said.

CONAN: Bob Baer?

RUSS: I'll take my conclusions, or your answers via the airwaves.

CONAN: Okay Russ, thanks very much.

Mr. BAER: Well, you know, that's a very sensitive subject since I was in the exact position of the CIA interrogators when I was told to go out and use lethal force. And I understood that to be the law of the land, and also approved by Congress - as was abusive interrogation techniques. But it's a good point. You've got the Nuremberg defense. It doesn't work. I mean, what did those officers know? Did they know they went beyond the law because waterboarding, according to the international definition, according to my understanding, is torture. So it's a good question, and it's one I would prefer not to answer.

CONAN: Dick Kerr?

Mr. KERR: Well I guess I would probably disagree a bit with Bob. I think they did it on the grounds that they were - they believed that it was authorized, that it was legal within our framework. We offer - we do things that are - in the intelligence business - that in other countries, are illegal. We do them because they're authorized by our government, so one has to be very careful about stepping along this line.

CONAN: We're talking about the disclosure of the so-called torture memos by President Obama last week. Our guests: Dick Kerr, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Bob Baer, who served as a case officer in the directorate of the operations in, among other places, Lebanon and Syria. And this is coming to you from TALK OF THE NATION and NPR News. Let's go next to Tom. Tom with us from Bridgeport, Connecticut.

TOM (Caller): Yes, good afternoon, fellows.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

TOM: I don't think that we should disclose things. We have certain things that have to be secret in this country to protect our freedom. You know, sometimes you have to do what you got to do to protect your freedom and I, for instance, prevented a 9/11 from happening and now it's in the Supreme Court. I lost my job over the situation but I did what I had to do, and if I didn't do something, something did happen, then everybody say - well, you know - you knew about this, you didn't do anything about it, you see. So you are between a rock and a hard place. Some of these things that we do, we just have to do in the interest of public safety. And, you know, as far as I'm concerned, this - that woman who was on there before, if she had a 5-year-old daughter and there was a well-known rapist that was known for what he did to kids afterwards, I'm sure she would say, get that S.O.B. in whatever means possible. I'll let you comment on that.

CONAN: Well, Tom, thanks very much. And we appreciate the phone call. I'm not aware of the case you were talking about. But nevertheless, the ticking time bomb is, well, Dick Kerr, I think that's what you're talking about. This was a situation where people were afraid another 3,000 people might be killed.

Mr. KERR: Exactly. I think you have to put it in the context of that period of time, and why the decision was made at that moment. You know, it's a little like - there are a variety of things one can go back in history. You can go back and look at the dropping of nuclear bombs, the Dresden fire bombing, all kinds of things.

In hindsight, look, one could make a different judgment about. You have to be there, be there at the time, realize that the people that are making those decisions are under enormous pressure. I don't think that means you walk away from all your values. But you have to put that in the context of fear and uncertainty and the implications of your being wrong.

CONAN: When you were in this position, when you were making those decisions, were these factors that you considered at the time? Is this legal? Is this being authorized by the president? Is it being authorized by Congress? Even if it is, is it legal?

Mr. KERR: Certainly. I mean, you made a whole series of judgments. One, you made - does it make any sense? Is it going to work? Is it of value? I mean, even - and is it legal? Is it a practical thing? Can it be done? You know, my view, a lot of - for instance, in covert action, over the history of covert action - and I was there for a lot of different presidents - covert action was often the last resort after everything has failed. And it was likely to fail as well. Did it make sense to do it? Was it legal? Was it practical? Could you carry it off in fact?

So there are a lot of issues that come into play. But legality and common sense, you know, are the kind of guidelines that one has to apply.

CONAN: And, Bob…

Mr. KERR: You face those decisions not on a daily basis, but on a regular basis when you run an organization like CIA. But it is, after all, a very complex organization that, to be honest, works illegally outside this country.

CONAN: And Bob Baer, in the field, when you've got those kinds of instructions, is that something that you asked yourself?

Mr. BAER: Oh, absolutely. But, generally, when you're in the field on the edge of battle, you listen to headquarters. I mean, Dick is absolutely right. And they are faced with these decisions with covert action. And what Dick probably would have said was that covert action is dumped on the CIA, just as these interrogations were, as sort of a last resort. And it's always the CIA that gets the blame at the end of the day. You go back to the Bay of Pigs.

And the CIA always salutes and says, yes, we'll do it. And then they get the blame. And it's unfortunate because the CIA, I still believe, is one of the few organizations in Washington that will tell a president the truth. And if we destroy that through this process, we're going to be sorry for it.

CONAN: Bob Baer, thank you very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Mr. BAER: Thank you.

CONAN: Robert Baer, a former case officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, the author of "See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War On Terrorism," now intelligence columnist for You can find a link to his story, "Why Obama Needs To Reveal Even More On Torture" at our Web site. That's at - with us today from a studio at the University of California's Graduate School of Journalism in Berkeley.

And we'd also like to thank Richard Kerr. Appreciate your time today, sir.

Mr. KERR: You're welcome.

CONAN: Richard Kerr, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He joined us today by phone from his home in North Carolina.

Coming up, Susan Boyle opened her mouth, and the world fell in love. The Internet singing sensation sounds great but, says Robin Givhan, looks a little, well, frumpy. Time for a makeover? Stay with us.

It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.