Former Senate CIA Investigator Warns Biden Against Picks Tainted By Torture, ‘Cover-Up’

WILMINGTON, DE - NOVEMBER 24:  Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines speaks after being introduced by President-elect Joe Biden as he introduces key foreign policy and national security nominees and... WILMINGTON, DE - NOVEMBER 24:  Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines speaks after being introduced by President-elect Joe Biden as he introduces key foreign policy and national security nominees and appointments at the Queen Theatre on November 24, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. As President-elect Biden waits to receive official national security briefings, he is announcing the names of top members of his national security team to the public. Calls continue for President Trump to concede the election as the transition proceeds. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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November 24, 2020 6:41 p.m.

The chief investigator for the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2014 torture report is urging President-elect Joe Biden not to include anyone in his administration who was complicit in torture, or who otherwise frustrated efforts to investigate and hold people responsible for it. 

In an article and Twitter thread Monday, former Intelligence Committee staffer Daniel J. Jones argued that anyone “complicit in torture or who frustrated oversight and accountability for torture” doesn’t deserve a job in the Biden administration. For the former Senate staffer, that includes CIA officials during the Obama administration who failed to hold personnel accountable for destroying records, or for interfering with the Senate’s mammoth investigation of the torture program.

Speaking to TPM Tuesday, Jones said he wanted accountability on “the most basic level.” 

“They’ve failed to live up to the standards we should all accept, and there should be consequences for that,” he said, referring to former CIA officials. 

On that front, Jones told TPM Biden had erred in his pick of Avril Haines to be nominated as director of national intelligence. 

“This is about the continuing cover-up of the torture program, the long legacy of that,” Jones told TPM. “And I wish I could say Haines wasn’t a part of that, but she was.” 

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 26: Former researcher and investigator for the U.S. Senate and FBI, Daniel Jones, attends the “The Report” Premiere during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival at Eccles Center Theatre on January 26, 2019 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

Jones, who was played by the actor Adam Driver in the 2019 film “The Report,” said on Twitter Monday that Haines failed to hold anyone accountable for a 2014 episode in which multiple CIA officials improperly accessed Senate Intelligence Committee computer networks. At the time,  the committee was conducting its years-long investigation of U.S. government-authorized torture — an effort on which Jones was the chief Senate staffer.

In other words, as news outlets characterized it at the time, the CIA had spied on the Senate as the Senate investigated the CIA’s use of torture. Haines, then deputy CIA director, accepted a CIA accountability board’s suggestion that she not penalize any CIA personnel involved. She was later named President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

“The CIA’s general response to the torture report was, they acknowledged they’ve had challenges holding people accountable, and that they would commit themselves to being better at that,” Jones recalled. “And the first time they have an opportunity to commit themselves to being better at that, Haines waives it off.”

Later, Haines was on the team tasked with redacting the Senate report for public consumption. Ultimately, only 525 pages of the 6,700 page report were released.

A spokesperson for the Biden transition team called Haines “a consistent voice of moral clarity” and said she opposed the Bush administration’s “interrogation practices.” In 2014, “Avril sought to ensure there were only minimal redactions to the Senate’s public report, which ultimately was the case,” the spokesperson said. 

“She has made the point that it makes no difference to her whether torture is effective or not,” the spokesperson said. “She believes that torture is torture — it is immoral; it must be rejected or it will undermine the very fabric of our culture and the respect we hold for each other.” 

In his article, co-written with Scott Roehm and published in Just Security on Monday, Jones also argued that the Biden administration should steer clear of Michael Morell, the acting CIA director at the time of the Senate investigation who reviewed the conduct of two CIA officials who destroyed tapes showing torture. Ultimately, Morrell cleared those officials, issuing only a letter of reprimand to Jose Rodriguez. Rodriguez’s then-chief of staff, Gina Haspel, now leads the agency. 

The Daily Beast reported Tuesday that Biden was “strongly considering” Morell to lead the agency, according to four unnamed individuals familiar with the matter. A Biden spokesperson declined to comment on the speculation over Morell. 

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) told TPM of the Morell news that “No torture apologist can be confirmed as CIA director. It’s a non-starter.” 

In 2015, Morell told Vice News that he didn’t use the word “torture” to describe the euphemism “enhanced interrogation” because “to call it torture says my guys were torturers.” 

“The question of morality gets really hard,” Morell told Vice separately, asking, “What’s the mortality of not using those techniques on a detainee if you really believe that you have to do that in order to save American lives?” 

Jones agreed with Wyden’s characterization.

“I can’t think of anybody who’s more of a torture apologist than Mike Morell,” he said.

“If your son commits murder and you’re not going to say he murdered someone because that means your son’s a murderer — is that the kind of leadership we want?” he said. “It’s dumbfounding to me that people can get away with making a comment like that.”

A spokesperson for Michael Morell told TPM that Morell “was not in any way involved with the creation of the [enhanced interrogation techniques] program and he did not even learn about it until 2006, four years after it started.” Morell said he believed waterboarding was torture in a 2016 interview, the spokesperson said.

“Morell believes the destruction of the tapes was deeply troubling and that the leadership of the Agency and a handful of the Agency’s attorneys were most at fault,” said Nick Shapiro, Morell’s spokesperson and a former CIA deputy chief of staff.

When Morell was asked to review the matter, Shapiro said, “Jose himself was already retired so there was little Morell could do beyond the letter of reprimand he gave him since Jose was a private citizen who no longer worked for the government.” Shapiro also noted Haspel’s Senate confirmation testimony, in which she said that she believed Rodriguez would get approval from the then-CIA director, Porter Ross, before issuing an order to destroy tapes.

Both Haines and Morell supported Haspel’s nomination to lead the agency in 2018. 

Jones told TPM the lack of accountability for Haspel, and her subsequent rise to lead the CIA, sent a simple message to agents in the field: “All will be forgiven.”

As Biden prepares to assume office, Jones said he was fearful that the incoming administration would “repeat the same cycle.”

“The last four years of Trump is an outgrowth of our inability to hold government officials accountable for wrongdoing,” he said. “I think you can draw a line from post-9/11 through the last four years.”

Note: A few days after TPM published this story, Shapiro told TPM that a statement of his had contained errors. Morell did not in fact say that he believed waterboarding was torture in 2013, nor in 2015, as Shapiro originally claimed. Rather, Morell said as much in an interview the following year, in 2016. The article has been updated to reflect this correction from Shapiro.
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