Author Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr. (CIA / Associated Press )
When the United States contemplated how to respond to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, its leaders turned to the Central Intelligence Agency.
With remarkable suddenness, an intelligence service that had been tightly leashed after a series of scandals was asked to do things that, just weeks before, would have been unthinkable. CIA officers went into Afghanistan with trunkloads of cash, directed a massive American bombing campaign in support of rebel fighters and routed Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The agency began capturing Al Qaeda figures, holding them in secret prisons, and questioning them with coercive techniques that some critics call torture. Those who could not be captured, the CIA killed, often with a new aerial weapon, an unmanned drone armed with aptly named Hellfire missiles.
A decade later, polls show most Americans have grown comfortable with the bombing and the drones, which President Obama has continued. The harsh interrogation — which Obama ended, are an enduring source of bitter controversy.
Against that backdrop come two memoirs by veteran CIA covert operatives who were key players in the agency's war on Al Qaeda. And it's the one defending brutal interrogations that makes for a more compelling read.
In "Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions after9/11Saved American Lives," Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. presents a full-throated defense of the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques," offering new if self-serving details about still classified incidents. Even those who despise what he has to say might learn something from what amounts to the best insight yet into the mind-set that drove the policies.
"The Art of Intelligence: Lessons From a Life in the CIA's Clandestine Service" is the work of Henry A. "Hank" Crumpton, who's revered among his colleagues for having led the Afghan campaign from CIA headquarters in 2001 and 2002. That episode has been exhaustively chronicled in four other books, however, so Crumpton set out to write a paean to the craft of espionage.
Crumpton serves up some tasty morsels, particularly in the chapters on his key role in Afghan campaign, a truly stirring example of American ingenuity. But his reflections are smothered in a thick sauce of turgid jargon and acronyms.
Parts of Crumpton's disjointed narrative are hindered by the blanket of censorship that he or the CIA's publication review board threw over the work. The reader is left puzzling over the context and significance of disconnected anecdotes about sources cultivated, houses broken into, documents stolen.
Rodriguez took a course that Crumpton apparently did not: He engaged a ghost writer, the CIA's former chief spokesman, Bill Harlow. "Hard Measures" is therefore a much livelier, more assessable read, with dashes of Harlow's acerbic wit.
But Rodriguez's book is superior for a more important reason. Both he and Crumpton were senior officials in the CIA's operations arm while the agency pursued the most controversial aspects ofGeorge W. Bush's war on terror — the secret prisons, dark-of-night "renditions" and the harsh interrogations. Yet Crumpton doesn't discuss some of the most consequential CIA decisions of his 24-year career.
In fairness, Crumpton wasn't overseeing the interrogation program, as Rodriguez was. From 2002 until he retired in 2007, Rodriguez, who served for 31 years, was head of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center and then chief of the National Clandestine Service (the CIA's operations arm).
After his role in Afghanistan in 2001and 2002, Crumpton spent 2003 and 2004 running CIA operations inside the U.S., but from 2005 to 2007, Crumpton was the Bush administration's ambassador for counterterrorism, just as the world was learning about the "black sites," the waterboarding, the authorized kidnappings.
The closest he comes to revealing his views on these matters is a sentence that criticizes President Obama's Justice Department as having "threatened CIA officers with jail — because they had carried out lawful orders under the previous administration."
Crumpton, now a consultant and corporate board member, never addresses whether those orders — which Rodriguez says stemmed from CIA recommendations — were moral or effective. He believes they were, according to a source familiar with his thinking. But he didn't share that with readers.
After 9/11, Rodriguez writes, senior CIA leaders were convinced that other attacks were imminent and that captured Al Qaeda figures had information that could stop them. So the agency used a variety of coercive techniques approved by now-repudiated Justice Department memos, including slapping and sleep deprivation, on about 30 people for less than a month. And the agency used the most severe technique (waterboarding) on three.