Carly Fiorina defends Bush-era torture and spying, calls for more transparency

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
Yahoo Politics

Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina rejects the conclusions of a Senate report on waterboarding. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Positioning herself as a steely advocate of aggressive counterterrorism programs, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina offered a vigorous defense of CIA waterboarding as a tactic that helped “keep our nation safe” in the aftermath of 9/11.

“I believe that all of the evidence is very clear — that waterboarding was used in a very small handful of cases [and] was supervised by medical personnel in every one of those cases,” Fiorina told Yahoo News. “And I also believe that waterboarding was used when there was no other way to get information that was necessary.”

A Senate report last year portrayed waterboarding as “near drownings” that were tantamount to torture and concluded that the agency’s often brutal interrogations produced little actionable intelligence. But Fiorina rejected those conclusions, calling the report “disingenuous” and “a shame” that “undermined the morale of a whole lot of people who dedicated their lives to keeping the country safe.”

Fiorina’s remarks drew an immediate rebuke from Naureen Shah, director of the security and human rights program at Amnesty International USA, which last week filed a complaint with the Justice Department requesting an investigation into why prosecutors have not reopened a criminal probe of those responsible for waterboarding and other abusive practices — such as “rectal feeding” and rectal searches — based on new details documented in the Senate report.

“It’s outrageous for anybody to claim that torture was limited or that this is the way the U.S. should have conducted business after 9/11,” said Shah about Fiorina’s comments to Yahoo News. “This is completely rewriting the history of what happened.”

Fiorina’s comments came during an interview with Yahoo News in which she discussed a close, if little-known, relationship she maintained with U.S. intelligence agencies during her tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard.

They also come at a moment when Fiorina is seeking to emphasize her hawkish national security credentials in the crowded GOP presidential field. During this month’s CNN debate, Fiorina distinguished herself from rival Donald Trump after he said he would meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin to resolve the Syria crisis. “Having met Vladimir Putin, I wouldn’t talk to him at all,” Fiorina shot back, adding she would instead “begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet” and “conduct regular, aggressive military exercises in the Baltic states,” among other steps, so he would “get the message.”

Fiorina’s relationship with the U.S. intelligence community dates back to the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, when she got an urgent phone call from then NSA director Michael Hayden asking her to quickly provide his agency with HP computer servers for expanded surveillance.

While he did not tell Fiorina the details, Hayden confirmed to Yahoo News last week that he needed the HP servers so the NSA could implement “Stellar Wind” — the controversial warrantless wiretapping program, including the bulk collection of American citizens’ phone records and emails, that had been secretly ordered by the Bush White House. “Carly, I need stuff and I need it now,” Hayden recalled telling Fiorina.

Fiorina acknowledged she complied with Hayden’s request, redirecting trucks of HP computer servers that were on their way to retail stores from a warehouse in Tennessee to the Washington Beltway, where they were escorted by NSA security to the gates of agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.

“I felt it was my duty to help, and so we did,” Fiorina said. “They were ramping up a whole set of programs and needed a lot of data crunching capability to try and monitor a whole set of threats. …What I knew at the time was our nation had been attacked.”

After Hayden became CIA director in 2006, he named Fiorina as chair of an agency external advisory board consisting of former top intelligence officials, generals and business leaders. In that capacity, she made regular trips to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., including overseeing one specific project requested by Hayden: Provide advice on how the CIA could maintain its undercover espionage mission in a culture of increasing government leaks and demands for greater public accountability and openness.

“One of the things that I advised the NSA and CIA to do is to be as transparent as possible about as much as possible — because transparency reassures people,” Fiorina said in the interview. “Intelligence agencies that engage in covert activity need to be very creative about how they can be transparent while not jeopardizing our personnel and sources and methods.”

One specific recommendation she made, Fiorina said, involved Jose Rodriguez, the former chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, who supervised the agency’s aggressive interrogation of terror suspects and later came under criminal investigation for ordering the destruction of videotapes of the waterboarding of two high-value detainees. (No charges were ever filed.)

In 2007, Rodriguez was preparing to retire. Fiorina said she urged that “he step forward and be a spokesman for the agency.”

“The reason I made that recommendation is that people would have been amazed to meet him,” Fiorina said. “People would have been surprised by who he was, and what he had done. … For the American people to look into your eyes, to see your face, to hear your story — they are going to see you’re not some scary guy. You’re actually a small, mild-mannered man who cares deeply about the safety of the nation and dedicates his life to the safety of the nation.”

Rodriguez did later step forward, writing a book, “Hard Measures” (with former CIA chief of public affairs Bill Harlow), that vigorously defended the agency’s interrogations of terror suspects. He also contributed to a book, “Rebuttal,” by former agency officials — including former directors George Tenet, Porter Goss and Hayden — that was released last week and sought to refute the Senate torture report.

Harlow told Yahoo News in an email that Rodriguez is not acting as an adviser to Fiorina’s campaign but got to know Fiorina when she chaired the advisory board and was “very impressed with her then — and now.” Added Harlow: “ She does seem to do her homework, unlike some other candidates who appear to make stuff up on the fly.”

Told of Fiorina’s suggestion that Rodriguez should have been a “spokesman” for the CIA, Amnesty International’s Shah said she was “astounded,” given that he acknowledged ordering the destruction of the CIA’s waterboarding videotapes. “Jose Rodriguez has said he tried to destroy evidence of torture,” she said. “To make that person a spokesman for the U.S. government would be a total travesty of justice.”

Fiorina offered another example of where the U.S. intelligence community could be more transparent — by providing more information about a giant NSA facility it is building outside Salt Lake City, Utah, to store data. “People need to understand why, what is that for?” she said. “I think many people will be reassured” when they learn the details, she said.

Fiorina said, “I’m not aware of circumstances” in which NSA surveillance “went too far,” although she supports “the checks and balances” put into place by Congress that ended agency bulk collection of phone records. She also suggested that there were greater government threats to privacy than NSA surveillance and other U.S. intelligence programs.

“The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is sweeping up hundreds of millions of credit records and mortgage applications on ordinary American citizens,” she said. “Congress does not have oversight on them. They are a bunch of bureaucrats. They are accountable to no one. I tell you — that worries me a lot. So I wish somebody would start talking about the kinds of information that government has in civilian agencies, whether it’s your health care records that government has through Obamacare or it’s mortgage applications.”