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Coalition forms against CIA officer entangled in torture tape scandal

What started as a murmur is turning into a yell. On Wednesday, a coalition of religious leaders and human rights groups joined to protest the promotion of a CIA officer accused of advocating for torture in the aftermath of 9/11.

In a letter to CIA Director John Brennan, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, and a handful of other groups urged the nation's top spy to demote or fire an undercover CIA officer under consideration to permanently lead the CIA's clandestine service.

"We are deeply concerned by reports in reputable news sources that you are considering appointing as the new Director of Clandestine Service of the Central Intelligence Agency an individual who reportedly was closely involved in setting up CIA secret detention facilities (known as 'black sites')," reads the letter, obtained by Foreign Policy. "The same person was also allegedly involved in creating and operating the CIA interrogation program, which employed torture, and ordering the destruction of interrogation videotapes that depicted torture."

Because the officer is undercover, her identity is a secret. But last month, the Washington Post revealed the contours of her career. She is highly respected within the agency and would be the first female director of the clandestine service, the CIA branch responsible for sending spies overseas and running the drone program. However, she also helped run the CIA's controversial interrogation program and personally signed off on the destruction of videotapes documenting interrogation abuses, including a tape that reportedly shows Abu Zubaydah "vomiting and screaming" while getting waterboarded. To this day, many consider the destruction of the tapes a concerted coverup of interrogation abuses. The cable authorizing the destruction of the tapes appears below (with the signatory's name redacted):

The coalition is led by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, an anti-torture group formed in 2006 that boasts representatives from Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and mainline Protestant communities. Other signatories of the letter include the Center for Victims of Torture, the Open Society Policy Center, and Physicians for Human Rights. This represents the first organized effort against the CIA officer in question.

Last week, former Bush administration officials John Yoo and Marc Thiessen wrote in National Review and the Washington Post respectively to defend the officer, who they said was falling victim to the Obama administration's "politicization of the CIA."

"Brennan is blocking the most qualified operative to head the CIA's key division because of her involvement in interrogations," wrote Yoo, a former White House lawyer and legal mastermind behind the Bush administration's interrogation program. "Clearly, diversity only goes so far for the Left."

The words of support from Yoo and Thiessen were preceded by criticisms of the officer by Glenn Carle, a 23-year veteran of the clandestine service, who told FP that promoting the officer would be a mistake. "We should repudiate these sorts of practices, whatever the pressures and judgements of the moment were."

In considering the next head of the clandestine service, Brennan has taken the unusual step of appointing a panel of three former CIA officers (John McLaughlin, Stephen Kappes, and Mary Margaret Graham) to sift through the list of top candidates. At press time, the CIA did not respond to a request for comment, but spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood told FP last month the woman in question "is one of the most senior and respected officers in the Agency and is, of course, a strong candidate for the job." The letter protesting her appointment appears below:

Letter to Brennan 04-10-2013

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Al Qaeda affiliates bicker over branding, identity

Just like in the corporate world, the merger of two established terrorist groups can cause serious disputes over branding and identity strategy. As it happens, the dynamic is driving a wedge through the newly announced alliance between the al Qaeda affiliates al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).

In an audio message on Tuesday, ISI chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the merger between the two sides, both of which the State Department considers terrorist organizations. "It is time to declare to the Levant and to the world that the al-Nusra Front is simply a branch of the Islamic State of Iraq," he said, noting that his Iraqi group already provided the al-Nusra Front with half of its budget. A day after the announcement, al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani responded kindly to Baghdadi, calling him "honorable sheik," but resisted an outright branding takeover.

"Al-Nusra Front will not change its flag, though we will continue to be proud of the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq, of those who carry it and those who sacrifice themselves and shed their blood for it," he said.

The reasons not to accept ISI's flag and official branding are manifold, but let's start with the aesthetics. Here are the group's flags:

If the al-Nusra Front adopts the flag and branding of al Qaeda's Iraqi offshoot, it also lowers the legal hurdles for the United States to order deadly drone strikes on its members. As Wired pointed out yesterday, the 2001 U.S. Law Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) will grant the executive branch a legal pretext to take out the Syrian militants wherever they are. And that fear has resonated with other jihadists arguing about the new merger online. A report by the Middle East Media Research Institute, provided to Foreign Policy, tracks the online debate.

"Despite being celebrated by many as a move in the right direction, [it] was negatively perceived by others, especially due to the merge's possible negative implications on the Syrian struggle. One such prominent case was that of Sheikh Abu Basir Al-Tartusi, who ... claimed that such a move would end up impeding the Syrians from fulfilling their aspirations, while at the same time increasing Western interference in Syria's affairs," reads the MEMRI report. Piecing together opinions on Twitter and in jihadi forums, MEMRI picked up on views going both ways. "Supporters of the merge and supporters of JN maintaining its independence are roughly equally divided," reads the report.

But that's not the only wrinkle in the branding debate, as the Long War Journal's Thomas Joscelyn points out. In rejecting ISI's branding, Jolani may be trying to better position the al-Nusra Front within the al Qaeda hierarchy since a full-fledged al Qaeda affiliate is more significant than a simple outgrowth of al Qaeda's Iraqi operation. The most prominent sign that Jolani is leaning toward making the al-Nusra Front a full-fledged affiliate was his statement swearing allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leaker of al Qaeda, instead of Baghdadi. "It requires speculation to divine the intent behind al Julani's words," writes Joscelyn. "But he has clearly rejected al Baghdadi's rebranding for al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. And al Julani says his boss is Ayman al Zawahiri."

Clearly, it's too soon to start producing company T-shirts and mugs.