Harlow talks CIA, torture, cyberterrorism
Published: Monday, March 4, 2013
Updated: Monday, April 22, 2013 21:04
Torture, 9/11 attacks and cyberterrorism were topics that former Central Intelligence Agency spokesman Bill Harlow discussed Wednesday, but the description of his role as “chief spokesman for a secret organization” brought up larger topics concerning the United States’ role in the world.
Harlow, a former Naval Captain and former assistant White House press secretary for foreign affairs and national security during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, kicked off this semester’s Center for Political Communication’s Global Agenda speaker series. He said he was excited to be part of a series that so many other knowledgeable and important individuals had taken part in.
Political science professor Ralph Begleiter, director of the Center of Political Communications and coordinator of the speaker series, moderated the event. This semester’s theme is “America’s Role in the World,” which will explore how the United States affects other nations economically and socially. He said the role of the CIA is an important facet of how the United States manages its global influence.
“The CIA keeps an eye on just about everything in the world, forecasting threats and spying opportunities for the U.S.,” Begleiter said.
Harlow held his post during numerous major world events including the end of the Clinton administration and the start of the George W. Bush administration, right through the Sept. 11 attack, the war on terrorism that followed and the first two years of the Iraqi invasion.
Harlow said although his work was mostly low-profile compared to spokesmen for other organizations, his time at the CIA was filled with constant excitement and stress.
Harlow said about three weeks ago, he watched the confirmation hearing for John Brennan to become the new director for Central Intelligence and thought about how he frequently heard people at similar events say they did not hear everything they wanted tow hear.
“What I think when I’m watching that is, ‘It’s a miracle this is happening at all,’” Harlow said. “What other country would have an open public hearing for the head of their secret intelligence service?”
He said no nation aside from the United States would put such a hearing on television for four hours, allow lawmakers to grill the person and then place a vote on whether the person should be the head of a clandestine government agency.
Harlow discussed the Academy Award Winning movie “Zero Dark Thirty” and its portrayal of the torture that prisoners of war experienced. He said while certain top al-Qaida members felt discomfort during imprisonment, the majority of the torture techniques shown in the movie were exaggerated.
Detainees experienced harsh conditions that were not torture, Harlow said. He said the treatment of the captives mostly consisted of grabbing a detainee by the collar, shouting into his face and mandated slapping, which could only be done if White House officials granted permission. Waterboarding was used on three al-Qaida detainees, he said.
Although Harlow left the CIA in 2004, he said a major potential threat to the United States in the future could be cyberterrorism, which few people can carry out, though the impact would be enormous. He said cyberterrorism would most likely be met with U.S. military responses, as the computing power of the military is very extensive.
Junior international relations major Kyla Alterman said she enjoyed the talk and thought it was refreshing to see another side of the CIA. She said it was comforting to be able to put a human face on such a large and mysterious organization.
Alterman said while she appreciated Harlow’s experience, she had hoped to hear more about the present-day functions of the CIA.
“[Cyberterrorism is] still a very unknown subject and people kept bringing it up, but I would have been more interested to hear more about the wars in the middle east,” Alterman said.
Harlow said although the CIA is a relatively secretive organization, his job consisted of more hands on experience than one would think.
“When many of you heard that tonight’s speaker was the former Chief Spokesman of the CIA, one thought and only one thought went through your minds,” Harlow said. “You were thinking, ‘Man, that must have been the easiest job in the world.’ I get that all the time. People think that what I did was to sit around all day and say ‘No comment.’”