TIME Homeland Security

Former CIA Deputy Director Warns America Could ‘Get Hit’ Again

Former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell testifies before the House Select Intelligence Committee April 2, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee—Getty Images Former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell testifies before the House Select Intelligence Committee April 2, 2014 in Washington, DC.

In new book, Michael Morell warns of the possibility of another terrorist attack on U.S. soil

Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell warns in a new book that the U.S. is still vulnerable to terrorist attacks, especially from ISIS-inspired groups, and that terrorists could bring down another airliner in the U.S.

“If we don’t keep pressure on the terrorists, they are going to rebound until they’re able to conduct another 9/11-style attack,” Morell told Politico Magazine. “One of the reasons I wrote the book is that I wanted American people to know that.”

Morell wrote in his book, The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism From al Qa’ida to ISIS, that al-Qaeda could bring down another airliner “tomorrow” and he would “not be surprised.”

He said America is not only vulnerable to airliner attacks, but also to smaller-scale attacks on the ground. “You get 10 or 15 guys and send them into malls on a Saturday with single weapons and have them kill 10 or 20 or 25 people,” he says. “Having al-Shabab talk about attacking malls and encouraging radicals in the United States to attack malls really worries me.”

Morell, who started working at the CIA in 1980, served as deputy director of the agency for three years under President Obama. He retired in 2013 and now works in private security consulting and as a contributor to CBS News.

TIME National Security

New Push to Give Pentagon the Lead on Drone Strikes

In this Jan. 31, 2010 file photo, an unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan.
Kirsty Wigglesworth—AP An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan on Jan. 31, 2010

The military can talk about its activities, while the CIA usually cannot

(WASHINGTON) — The deaths of an Italian and an American in a covert CIA drone strike in Pakistan — and the rhetorical contortions required of the president when he informed the world — have breathed new urgency into a long-stalled plan to give the Pentagon primacy over targeted killing of terrorists overseas.

President Barack Obama announced two years ago that he wanted the armed forces, not a civilian intelligence agency, to be in charge of killing militants abroad who pose a threat to the United States. One reason he cited was transparency: The military can talk about its activities, while the CIA usually cannot.

But the effort soon slowed to a crawl amid bureaucratic rivalries, intelligence sharing dilemmas and congressional turf battles. The vast majority of drone strikes since Obama’s May 2013 speech have been carried out in Yemen and Pakistan by the CIA.

Now, administration officials and their allies in Congress want to get the transition moving again, U.S. officials said this week. The catalyst was Obama’s struggle last month to explain how two hostages held by al-Qaida, American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto, were accidentally killed in an American drone missile attack in January. He had to do so without acknowledging that the CIA routinely conducts attacks in Pakistan, a “secret” in U.S. law but a known fact throughout the world.

The CIA also conducts targeted strikes in Yemen. The military does so in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Proponents of moving the drone program to the military worry that the CIA’s focus on hunting and killing has allowed its spying muscles to atrophy. And they argue that the military is able to discuss its operations, adding a layer of public accountability. On the other side are those who believe the CIA has become extremely proficient at targeted killing, which relies more on precise intelligence than traditional bombing.

Much of the debate about whether the CIA should exit the killing business is taking place behind the scenes. In public, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who chairs the Armed Services Committee, says he intends to insert a provision in a defense bill requiring the military to take over the drone program. And last week, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, reiterated his previous support for the proposal.

“Our intelligence agencies should focus on their core mission” of espionage, Schiff told The Associated Press.

Schiff’s stance puts him at odds with other intelligence committee leaders, including another California Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has been explicit in arguing that the CIA should continue its targeted killing. Feinstein says the CIA is more judicious than the military when conducting drone strikes.

“The CIA takes its time,” Feinstein told the AP in February. “They are not hot dogs on a mission.”

In the military, Feinstein said, there are short tours of duty and therefore, “constant turnover. There is no turnover in the (CIA) program. They’re very careful about the identification of the individual. Sometimes the intelligence gathering goes on for months.”

A Pentagon spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on Feinstein’s remarks.

Many other Intelligence Committee members agree with Feinstein, and they inserted a classified provision in a spending bill last year that blocked the Obama administration from spending money on its plan to move drone strikes away from the CIA.

There is also a matter of turf: Intelligence Committee members want to maintain their jurisdiction over a high impact counterterrorism program. They argue that their oversight of the CIA is better than the oversight conducted by the Armed Services committees over military strikes. Intelligence committee staffers watch video of each CIA strike, but staffers on the Armed Services committees in Congress do not watch videos of each military strike, say congressional aides who were not authorized to be quoted by name about a classified matter.

The congressional resistance appeared to put the transition on ice. But U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be quoted discussing a classified program, said that while the planning slowed, it never stopped. And now it is picking up again.

The ultimate goal, the U.S. officials say, is an integrated model under which the CIA continues to hunt targets, but lets the military pull the trigger.

In theory that should be easy, since many of the CIA drone pilots are Air Force personnel who have been seconded to the agency. But in practice, there are serious impediments.

One is technology: The military and CIA use different systems, sensors and databases. It will take time to integrate them.

Another is intelligence sharing. Any military commander directing a lethal operation will want to fully understand the basis for it. But some of the intelligence that undergirds CIA drone strikes comes from the agency’s most sensitive sources, whose identities it would be loath to share with anyone.

A third is bureaucratic rivalry. Those in the military who collect intelligence and hunt for targets resist the notion that the CIA take over all that work and relegate those in uniform to merely pulling the trigger.

There is also the thorny problem of Pakistan, which after the 9/11 attacks made a deal with the George W. Bush administration to allow CIA drone strikes — but not U.S. military operations — on its territory. Pakistan prefers the CIA because its activities can be denied by both governments.

While it would be possible for the military to conduct drone strikes in Pakistan and simply never comment on them, many U.S. officials believe the Pakistanis would not tolerate it.

Additionally, the U.S. often is reluctant to alert Pakistan ahead of a strike, for fear that elements of the government will tip off the targets.

TIME intelligence

The CIA’s Latest Mission: Improving Diversity

CIA Headquarters
David Burnett—Pool/Getty Images

A weapons analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, Lisa was sorting resumes with a colleague when something shocking happened.

Lisa, who is black, was helping her white coworker find the best applicants for overseas posts, which are considered prestigious within the agency and can lead to more important jobs down the line. Lisa was midway through her own overseas posting and had already seen how it helped her career.

But looking at the resumes, her coworker casually said that she would not hire a black man.

“She told me that if there is a white man — doesn’t matter how capable the black man is — I’m picking the white man,” recalled Lisa. (At the request of the CIA, TIME agreed to withhold last names of agency employees, many of whom work undercover.) “As a minority, you know that, but to have someone tell you that? It’s telling.”

Like workplaces across the country, the CIA is striving to improve the diversity of its staff. And just like other companies, the agency nicknamed The Company has found that progress comes in fits and starts.

In interviews with more than a dozen black officers, TIME found that while the CIA has made diversity a top priority, it still struggles to recruit African-Americans and promote them to higher positions.

Diversity is not just important for its own sake. As an intelligence agency, the CIA lives and dies on its ability to interpret complex data about foreign countries. Black agents noted multiple times when their unique perspective as a minority within the United States led them to a breakthrough in understanding a foreign conflict.

The agency’s top leaders agree.

“Diversity is critical to the success of CIA’s mission. We need a workforce as diverse as the world we cover,” CIA Director John Brennan said in a statement to TIME. “CIA has come a long way in broadening the demographic of its senior ranks, but we still have significant work to do.”

To that end, Brennan launched the Diversity in Leadership Study to examine the current demographics of the agency’s senior ranks. A similar study on women, who make up 46% of the CIA workforce, was released in 2013.

A key part of the study, which is being directed by famed lawyer and civil rights activist Vernon Jordan, will be recommendations on how to better foster an environment where people from all backgrounds can rise to the top.

That was not always a priority. According to Milo Jones and Philippe Silberzahn’s book Constructing Cassandra, in 1967 “there were fewer than 20 African Americans among the approximately 12,000 non-clerical CIA employees.”

Spenser, a black officer who oversees the Africa division, said that when he started in the 1990s, there was “not a single non-white division chief,” one of the highest-ranking positions in the agency.

The CIA would not disclose the size of its workforce nor its demographic makeup to TIME. But Spenser said that times have changed.

“We now have division chiefs that are Hispanic, that are Asian. That are black, women,” he said. “It’s completely different.”

As with other companies, a central part of the CIA’s efforts is recruiting. Intelligence experts say that the agency still has ground to make up on its reputation in the African-American community.

“The negative reputation has lingered on despite everyone’s best efforts,” says Mark Lowenthal, a former CIA officer and intelligence expert.

As the African-American community outreach manager for the CIA, Tiffany spends most of her time talking with black professional organizations about the agency. She said that she’s heard all kinds of misconceptions about the agency’s past and present, some of which she even believed herself in the past.

“When I was offered an opportunity to work for the agency, my initial response was, ‘oh hell no,’” Tiffany says. Now, she uses her story to get audiences comfortable with the idea of letting their friends and family members join the CIA.

Lowenthal remembers asking some young recruits — three black men — at their training graduation ceremony to get involved in recruiting as soon as possible.

“I said, go back to your schools and become mentors and recruiters,” Lowenthall recalls. “You’ll be much more effective than I can ever be.”

While not all officers participate in recruitment efforts, many black officers see it as part of their job. Reginald, a deputy chief of European analysis and a graduate of two historically black colleges — Howard University in Washington and Southern University in Baton Rouge, La. — makes it a point to recruit as often as possible, particularly at black schools.

Kim, who at 35 is already the chief of Africa analysis, recognizes the importance of recruiting.

“I actually went to a school not too long ago,” she says. “I saw their eyes get big when they noticed I was a young, African-American woman doing well at CIA. And I told them, you can come here and do this, too. I’m not that special.”

But recruiting is not enough. Within the agency, there are well-traveled paths to upper management that recruits need to navigate.

Lisa says she feels part of the problem is that white agents have done a better job of networking with higher ups that can recommend or “sponsor” junior officers for better positions. “They go to a different length to get positions than we do,” she said. “Often, they have an inside scoop, someone on the inside who can vouch for them.”

Michael, a 40-year veteran of the agency’s clandestine service, says a lot of black officers have felt that they have to prove they can do the work on their own. “We didn’t network,” he says.

He worked to change that, meeting with a handful of other black officers in the CIA cafeteria regularly to decompress and share advice.

“Even if we did a tour and came back three years or five years later, that roundtable was still there,” Michael says. It was important for black officers to have that space, and it’s something they continue today, gathering outside of Langley for social events and one-on-one chats.

“We made that a point of pride,” he says. “It was a thing of, ‘I may not get there, but we want to position you to get to the top.’”

TIME Pakistan

Pakistan Could End Up Charging CIA Officials With Murder Over Drone Strikes

A landmark case may open the door for a possible multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit launched by relatives of the alleged 960 civilian victims of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan

A senior judge in Pakistan has ordered police to formally investigate former CIA agents for allegedly authorizing a 2009 drone strike.

If the case moves forward, it may subject the U.S. embassy in Islamabad to sensitive police investigations and even result in U.S. citizens for the first time being charged with murder for covert drone strikes in the South Asian nation.

Last Tuesday, the Islamabad High Court ordered police to open a criminal case against former CIA Islamabad Station Chief Jonathan Bank and ex-CIA legal counsel John A. Rizzo for murder, conspiracy, terrorism and waging war against Pakistan.

The complainant is Kareem Khan, whose son Zahin Ullah Khan and brother Asif Iqbal were killed in an alleged December 2009 CIA drone strike in the mountainous Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan.

The case was lauded as the “first of its kind for directly implicating and naming a CIA official” by University of Hull international legal expert Niaz Shah.

However, the Pakistani police appear unlikely to comply with the judge’s order, having already refused on two previous occasions. “[We] are appealing the case in the Supreme Court of Pakistan,” Islamabad police superintendent Mirvais Niaz told TIME on Wednesday, citing jurisdictional disputes.

Mirvais maintains that the local Waziristan authorities should investigate the incident as that’s where the deaths occurred; Khan, a journalist, argues that an Islamabad bench should try the case as that’s where he contends the decision to launch the strikes was made.

However, the case appears to rest on whether Pakistan’s political apparatus is willing to pursue a sensitive legal action that police say may imperil U.S.-Pakistan relations.

According to court documents seen by TIME, not only does Khan’s case implicate ex-CIA officials, it also calls for an investigation into the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, where Khan believes the drone strike was ordered.

“The Pakistani government has questions to answer about why they have fought the filing of this criminal complaint if they are indeed opposed to the drone strikes,” said Jennifer Gibson, an attorney with international legal aid charity Reprieve. “They’ve been fighting it in court at every level.”

Even if the investigation receives the green light, bringing ex-CIA officials to trial will be an onerous battle in Pakistan. Should Bank and Rizzo fail to appear, one recourse is the international police body Interpol, which can extradite former CIA officials to stand trial, says Mirza Shahzad Akbar, the Pakistani attorney leading case. However, cases against CIA officials seldom succeed, even when Interpol is invoked, for reasons of diplomatic sensitivity. (In 2005, Italy unsuccessfully forwarded a request to extradite CIA agents to Interpol, an action repeated by Germany in 2007 with a similar result.)

“It’s very difficult to get the CIA to come to court in Pakistan,” Akbar told TIME in March.

The CIA removed Bank from Pakistan after he received death threats following his public identification in Khan’s initial $500 million civil lawsuit in 2010. He became chief of Iran operations but was removed for creating a “hostile work environment” and now works in intelligence for the Pentagon, the Associated Press reports. Rizzo, who Khan alleges authorized the strike that killed his family members, worked in Pakistan as a CIA lawyer and has since retired. Both are currently living in the U.S. and appear unlikely to return to Pakistan to stand trial.

CIA spokesman Christopher White declined TIME’s request for a comment on the case involving Bank and Rizzo.

As the case moves ahead, some see it paving the way for a possible multibillion-dollar class-action suit against U.S. officials. The U.S. has carried out more than 400 covert drone strikes in Pakistan, with the most recent on Sunday, according to data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Since 2004, drone strikes in Pakistan have allegedly killed up to 3,945 people, including some 960 civilians. The U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Pakistan focuses on drones to uproot the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other militants in Pakistan’s fractious tribal areas.

In 2013, the Peshawar High Court, whose rulings apply nationwide, declared U.S. drone strikes illegal in Pakistan and demanded compensation for civilian victims. Likewise, in April 2012, Pakistan’s Parliament issued a resolution that “no overt or covert operations inside Pakistan shall be permitted.” Neither the 2013 Peshawar court ruling nor the 2012 parliamentary resolution seems to have halted the U.S. drone campaign inside Pakistan.

Should the former CIA officials prove difficult to prosecute, civilians harmed by drones may pursue other legal channels. “The [drone victims] may also be able to sue the state of Pakistan for failing to protect them from harm caused by someone else. The state is responsible for protecting people and their lives,” said the academic Shah, who also serves as an advocate of the High Court in Pakistan.

Nonetheless, the political will to pursue drone-related litigation remains shaky in Pakistan, where many believe “tacit consent” allows U.S. drone operations to continue. In 2012, U.S. officials familiar with the drone program told the Wall Street Journal that Pakistan clears airspace and sends acknowledgment receipts after the CIA faxes upcoming drone-strike alerts to Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI.

In an interview with TIME, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tasnim Aslam rejected the principle of tacit consent as a “rumor” and said Pakistan was continuing to pressure the U.S., both in private and public meetings, to end the drone program, given the success of its own counterterrorism operation in Waziristan, Operation Zarb-e-Azb.

“Drone operations without our permission are violating our sovereignty, and they result in collateral damage — killing off large numbers of innocent civilians — which creates more resentment,” she said.

Nevertheless, in the leaked 2013 Abbottabad Commission report, the former head of the ISI appeared to publicly acknowledge Pakistan signing off on U.S. drone strikes: “It was easier to say no to them in the beginning, but ‘now it was more difficult’ to do so,” said the ISI’s former director general Ahmed Shuja Pasha. The classified document reported that “The DG [director general] said there were no written agreements. There was a political understanding.”

The veracity of the report was confirmed by the Foreign Ministry, but suppressed inside Pakistan, prompting an inquiry into how information was leaked.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said that the U.S. operates drones with the cooperation of foreign governments, in part to protect strategic alliances. In a 2013 speech at the National Defense University, which remains the Administration’s most comprehensive and recent public statement on drone policy, Obama said “America cannot take [drone] strikes wherever we choose; our actions are bound by consultations with partners and respect for state sovereignty.”

Still, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rebutted Obama’s speech a few months later, saying, “The government of Pakistan has made its position clear that drone strikes constituted a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, violative of international humanitarian laws, besides being counterproductive to our efforts for bringing peace and stability in Pakistan and the region.”

Ultimately, the Islamabad High Court’s action may reveal more details of how the drone program operates in Pakistan and which state agencies, if any, interface with U.S. officials in the decisionmaking process. Pakistan’s courts, increasingly powerful and independent, have emerged as an important arena to wrestle for these answers.

For Khan, who is still desperate to learn who ordered the death of his brother and son, culpability is less important than accountability.

“The Pakistani government owes it to Kareem Khan, and the many other civilian victims of U.S. drone strikes, to honor the judgment. Justice and an end to drone strikes are long overdue,” said Gibson, the Reprieve lawyer.

In a statement after the judge’s order last week, Khan said, “I sincerely hope that authorities now will do their job and proceed against the culprits.”

TIME Pakistan

Pakistani Militants Kill Former Lawyer of Doctor Who Helped Find bin Laden

Afridi, lawyer for a Pakistani doctor who helped U.S. officials find al-Qaeda chief Osama bin laden, speaks to the media in Peshawar
Khuram Parvez—Reuters Samiullah Afridi, lawyer for Dr. Shakil Afridi who ran a fake vaccination campaign to help U.S. officials find al-Qaeda leader Osama bin laden, speaks to the media after appearing before the court in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Oct. 30, 2013

“We killed him because he was defending Shakil, who is our enemy”

A Pakistani lawyer who represented the doctor charged with helping U.S. intelligence authorities hunt down al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed on Tuesday, according to local police in his hometown of Peshawar.

A police official said Samiullah Afridi was shot in the abdomen and neck while returning to his home and died on the spot, Reuters reports.

Afridi had reportedly received death threats for defending Dr. Shakil Afridi (no relation), who was handed a controversial 33-year jail sentence in 2012 for running a fake vaccination campaign that helped CIA agents locate the Saudi-born terrorist leader. Two militant groups, both affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban, have claimed responsibility for Afridi’s murder.

“We killed him because he was defending Shakil, who is our enemy,” said Taliban splinter group Jundullah. Another Taliban faction, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Jamaatul Ahrar, said it killed Afridi because they couldn’t get to the doctor who “spied on our respected and supreme leader Sheik Osama.”

The lawyer had only recently returned to Pakistan, having relocated to Dubai after quitting the case last year out of concern for his safety. “Not only is my life in danger, my family is also in danger,” he had said in an interview with Reuters.

The targeting of lawyers by militant groups is not uncommon in Pakistan, says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based Pakistani political scientist and commentator, citing the murder last year of prominent prosecution lawyer Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali. Ali was involved in the trial of Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, accused of masterminding the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, as well as the case of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s 2007 assassination — he was gunned down in his car last May while on his way to court.

Dr. Afridi, meanwhile, had his sentence overturned in 2013 and is currently awaiting a new trial.

“It becomes difficult to find a lawyer because nobody wants to stick their neck out, and therefore cases stay pending and nothing happens,” Rizvi tells TIME. “The government will be able to find a lawyer, maybe in a couple of months’ time, but the new lawyer will also become a target of these groups and that fear will haunt the whole process.”

Pakistani militant groups have also cracked down on polio-vaccination drives following bin Laden’s killing and Dr. Afridi’s prosecution, saying they are un-Islamic and either fronts for espionage or an attempt to sterilize Muslims.

On Tuesday, a gun attack killed two female immunization workers at an Afghan refugee camp near Pakistan’s northwestern city of Mansehra, according to Agence France-Presse. The incident is the latest in a recent spate of attacks against polio workers, 77 of whom have been killed since December 2012.

Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world where the disease still exists, and the number of polio cases recorded in the country last year reached a 14-year high of 306.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: February 25

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. The U.S. wants to hack your phone because it doesn’t have the real spies it needs.

By Patrick G. Eddington at Reuters

2. Eight universities account for half of all history professors in the U.S. How did that happen?

By Joel Warner and Aaron Clauset in Slate

3. Bill Gates is investing in low-tech impact entrepreneurs in India.

By David Bank in Entrepreneur

4. “Liquid biopsy” can detect cancer from a few drops of blood.

By Michael Standaert in MIT Technology Review

5. Let’s build the infrastructure to make microfinance institutions into true innovation hubs.

By Jessica Collier in Medium

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME National Security

CIA Inspector General David Buckley to Resign

Senate Holds Hearing On Lessons Learned From Boston Marathon Bombings
Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images Central Intelligence Agency Inspector General David Buckley testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about the lessons learned about intelligence and information sharing after the Boston Marathon bombings April 30, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Buckley has served as the intelligence agency's internal watchdog for more than four years

CIA inspector general David Buckley, who served as the agency’s watchdog for over four years, will resign at the end of this month.

According to a CIA statement released Monday, Buckley is leaving to “pursue an opportunity in the private sector,” Reuters reports.

Buckley had most recently investigated a dispute between the CIA and Congress over records of the agency’s detention and interrogation program, but officials on both sides said his resignation had no connection to politics or his work as inspector general.

CIA director John Brennan said that during his tenure, Buckley had “demonstrated independence, integrity, and sound judgment in promoting efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability.”

[Reuters]

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: December 23

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

Today we’re highlighting five of our favorite “Best Ideas” from 2014.

1. Affirmative Action should be adapted to accommodate structural racism and America’s modern segregation.

By Sheryll Cashin in the Root

2. The death penalty is incompatible with human dignity.

By Charles Ogletree in the Washington Post

3. The border isn’t the problem: A detailed, map-powered breakdown of the real story behind this immigration crisis.

By Zack Stanton in the Wilson Quarterly

4. Forty lost years: the case for one six-year term for U.S. presidents.

By Lawrence Summers in the Financial Times

5. The wisdom of crowds: The CIA is learning a lot by aggregating the guesswork of ordinary Americans.

By Alix Spiegel at National Public Radio

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME politics

Why the Torture Report Won’t Actually Change Anyone’s Views On Torture

Dianne Feinstein
Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call,Inc. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, talks with reporters after sharing a report on the CIA and it's torture methods, December 9, 2014.

Matt Motyl is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

We are especially motivated to preserve our moral beliefs and discount evidence that challenges our views

If you know a person’s politics, you can make an educated guess about their views on the events in Ferguson, Eric Garner, the alleged rape at the University of Virginia, and a variety of CIA “dark sites” around the world. Of course, people will justify their condemnation (or praise) of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” by claiming that torture doesn’t produce reliable evidence (or that it does). But what’s the relationship between their moral evaluation of the practice and their belief in its efficacy? For most people, the evaluation comes first, and it leads to their beliefs about whether or not torture “works.”

Social psychologists have studied this process for decades. In 1979, Charles Lord, Lee Ross and Mark Lepper asked Stanford undergraduates to evaluate the quality of two scientific studies examining the effectiveness of capital punishment in deterring future crime. These scientific studies used the same methods but were evaluated in strikingly different ways by those who supported and opposed capital punishment. You’d think that people exposed to a range of findings would be pulled toward the center, but in fact they ended up further apart than when they began. People drew support from their favored study and dismissed the other one.

More recently, Yale University professor Dan Kahan conducted an experiment where he gave participants profiles of experts on climate science, nuclear-waste disposal and concealed-carry gun laws. All these experts had advanced degrees from the world’s foremost universities and held prestigious jobs in their relevant fields. After participants read the expert profiles, Kahan presented them with the experts’ conclusions that either supported or refuted the participants’ views. When participants were asked to evaluate the experts’ scholarly credentials (remember that all these authors had similarly remarkable academic bona fides), what Kahan found was that participants viewed scientists as experts only if they confirmed the participants’ pre-existing beliefs. Both these studies, and dozens more like them, suggest that people apply different standards to evidence that supports their views than to evidence that challenges their views. We are prone to uncritically accept arguments and information that confirm our view while unfairly rejecting arguments and information that challenge our view—regardless of what our view is.

Consider the challenge of sifting through thousands of pages of documentation on the effectiveness of the CIA’s brutal interrogation tactics in generating actionable intelligence. How might you respond if you were presented with evidence that challenged your view on torture? If you oppose torture and saw evidence suggesting that it does result in high-quality actionable intelligence, would you change your position and come to support the use of torture? If you support the use of torture in some situations and saw evidence suggesting that it never results in any quality intelligence, would you change your position and come to oppose the use of torture? Odds are you would discount the information that challenged your views on torture.

In part, this is because torture is a moral issue, and we are especially motivated to preserve faith in the truth of our moral beliefs. Research by social psychologists Peter Ditto and Brittany Liu demonstrates that people’s moral beliefs shape their interpretation of facts. Specifically, they asked more than 1,500 people in a survey at YourMorals.org how moral or immoral forceful interrogations were and how likely those forceful interrogations would be to yield positive consequences, like actionable intelligence. They found that people who believed torture was inherently immoral assumed that any information gleaned from it was likely to be unreliable. On the other hand, people less squeamish about the morality of torture assumed that information gleaned from torture was potentially life-saving. In a related experiment, they found that when people were led to think of a political policy in moralistic terms, it changed their beliefs about the policy’s costs and benefits to fit with their moral view; the more morally desirable the policy, the more effective it was seen to be. In other words, people’s beliefs about the morality or immorality of torture biased their interpretation of the facts regarding torture’s (in-)effectiveness.

Former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” Research, though, suggests that it is not so easy to separate fact from belief. And our beliefs change what “facts” we decide count as facts. Furthermore, once we decide something is a moral issue and that our position owns the moral high ground, facts become less relevant. If they do not confirm our belief, we assume that the facts were produced by people who were biased by some ulterior motive. For example, Republican Senators Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who generally supported the use of enhanced interrogation techniques and opposed the declassification of the CIA torture memo, responded in a joint statement saying that the “study by Senate Democrats is an ideologically motivated and distorted recounting of historical events.” In contrast, President Obama, who generally opposed the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, responded to the release of the report by saying it “reinforces my long-held view that these harsh methods were not only inconsistent with our values as a nation, they did not serve our broader counterterrorism efforts or our national-security interests.” In other words, supporters and opponents of torture, or conservatives and liberals alike, exhibited the same motivated cognitive bias where they evaluated information in ways to confirm their beliefs.

In conclusion, the human brain is built to evaluate evidence in biased ways. If information fits with our moral values, we are quick to accept that evidence as strong and true, furthering our belief that we are correct and that anyone who disagrees with us is wrong and probably immoral. If the information contradicts our moral values, we are quick to discount that evidence as flawed or biased by the nefarious ideological motives of others. This tendency is especially true when the evidence is complex and ambiguous, as is the case with the Senate’s CIA torture report and with the conflicting testimony of dozens of witnesses interviewed in grand jury hearings in the Darren Wilson case in Ferguson.

So the next time you’re debating torture or any other contentious political issue — climate change, genetically modified foods, hydraulic fracking or the invisible hand of the free market — remember that your opinion is just as biased as the person you are debating and that your beliefs may not be based on facts. Rather, your facts may be based on your beliefs. And that goes for the other side too.

Motyl is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a political psychologist who studies group conflict

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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