James L. Pavitt

Torture Connection: 
Pushed the CIA to the Forefront
  • Born 1946, St. Louis
  • B.A. University of Missouri, graduate study at Clark University
  • 1969-73, U.S. Army intelligence officer, congressional liaison
  • 1973, joined CIA clandestine service
  • 1999-2004, Deputy Director for Operations under George Tenet
  • Private intelligence consultant with Scowcroft firm

James Pavitt's Superman Scenario

As chief of CIA operations at the time of 9/11, Pavitt defended the agency's pre-9/11 counterterrorism activities and simultaneously defined a new role for the post-9/11 CIA. Both these efforts were based on a view, shared by Cofer Black, of al-Qaeda as nearly superhuman in its professionalism and organizational discipline. Normal intelligence efforts could not have prevented 9/11, Pavitt argued; even infiltration into the ranks of al-Qaeda would not have provided access to the leaders' plans. Only someone from the highest levels of al-Qaeda would have known the goals or details of the plans, according to this view. Henceforth, Pavitt focused the CIA on capturing and interrogating high-value terror suspects. His "superman scenario" led directly to the ticking-time-bomb justification for torture.

Pavitt's Operational Responsibility

Pavitt opposed entanglement in Iraq as a distraction in the war against al-Qaeda. He hired Joe Wilson, agent Valerie Plame's husband, to help debunk the administration's pro-Iraq mythology. In and around Afghanistan, he was responsible for approving specific renditions, kidnappings, and torture. He controlled half the CIA's budget and worked with many private contractors, to provide services including rendition flights. He left the CIA suddenly in 2004, one day after George Tenet.

"Hard, Fast, Unambiguous Rules"

As was the case for so many of the Bush-administration torturers, Pavitt's world view and professional identity were forged during the years of the Iran-Contra affair, which had led to shrinking and partial hobbling of the CIA. The lessons he took from Iran-Contra concerned the consequences of allowing low-level agents and contractors to take the fall while high-level policymakers hid behind secrecy and deniability. That way of operating, Pavitt believed, destroyed agency morale and also left the public impression that CIA leaders could not control rogue agents. Pavitt's CIA was tightly run from the top, with paperwork backing up all operations and procedures. Memos providing legal justification for torture are a reflection of this mindset.

Sources on James L. Pavitt

Huffington Post
Washington Post
NBC