The CIA: An Inquiry

July 23, 2011

A student reading explores the debate over the agency's "enhanced interrogation techniques." Instructions for how to formulate questions for a student inquiry follow.

To the Teacher

The CIA has been getting some attention recently as a result of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" the agency used on terrorist suspects after 9/11, with Bush administration approval. Newly released administration memos describing the techniques in fulsome detail and a 2004 report by the Justice Department's Inspector General have raised some controversial issues that students might consider through inquiry and critical thinking.

The introduction below probes student knowledge of the CIA and suggests further inquiry into their questions about the agency. The first student reading provides a brief overview of some controversial recent and past CIA operations. The second describes an inquiry approach into this subject using question-asking and question-analysis techniques.

Discussion questions follow as well as suggestions for continued inquiry, next steps for classwork, and additional background materials.



What do you know about the CIA?

Put this question to students and create a web on the chalkboard as they respond. Write "CIA" in the center of a large circle. Link "CIA" to major headings like "collects intelligence" and connect that to subheadings like "spies infiltrate foreign organizations." Invite no student comments and make none of your own as you record student responses.

Examine the responses for factual accuracy after 10 minutes or so. What do students say they know as a matter of fact? What do they think they know but are uncertain about? What judgments have they made? With what evidence can they support these judgments? What would students like to know? What questions do they have? Note responses for possible later use.


Student Reading 1:

The CIA and national security

The Central Intelligence Agency was established by President Harry Truman in 1947 to take the place of the Office of Strategic Services, which was formed during World War II to coordinate military intelligence.

The CIA declares on its website that its "primary mission is to collect, evaluate and disseminate foreign intelligence to assist the president and U. S. government policymakers in making decisions relating to the national security. The CIA does not make policy; it is an independent source of foreign intelligence information for those who do. The CIA may also engage in covert action at the president's direction in accordance with applicable law." (

The CIA works clandestinely and avoids publicity. It does not want to make headlines. Its director and other top officials are not on TV news shows. If the CIA is in the news, something has probably gone wrong. This has happened a number of times over the past eight years.

Since 9/11 the CIA has experienced unwelcome news coverage on 1) the adequacy of its intelligence-gathering in advance of the 9/11 attacks; 2) its reports before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq about weapons of mass destruction that did not exist; and 3) its treatment of terrorist suspects.

A front page story in the New York Times on August 24, 2009, focused on the CIA's interrogation of terrorist suspects: "The Justice Department's ethics office has recommended reversing the Bush administration and reopening nearly a dozen prisoner-abuse cases, potentially exposing Central Intelligence Agency employees and contractors to prosecution for brutal treatment of terrorism suspects...."

These cases involve reports that CIA officers staged mock executions, threatened at least one prisoner with a power drill, suggested they would sexually assault members of a prisoner's family, and even caused fatal injuries. All these actions violate U.S. government torture laws and international treaty commitments. A 2004 report by the Justice Department's Inspector General, which was recently released to the public, criticized the "unauthorized, improvised, inhumane and undocumented detention and interrogation techniques."

After 9/11 President Bush and officials in his administration secretly approved CIA use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" with terrorist suspects. When these techniques became public, the administration denied that they constituted torture. Agency officials destroyed taped evidence of interrogations. In an executive order two days after his inauguration, President Obama banned the techniques.

The CIA also engaged in "extraordinary rendition." This practice involved seizing terrorist suspects abroad and sending them to "black sites," secret prisons in foreign countries where American law does not apply. There, suspects were tortured.

Some lawmakers—including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi—accused the CIA of withholding information from Congress and/or lying to Congress about some of its activities since 9/11.

Former President Bush and former Vice President Cheney repeatedly argued that CIA interrogation techniques and other activities after 9/11 prevented terrorist attacks on Americans. On August 30, 2009, Cheney responded on Fox News to the Justice Department's most recent investigation of CIA treatment of terrorist suspects. He backed CIA officers who used unauthorized methods because, he maintained, they kept Americans safe. The inquiry, Cheney said, is "clearly a political move. I mean, there's no other rationale for why they're doing this."

The CIA is resisting the public release of internal documents about its detention and interrogation program during the Bush presidency. It said releasing them "is reasonably likely to degrade the U.S. government's ability to effectively question terrorist detainees and elicit information necessary to protect the American people."(8/31/09)

The CIA continues to be an official, but secret, organization whose work may call for "covert action at the president's direction in accordance with applicable law." In the past this has included undermining and overthrowing foreign governments in such countries as Syria (1949); Iran (1953); Guatemala (1954); Congo (1960); the Dominican Republic (1963); Chile (1973); Afghanistan (1979); and Nicaragua (1980s); the attempted assassination of foreign leaders (such as Fidel Castro of Cuba); and spying on Americans. Most of these actions did not become public until well after they had occurred.

The CIA website does not describe or explain how the intelligence agency carries out its mission to protect national security. Neither the site nor any public government document provides information about how much money the CIA is budgeted yearly to fulfill its mission or how the agency spends it. The president is allowed by law to limit briefings on covert activities to the leader of each party in the two houses and the top member of each party on the House and Senate intelligence committees.

But over the past 62 years, a great deal of information has become available about CIA activities on websites, in newspaper and magazine articles accessible on the web, and in books such as Steve Coll's recent Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA.


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. How and why have former President Bush and former Vice President Cheney defended CIA actions after 9/11? Do you agree with their defense? Why or why not? If you think you need more information before offering an opinion, how might you find it?

3. Cheney also defended the CIA's use of unauthorized interrogation techniques that were criticized by the Inspector General. Do you agree with Cheney? Why or why not? If you think you need more information before offering an opinion, where might you find it?

4. What are "black sites" and why were they used for terrorist suspects?

5. What is "covert action"? What do you know about any of the listed overthrows of foreign governments? If you wanted to learn more, how might you find out?

6. Why are CIA operations kept secret? Should they be? Why or why not?


Student Reading 2:

Questions and question-analysis for an inquiry into the CIA

How might an inquiry into some aspect of CIA history begin?

An inquiry may be a simple request for information that calls only for a brief response: "When is the next train for New York City?" An inquiry may ask for more detailed information: "What is the shortest subway route to get from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx to Wall Street in Manhattan?"

Or an inquiry might begin with no specific question, but simply a desire to get an overview of something—in this case, the CIA. Going online and entering "CIA" on a search engine reveals a huge trove of information to dip into—but with caution, for especially on controversial matters, the inquirer needs to consider the reliability of a particular site and writer. See, for example, "Thinking Critically About Internet Sources" in the high school section of TeachableMoment.

John Dewey wrote in How We Think, "Thinking is inquiry, investigation, turning over, probing or delving into, so as to find something new or to see what is already known in a different light. In short, it is questioning." A serious inquiry typically begins with a question that establishes and limits a goal.

A question may establish a goal, but fail to limit it: How good is the CIA? This question is far too general and does not tell an inquirer how to proceed productively. Because it is unfocused, the inquirer will flounder and likely drown in a sea of information and competing judgments.

A question may establish a limited goal, but base it on a faulty assumption. For instance: What information led to the CIA decision to invade Iraq in 2003? This question requires finding certain information and establishes a limited goal but also includes an assumption—that the CIA made the invasion decision. If the inquirer does not examine that assumption at the outset, the investigation will head for a blind alley, for the CIA did not make the decision to invade Iraq.

Questions that are stated clearly can help us gain new understanding and lead to discoveries. But even they require close examination and inevitably lead to other questions.

"Questions are instruments of perception," Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner wrote in Teaching As a Subversive Activity. A good question focuses our attention, tells us what to see, what to think about and, by omission, what to ignore. The form of the question tells us what kind of answer to give—perhaps strictly factual or explanatory, perhaps reasoned and judgmental, possibly some combination. Confused and ambiguous questions lead to confused and ambiguous answers.

Close examination of an inquiry question

Sample question: Why did or did not the "enhanced interrogation techniques" President Bush authorized the CIA to use amount to authorizing torture?

Some questions about this question:

1. Is the question clear? If not, how might it be clarified?

2. What words require definition and, perhaps, background information?

3. What kinds of answers does the question require? If facts, from what sources? How might each source be tested for reliability?

4. If the question requires answers in the form of judgments, whose judgments? If those of experts, what makes them experts? What evidence is there that sources are knowledgeable, whether expert or not?

5. Are such "expert" sources free from bias? If there is reason to suspect bias, such as a conflict of interest, does this mean the source is useless? If not, why not?

6. Does the question contain any assumptions? If so, what are they? Is each reasonable? If not, is it possible to reframe the question to make an assumption reasonable? If so, how?

7. Can the question be answered with certainty? With some degree of certainty? In either case, with what evidence?


Analysis, opinions, assumptions & evidence

A "why" question, such as the one about "enhanced interrogation techniques," tells the investigator that the answer will require an explanation. The question is clear but we will also need clear definitions of "enhanced interrogation techniques" and "torture." To define these words, we'll have to gather factual evidence about what the approved techniques were, and then evaluate judgments about what constitutes torture.

The inquirer should be able to find that the U.S. War Crimes Act prohibits torture, as do the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention on Torture, and that these international agreements are binding on the U.S. But an inquirer also needs to find background information, such as how torture is defined and by whom, and how torture has been interpreted in U.S. legislation and in international treaties.

If the source of that information is an "expert," the inquirer needs to ask what makes that person an expert. For example, what judgments have this expert's peers made about the quality of his or her work? Of course ordinary people can also make a judgment on whether or not an interrogation technique is torture—though opinions will differ.

The question contains two reasonable assumptions:

1) President Bush approved CIA use of "enhanced interrogation techniques." (He stated publicly that he authorized them.)
2) The techniques either did or did not amount to an authorization of torture.

We always need to assess the reasonability of the assumptions in our question before we begin an inquiry. It's a difficult but essential task.

The inquiry question suggests that the interrogation techniques are controversial because there is disagreement as to whether or not they should be judged as torture. This means that it's unlikely we'll find an answer that everyone can agree on. But we might get more agreement if we come up with a very strong explanatory answer backed by evidence.


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why is question-asking an essential tool for thinking?

3. What do you think the term "instruments of perception" means?

4. In what ways are questions "instruments of perception"?

5. Why is it important to analyze an inquiry question before beginning an investigation?

6. What are major questions to ask about the inquiry question? In each case, why?



Next steps

There are several ways the teacher might proceed:

1. Organize the class into small groups and/or independent investigators to continue the inquiry into "enhanced interrogation techniques."

2.Have students begin another inquiry into the CIA, as described below.

3. Have some students continue the inquiry into "enhanced interrogation techniques," while others begin a new inquiry.

Beginning a new inquiry

Student assignment:

Answer in writing the following questions:

  • What most interests you about the CIA and its operations?
  • What is one thoughtfully framed question that might guide your inquiry?
  • What does this question tell you to do?
  • What additional analysis can you make of this question?

Return student papers with comments about question-asking and analysis. Next steps:

1. Have the class examine a sampling of questions and analyze them.

2. Ask students to revise papers as necessary.

3. Meet with individual students about their inquiries.

4. Establish deadlines for students' inquiries.

See the high school section of TeachableMoment for more information and ideas.



This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: