- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy covering diplomacy and national security., Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
This story has been updated.
In a surprisingly lopsided vote on Thursday, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted overwhelmingly to declassify a long-awaited and controversial report on the CIA’s brutal program for interrogating suspected militants.
The 11-3 vote caps months of debate and is a sign of the growing rift between the intelligence community and its overseers on Capitol Hill. Officials who are familiar with the prisoners say it details cases of detainees who were dunked in cold water, battered with truncheons, and slammed against concrete walls. These officials say it concludes subjecting prisoners to such harsh interrogations, including what human rights groups and others call torture, may have been counterproductive, and that the techniques didn’t produce any leads that helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden. Other officials bitterly dispute that claim and say the report is deeply flawed and inaccurate.
"The release of this summary and conclusions in the near future shows that this nation admits its errors, as painful as they may be, and seeks to learn from them," said California Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the committee. "We are acknowledging those mistakes, and we have a continuing responsibility to make sure nothing like this ever occurs again."
A CIA spokesman, meanwhile, said the agency would carry out a declassification review of the report "expeditiously."
"The CIA has acknowledged and learned from the [enhanced interrogation] program’s shortcomings and has taken corrective measures to prevent such mistakes from happening again," the spokesman said. "At the same time, we owe it to the men and women directed to carry out this program to try and ensure that any historical account of it is accurate."
The White House, meanwhile, praised the committee vote to declassify the report. "Having prohibited these practices upon taking office, the president believes that bringing this program into the light will help the American people understand what happened in the past and can help guide us as we move forward, so that no administration contemplates such a program in the future," Caitlin Hayden, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said in a statement.
The interrogation report is the product of three years’ work and $40 million in preparation costs. Ever since its completion in December 2012, there has been strong disagreement among intelligence officials and lawmakers over how much information the public should be allowed to read. But different lawmakers had different incentives for voting yes on Thursday.
For Republicans, who had largely opposed the report’s conclusions, declassification allows them to air their dissents about its finding and methodology. Some lawmakers, such as Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss, said the report was fatally flawed because investigators didn’t interview CIA officials involved in the program and got key facts about interrogations wrong.
"Despite the report’s significant errors, omissions, and assumptions — as well as a lot of cherry-picking of the facts — I want the American people to be able to see it and judge for themselves," Chambliss told reporters after the vote.
The most senior ranking Republican on the committee made clear he opposed the report’s conclusion that enhanced interrogation techniques did not produce valuable intelligence. "I take strong exception to the notion that the CIA’s detention and interrogation program did not provide intelligence that was helpful in disrupting terrorist attacks or tracking down Osama bin Laden," Chambliss said.
Others took a more nuanced view, such as Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, who voted "present." Coburn said he objected to the report’s backward-looking thrust, but conceded that the measures it discusses qualify as torture. "Had this report provided insights, guidance or recommendations on how to effectively conduct coercive but lawful interrogations against terrorist threats, it would have provided guideposts to the future, rather than just critiques of the past," he said.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), who has done more than any lawmaker to expose the committee’s rift with the CIA, argued that the report’s findings are relevant to other CIA programs currently in use. "The findings of this report directly relate to how other CIA programs are managed today," he said. "Anyone who dismisses this study for its focus on actions of the past need only look at the events of the past few months – in particular, the CIA’s unauthorized search of the committee’s computers – to understand that the CIA not only hasn’t learned from its mistakes, but continues to perpetuate them."
One of the three Republican senators to oppose declassification of the report was Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana. "While I support public transparency of government activities, I voted against declassification for reasons I will outline in the minority views to the revised committee report, once it goes through the declassification process," he said.
Thursday’s vote shifts the burden to the White House and CIA to approve, delay, or reject the declassification of the report.