‘A Stain on Our Values and Our History’
The Senate’s torture report paints a disturbing picture of a spy agency run amok, but the CIA says it’s getting blamed for doing the dirty work necessary to save American lives.
After five years of preparation and $40 million of taxpayer-funded research, the American public can finally see the results of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s mammoth investigation into the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation program. The details are gruesome, to put it mildly, but won’t end the debate hanging over the entire probe: whether the agency’s torture of detainees actually stopped plots and saved lives.
The 500-page summary of the committee’s 6,000-plus-page investigation bluntly accuses the CIA of repeatedly misleading the White House and Congress about the value of the information it obtained from the interrogation of terrorism suspects and downplaying the brutality of the program. The CIA, in its own response, admits to some mistakes but continues to insist that it obtained valuable intelligence and was generally truthful in its dealings with other arms of the government.
“The CIA’s actions a decade ago are a stain on our values and our history,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “There may never be the right time to release this report. But this report is too important to shelve indefinitely.”
The summary is filled with examples of torture and abuse that shock the conscience. For example, at least five CIA detainees were subjected to “rectal rehydration” or “rectal feeding” in order to establish total dominance over the prisoner. Some detainees were placed in ice water “baths.” Others were threatened with handguns and power drills or promises to “cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat” and harm a detainee’s children. There were also “threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee.” An al Qaeda suspect known as Abu Zubaydah, became “completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open full mouth” during a particularly aggressive session of waterboarding. Another detainee died due to hypothermia in a freezing prison.
The report argues forcefully that enhanced interrogation does not result in reliable information and can often result in false confessions. In one case, a detainee copped to attempting to recruit African-American Muslims in Montana, a dubious claim given that blacks make up less than 1 percent of the population in the state. Two of the military psychologists who advised the agency to use waterboarding, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, had never conducted any real interrogations, but had lead a training program that prepared Air Force personnel to resist torture if captured by communist foes during the Cold War. That program was never intended for use by American interrogators because it was known to produce false confessions. According to the report, contractors eventually received $81 million for their work on the program, and a whopping 85 percent of the interrogation work was carried out by outside workers rather than CIA operatives.
For months, the basic thrust of the report has been known, but the dueling Senate and CIA reports will reignite the long-running debate over whether the CIA’s interrogation methods constituted torture — the word used by President Barack Obama and some of his top aides — and whether or not they worked.
Former CIA officials have used op-eds, interviews, and a newly launched website — CIASavedLives.com — to defend their record and actions. The site, organized by former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow, is meant to house newly declassified documents and public statements by former top agency officials. In a posting shortly after the Senate report was released, Harlow pulled no punches. “The recently released [report] is marred by errors of facts and interpretation and is completely at odds with the reality that the leaders and officers of the Central Intelligence Agency lived through,” the posting said. “It represents the single worst example of Congressional oversight in our many years of government service.” Similar arguments have been made by former CIA directors in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial.
Many of those former CIA officials may be disappointed by a central component of the CIA’s formal response to the Senate report. The CIA has long insisted that the techniques led to actionable intelligence, but backtracked a bit Tuesday. Instead, the agency tried to walk a fine line: admitting that it would be impossible to say brutal interrogation worked while simultaneously arguing that detainees provided useful information after being subjected to techniques like waterboarding, alongside more conventional methods of questioning.
“The agency takes no position on whether intelligence obtained from detainees who were subjected to EITs could have been obtained through other means or from other individuals. The answer to this question is, and will remain, unknowable,” the CIA said in a factsheet on its website. “However, CIA reviews indicate that the program, including interrogations of detainees on whom EITs were used, did produce valuable and unique intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives.”
In a sharply worded response to the Senate report, the CIA also denied misleading the White House and Congress about the program and maintained that many detainees provided valuable intelligence after being subject to enhanced interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation. Agency officials have also long complained that the Senate investigators failed to interview any of the CIA personnel involved in the program.
“Our review indicates that interrogations of detainees on whom EITs [Enhanced Interrogation Techniques] were used did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives,” said CIA Director John Brennan in a statement. “The intelligence gained from the program was critical to our understanding of al-Qa’ida and continues to inform our counterterrorism efforts to this day.”
Brennan also pushed back against the idea that the CIA failed to appropriately inform Congress and the White House of its activities. “While we made mistakes, the record does not support the study’s inference that the Agency systematically and intentionally misled each of these audiences on the effectiveness of the program,” he wrote in his formal response.
The study is also coming under fire from GOP leadership and members of the Senate intelligence panel. In a joint statement, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Intelligence Chairman Saxby Chambliss called the study an “ideologically motivated and distorted recounting of historical events.” They argued that the program “developed significant intelligence” that helped the U.S. identify and capture al Qaeda militants, disrupt future terrorist attacks and take down Osama bin Laden. “Claims included in this report that assert the contrary are simply wrong,” they argue.
The report did find a Republican ally in Arizona Senator John McCain, who was tortured during his Naval service in the Vietnam War. “I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us,” McCain said on the Senate floor. “It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.”
“Our enemies act without conscience. We must not,” he added.