Reading the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program is a deeply disturbing exercise for those who believe that our country strayed far from its principles in a hysterical overreaction to the fears of a second, 9/11-style attack on the homeland.
I think the report, released Tuesday by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has got to be deeply disturbing even to people who don’t believe the CIA did anything illegal when its agents tortured suspected terrorists with stress positions, rectal feedings, waterboardings, and sleep deprivation, or whisked them away to “black sites” in places like Thailand and Poland to torture with impunity.
As the report notes, people died in custody. They hallucinated, they lost their minds, they lost the use of their limbs, they suffered. Khalid Sheik Muhammed, often described as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was waterboarded at least 183 times. He had to be revived, so that his torture could continue.
The committee said the torture was ineffective, that the CIA’s justification for the program was based on inaccurate claims that it was effective, that the interrogations and confinement conditions were far more brutal than the CIA let on to policy makers, that the CIA lied to the Justice Department about what it was doing, which prevented the Justice Department from making a proper legal analysis, and that the CIA misled Congress and the president.
No question, as Feinstein put it, this is "a stain on our values and history."
Of course, not everyone agrees with her.
I’ve been particularly attuned to the push back. The struggle, as it is now unfolding, is about the narrative that this report has created. How are we going down in history for this? Are we a nation of laws, or a nation that tosses away its most cherished principles out of fear? Are we good guys or bad guys? Are we a moral nation that does not descend to the brutality of those we condemn? Or are we no better than they are?
The heavy lifting is being done by former and current CIA officials, members of the Bush Administration and Republican lawmakers, with the glaring exception of Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was subjected to torture that maimed him for life as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. On Tuesday, he thanked Feinstein for her work. "The use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies," McCain said. "Our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights which are protected by international conventions the United State not only joined, but for the most part authored."
He's a fairly lonely Republican voice.
Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the program's most stalwart defenders, told the New York Times on Monday, the day before the report came out that the harsh techniques were "absolutely, totally justified." Charges the CIA misled the administration and Congress, he said, "is a bunch of hooey."
“Every charge here is off-base,” former Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin told NPR on Tuesday, who said that senators had thrown CIA officers “under the bus.” (They deserve it. The agency farmed out its dirty business to contractors, who earned more than $80 million developing and teaching torture techniques, and experimenting on subjects.)
“I think the report overemphasizes the degree to which there was something you would call brutality,” said McLaughlin. “We may have made a few terrorists uncomfortable for a short period of time in order to get information we felt was essential to protecting the United States.”
He also told host Audie Cornish that “Torture is an ethical concept, but it’s also a legal concept. And we went to the Department of Justice at least four times to make sure that what we were doing was not torture in a legal sense, and that it was consistent with the U.S. Constitution.”
That, at least is what Bush Administration officials decided. John Yoo, a former Justice Department official whose “torture memos” helped provide the legal fig leaf that justified the torture, took predictable issue with the report. Yoo is a law professor at UC Berkeley these days, and the target of an ongoing ouster campaign.
On Time’s website, Yoo wrote that a president must obtain intelligence “as soon as possible to stop the next attack.”
“You might even approve waterboarding in the time of emergency,” Yoo wrote, “if limited only to enemy leaders thought to have information about pending attacks….I thought the CIA’s proposed interrogation methods were within the bounds of the law – just barely. They did not inflict serious, long-term pain or suffering, as prohibited in the federal statute banning torture.”
The fact that American soldiers have been waterboarded as part of training Woo wrote, “indicated that it didn’t constitute torture.” (But the training is supposed to teach soldiers how to cope with torture in the event of capture. So, logic? Not much.)
Before Feinstein had even stopped speaking on Tuesday, the New York Times noted that a new website, CIA Saved Lives, had gone live. Created by former CIA officials, one of its primary complaints is that the Senate committee did not contact them for interviews.
But Feinstein has explained repeatedly that no CIA officials were made available because of a 2007 Department of Justice investigation into the destruction of videotapes of CIA detainee interrogations. “CIA employees and contractors who would otherwise have been interviewed by the Committee staff were under potential legal jeopardy,” Feinstein wrote in the executive summary, “and therefore the CIA would not compel its workforce to appear before the Committee.”
Anyway, her committee's staff had access to more than six million pages of CIA material, and had access to interviews with CIA officials conducted by the agency’s inspector general, and the agency’s oral history program.
Brennan, and his staff, reviewed the Senate report over a period of about four months last year. This week, his response to the intelligence committee was declassified.
"I personally remain firm in my belief that enhanced interrogation techniques are an inappropriate method for obtaining intelligence," Brennan wrote. He vowed his "resolute intention" never to allow any CIA officer to use "enhanced interrogation techniques" again.
That is, at least, a slender ray of light for those appalled at this dark chapter of American history.
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