A Democratic-led panel’s explosive report detailing abuses in post-Sept. 11 intelligence gathering met with an uneasy and uneven response Tuesday from Republicans, who alternately questioned its accuracy, warned of a potential international backlash or downplayed the findings as old news.
The scattershot response from congressional Republicans may reflect a subtle shift by some in the GOP who initially had argued that even harsh interrogation techniques — which Democrats say amounted to torture — were justified in the name of national security.
But the graphic nature of some of the report’s revelations made a full-throated defense of the CIA’s tactics politically untenable, leaving individual lawmakers in some cases to focus more on the motivation of its authors than on the substance of their findings.
House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said America’s intelligence community deserved “our thanks, not an ideologically motivated report designed to undermine their work.”
Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the future majority leader, dismissed the extensive inquiry as a partisan “study” done at the behest of Democrats for political advantage.
“It doesn’t tell us much that we didn’t probably already know anyway, but significantly endangers Americans around the world,” he told reporters. “This particular release, in my judgment, serves no purpose whatsoever.”
In a rebuttal to California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s lengthy presentation of the report on the Senate floor, the panel’s top Republican said it contained “a disturbing number of factual and analytical errors,” leading to “incorrect claims and invalid conclusions I cannot endorse.”
“The study essentially refuses to admit that CIA detainees, especially CIA detainees subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques, provided intelligence information which helped the United States government and its allies to neutralize numerous terrorist threats,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said. “On its face, this refusal doesn’t make sense.”
North Carolina Sen. Richard M. Burr, who will inherit the chairmanship from Feinstein next month, was more blunt, calling the conclusions of the report “a fiction.”
Former President George W. Bush, who was holding a book-signing event at a shopping mall near Dallas, had no public comment on the report. But in an interview with CNN last weekend, he described CIA employees as “patriots” and questioned the then-unreleased report’s legitimacy.
“If it diminishes their contributions to our country, it is way off base,” he said. “I knew a lot of the operators. These are good people, really good people, and we’re lucky as a nation to have them.”
Former Vice President Dick Cheney likewise issued no response Tuesday. But he told the New York Times in a phone interview Monday that, based on reports of its contents, he believed its findings would be “all a bunch of hooey.... As far as I’m concerned, they ought to be decorated, not criticized,” he said of the agency.
Feinstein and fellow Democrats did receive high-profile support from one Republican. After she formally released the report, Sen. John McCain of Arizona broke with his party to hail it as an example of the nation adhering to its values, and argued the public was entitled to hear the full truth.
McCain, a prisoner of war tortured during the Vietnam conflict, made only passing reference to his own history, saying he knew from “personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence.”
“Our enemies act without conscience. We must not,” he said. The report “makes clear that acting without conscience isn’t necessary — it isn’t even helpful — in winning this strange and long war we’re fighting. We should be grateful to have that truth affirmed.”
The Obama administration, which had privately lobbied Feinstein to stall the report’s release, hurried to embrace it publicly while emphasizing measures it was taking to ensure the safety of American personnel at home and abroad. The president said he would try to make sure that the country never resorts to such methods in the future.
“Some of the actions that were taken were contrary to our values,” he said. “That is why I unequivocally banned torture when I took office, because one of our most effective tools in fighting terrorism and keeping Americans safe is staying true to our ideals at home and abroad.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), like McCain, said he supported the report and highlighted his efforts to ensure such abuses were now clearly forbidden by federal law. But he warned that the Obama administration had “gone from one extreme to the other,” giving enemy combatants greater protections than is warranted. “I’m not for waterboarding, but I’m not for reading Miranda rights to enemy combatants,” said Graham, a former military lawyer.
The findings of the report may ultimately be part of a foreign policy debate in the race for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who was one of just three Republicans voting against declassifying the report, said Democrats advanced it only for the “partisan joy they’re going to get from trying to embarrass people in the Bush administration.”
Asked whether he could defend the kinds of abuses detailed in the report, Rubio demurred.
“I continue to believe that the U.S. should aggressively pursue information that saves the lives of Americans,” he told reporters. “The United States remains, among all the countries on Earth, the most responsible, the most humane. But we have people that are actively trying to kill Americans. And I’m not going to criticize anyone who did their job in trying to acquire information that would protect American lives and prevent a terrorist attacks.”
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has publicly accused the Bush and Obama administrations of tramping on civil liberties in the name of national security, said he was reluctant to comment on the report until he’d had time to read it, but initially he had “mixed feelings.”
“It’s important to say we’re not going to do that [torture]. But the gruesomeness of the details may well inflame people,” he said. “Whether or not you have to go into all the gory details, whether that’s good for the country, maybe not.”