The meticulously documented 528-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s secret rendition, detention, and interrogation program is remarkable for its candor. In blunt language it describes the horrors of the black site secret prisons and the efforts that were made to get terrorist suspects to talk. It effectively makes two overriding points, first that the interrogations were brutal, worse than anyone had been led to believe, and second, that they did not produce any information that might not have been developed otherwise.
Regarding oversight of the program, the report claims that the Agency deliberately misrepresented the value of the program and did not adequately brief congress on exactly what it was doing. Even a supportive President George W. Bush was not provided any details until 2006. One suspects that the Senate committee is to a certain extent hypocritically avoiding responsibility for what has become a political football. Congressmen quite likely did not want to know all the details regarding the interrogation program and some are certainly now feigning ignorance of it even if they were initially briefed. “Striking back” after 9/11 was, after all, bipartisan and there continued to be a broad national consensus on the need to “do something” about Middle Eastern terrorism up until the time when the occupation of Iraq began to go sour.
The CIA’s 136-page heavily redacted rebuttal to the Senate report chooses to ignore the brutality of the interrogation program, though current Director John Brennan has described some procedures as “abhorrent” and the Agency concedes that some “mistakes” were made. The rebuttal ignores the ethical, constitutional, and rule-of-law issues by insisting that no actual torture took place. It maintains that the activity at the black sites was effective, producing information that would not have been obtained otherwise, though Brennan is now claiming in conciliatory fashion that it is impossible to separate intelligence obtained by enhanced interrogation from other information developed from the same source without coercion, making an assessment of relative value “unknowable.”
Other Agency defenders have identified a number of suspects who were questioned successfully in enhanced fashion, including a key link that they claim eventually led to Osama bin Laden. They insist, mantra-like, that “enhanced interrogation” saved thousands of American lives. Indeed, a website they have established to argue their case is called CIASavedLives.com.
The Senate report examines those same claims but comes to the opposite conclusion, i.e. that no intelligence produced by torture was ever uniquely actionable, that all the useful information was obtainable by less coercive means. Further, at least 26 detainees were “wrongfully held” while others could not even be identified. Inexperienced contract interrogators sometimes started torturing suspects even before asking a single question, and several cooperating detainees were tortured anyway. Inept management meant that one junior officer who allowed a prisoner to die of hypothermia later received a cash reward of $2,500.
Coercive interrogation frequently also produced misleading or fabricated intelligence. Sifting through the details provided by both sides, the Senate Committee appears to win this argument, and one might note that this was also a conclusion arrived at by FBI interrogator Ali Soufani (who deplored the Agency methods) as well as by a review conducted by CIA’s own Inspector General in 2004.
The other argument being made by the CIA is that the interrogations were legal because government lawyers said that they were so. It is similar to the “legal orders” argument made by defendants at Nuremberg and at the Tokyo war crimes tribunal, a number of whom were hanged. To my mind, no one can reasonably argue that the loathsome physical abuse detailed in the report, including beatings, repeated waterboardings, and anal penetrations referred to as “rectal hydration,” in addition to threatening family members, can conceivably be construed as anything but torture. That CIA is hanging its hat on the presumed legality of acts that are best described as loathsome or horrific is self-defeating, and no one should pay any attention to what is clearly a shoddy attempt to shift the argument.
But definitions aside there is a major flaw in the Senate investigation, namely that it is completely dependent on documents. No victims of the black sites were interviewed, while the CIA refused to allow its employees to testify. Some defenders of the Agency are consequently now objecting that the report was prepared without interviewing the participants in the process, notably the senior managers at CIA who conceived of the program and oversaw its operation. The Agency managers who were most intimately involved in the program were Directors George Tenet and Porter Goss, Deputy Director John McLaughlin, Deputy Director for Operations Jim Pavitt, Director of the Counter Terrorism Center Cofer Black, and Black’s Deputy Jose Rodriguez who later succeeded Black and then Pavitt. For the Agency defenders, this is a useful argument with considerable current resonance given the media frenzy over accounts of gang rape at several universities where the alleged rapists were tried and convicted by the press without being able to tell their side. CIA defenders claim that they would have liked to see the people most involved rebut the claims being made regarding their malfeasance.
But as usual the devil is in the details. Agency supporters assume that Tenet and company would have been able to blow enough smoke up a sufficient number of derrieres to obfuscate the charges against them. I would argue instead that the Senate should indeed have spoken to participants, but would have been better served by concentrating on the bottom of the food chain. The actual torturers should have been identified, subpoenaed, and forced to testify in detail under oath. If necessary they could have done so in alias to protect their cover. Why go to that trouble? Because it appears to me that what the Senate discovered might only be the tip of the iceberg in terms of what actually occurred, and the only way to get at the truth and come to some reconciliation over the horrors perpetrated by our government on our behalf would be to talk to the guys who were tightening the thumb screws.
Against legal advice, in 2005 Jose Rodriguez ordered destroyed the 92 interrogation videotapes that were maintained at a black prison site in Thailand. This was a federal offense that the Justice Department chose not to prosecute. Rodriguez claimed he did it to protect the identity of the interrogators but the argument is ridiculous. I have seen interrogation tapes and the interrogator is only a voice. The suspect is the focal point of the filming, not the interrogator. The tapes were destroyed one day after Sen. Carl Levin proposed an independent investigation of the interrogation program. Given that as well as the content of some internal CIA emails it is clear that the videos were destroyed to eliminate evidence of what was surely a war crime and to put paid to any prospects for criminal charges against the perpetrators.
It is also safe to assume that other records on the interrogation program were either destroyed or, more likely, never produced in the first place. The Senate report describes documentation as often “sparse and insufficient” or even “non-existent.” Anyone who has ever served in a CIA station overseas knows that stations operate on a basis of what might be described as permanent damage control. Bear in mind that nearly everything CIA does overseas is illegal. Anything that occurs that is either embarrassing or likely to produce negative fallout in Washington is culled or massaged to either make it go away or to produce a result that would be construed positively. The Senate committee noted that the interrogation program produced information that was either exaggerated or even false. That is exactly what one should expect.
The ability to selectively shape the narrative does not mean that there was not considerable pushback by Agency officers who were appalled by what was taking place. The documents reveal that many questioned the value of the program but were ignored or overruled by senior management. As early as January 2003, CIA’s director of interrogations complained that the terrible treatment of prisoners was a train wreck “waiting to happen and I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens.” He admitted to “serious reservations” regarding the program and refused to continue to be involved “in any way.” Torturing people might have been a good career move in 2003 but many of the participants in the process must have realized even back then that it could easily blow back.
So a document-driven investigation into the activities of a clandestine U.S. government organization that is accustomed to covering its tracks is only likely to discern part of the story. The other element that needs some airing is the whole issue of accountability, because without accountability the sorry episode is likely to be repeated if there is another major terrorist incident in the United States. Indeed, such a response is more than likely as Agency supporters, including most Republicans in Congress are largely unrepentant, believing as they do that exposing government torture is worse than the torture itself. Many do not appear to believe that there was anything wrong with what the CIA did. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has already said “If I had to do it all over again, I would do it.”
In an attempt to avoid the accountability issue, the Senate report summary does not actually blame anyone and does not recommend any legal action against the senior officials either at CIA or in the White House who ordered the torture. Nor are the actual torturers being held responsible for what they did. President Barack Obama, who has admitted that “We tortured some folks,” long ago decided that there would be no criminal charges ostensibly because he wanted to avoid going head-to-head over policies initiated by his predecessors in office. The White House, however, went further than that, recently seeking to block release of the report summary. When it was published the president oddly cautioned that “it is important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had.”
The administration also should be held to account for relentlessly hyping the danger that might result from the report’s publication, advising that American travelers overseas and diplomatic missions might be targeted, as if the parameters of the torture program have not been well-known to interested parties for a number of years. The assertion that its release would damage relationships with foreign intelligence services was also dutifully trotted out, a specious claim that has been re-issued after every intelligence flap or breach since 1975, when the Church Committee met and rogue Agency case officer Philip Agee wrote Inside the Company: A CIA Diary. Intelligence agencies do not share information because they like each other. They do it because it is an essential part of doing business.
So if there is a problem with the Senate report it is that it is incomplete. Someone should have made greater efforts to interview the actual victims, as well as the torturers and the bureaucrats who sent them on their merry way, in order to find out what was not contained in the six million pages of documents examined. The perpetrators and enablers of “enhanced interrogation” must be held accountable for what they did, and the United States government, collectively speaking, should admit in plain language that torture was indeed what took place and that it was and is unacceptable. Wrongfully detained Canadian citizen Maher Arar, who was “rendered” to Syria and tortured, observes that “Torture does not tell you anything about the person being tortured but tells you volumes about the person who is doing the torture.”
The Declaration of Independence and Constitution established the principle that the United States would behave as a moral country in which citizens have inherent rights. One fundamental right is the expectation that the government will behave lawfully and fairly. The Declaration of Independence also acknowledges “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” If the United States is ever to regain its honorable place among nations it must completely and unambiguously acknowledge what occurred between 2002 and 2007, and it must take steps to ensure that such depravity never takes place again.