Why Is the GOP So Bothered by the Senate Torture Report?

Source: Astrid Riecken/Getty Images News Activists Group Call On Obama To Close Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility

Source: Astrid Riecken/Getty Images News

Using the word “torture” to describe enhanced interrogation techniques is now fairly common usage in the United States. The full scope of CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program — the vanilla-sounding label that belied the brutal treatment of suspected terrorist held in secret prisons following 9/11 — has taken close to 15 years to come completely into the light, but both the morality and effectiveness of the intelligence agency’s of use methods like waterboarding to elicit information from suspected terrorist still is the subject of much debate. And Tuesday’s release of the 525-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s interrogation techniques has reignited the national debate over whether such methods should be called torture, and whether torture is indeed “contrary” to American values as President Barack Obama asserted this week. Even in the media, the acceptance of the word torture to describe the CIA’s actions has been halting — partly because of the shadows that obscured the program for its entire existence and partly because of the term’s extreme politicization.

The Senate report itself has been controversial since its very inception; according to the executive summary, the CIA ignored requests for additional information made by Intelligence Committee Chair Bob Graham (D-Fla.) back in 2006. When the investigation began in earnest, Republicans elected not to participate, instead releasing their own report. Push back from the CIA and a fight with the Obama administration over redactions caused the report to be delayed numerous times. Further complicating congressional oversight, tensions between the CIA and Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee blossomed over the course of the investigation, and after many accusations from lawmakers, the spy agency admitted to hacking the computer network established for staffers to review classified documents. And while more than 6.2 million pages of CIA operational cables, internal agency emails, memorandums, and other key documents were handed over to lawmakers, nearly two years were spent fighting over how much would be shown the public. And for months, CIA officials have disputed Democrats’ conclusions.

The release of the executive summary Tuesday forced the agency and its past leaders to defend the effectiveness and legality of its interrogation methods. The CIA has criticized the Democratic Senators not only for the report’s “misguided conclusions” but for putting U.S. military personnel at risk if terrorist groups retaliate. Republicans claim the report is an attempt to discredit the Bush administration and smear the intelligence agency. Former Vice President Dick Cheney said the report was “full of crap” on Fox News.

Meanwhile, the White House is attempting to hold the middle ground.

Source: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Source: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Why is there any debate?

It is not exactly new information that brutal interrogation methods were used against suspected terrorists in the wake of 9/11 — President Barack Obama has acknowledged that fact on several occasions, noting last August that “we tortured some folks.” But Obama’s words — while historical — were merely rhetoric, and the 6,700-page report on the CIA’s use of torture, researched and authored by the Democratic staff members of the Senate Intelligence Committee between 2009 and 2013, after Republican members elected not to participate, will serve as a far more important accounting of how the intelligence agency crafted a program of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques to be used on senior al Qaeda leaders at the request of George W. Bush in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. And even the release of the small sampling of that document that has been declassified has proven that torture is still politically contentious.

The summary — even with the names of officials and locations blacked out — appears to deliver a blistering judgement of the CIA’s tactics. In final conclusion, current Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein wrote that the CIA’s use of torture was ineffective, the agency’s justification for the use of torture was based on inaccurate data, and the torture used was far more brutal than previously represented. “It is my personal conclusion that, under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured,” Feinstein finished.

But with a subject as controversial as torture the fight to control the public narrative will be bitter. In fact, it has already begun.

How did the CIA come to use enhanced interrogation techniques?

The CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program was born just days after the 9/11 attacks when the U.S. government was scrambling for intelligence that could halt further attacks; President George Bush signed a document known as the “Memorandum of Notification,” which codified a plan designed by then-CIA Director George Tenet. It created an unprecedented role for the CIA in counterterrorism, including the authorization to covertly capture and detain individuals “posing a continuing, serious threat of violence or death to U.S. persons and interests or planning terrorist activities.”

And while it was silent on the subject of interrogations and coercive interrogation techniques, Bush signed an executive order a few months later, in February 2002, that said Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions (treaties that set standards of international law for the humanitarian treatment in war), which prohibits “mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture,” did not apply to detainees who were members of al Qaeda or the Taliban. And the CIA began using what it called “enhanced interrogation” a series of six techniques that included waterboarding and sleep deprivation. The Bush administration also released a series of memorandums that gave legal justification for how the CIA interrogated the 39 detainees who were subjected to the enhanced methods. But even with this seemingly sizable documentation, the Senate found the CIA purposely misled the White House, both Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Congress, and of course the American public about the techniques used to obtain information and the quality of that intelligence.

How has the CIA responded?

Former CIA leaders do not dispute that “everything” was not done “perfectly,” but they do contend that the interrogation program was effective and absolutely essential to national security. “So the bottom line is this: The interrogation program formed an essential part of the foundation from which the CIA and the U.S. military mounted the [Osama] bin Laden operation,” wrote former CIA Directors George J. Tenet, Porter J. Goss and Michael V. Hayden and former CIA Deputy Directors John E. McLaughlin, Albert M. Calland, and Stephen R. Kappes in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal. “The committee has given us instead a one-sided study marred by errors of fact and interpretation—essentially a poorly done and partisan attack on the agency that has done the most to protect America after the 9/11 attacks.” This rebuttal — which ran more than two thousand words — never once mentioned the words torture or human rights. Instead, its focus was on semantics and on proving that value of the interrogation techniques.

Primarily, its authors took issue with the Senate’s claim “the CIA routinely went beyond the interrogation techniques as authorized by the Justice Department.” And indeed, Feinstein wrote in the foreword to the summary that she believed “the conditions of confinement and the use of authorized and unauthorized interrogation and conditioning techniques were cruel.” In other words, what is in dispute, is not what happened to detainees in the CIA’s secret prisons, known in military terminology as black sites, located in Poland, Romania, Lithuania and other countries. Republicans claim that the CIA acted within the bounds authorized by the White House and the Justice Department to save Americans from further terrorist attacks, which is exactly the opposite of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s conclusion.

And what is the GOP’s problem with the Senate Report?

The GOP’s counteranalysis — signed by the Committee’s Republican members and incoming Republican members — serves as a point-by-point rebuttal of the report, particularly its conclusion that enhanced interrogation techniques were not effective. It also offered a sweeping critique of the committee’s “faulty analysis.” Feinstein and her democratic colleagues arrived at erroneous conclusions because they failed to be objective,” and they discounted the importance of “context,” namely that the CIA was faced with a “surge in terrorist threat.” Senate Republicans asserted that their review of the “documentary record” made clear that the CIA was a “workforce traumatized by the thousands of lives lost as a result of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,” and committed to ensuring “such an attack never occurred again.” Ignoring such context, failing to review or request important documents, and neglecting to “interview a single CIA official,” including directors, was evidence of strong bias, the Republican lawmakers argued. That bias was evident in the manner in which the report was written, which CIA Director Brennan called “not objective” and likened to a “prosecutor’s brief.” And that bias led to mistakes, including the Democrats’ conclusion that Abu Zubaydah did not provide valuable information about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — the self-described master planner of 9/11 — after “aggressive” interrogation.

Republican lawmakers also claimed the report — which cost taxpayers $40 million — generalized the situation and made a “rhetorical attempt to persuade the reader that non-coercive techniques may have been equally or even more successful than the enhanced techniques.”

It should be noted that the Republican accusation that the Senate Democrats did not interview a single CIA official needs to be given a corollary. First, according to report, “CIA employees and contractors who would otherwise have been interviewed by the committee staff were under potential legal jeopardy, and therefore the CIA would not compel its workforce to appear before the committee.” Furthermore, Director Michael Hayden — who took office in 2006, years after the use of the enhanced interrogation methods began — testified before the committee in 2007, although the committee judged it to be less than helpful information. An appendix to the report contains his testimony and highlights how it conflicts with internal CIA documents. Plus the documents used by Feinstein included interview reports and transcripts with former CIA director George Tenet; Jose Rodriguez, director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center; CIA General Counsel Scott Muller; and many others. And the report drew from more than six million pages of CIA materials,” including “operational cables, intelligence reports, internal memoranda and emails, briefing materials” and other records.

But even while these Republican lawmakers underscored how the CIA’s detention and interrogation program played a vital role in weakening al Qaeda, the rebuttal downplayed the interrogation tactics and ignored the important discussion that must take place about the United States’ use of torture. “The rendition, detention, and interrogation program they created, of which enhanced interrogation was only a small part, enabled a stream of collection and intelligence validation that was unprecedented,” the report said. “The most important capability this program provided had nothing to do with enhanced interrogation — it was the ability to hold and question terrorists, who, if released, would certainly return to the fight, but whose guilt would be difficult to establish in a criminal proceeding without compromising sensitive sources and methods.”

The narrative spun Senate Republicans suggested the ends justified the means. And Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — who has been described as the intellectual anchor of the Court’s conservative wing — told a Swiss university audience that means were not unconstitutional. “I don’t know what article of the Constitution that would contravene,” he argued, according to the Associated Press. But Scalia’s opinion is surprising, especially for a Supreme Court justice; in 1878, the Court decided in Wilkerson v. Utah that the use of torture was unconstitutional. That ruling was upheld as recently as a 2008 death-penalty case, so Wilkerson v. Utah is by no means a long-forgotten opinion of the United States Supreme Court.


Source: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Did CIA Director John Brennan add anything to the debate?

When CIA Director John Brennan, who took over in 2013, spoke to the press Thursday night, he restated the agency line: Yes, “enhanced interrogation” methods were used to question terrorist suspects held in black sites, but, no, they are not being used any longer. He did concede (as did Republicans) that the agency made some mistakes, and he did acknowledge that some methods were unauthorized and “abhorrent” while others were authorized and “harsh.” But, importantly, he claimed it is “unknowable” whether useful information could have been obtained from tortured prisoners in any other fashion. “Our reviews indicate that the detention and interrogation program produced useful intelligence that helped the United States thwart attacks, capture terrorists, and save lives,” Brennan said. “But let me be clear. We have not concluded that it was the use of EITs within that program that allowed us to obtain useful information from detainees subjected to them.”

He did come close to admitting torture should never have been an option. “I tend to believe that the use of coercive methods has a strong prospect for resulting in false information, because if somebody is being subjected to coercive techniques they may say something to have those techniques stopped.” Brennan noted there are other “effective, non-coercive methods” to obtain information, “methods that do not have a counterproductive impact on our national security and our international standing.”

The fact that Brennan described the agency’s methods as abhorrent and harsh is a useful admission for the torture debate as it divorces (to a small degree) the effectiveness consideration from the issue of human rights violations. Still, debate will continue, especially since Brennan did not rule out the possibility that he or a future CIA director would use the same methods in a similar crisis. He said he would “defer to the policymakers in future times when there is going to be the need to be able to ensure that this country stays safe if we face a similar type of crisis.” And that is not much of a refutation of the program or a pledge to avoid using torture again. His task was a tough one: defend the agency’s post-9/11 actions while supporting the current administration. With Brennan taking a more neutral stand, the next move is Obama’s.

What does Obama’s legacy look like?

In an executive order Obama banned the use of enhanced interrogation techniques within the first few months of his presidency. And he can be commended for stating unequivocally at an August press briefing that the U.S. did use torture and that using torture runs contrary to American values. It is easy to paint those two sentences utter by Obama earlier this year as clear and simple indictment of the Bush era. However, the president’s short assessment of how the Bush administration handled the 9/11 fallout did not stop with his assertion that America should not a country that relies on torture, no matter the circumstances. From his earliest moments in office, Obama  — unsurprisingly — sought to distance himself from the policies of his predecessor; he withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq, and showed an obvious desire to both diminish the global footprint of the United States and avoid costly, unpopular, and potentially unwinnable military engagements. Yet, in that same news conference, he cautioned Americans against feeling “too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job” U.S. intelligence officials had at the time. The president’s description of the recent use of torture in the United States left much unsaid in an effort to walk a middle road between the U.S. intelligence community and the incredibly polarized America public, of which 77% support international rules against torture and 45% believe torture can sometimes be justified, according to an 2014 Amnesty International survey. In the days after the release of the Senate report, the president showed a similar, measured response that seeks to both support the U.S. intelligence committee and the Senate’s findings.

The debate over torture is hugely political. The problem is that continuing bipartisanship means there is no room for debate on who the CIA should function in times of national crisis and whether torture should be at its disposal. If and when U.S. leaders take these questions under consideration, there are several points that cannot be forgotten. First, while waterboarding became a symbol of excess in the United States fight against terrorism, it is by no means new, meaning it cannot be argued that is use was an aberration particular to the post-9/11 crisis. The method of interrogation was used during the Spanish Inquisition, before being banned by many countries as the Enlightenment swept across Europe. The United States used it in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, as did Britain in Palestine during the 1930s, the Japanese in the Second World War, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the United States in Vietnam. Second, waterboarding is torture. In 2008, British journalist Christopher Hitchens experienced waterboarding firsthand. He admitted that “when contrasted to actual torture, waterboarding is more like foreplay.” But his final conclusion based on the “Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: ‘If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.’ Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.”

And finally, even if the American leadership determines that the use of torture is excusable in crisis situations, it is a dangerous precedent. Not only does its use run contrary to American values, but as Malcolm Nance — a former U.S. Navy Senior Chief and Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape program (the program where the CIA’s interrogation techniques had their origin) instructor for military personnel — wrote in The Terrorists of Iraq that techniques such as waterboarding are problematic because when the United States uses and justifies those methods, it cannot complain when those same methods are used against Americans.

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS

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