A much anticipated Senate Intelligence Committee report on so-called enhanced interrogation techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency, a portion of which was made public Tuesday, paints a picture of a program that spun out of control in the frenzied battle against terrorism. It highlights the need for more oversight and accountability, especially at a time of heightened intelligence gathering to stop terrorist attacks.
Two basic points are important: There is little evidence that torture works. (The CIA said, in the report, that the effectiveness of the enhanced techniques was unknown, in part, because they were often used quickly before conventional methods were tried, so it is unclear how much useful information could have been obtained without them.) Despite this, the CIA justified practices, such as waterboarding, physical violence and confinement in a box, and then destroyed evidence and lied to Congress about the use of such techniques, which was more widespread than the public was led to believe. In some cases, the CIA asked for guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice about interrogation techniques but did not receive determinations or they were changed, leading to confusion.
In the words of one CIA senior interrogator quoted in the report, the program, which was ended by an executive order in 2009, was “a train wreck waiting to happen.”
The release of the report’s 600-page executive summary brought the expected condemnations of torture, but it is unclear how it will impact ongoing anti-terrorism work because the report focuses on events that happened a decade ago and it contains no recommendations.
Before the report’s release, there was much consternation about its consequences. CIA chief Michael Hayden and Secretary of State John Kerry tried to further delay the report, warning that releasing it now could put U.S. personnel and interests at risk. While protecting Americans is tantamount, much damage to U.S. interests was done when the torture was taking place. Terrorist leaders have long known about U.S. harsh interrogation techniques — and used them as a recruiting tool. The fact that some captured on the battlefield of the Global War on Terror were tortured is just another in a long list of grievances against the U.S., including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, indefinite confinements at Guantanamo Bay and the killing of civilians by U.S. drones in the Middle East.
It would be convenient not to remind jihadists of past American interrogation practices, but the point of the extensive report, which was five years in the making, is to ensure they are not used again.
Both Maine senators, Susan Collins and Angus King, are member of the Intelligence Committee although both joined the panel after it began its look into CIA interrogation practices in 2009. Both senators voted to release the report, although both rightly condemned the failure of the committee’s Democratic leadership to seek more information from the CIA and to fully include Republicans in the work.
“I voted to approve declassification of the study because I believe our nation’s reputation as a beacon of openness, democratic values, human rights, and adherence to the rule of law is at stake,” King said in a statement Tuesday. “Our credibility — and ultimately our influence — in the world is dependent upon this reputation, and it is our obligation to admit when we fail to meet America’s high standards.”
Because the report offers no recommendations for future practices, Collins offered some in her response Tuesday. She recommended that waterboarding be outlawed and that CIA interrogators be restricted to techniques included in the Army Field Manual. She also called for more oversight of intelligence gathering operations. For example, some operations are only disclosed to the chairmen of the Intelligence Committees and to House and Senate leadership. Collins suggests that all Intelligence Committee members be included in such discussions, in closed sessions.
“Torture is wrong and fundamentally contrary to American values,” Collins said. “The report should be made public to allow the American people to reach their own conclusions and to make sure lessons are learned from the mistakes made so that they never happen again.”
It would be comforting to view the CIA’s interrogations and rendition after 9/11 as missteps of a bygone era. Instead, the Intelligence Committee’s work shows the dangers of a loosely monitored fight against an amorphous enemy and highlights a series of moral offenses that must not be repeated.