Senate Intelligence Committee’s Report Confirms that CIA Did Not Torture Detainees

I haven’t had time to read the entire Senate Intelligence Committee Report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, an unclassified version of which was released today. It is 499 pages long. But I have spent enough time with it to have several observations.

First, the tone of the report is remarkably hostile to the CIA. It reads like a prosecutor’s brief. I don’t know what the Agency did to get on the wrong side of Dianne Feinstein, but the report is, seemingly, an act of revenge. I suspect that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed himself would render a more sympathetic account of the CIA’s interrogation program than we got from Senate Democrats.

Second, a great deal of the report is devoted to proving that the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques did no good. I didn’t find this discussion particularly persuasive, mostly because it is so patently partisan and one-sided. Further, while it is appropriate for the intelligence agencies themselves to analyze the success, or lack thereof, of various approaches they have used, this issue strikes me as almost beside the point. In the aftermath of 9/11, it was vitally important to learn all we could about al Qaeda–who was in it, how it was organized, how its members communicated, and above all, what other plots were in the works. It was appropriate to try just about anything to get information from the small number of high-level al Qaeda members to whom we then had access. If some techniques worked and others didn’t, so be it; but they all had to be tried.

Third, the report goes to great lengths to document alleged misrepresentations by the Agency concerning the enhanced interrogation program. Many of these come from Congressional testimony by former CIA Director Michael Hayden. The Agency has acknowledged that Hayden got some facts wrong, especially relating to events that occurred before he became Director. In other instances, I don’t find the Committee’s effort very persuasive. Once again, the vituperative tone of the report undermines its credibility.

The striking fact about the Agency’s alleged misrepresentations, as catalogued by the Senate committee, is that they relate almost entirely to collateral matters. As to the basics, it appears that what the Agency and the Bush and Obama administrations have been telling us for years was true. In particular, it has been said that only three men, all vicious, high-ranking terrorists, were waterboarded. As best I can glean from the report, that is correct. But the report displays an extraordinary solicitude for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, the two principal terrorists who were waterboarded. It goes on at almost unbelievable length about their treatment by the CIA. Whoever wrote the report appears to have more regard for Zubaydah than for Michael Hayden.

Similarly, the report confirms that the Agency’s enhanced interrogation techniques were used on only a small number of captured terrorists, 39 altogether. These enhanced techniques include the “belly slap” and the dreaded “attention grasp.”

Most important, it appears that waterboarding really was the most extreme sanction to which any of the terrorists were subjected (and only three of them, at that). Given all the hoopla about CIA “torture,” one might have expected to learn that far worse happened at the Agency’s dark sites. But, as far as the report discloses, the Agency stuck almost exclusively to its approved list of tactics, all of which the Department of Justice specifically found not to be torture.

Were some of the captured terrorists treated roughly? Absolutely. Their lives must have been miserable, and deservedly so. Some of the 39 were placed in stress positions for considerable lengths of time, doused with water, fed poor diets, left naked in cells. In one instance, a terrorist was threatened with a power drill. In another case, an interrogator told a terrorist that his children may be killed. There were two instances of mock execution.

To me, what is striking is what was not done to the prisoners. While one was threatened with a power drill, it was not in fact used on him. That would have been torture. Similarly, while one detainee was told that his children might be killed, they were not harmed. (If it had been the Russians, they would have been killed.) Al Qaeda has produced a manual on how to torture prisoners; among many other things, it explains how to scoop the prisoner’s eyes out. Nothing like that was done to captured leaders of al Qaeda. The terrorists’ fingernails were not extracted, their testicles were not crushed, their thumbs were not screwed. They weren’t even beaten.

They were subjected to rough treatment, since a terrorist can’t be made to talk by feeding him tea and cakes. But none of this amounts to torture; not even waterboarding, in my opinion. Waterboarding is best seen as a humane alternative to torture. It lasts only a few minutes and, while unpleasant–that is the point–causes no lasting physical harm. Unlike real torture.

I don’t know what animus or desire for political gain drove Senate Democrats to produce a vindictive, one-sided report on the CIA’s interrogation techniques (almost all of which, for better or worse, are now history). But if you read between the lines, the picture that emerges is quite different: a civilized nation, determined to protect its people, did the dirty work necessary to learn the secrets of a ruthless, terrorist enemy, acting almost always within legal and moral norms. Americans should be proud of the Central Intelligence Agency and others who fought on the secret front lines in the dark days after September 11.

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