Before Tuesday’s release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation practices, Obama administration officials argued for keeping the report under wraps, at least temporarily.
One key concern was that the report’s details could burn bridges with allies, in particular those that cooperated with the US by hosting “black sites” for terror suspect interrogation. American diplomats and service members overseas would be endangered, officials including Secretary of State John Kerry warned, and extraordinary security measures were ordered at embassies and other overseas facilities.
Another worry was that the report’s revelations of past misdeeds could dampen allies’ willingness to cooperate with the US now in the fight to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State.
But none of the anticipated backlash has materialized, at least not so far. Social media around the world have indeed ignited with blasts at the US – including some calls from Islamist extremists adept at Internet propaganda for acts of revenge – while some international human rights advocates demanded prosecution of the perpetrators of the abuses detailed in the report.
But anticipated widespread anti-US demonstrations – some officials had privately worried the report could set off violent outbursts on the order of the deadly Benghazi attacks on US facilities in that eastern Libyan city in 2012 – have not occurred.
One reason is that the CIA interrogation program and the harsh techniques, including acts of torture, laid out in the report occurred under a past American administration. All of the most extreme treatment of detainees and the recourse to black sites ended before President Obama took office in 2009 and ordered a ban on the use of torture.
Another reason some experts cite is that the Senate report seems to be viewed widely as an exercise in democracy and a “coming clean” on the part of the US – something akin to the kind of “truth-out” reports that a number of democracies around the world have issued as part of dealing with past transgressions and episodes of rights abuse.
On the other hand, some critics say the lack of reaction stems from the fact that the world already knew about techniques such as waterboarding, and that journalistic investigations, books, and movies like “Zero Dark Thirty” already had opened a window into the CIA’s post-9/11 activities.
Yet another factor is that the Obama administration, starting at the top, took steps in the days leading up to the release to prepare allies and partners for what was coming.
The Obama administration has been preparing for months for the report’s release, a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday. “We were constantly mindful of the impact that the release of this report could have on the security of our embassies and personnel serving abroad,” the official said, commenting on administration preparations on the condition of anonymity.
Mr. Obama called Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz on Monday – not just because Poland is a “strong partner” with the US in Afghanistan and in supporting Ukraine, as a White House statement said, but because Poland was the site of one of the CIA secret interrogation facilities revealed in the report.
Former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski confirmed Wednesday that during his term Poland offered to host one of the secret CIA facilities. But he said Polish officials had not authorized the kind of treatment detailed in the Senate report, and he said subsequent pressure from Polish officials ended the detention activity in Poland.
The secret Polish site was code-named “Blue” under a CIA color-code system that avoided using the names of the countries hosting the black sites. Other sites included Lithuania – Violet – Afghanistan with a rainbow of four sites, and Thailand – Green.
Polish Prime Minister Kopacz said the public airing of the Senate report would not harm US-Polish relations.
Perhaps the sharpest response Wednesday from one of the "black site" countries came from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who went on national television to condemn the torture described in the report as "shocking" and as violating "all accepted norms of human rights in the world." He promised to investigate the abuse carried out by the CIA in Afghanistan.
Just last week Secretary Kerry directed ambassadors to form special emergency response committees to act on any threats.
The flurry of American diplomatic damage control around the report’s release was reminiscent of the feverish activity that the Obama administration undertook at the time of the Wikileaks revelations in 2010, and again with the Edward Snowden National Security Agency leaks that began in June 2013.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton memorably revealed in November 2010 that, as she went about doing damage control with US allies over Wikileaks revelations of embarrassing US assessments of some foreign leaders, one of her “counterparts” told her, “Don’t worry about it. You should see what we say about you.”
The Snowden leaks revealed that in some cases the US was in fact spying to find out what foreign leaders had to say about the US.
But those revelations – which indeed enraged a number of close US allies and in some cases chilled diplomatic relations – involved activities continuing under the Obama administration. The activities outlined in the Senate report began and ended during the George W. Bush administration.
That fact is not stopping some US critics from seizing on what they see as the “hypocrisy” the Senate report reveals about a country that presents itself as an international model.
China trumpeted through its Xinhua state news agency that the report revealed the US is “neither a suitable role model nor a qualified judge on human rights” and should “clean up its own backyard first” and “respect the rights of other countries to resolve their issues by themselves.”
In Egypt, where the US is known to have rendered dozens of detainees during the Mubarak regime, the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was silent on the report.
But pro-government TV commentator Tamer Amin derided the holier-than-thou attitude of a country that is critical of Egypt’s treatment of human rights, saying on his show, “America cannot demand human rights reports from other countries when this [report] proves they know nothing about human rights.”
If that’s as violent as the reaction to the Senate report gets, the Obama administration will be relieved. Having prepared for the worst, the administration is hoping the world remembers the report is about past activities – and that the report’s release is evidence of a democracy strong enough to air its transgressions for the world to see.
“We value our partnerships around the world,” another senior administration official told reporters at Tuesday’s briefing on the CIA interrogation program. “We hope and have confidence that foreign governments and foreign publics will understand that this is a program that ended years ago.”