The Bush-era program of CIA harsh interrogations is long over. But the political and institutional struggles over the ramifications of that program are not over. If anything, they may be just beginning.
That could be one of the bottom lines from newly leaked stories about the results of a Senate investigation of the CIA’s actions. The probe, carried out by staff members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, concluded that waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and other harsh methods provided little if any useful intelligence in general, and nothing useful for the hunt for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in particular.
Just as troubling, in the view of committee aides, was the evidence that the CIA misled Congress about the nature and success of the program. A story in the Washington Post, which first disclosed the report contents, quotes officials who have seen the report saying that the intelligence community concealed how brutal some of the methods really were, and how little “actionable” intelligence they were producing.
Top CIA officers were saying everything was fine, while lower-level operatives knew better, in the report’s telling.
“Several officials who have read the document said some of its most troubling sections deal not with detainee abuse but with discrepancies between the statements of senior CIA officials in Washington and the details revealed in the written communications of lower-level employees directly involved,” write the Post’s Greg Miller, Adam Goldman, and Ellen Nakashima.
The allegation that the CIA lied to Congress and others about the interrogations isn’t entirely new. Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, a member of the Intelligence Committee, hinted publicly at this controversy in January 2013 in a letter congratulating John Brennan on his nomination to be CIA director. The Wyden letter noted that the panel had just wrapped up its 6,000-page study of the interrogation program, and asked Brennan his reaction “to the report’s revelation that the CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information about its interrogation program to the White House, the Justice Department, and Congress.”
What is new is the fact the officials who have seen the panel report have begun to talk more specifically about its contents. According to these officials, the still-classified report describes how CIA claims about the efficacy of harsh interrogations of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (who was waterboarded 183 times) distort the record of what he provided, and when. It describes dunking a terrorist suspect in an ice-water bath, a sort of second-level waterboarding unknown to the panel before its staff began the report.
Why has this surfaced now? Perhaps it has become public because the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA are locked in a fierce, high-stakes battle over the nature of the investigation that produced the report, the report's accuracy, and whether committee staffers broke the law and stole internal CIA documents.
CIA officials have contended that the Senate report is misleading. They say it takes documents out of context, contains factual inaccuracies, and leaps to unwarranted conclusions. Their objections, and the struggle to reach some kind of accommodation of their concerns, have kept even an unclassified summary of the report from being released to the public.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D) of California now says she will call for a panel vote on Thursday as to whether the report should be declassified. The vote itself won’t lead to a public reveal; all it can do is begin an administration declassification review of the document.
No one is likely to be prosecuted for the interrogations – President Obama has made that clear. But at stake with the report may be the shaping of the history of the interrogation program and the reputations of those who participated in it.
“If it didn’t actually work – if it didn’t produce vital information that saved so many lives it would justify the pit of immorality into which the Agency descended – then where does that leave the CIA?” writes Paul Waldman on the Post’s left-leaning “Plum Line” blog.
That said, it is also indeed possible that the Senate's interrogation report is not the full story, or is not completely accurate.
Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who first released Edward Snowden-leaked secrets at The Guardian, counts himself among those who aren’t sure about the accuracy of the Senate account.
“I’m very skeptical of claims by Congress that they were misled on CIA torture program: many of them knew & approved, now looking for excuses,” he tweeted on Tuesday.