WASHINGTON — Shackled and sleep-deprived for days on end. Forced to stand on broken feet. Driven to a suicidal edge in lightless dungeons. In at least one case, death by hypothermia. In another, a meal of puréed hummus, fed by the CIA into a detainee’s rectum.
That’s how America’s little book of heavily redacted horrors read Tuesday, as the Senate intelligence committee’s long-awaited report on torture in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks landed with a wallop in Washington
More than five years in the making, only the partially blacked-out 525-page summary of the Bush-era “enhanced interrogation” program made the cut, the rest of the 6,200 pages unlikely to be seen in this lifetime.
But it was the bottom line — findings that the CIA, after straying wildly from American norms, also misled everyone on the brutality and effectiveness of the program — that sent Washington into recriminatory convulsions.
A frenzied reaction broke quickly along partisan lines as committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein tabled the findings, calling them a “stain on our country and our values.”
Republicans and many key figures in the capital’s national intelligence community took dual aim, warning the “flawed” attempt to discredit the era of George W. Bush could end in violent repercussions against U.S. interests worldwide.
The “ideologically motivated” report on torture “serves no purpose other than to significantly endanger Americans around the world,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “It is a big step in the wrong direction.”
Sen. John McCain, who endured torture as a Vietnam-era prisoner of war, broke with his Republican colleagues, defending the report’s findings in an astonishing speech on the Senate floor.
Though violence against U.S. interests is “possible … perhaps likely” in the report’s wake, America’s enemies “hardly need an excuse” to attack, said McCain. And though the “truth is a hard pill to swallow,” he said, Americans need to know it and understand that the techniques discussed in the report are not only ineffective and potentially dangerous, but ultimately against the nation’s fundamental values.
“This question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be,” said McCain. “It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.”
The landmark decision to release the findings was made in April, when the White House confirmed it would allow the country’s own rebuked intelligence leaders to play a leading role in a final review of what the public would see.
The White House offered its own muted response Tuesday, issuing a statement calling Tuesday’s report “an example for democracy.” Vice-president Joe Biden, in a separate statement, told reporters: “We made mistake. We’re exposing it … and it will make it difficult for that mistake to ever be made again.”
Tuesday’s explosive aftermath also laid bare awkward doctrinal daylight between the White House and its supposed CIA subordinates, with the agency’s director, John Brennan — an Obama appointee — releasing a statement of his own acknowledging “mistakes” but insisting the controversial techniques yielded information that saved American lives in the aftermath of 9/11.
“Interrogations of detainees on whom (enhanced interrogation techniques) were used did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives,” Brennan said.
“While we made mistakes, the record does not support the study’s inference that the agency systematically and intentionally misled each of these audiences on the effectiveness of the program.”
Brennan’s Bush-era predecessors have long embraced the same message. Michael Hayden, former head of both the CIA and the National Security Agency, told the Toronto Star in 2010 that “the process resulted in valuable intelligence.”
Late Tuesday, Hayden reinforced his views in a followup interview, telling the Star, “This program, the enhanced interrogation program, saved lives, disrupted plots against the West and deepened our knowledge.
“I associate my comments with those of the current director of the CIA, who was nominated by Barack Obama,” said Hayden.
Tuesday’s disclosures marked a signal moment in America’s tortuous journey toward admitting the word torture, a process that began in the early months of the Obama era with the release of four incriminating memos that exposed the legal rationale behind the mistreatment of Al Qaeda suspects.
But throughout the subsequent series of legal and political battles, President Barack Obama has maintained a posture of “reflection, not retribution,” pledging to shield U.S. intelligence operations against criminal consequences.
Tuesday’s disclosures prompted a flurry of fresh calls for the process to delve deeper still. The group Reprieve.org, in a statement, called on U.S. investigators to explore cases of child victims of rendition, citing the case of Khadija Al Saadi, who was forced onto a plane by the CIA and sent to Gadhafi-era Libya when he was 12 years old.
“The report is an important step forward, as the horrifying details finally confirm that the CIA tortured and even killed detainees at their black sites, without regard to law, values or even the national security implications of committing those crimes,” said Reprieve’s lawyer for detainees, Alka Pradhan.
“But no review of the CIA torture program can be complete without an exhaustive list of the victims’ names and the inclusion of their voices on what they suffered.”
In Washington, however, Tuesday’s news felt more like an end than a beginning. With a newly elected, Republican-controlled Congress poised to take power in January, powerful committee chair positions will also change over, including Feinstein’s seat on Senate intelligence. This one extraordinary day of looking back, however long in coming, seems unlikely to repeat in the foreseeable future.