No nation is perfect. But one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better. -- President Obama on the release of Senate Intelligence Committee's CIA use of enhanced interrogation techniques
This week, in the hallowed halls of Congress, a moan and a shudder could be heard when the Senate released its findings on the truly horrifying excesses of CIA interrogations used upon suspected terrorists following the 911 attacks.
The Narrative Dissolves
A quick review of the 600-page executive summary of the report explained why Republicans had been doing all they could to block its release. From torture techniques that involved threats to suspect's children and forced enemas, ice water baths and threats to use drills as torture devices, to CIA lies about the successes, the report could hardly be more damaging to the Republican narrative.
The New York Times has helpfully made a list of the most important findings:
- The C.I.A.’s interrogation techniques were more brutal and employed more extensively than the agency portrayed.
- The C.I.A. interrogation program was mismanaged and was not subject to adequate oversight.
- The C.I.A. misled members of Congress and the White House about the effectiveness and extent of its brutal interrogation techniques.
- Interrogators in the field who tried to stop the brutal techniques were repeatedly overruled by senior C.I.A. officials.
- The C.I.A. repeatedly under-reported the number of people it detained and subjected to harsh interrogation techniques under the program.
- At least 26 detainees were wrongfully held and did not meet the government’s standard for detention.
- The C.I.A. leaked classified information to journalists, exaggerating the success of interrogation methods in an effort to gain public support.
- Of the 119 CIA detainees, 26 should not have been apprehended.
- Abu Zubaida, the CIA's first detainee, spent 266 hours in a coffin-size confinement box.
- Of the at least 26 detainees who were wrongfully held, one was "intellectually challenged."
- CIA officers would "strip a detainee naked, shackle him in the standing position for up to 72 hours, and douse [him] repeatedly with cold water."
For the more cynical, the fact that the report was released at all is a bit of a shock. Certainly it is long overdue and could easily have been classified so utterly that the American public- at least this generation- would never have seen it.
Its release also turns the tables on a lot of the Republican talking points about exposing the imaginary scandal of Benghazi.
One of the Bush administration’s most outspoken champions of the CIA interrogations, former vice-president Dick Cheney came out swinging even before he had had a chance to look at the report.
Only from news reports, said Cheney, he had heard nothing to change his mind about the wisdom or effectiveness of the program. It would have been earth-shaking had he suddenly rethought his advocacy of the policy.
“What I keep hearing out there is they portray this as a rogue operation, and the agency was way out of bounds and then they lied about it. I think that’s all a bunch of hooey. The program was authorized. The agency did not want to proceed without authorization, and it was also reviewed legally by the Justice Department before they undertook the program.”If one considers those words carefully, that's quite a dangerous thing for Cheney to admit. The statement opens up a lot of very interesting questions about what was going on during the Bush administration.
The use of the passive voice ("the program was authorized") is no accident. According to a Bloomberg article, the report reveals that President Bush was seemingly unaware of exactly what was happening and what was authorized.
President George W. Bush was never briefed by the Central Intelligence Agency on the details of harsh interrogation techniques and secret detention of terror suspects for the first four years of the controversial program, and when he did find out the details, he was “uncomfortable” with some of the practices, according to the long-awaited report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
The CIA records reveal that
"no CIA officer, up to and including CIA Directors George Tenet and Porter Goss, briefed the president on the specific CIA enhanced interrogation techniques before April 2006." In addition to that, the intelligence agency did not inform the president or vice president of the location of CIA detention facilities other than country."
That the president should be kept out of the loop hard to believe. Of course, George W. Bush often seemed strangely detached from what was going on. Katrina for example. Some of his supporters called it- with a straight face- a "hands-off" style of management style. (The same excuse was used for Reagan's second term which we now know had much more to do with his failing mental facilities.)
The question then becomes: who was making the decisions and who exactly authorized it? Apparently, according to the Senate report's account, not the president.
The Bloomberg article also adds:
Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were briefed on the interrogation techniques sometime in 2003, the committee report states. Other top officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, also eventually received briefings about the details of the program, but not the president himself.
Keeping the president in the dark was perhaps an attempt at shielding and allowing him a later option of deniability. (Reagan made use of the same tactic when the full details of the Iran-Contra scandal emerged. Many at that time doubted the veracity of the claim that Reagan knew nothing of secret arms deals with Iran.)
Still that's not what Cheney has just said. He said the program was authorized by the White House.
In addition, George W. Bush, in his memoir, Decision Points, seems to contradict the CIA claim in the Senate report. In the book, the former president declares that he was shown a list of the interrogation techniques (which suggests they had not been used up to that point) and marked off those techniques he "felt went too far, even if they were legal. I directed the CIA not the use them."
Water-boarding, basically a form of controlled drowning, was, Bush states, considered both legal and harmless. It's not a surprise that he should say this.
However, given the list of horrendous techniques the CIA apparently did use, it is hard to imagine which ones Bush crossed off. He didn't cross off so many other things, like mock executions, Russian roulette, and threatening to slit the throat of one detainee's mother. Bush didn't have a problem with forcing the detainees "to stand on broken limbs for hours, kept in complete darkness, deprived of sleep for up to 180 hours, sometimes standing, sometimes with their arms shackled above their heads."
In any case, between the accounts of the CIA, Cheney and Bush, there are some glaring discrepencies. Something doesn't add up here and it is impossible that all of the versions of events align.
In the phone interview, Cheney was quoted as saying that he
"never believed the C.I.A. was withholding information from him or the White House about the nature of the program, nor did he think the agency exaggerated the value of the intelligence gained from water boarding and other techniques widely considered to be torture."
Cheney added boldly that the CIA "deserved a lot of praise."
“As far as I’m concerned, they ought to be decorated, not criticized.”
It's going to be a peculiar medal that honors medically unnecessary “rectal feeding” or sexual threats reportedly involving broom handles. It's not something most self-respecting government agents would generally call a high point in their careers.
Releasing the report is in an ideal world the first step in ensuring that such torture can never be passed off as a superpower privilege. The real question is whether exposure alone is the only justice the world can expect from the Obama Administration.
Politically speaking, the president has nothing to gain by protecting the Bush administration. In the long view of history he has everything to lose. In some ways, this could be the greatest challenge of his presidency, to match his declarations of principle- fine words though they are- with a committed response. Even his supporters are doubtful whether Obama up to that task.
Nevertheless, a man as brilliant as Obama must know partial justice is fool's good compared to full justice.
If America doesn't have the necessary will to deal with its mistakes, then will the rest of the world be ready to demand immediate action?
* * *
As Justice Robert H. Jackson said in the opening of the Nuremberg trials in November 1945:
Civilization can afford no compromise with the social forces which would gain renewed strength if we deal ambiguously or indecisively.In his condemnation of the Nazis and the atrocities they committed, Jackson also said:
If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.
For the world- and especially the United States- to ignore this confirmation of torture long suspected should, if conscience still exists, be a moral impossibility.