By Jane Mayer, December 22, 2014 (issue of The New Yorker)
It’s hard to describe it as a positive development when a branch of the federal government releases a four-hundred-and-ninety-nine-page report that explains, in meticulous detail, how unthinkable cruelty became official U.S. policy. But last Tuesday, in releasing the long-awaited Senate Select Intelligence Committee report on the C.I.A.’s interrogation-and-detention program, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee chairman, proved that Congress can still perform its most basic Madisonian function of providing a check on executive-branch abuse, and that is reason for gratitude.
It is clear now that from the start many of those involved in the program, which began in 2002, recognized its potential criminality. Before subjecting a detainee to interrogation, a 2002 cable notes, C.I.A. officers sought assurances that he would “remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.” Permanent, extrajudicial disappearance was apparently preferable to letting the prisoner ever tell what had been done to him. That logic may explain why no “high value detainee” subjected to the most extreme tactics and still in U.S. custody in Guantánamo has yet been given an open trial.
The report also demonstrates that the agency misrepresented nearly every aspect of its program to the Bush Administration, which authorized it, to the members of Congress charged with overseeing it, and to the public, which was led to believe that whatever the C.I.A. was doing was vital for national security and did not involve torture. Instead, the report shows, in all twenty cases most widely cited by the C.I.A. as evidence that abusive interrogation methods were necessary, the same information could have been obtained, and frequently was obtained, through non-coercive methods. Further, the interrogations often produced false information, ensnaring innocent people, sometimes with tragic results.
Other documents illustrate how the agency misled. In June of 2003, the Vice-President’s counsel asked the C.I.A’.s general counsel if the agency was videotaping its waterboarding sessions. His answer was no. That was technically true, since it was not videotaping them at the time. But it had done so previously, and it had the tapes. The C.I.A. used the same evasion on Senate overseers. A day after a senator proposed a commission to look into detainee matters, the tapes were destroyed. Similar deceptions on many levels are so rife in the report that a reader can’t help but wonder if agency officials didn’t simply regard their cloak of state secrecy as a license to circumvent accountability.
After Feinstein introduced the report on the Senate floor, John McCain rose to speak. He praised the document as “a thorough and thoughtful study of practices that I believe not only failed their purpose—to secure actionable intelligence to prevent further attacks on the U.S. and our allies—but actually damaged our security interests, as well as our reputation as a force for good in the world.” His endorsement was important not only because, as a former prisoner of war who survived torture, he has particular authority on the issue but also because he is a Republican. He lent the report credibility against torture apologists hoping to discredit it as a political stunt. The tableau of the two elder senators putting aside their differences to stand together was a relic of bipartisan statesmanship.
It remains to be seen, though, whether the report will spur lasting reform. Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College and an expert on torture regimes, doubts that it will. For one thing, despite McCain’s testimony, torture is becoming just another partisan issue. This wasn’t always the case—it was Ronald Reagan who signed the U.N. Convention Against Torture, in 1988. But polls show both a growing acceptance of the practice and a widening divide along party lines. “It’s becoming a lot like the death penalty,” Rejali said.
The 1975 Church Committee report, which was conducted following revelations of, among other things, covert operations to assassinate foreign leaders, was, until now, the best-known public airing of C.I.A. practices. According to Loch K. Johnson, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, who was a special assistant to Senator Frank Church, its findings were broadly accepted across the political spectrum. “No one challenged it,” he said. By contrast, the new report, even before it was released, came under attack from Republicans, including Dick Cheney, who, although he hadn’t read it, called it “full of crap.” Senator Mitch McConnell, the incoming majority leader, castigated it as “ideologically motivated and distorted.” John Cornyn, the second-highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, argued that C.I.A. officers should not be criticized but, rather, “thanked.”
There was a way to address the matter that might have avoided much of the partisan trivialization. In a White House meeting in early 2009, Greg Craig, President Obama’s White House Counsel, recommended the formation of an independent commission. Nearly every adviser in the room endorsed the idea, including such national-security hawks as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and the President’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Leon Panetta, the C.I.A. director at the time, also supported it. Obama, however, said that he didn’t want to seem to be taking punitive measures against his predecessor, apparently because he still hoped to reach bipartisan agreement on issues such as closing Guantánamo.
Obama has made plain in his public statements and in his executive orders that torture, which is how he forthrightly labelled the program, was unacceptable. But, in leaving matters to the Senate, he left the truth open to debate. He further complicated things by appointing John Brennan to run the C.I.A., even though Brennan, as a top officer in the agency, had worked closely with George Tenet, the director during the worst excesses of the program. Last Thursday, in a rare press conference, Brennan called the C.I.A.’s past practices “abhorrent” but declined to say that they amounted to torture, undercutting Obama. Democrats called for Brennan and other C.I.A. personnel to be “purged.” Senator Mark Udall, who sits on the Intelligence Committee, said, “If there is no moral leadership from the White House, what’s to stop the next White House and C.I.A. director from supporting torture?”
Rejali, who has studied the tension between torture and democracy around the world, says that “there’s a five- or six-year window for any kind of accountability. We’re now past that window. The two sides are entrenched.” Without a mutual acknowledgment of the mistakes made, and some form of accountability, he warned, another reversion to torture may be difficult to prevent: “Nothing predicts future behavior as much as past impunity.”