A Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation” is poised to elevate hostility between the two groups into an all-out war.
In recent months, the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee have been in a perceived state of hostility. A disagreement over the CIA’s handling of the “enhanced interrogation” program under former President George W. Bush has evolved into a rare fight between a federal agency and its oversight board. The escalation of harsh words and allegations — including the Intelligence Committee accusing the CIA of illegal spying on, and hacking into the computers of the committee and vice versa — has turned the investigation into allegations of George W. Bush-era torture into an embarrassment for both the Democrat-ran Senate and the Obama White House.
A 6,300-page Senate Intelligence Committee report is set to add fuel to this spreading fire. As reported by The Washington Post, the classified, recently-concluded report alleges that the CIA knowingly misled the government and the American people about the severity and effectiveness of the “enhanced interrogation” program. The agency allegedly took credit for intelligence obtained without the use of “enhanced interrogation” and overstated the importance of information that “enhanced interrogation” did manage to extract.
“The CIA described [its program] repeatedly both to the Department of Justice and eventually to Congress as getting unique, otherwise unobtainable intelligence that helped disrupt terrorist plots and save thousands of lives,” one U.S. official briefed on the report told The Washington Post. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the classified nature of the report. “Was that actually true? The answer is no.”
However, with the committee stating that it does not seek any administrative or criminal inquiries based on the findings of the report, and considering that the administration has already closed the door on seeking culpability in the question of the use of “enhanced interrogation,” the question begs to be asked: What is the net result of this investigation?
As this report will likely reignite the debate on the use of torture, it will also likely create a screaming match this election year between Republicans defending the actions of the last Republican president and Democrats defending their rationale for not prosecuting these “crimes against humanity.”
“Enhanced interrogations” refer to a set of interrogation methods involving torturous or physically- and mentally-stressing activities to coerce cooperation. It includes tactics such as inducing hypothermia, waterboarding and stress positioning, or positioning the body in such a way that extraordinary weight is supported by just one or two muscle groups, as in forcing someone to stand on the balls of his feet and making him squat low to the ground.
Waterboarding is a form of water torture in which a victim is immobilized on a downward-inclined table with a cloth covering his face while water is poured over the cloth. This triggers the gag reflex and causes the victim to think he is drowning. As the gag reflex can cause the victim to vomit, the procedure is potentially fatal. In World War II, the United States arrested and hanged Japanese soldiers accused of waterboarding, as pointed out by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during a 2007 Republican Presidential Primaries debate.
“Enhanced interrogations” were carried out in “black sites,” or secret detention facilities, spread throughout the Afghan and Iraqi war zones and within allied nations. In 2009, President Obama brought an end to such interrogation activities, and the CIA and the U.S. Department of Defense closed all of the “black sites.” The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report mentions undisclosed acts of terror that do not appear on the U.S. Department of Justice’s approved list of interrogation techniques, such as the repeated dunking of a terrorism suspect in Afghanistan in tanks of ice water.
Torture is recognized as a grave violation of basic human rights and is explicitly prohibited by the United Nations Convention Against Torture and all four of the Geneva Conventions. However, due to the United States’ status as a veto-carrying permanent member of the Security Council, the agency charged with the enforcement of international law, the international community does not have the power to force the U.S. to obey these laws or punish the nation if it breaks them.
Differences in interpretation
Defenders of “enhanced interrogations” point to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Qaida’s propagandist from 1999 to 2001. In 2003, Mohammed was captured in Pakistan in a joint CIA-Pakistan raid. In 2006, Mohammed left CIA custody and was transferred to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
According to early reports of the death of Osama bin Laden, news agencies reported that CIA interrogators were able to retrieve the pseudonym of one of bin Laden’s aides from Mohammed and Mohammed’s successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi. Officials from the George W. Bush administration credited this information gathering to “enhanced interrogation.”
However, later reports indicated that waterboarding did not prompt Mohammed to reveal the information. Instead, he gave the information up under standard interrogation months before the military started the procedure. Mohammed’s disclosure occurred three years after the CIA waterboarded him 183 times. The Senate report indicated that the National Security Agency — not the CIA — was the most useful in securing intelligence that led to the death of bin Laden.
While the report’s favoring of the NSA over the CIA may reflect the current politics of the committee, which is trying to justify the NSA’s current surveillance apparatus as being both useful and essential for national security, it still points to the George W. Bush administration’s willingness to use violence to gather information, despite the fact that most experts agree that torture is not an effective means of gathering credible intelligence.
“The defenders of ‘enhanced interrogation’ believe it ‘saved American lives,’ yet never identified which life it saved,” Joseph Wippl, a former CIA officer and currently a professor of the practice of international relations, told MintPress News. “Had it really done so, I am confident that person or persons would have been identified.
“The debate about whether enhanced interrogation was effective against terrorists is the wrong debate. What if it was effective? Would you still engage in methods defined as torture — that is, ‘cruel, inhumane, degrading?’ Those methods of enhanced interrogation which can be defined as torture are wrong, even if justified by Justice Department memorandum, under all circumstances — even at the expense of American lives.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has been working to expose the “enhanced interrogation” program, argues that the Obama administration must do four things in order to redress the fact that the U.S. submitted to the use of torture: fully investigate the use of torture and kidnapping by the federal government and prosecute those responsible; release the records documenting the planning and approval of the program; honor and pardon those service members that objected to the use of torture; and publicly apologize for what has happened and duly compensate the victims and their families. While there is no indication that the administration will agree to every term dictated by the ACLU, there are signs that the White House seeks disclosure on this issue.
“There needs to be a further accounting of what took place during this period, I think for Congress to examine ways that it can be done in a bipartisan fashion, outside of the typical hearing process that can sometimes break down and break it entirely along party lines, to the extent that there are independent participants who are above reproach and have credibility, that would probably be a more sensible approach to take,” President Obama said on April 21, 2009.
With the Senate Intelligence Committee set to vote Thursday on whether the report should be sent to the White House for declassification, this report may be the first step in the nation’s reconciliation with its use of torture. However, with the CIA fervently refuting its accounting, the report is more likely to result in in-fighting and political arguments than healing.