Politics

07.31.14

You're About to See What Obama Calls 'Torture'

Unlike the president, a long-awaited Senate report won’t use the word ‘torture’ to describe the CIA’s interrogations. But it will show horrific, systematic, and widespread abuse.

The White House is set to give Congress on Friday the final, declassified version of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s majority report on CIA interrogation. And according to one person who has reviewed the document and three people who were briefed on its contents, the committee’s report will reveal new and shocking details about the CIA’s detention, rendition, and interrogation program in the years following the 9/11 attacks. But the report will not accuse the CIA outright of “torture,” an accusation that could have political, diplomatic, legal, and even criminal implications.

That stands in contrast to the blunt assessment of the CIA’s practices offered by President Obama in a Friday press conference: “We tortured some folks,” the president said. “We did some things that are contrary to our values.”

Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein has said the report shows abuse that is “chilling” and “far more systematic and widespread than we thought.”

“The American people will be profoundly disturbed about what will be revealed in this report,” Sen. Ron Wyden, a member of the committee who has been vocal in his criticism of the CIA, told The Daily Beast this week.

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Demonstrator Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is held down during a simulation of waterboarding outside the Justice Department in Washington. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

 The committee could release it to the public next week after giving it one final review. But as soon as the declassified version is circulating around Washington, it is sure to leak out.

The redacted, 600-page executive summary of the 6,300-page report is expected to reveal that CIA interrogators abroad misled or failed to properly inform officials, lawmakers, and even the Secretary of State about the use of harsh interrogation techniques against prisoners in CIA prisons around the world. Moreover, the document is expected to say that the use of those techniques was not effective in collecting unique intelligence or thwarting plots.

The release will also include a formal rebuttal from the CIA, which has feuded publicly with the committee over the agency’s hacking of computers the investigators were using to help research this report. The document will also include a minority dissent from Republicans on the committee, who withdrew from the investigation in protest in the early stages of the process.

The CIA is taking the pending release of the report very seriously. John Brennan, the agency’s director, held a special town hall meeting at headquarters Thursday in part to prepare the workforce for the report’s release, according to current and former intelligence officers. Meanwhile, the agency has allowed some former senior CIA officers this week to view the report before its release to the public.

Behind the scenes, a group of former senior officials who are targeted in the investigation, led by former CIA Director George Tenet, have “quietly engineered a counterattack against the Senate committee’s voluminous report,” according to The New York Times.

They know that an entire coalition of human rights groups, anti-torture groups, and pro-transparency organizations have been preparing for this day for years, waiting for the huge tranche of information that the report will reveal to hopefully validate their contention that the CIA went too far and sacrificed too much for too little.

“I’m not surprised that [the former CIA officials] would defend their actions,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin told The Daily Beast. “It’s human nature that they want to defend themselves, but what went on was indefensible.”

Several members of the committee this week declined to comment about the still-classified contents of the report, but said that the path forward for congressional action or even criminal follow-up would be determined by what details make it into the unclassified version of the document. The White House has been mediating the tug of war between the CIA and the committee over the redaction process.

“The pro-torture crowd likely will argue that the report is inaccurate. But the Senate investigators, who had ability to look at everything—emails, cables, memos, whatever—concluded that CIA torture didn’t produce unique intelligence and didn’t stop plots.”

“A lot is going to depend on what’s public. Hopefully they won’t redact too much and hopefully the White House won’t let them get away with redacting too much,” Levin said. “Until you see what they are going to redact, it’s hard to know what material you have to work with.”

Regardless, the CIA’s defense will largely consist of attacking the credibility of the report by trying to frame it as a partisan hit job by a Democratic committee staff that failed to properly consult with top officials, an allegation vigorously disputed by the committee and its allies.

“I was one of the few who was given access to the report over the last few days, all of us are very disappointed,” said Michael Hayden, a former CIA and NSA director under President George W. Bush. “The terms of reference of the report indicated there would be hearings, interviews and recommendations. There have been no hearings, no interviews, and the report contains no recommendations.”

Ken Gude, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, one of the groups that actively lobbied for the report’s release, called Hayden’s criticism disingenuous, given evidence that the CIA went to extreme efforts to monitor and possibly impede the investigation. After all, the CIA Inspector General did conclude that CIA personnel masked their identities to snoop around in the Senate investigators’ computers, removed documents from their system, and covered their tracks.

That revelation Thursday led to bipartisan congressional condemnation of Brennan, who has dismissed allegations of such wrongdoing out of hand after committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein took to the Senate floor to accuse the CIA of spying on her staff in March. Sen. Mark Udall called for Brennan’s resignation over the incident.

“At every step of the way, we know the CIA made this review more difficult than it needed to be,” said Gude.

The next argument former CIA officials will make is that the review was unnecessary because the issue of CIA interrogation tactics had already been thoroughly litigated. Hayden declined to discuss the contents of the report because like others who read it, he had to sign an agreement promising not to discuss its contents before its release. But he did say that the rendition, detention, and interrogation program that began after 9/11 was “one of the most reviewed intelligence programs in history.”

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A detainee stands at an interior fence at the U.S. military prison for “enemy combatants” on October 28, 2009 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (John Moore/Getty)

Since the program’s inception, the inspector general, the Justice Department, the Eastern District of Virginia, and Assistant U.S. Attorney  John Durham have conducted reviews of the CIA’s harsh interrogations. Durham completed his work in the summer of 2012 and the Justice Department announced on August 30 that year that he decided to close a criminal investigation into the death of two detainees in CIA custody during the program.

At the time, Attorney General Eric Holder however made clear that Durham’s investigation was only meant to determine if criminal prosecutions should be pursued against CIA officers. “Our inquiry was limited to a determination of whether prosecutable offenses were committed and was not intended to, and does not resolve, broader questions regarding the propriety of the examined conduct,” Holder said in an August 30, 2012 statement.

Human rights experts said the report will add value to the debate not because it seeks to resolve any specific legal issue, but because it will contain so many new details that could prove beyond any reasonable doubt that CIA interrogators used techniques so humiliating, lengthy, and painful that any common sense observer would recognize them as torture.

“The report wasn’t meant to be a legal document, it was meant to be a factual assessment of the documentary record. If it makes public the activities we think it will, it will leave no doubt in Americans’ minds it amounts to torture,” said Raha Wala, senior counsel at Human Rights First. “It wouldn’t be surprising to me that the committee wouldn’t see its job as to make a legal determination about torture.”

Other officials familiar with the report say there are wide discrepancies between a report (only endorsed by Democrats on the committee) and the response to that report from both the Republicans on the committee and the CIA. On key questions like whether or not the harsh interrogation techniques produced unique intelligence that helped track down Osama bin Laden, the CIA and Republicans say it did, while the report says it did not.

“These are all very complicated cases,” one former senior U.S. intelligence officer told The Daily Beast. “The majority report tends to make them seem very simple, although the prose is long. The responses tend to show how complex these questions are.”

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man the U.S. says planned 9/11 and personally beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was water boarded 183 times by the CIA. Former agency officials have said repeatedly that after these sessions of simulated drowning Mohammed became more cooperative, but never fully broke or stopped withholding information entirely. A 2004 CIA inspector general report said as much.

However, Ali Soufan, a former FBI supervisory agent who worked against al Qaeda, is one of many inside the counterterrorism community who has challenged the CIA view that any actionable intelligence was gleaned from harsh interrogations. For example, he said in 2009 that the agency lied when it claimed that the waterboarding of an al Qaeda operative, Abu Zubaydah, led to the capture of Mohammed.

Outside defenders of the committee will point out that all of the committee votes to establish the investigation and declassify the report had some Republican support. They will also focus on the exhaustive nature of the investigation, during which staffers reviewed over 16 million documents.

“The pro-torture crowd likely will argue that the report is inaccurate. But here are the facts,” reads talking points circulate among the human rights community this week. “The Senate investigators, who had ability to look at everything—emails, cables, memos, whatever—concluded that CIA torture didn’t produce unique intelligence and didn’t stop plots. That might not be a fair standard for normal intelligence programs, but torture is not normal.”

Republicans have also raised concerns that the release of the report could jeopardize security at U.S. facilities overseas. All seven Republicans on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry on July 30 asking what preparations the State Department was making in anticipation of the release of the report.

“On several occasions, the White House and the State Department have told the Committee, both verbally and in writing, that a series of security steps will be needed to safeguard the lives of U.S. personnel overseas and the facilities in which they work,” the senators wrote.

Marie Harf, the deputy spokesperson for the State Department, told The Daily Beast on Thursday, “Prior to the release of any information related to the former RDI program, the administration will look at any potential security implications and take any steps we feel are necessary to protect our personnel and facilities overseas.”

Overall, the report’s impact will depend on what it reveals and whether it lives up to the high expectations built up since 2009. If it does, the partisan divide over the issue could come apart.

“The substance of the report is the most comprehensive accounting of what happened,” said Gude. “The information is just so shocking that I find it hard to believe that once this comes out in public the debate is going to center on anything else but what’s in it.”