Senate Intelligence Committee Republicans are claiming that CIA harsh interrogation techniques were key to finding Osama bin Laden. It’s part of the senators’ larger critique of a soon-to-be-released report by the Democratic staff that will detail what President Obama said was “torture” of prisoners in CIA custody.
Former Bush-era CIA officials have argued in the past that the interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and Abu Faraj al-Libbi led to the discovery of bin Laden in his compound in Pakistan. The White House and other officials, including former CIA Director Leon Panetta, have vigorously disputed that claim. Senate Republicans are pledging that their addendum to the imminent Senate Intelligence Committee majority staff report on CIA activities will reveal new information that harsh interrogations did help get Bin Laden. The GOP will also insist it wasn’t “torture.”
Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein will release the 480-page declassified executive summary of the Democrat’s 6,300-page report Wednesday or Thursday, according to several sources. The release will also include a lengthy defense by the CIA and a minority dissent written primarily by the staff of the committee’s ranking Republican, Saxby Chambliss. Chambliss’ office circulated talking points to Republican offices in anticipation of the report’s release, obtained by The Daily Beast.
“A number of the Study’s findings and conclusions are erroneous and misleading,” the first talking point reads. “Bottom line: the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation program did develop significant intelligence that helped us identify and capture important al-Qa’ida terrorists, disrupt their ongoing plotting, and take down Usama Bin Ladin.” The document offered no additional evidence to back up this claim.
Feinstein’s report—which was compiled after a five-year investigation involving the review of over 6 million documents related to the CIA’s rendition, detention, and interrogation practices—is expected to claim that harsh interrogation techniques provided didn’t contribute to thwarting any terrorist plots.
Chambliss sought to frame the debate Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation, where he preemptively attacked Feinstein’s report.
“There is a theory on the part of the Senate Democrats… that no significant information was obtained as a result of the use of those enhanced interrogation techniques. Now, that is absolutely wrong,” he said. “And you are going to be able to see from the report itself, as well as from the minority views that we have put together as well as a response from the Central Intelligence Agency—that information gleaned from these interrogations was, in fact, used to interrupt and disrupt terrorist plots, including some information that took down bin Laden.”
According to the talking points, committee Republicans will also seek to paint the report as partisan, not up to high research standards, wasteful, and redundant. Chambliss said he and others will dispute that interrogation techniques including waterboarding can be classified as “torture,” a term that carries political, diplomatic, and potentially even legal implications.
“In the end, no detainee in CIA custody revealed bin Laden’s courier's full true name or specific whereabouts.”
Chambliss got into a heated argument with Sen. John McCain during a meeting of Senate Republicans last week over whether enhanced interrogation techniques amounted to torture, according to a senior GOP senate staffer. McCain, who spent five years in captivity and suffered torture at the hands of the Viet Cong, has long argued that waterboarding is torture and its use runs counter to American laws and values.
President Obama said last Friday, “We tortured some folks,” when announcing that the White House had passed back to Feinstein the final round of redactions and declassifications. Obama urged the public not to be too sanctimonious when judging the CIA officials and policymakers who were involved in what he calls abuse, but he said the report would reveal practices any common-sense observer would recognize as “torture.”
Feinstein’s staff deliberately did not use the word “torture” in their study, The Daily Beast reported, because they did not see their role as to make a legal judgment about what constitutes torture. Feinstein released a statement Friday explaining that she wanted to press for more details to be declassified before she released the study.
The actual link between the use of harsh interrogation techniques and the capture of Osama bin Laden is a matter of deep dispute. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man the U.S. says planned 9/11, was waterboarded 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.
In 2011, former CIA official Jose Rodriguez claimed that enhanced interrogation techniques used against KSM and al-Libbi, who was not waterboarded, were key because they led both prisoners to reveal the nom de guerre of bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. (Rodriguez was head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service in 2002 when he made the decision to destroy videotapes of CIA interrogations, which is what spurred the congressional investigation in the first place.)
When Rodriguez made his statement in 2011, McCain was so infuriated that he wrote to then-CIA Director Panetta and asked him to correct the record.
“We first learned about the facilitator/courier’s nom de guerre from a detainee not in CIA custody in 2002,” Panetta wrote back to McCain in 2011. “In the end, no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts.”
Human rights advocates maintain that whether or not enhanced interrogations produced bits of unique intelligence is beside the point; they argue the damage done to America’s standing abroad and the risk of retaliation against U.S. citizens abroad far outweighs any supposed benefits.
“Irrespective of what intelligence may have been gathered by the program, the costs of resorting to torture far outweighed any intelligence gains,” said Raha Wala, senior counsel at Human Rights First. “The burden really is on those who support enhanced interrogation to prove whatever intelligence gains were achieved.”
Obama on Friday also expressed confidence in CIA Director John Brennan, who is under fire for first denying and later admitting that CIA employees hacked into computers being used by Senate investigators. Sens. Mark Udall and Rand Paul called for Brennan’s resignation and The New York Times editorial board wrote he “may” have to go after what the paper called the CIA’s “reckless breach of trust.”
“If I thought John Brennan knew about this, then it would be certain we’d be calling for his resignation. But the [Office of the Inspector General] made a specific finding that he did not,” said Chambliss, defending Brennan’s job.
Some Democrats argue that Brennan’s failure to disclose—or failure to be aware of—what CIA personnel were doing has irreparably harmed his relationship with the lawmakers charged with overseeing the agency. Brennan was also a key architect of the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program—and the legal and policy rationales the Bush administration used to authorize it.
Mieke Eoyang, a former intelligence committee staffer who now serves as the director of the National Security Program at Third Way, a center-left think tank, said: “I think the president has to take a really hard look at Brennan and decide whether or not what he’s done has so damaged his relationship with his overseers that he can no longer effectively do his job.”