As was to be expected, the release of the 6,000-page Senate Intelligence Committee’s highly critical report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program during the Bush era has created a furor both in the United States and around the world.
Many Americans are expressing dismay at what they claim was a program of torture and therefore a profound departure from American values. Abroad we are being pilloried as barbarians. But the story is much more complicated than the report suggests, and given the real possibility of legal consequences for CIA personnel in international tribunals and the incalculable damage to America’s image in the world, the report cannot go unchallenged.
The detention and interrogation program came into being following the 9/11 attacks and was intended to prevent further such attacks through heavy-duty preventative intelligence gathering from people apprehended in the course of terrorist acts or known to be active participants in terrorist organizations. As the report describes, the methods employed included beatings, waterboarding, sleep and sensory depravation, threats of abuse, and shackling.
It’s important to keep in mind that these methods were utilized in an attempt to secure vital information about looming terrorist attacks on civilians from people reasonably thought to possess it. Despite the fact that there have been no recurrences of anything even approaching a 9/11 attack on American soil since 2001, the report asserts that no useful purpose was served by the “torture” and concludes that information secured by other means was what enabled us to thwart potential terrorist acts.
No one would deny that the program subjected detainees to less than pleasant treatment, but the salient point is, for what purpose? Surely the safety of Americans is a goal worthy of circumscribed, though admittedly extraordinary, measures.
Former vice president Dick Cheney, who played a key role in the program, provided a perspective very different from the report. “I would do it again in a minute,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“Torture is what the Al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11,” he added. “There is no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogation.”
On the other hand, the contention that the methods employed by the CIA were unproductive cannot simply be dismissed out of hand. The report may be correct in that regard. The problem is that the report is so hyper-partisan in nature that one is hard-pressed to accept its findings at face value.
The report was produced solely by the Democrats on the Intelligence Committee. While committee reports are ordinarily issued by members of the majority party (in this case the Democrats), they are either joined by committee members of the minority party (in this case the Republicans) or the minority party issues its own report.
What is unusual here is that Republicans did not participate at all, reportedly because of the widespread perception that Democrats were simply looking to criticize the Bush administration. Republicans were also critical of the modus operandi employed, including the rather startling fact that CIA personnel were not interviewed.
Republicans were also reportedly concerned about going public with information that could lead to legal action against Americans abroad as well as physical attacks.
How America responds to terrorist threats is one of the overarching questions of our age. The stakes are such that a much more balanced investigation is called for. Indeed, with the advent of a Republican Senate come January, perhaps that balance will still come into play.