The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow. It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. It is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us. But the American people are entitled to it, nonetheless. … I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world. — Sen. John McCain, December 9, 2014.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a 499-page “executive summary” of a more than 6,000-page long study of CIA intelligence-gathering techniques performed on people kept in its detention facilities today.
After all this time, after so much has been disputed and argued about, it would seem that what we learn about today is simply more of the same. Indeed, it may seem like it’s simply a more detailed version of what was already known. What isn’t new is that what’s been made public today is going to become a partisan football; what isn’t new is that people whose personal and professional reputations are subject to profound criticism by the report continue to insist that they were justified and did the right thing; what isn’t new is that active measures were taken to keep what was being done in our names secret from us; what isn’t new is that officials acting on behalf of our government did things to people within their custody and control, things which by any reasonable definition of the word would be considered “torture.”
What actually is new, or at least seems so to me, is that the people doing it did their best to conceal it not just from the media, and not even from Congress, but from the President and his chief advisers, and indeed higher-level administrators within the CIA itself. It was a program run amok, self-directed and self-important, producing little if any tangible good, doing substantial harm and realizing substantial expense.
I’ll quickly summarize the findings here, although I’ve provided above a link the the full report.*
- The CIA’s use of
its enhanced interrogation techniquestorture was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees. All of the information of interest extracted from detainees came before EITs weretorture was used.
- Interrogations of CIA detainees and conditions of confinement were brutal, harsher, and far worse than the CIA represented to policymakers and others.
EITsKinds of torture were used that had not been approved by the Department of Justice or even by supervisorial-level decision-makers within the CIA itself. Interrogators who violated EITtorture policy were rarely disciplined or held responsible for their actions; critiques and objections from both within and without the organization were marginalized or ignored.
- Information about detentions and interrogations released to the media was consciously manipulated to present an appearance of greater effectiveness than was actually being realized. The CIA’s justification for the use of
enhanced interrogation techniquestorture rested on inaccurate claims of theirits effectiveness.
- Internal administration and policymaking control of the rendition, detention, and interrogation of prisoners by the CIA was haphazard, uncoordinated, and took nearly three years before administrators could confidently direct what interrogators were doing. Accurate records of the number of detainees were not kept; many detainees did not meet the legal standards for detention, and the CIA misreported the number of detainees under its control.
- Two contract psychologists with no interrogation experience devised the
interrogationtorture techniques and trained CIA investigators in the use of EITstorture. They received a $180 million dollar contract, of which a total of $81 million was paid between 2005 and 2009.
- The program effectively ended, however, in 2006, because one by one, nations hosting the secret prisons where these interrogations occurred withdrew their consent. By March of 2006, the program operated in only a single country (which is redacted but which I presume to be Afghanistan) and the last use of
an EITtorture was on November 8, 2007.
- The CIA repeatedly and willfully provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice, the White House, its own Inspector General, and Congress. Specifically, CIA operatives took care to not allow information about their activities to reach Secretary of State Colin Powell for fear that he would “blow his
topstack.” Not only did this impede oversight and prevent a proper legal analysis of the program, it complicated and impeded other national security missions performed by other agencies within the Executive Branch.
- Furthermore, the Detention and Interrogation Program damaged the United States’ diplomatic and moral standing around the world, obstructing cooperation with intelligence-sharing efforts with allies, classified diplomatic confrontations with otherwise-friendly foreign nations, and costing over $300 million in non-personnel costs, including the construction of two detention facilities that were never used.
At no point does it appear that anyone in the CIA considered that all of the internal and external criticism of its activities pointed to either a moral or a legal failure on its part. Rather, it appears that the people running things came to believe that perpetuation of the program was of inherent and reflexive importance and adopted an “us against the world” attitude in which even lying to their own higher-ups was a necessary and justified part of process.
If nothing else, it’s stopped now, and we’re telling the unpleasant truths about it to ourselves and the public. Which is better than the alternatives to both of those states of affairs. While Americans disagree about a number of things, it ought to be quite evident by now that we need not sacrifice security, intelligence, or strength in order to comply with our own basic morals and ideals — including, but not limited to, government under the rule of law and basic human decency.
To see how far from those fundamental ideals agents of my government strayed renders me furious, beyond even my considerable powers of description.
When virtue is lost, benevolence appears. When benevolence is lost, right conduct appears. When right conduct is lost, expedience appears. Expediency is the mere shadow of right and truth; it is the beginning of disorder. — Lao Tzu.
* At the suggestion of commenter Emile, I have replaced the phrase “enhanced interrogation technique” or the acronym “EIT” with a more appropriate word for what is really being discussed: “torture.”
Image source: wikimedia commons, with modifications by the author. Allegorical figures of Grief and History stand by the United States Capitol’s dome, at First Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue, part of a series of statutes and monuments near the United States Capitol commemorating the United States Civil War.
Burt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.