Skip to main content

The Most Bizarre Thing About the Torture Report Isn't Even the Torture

The Senate's torture report gives the Bush administration a pass it doesn't seem to want.

Update 12/11: Dick Cheney discusses the report after its release on Fox News

Assuming the contents of the 499-page "Torture Report" released by the Democrats on the Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence are accurate, we should welcome it as a rare act of transparency by a government that's become more opaque since the September 11, 2001 attacks. The report gives a shameful and horrifying look at the actions of the Central Intelligence Agency in its efforts to elicit information from detainees about possible terror plots in the months following the largest foreign attack on U.S. soil. The committee approved a review of the CIA's detention and interrogation techniques back in March 2009, and approved the report in December 2012. Only now has an abridged version of that report been declassified and made public.

But the circumstances surrounding this disclosure -- including the reaction from former Vice President Dick Cheney and current and former high-ranking CIA officials -- paint a conflicting picture about the culpability of top Bush administration officials in which, bizarrely, these former officials are maintaining that they're actually more responsible for what happened than the report -- commissioned by the Democratic-controlled committee -- would have us believe.

The chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) spearheaded the investigation and subsequently wrangled with the CIA and the Obama administration over what information would be declassified. The report's release, which is the abridged version of a much larger and still classified 6,000-page report, is the culmination of those exchanges.

It's an understatement to say that you came away disappointed if you were hoping Feinstein's report -- whose foreword says that "it is my personal conclusion that, under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured" -- would contain damning evidence implicating high-ranking Bush officials. Not only is there a dearth of evidence to this effect, but according to it, the CIA misrepresented and even outright lied to the White House about the extent and effects of the agency's "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EITs).

This stands in stark contrast to what Cheney said the day before the report was made public:

“What I keep hearing out there is they portray this as a rogue operation and the agency was way out of bounds and then they lied about it,” he said in a telephone interview. “I think that’s all a bunch of hooey. The program was authorized. The agency did not want to proceed without authorization, and it was also reviewed legally by the Justice Department before they undertook the program.”

Cheney hasn't made any public statements since the release, and it's not clear if he was specifically aware of the previously undisclosed EITs described in the report, such as forced rectal rehydration, slamming prisoners into walls, and depriving prisoners of sleep for as many as 180 consecutive hours. Although Cheney has previously defended waterboarding, it remains to be seen if he will own up to the Bush administration authorizing or tacitly approving of these measures, or if he will deny he knew about them at all.

Based on the report alone, the worst that can be said about Bush officials is that they were too trusting of the CIA and were generally incurious about what was occurring at the agency's black sites on foreign soil where detainees were held and tortured. Indeed, the report's Executive Summary lists 20 findings, all of which are to the effect of, "The CIA [did insert bad thing here]," including "imped[ing] effective White House oversight and decision-making."

The report notes that less than a week after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush "signed a covert action Memorandum of Notification (MON) granting the CIA unprecedented counterterrorism authorities, including the authority to covertly capture and detain individuals 'posing a continuing, serious threat of violence or death to U.S. persons and interests or planning terrorist activities.' The MON made no reference to interrogations or coercive interrogation techniques." [pg. 9] The implication here is that Bush gave the CIA carte blanche, presumably within certain legal boundaries, or so Bush thought..

The report asserts at multiple points that the CIA misled White House officials about the effectiveness of EIT's and the intelligence it was gathering and not gathering. These occasionally made their way into the president's public speeches and statements, the report notes. The following excerpt is typical of those in the report that seem to absolve the White House of explicitly authorizing or knowing about the true extent of the EITs:

"[I]n October 2002, CIA records indicate that President Bush was informed in a Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) that '[prisoner] Abu Zubaydah resisted providing useful information until becoming more cooperative in early August, probably in the hope of improving his living conditions.' The PDB made no reference to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques. Subsequently, the CIA represented to other senior policymakers and the Department of Justice that the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques were successfully used to elicit critical information from Abu Zubaydah." [pg. 209]"

And yet, an op-ed published after the release by three Bush-era CIA directors and three deputy directors not only disputes the report's conclusion that EITs were ineffective, but claims that the White House was in the loop every step of the way:

"Throughout the process, there was extensive consultation with the national security adviser, deputy national security adviser, White House counsel, and the Justice Department.

"The president approved the program. The attorney general deemed it legal."

There's even a website purporting to have been "created by a group of former CIA officials with hundreds of years of combined service" called saying much the same:

"The CIA’s Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation program was fully authorized by senior leaders at the White House, National Security Council and Department of Justice and was briefed to the senior leadership of the Senate and House intelligence committees."

This would seem to fly directly into the face of the report, unless of course the "Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation program" was "fully authorized by senior leaders" without those leaders knowing just exactly the program entailed. Bush and Cheney have already copped to authorizing waterboarding, meaning if their names had been Yukio Asano, they could be sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, and by the United States government no less. But what about the other EITs?

So on one side, the Feinstein report is giving a pass to Bush officials on the CIA's post-9/11 intelligence gathering methods from detainees. On the other side are those same officials like Cheney (so far) and the CIA saying that no, these were authorized by the White House all the way, and at no point did the CIA lie to the administration about EITs or related issues.

It's hard to know which side to believe: The one that ostensibly would have a partisan incentive to implicate the previous the previous administration but either wasn't able to or chose not to, or members of said administration who would have an incentive to distance themselves from the interrogation programs listed in said report but are maintaining that the whole thing was authorized.

Either way, we know what comes next: absolutely nothing. No one will be prosecuted for any of this. Before he became president, Barack Obama had already declared his reluctance to look into these Bush-era programs and that he had "a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards." In an added bit of irony, the only person Obama has prosecuted in connection with the Bush torture regime is John Kiriakou, the man who told the press about the torture of the aforementioned Abu Zubaydah. Kiriakou plead guilty and remains in prison.

That sorry state of affairs tells you everything you need to now about how the national security state, regardless of who's at the helm, works. Those who authorize and engage in torture are immune from prosecution because the president believes "we need to look forward as opposed to backward." However, when it comes to those who expose the very acts that that president later deems "mistakes" that "violated who we are as a people," then we look backward.

Follow me on twitter