While some will, no doubt, be embarrassed by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation program, as one of the staffers who helped make the case for the Committee’s investigation when it was initiated in 2009, I can tell you that was not its intention.
(For the record, all I did was help make the initial case for the investigation and maybe put out a press release or two. I am in no way taking credit for the tremendous work that Chairman Feinstein and her committee’s staff did on this report. By the way, I know those staffers did not trek out to the CIA site in Virginia — often in their free time — in search of our thanks and recognition, but I hope you will join me in giving it to them anyway. Because reports like this do not materialize from thin air.)
The dedicated SSCI staff — who spent tens of thousands of hours over the better part of five years researching, writing and editing this report — did so in order to ensure our nation’s interrogation programs would be grounded in what has, for too long, been missing from our nation’s interrogation debate: facts.
The interrogation techniques the CIA developed during the Bush Administration were not devised by behavioral experts with experience turning detainees into "long-term strategic sources of information." Rather, as the Department of Justice’s 2008 Inspector General’s report revealed, the FBI’s interrogation experts — with that experience — repeatedly refused to sign off on proposed interrogation plans, calling them "deeply flawed" and "completely ineffective."
The CIA’s interrogation program, instead, grew from the post-9/11 mentality that the U.S. would be best kept safe by those willing to go to the greatest extremes to protect it, or as former CIA agent Glenn Carle put it in his 2011 book The Interrogator, "Interrogating terrorists was no place for goddamn candy-asses."
FBI officials have described the interrogation-strategy sessions they observed as "circus-like." I’ve personally been told by individuals who participated in high-level discussions of U.S. interrogation policy that — as disturbing as it sounds — these conversations were more often than not informed by the participants’ recollection of episodes of the TV show 24 than by an understanding of the psychology of interrogation. Meanwhile, defenders of the CIA’s Bush-era interrogation activities continue to cite the murder of nearly 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001 as justification for their actions.
As Senator Feinstein writes in her introduction to the report:
The major lesson of this report is that regardless of the pressures and the need to act, the Intelligence Community's actions must always reflect who we are as a nation, and adhere to our laws and standards. It is precisely at these times of national crisis that our government must be guided by the lessons of our history and subject decisions to internal and external review.
The SSCI’s report was written to provide those lessons.
While some have and will likely continue to argue that President Obama settled the issue when he, as the president said in his statement today, "unequivocally banned torture when [he] took office," one might have argued that George Washington actually settled the issue 234 years earlier when he ordered that any American soldier who brought "shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country" by causing injury to a British prisoner could be put to death. Our "new country in the New World," Washington declared, "would distinguish itself by its humanity." And yet, two centuries after Washington gave that order, agents of the U.S. government subjected "at least five CIA detainees…to 'rectal rehydration' … without documented medical necessity."
President Obama’s executive order only settles the issue insofar as he remains president. As long as the belief persists that torture is an effective means of interrogation and anyone who doesn’t support ‘enhanced interrogation’ is a "candy ass" who lacks the necessary stomach to keep Americans safe, there is no assurance that a future president won’t take a different position than our current president.
Some have and will undoubtedly continue to argue that we shouldn’t discuss the efficacy of torture as an interrogation technique — even if it’s to prove that torture doesn’t work — because it suggests that if torture worked, it would be ok to torture people. I believe these people have a point.
The United States is more than a mass of land defined by geographic boundaries, it is a nation of people united by certain, principled beliefs, many of which our forefathers laid out at our nation’s founding. It is not enough to simply protect the people of the United States, one must also protect the principles that define the United States as a people; otherwise, there is no United States to protect. When the CIA and the Bush Administration sanctioned the torture of captured terrorists — regardless of their reasons — they made the United States something George Washington said we’d never be: a nation that tortures. One might argue that made us a little less American.
Some have and may continue to argue that making the CIA’s actions known puts Americans — particularly those serving overseas — in jeopardy. It’s worth noting that these arguments were made by people who know Senator Feinstein in an effort to persuade her not to make the committee report public. I say this is worth noting, because you do not need to know Senator Feinstein very well to know that there is nothing she wants less than to jeopardize the lives of American citizens, particularly those serving in harm’s way, and if there is an argument that would have given her second thoughts about releasing this report, that most likely would have been it.
If Americans are at risk, however, they are not at risk because the Senate Intelligence Committee is publicly acknowledging that the CIA tortured people during the Bush Administration. They’re at risk because the CIA tortured people during the Bush Administration.
The CIA put Americans at risk when they undermined the international agreements that protect Americans detained by foreign powers and sacrificed the moral authority we’ve long used to advocate for the humane treatment of detainees. They put Americans at risk when they made it harder — if not impossible — to prosecute known terrorists and keep them locked up. I'd also argue that defending the CIA’s actions, while refusing to come clean about what was done during the Bush Administration, not only fueled Al Qaeda’s hatred of Americans and put them at risk, it undermines the Obama Administration’s argument that the CIA no longer engages in torture.
Some have and may continue to argue that putting out this report will undermine morale at the CIA and derail its necessary work. Again, I'd argue that any hit to the CIA’s morale began when its agents were ordered to torture detainees without clear parameters and a solid legal foundation.
Some have and will no doubt continue to argue that an act taken to "prevent a threatened terrorist attack" is not as bad as an act taken "for the purpose of humiliation or abuse." I’d argue that torture is defined not by the torturer but by the person being tortured and that the laws governing torture were put in place because most people who engage in torture think they have a good reason.
There are some who have and will no doubt continue to argue — as they do about all things pertaining to national security — that this report shouldn’t have been made public. To respond to that I will quote directly from page 8 of the unclassified report:
The CIA's Office of Public Affairs and senior CIA officials coordinated to share classified information on the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program to select members of the media to counter public criticism, shape public opinion, and avoid potential congressional action to restrict the CIA's detention and interrogation authorities and budget.
If the SSCI’s report demonstrates one thing, it’s that the CIA’s unfettered ability to keep information about it’s activities secret gives it virtually limitless ability to control everyone’s understanding of its activities: from the White House and Congress to Hollywood and the American people. I have no doubt they’d argue those actions were necessary to protect national security, because in their mind — it seems — national security is harmed by anything that could potentially limit their authority to do exactly what they want. Someone should really tell them that's not how we do things in the United States.
And finally there will be some who have and will continue to argue that the CIA’s actions were necessary to protect national security. Those people, I’m guessing, need to make those arguments to help them sleep at night. To them, I’d argue the path to redemption lies not in the perpetuation of that belief, but in its eradication.
Again, please thank the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Jen Hoelzer is the former Communications Director and Deputy Chief of Staff for Senator Ron Wyden.