On the second day in office, President Obama signed an executive order banning torture and cruel treatment in the interrogation of terror suspects. That executive order was a direct rebuke of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques of the Bush Administration. The order went even so far as to ban U.S. agents from relying upon any interpretation of the law governing interrogations issued by the Department of Justice between September 11, 2001 and the final day of the Bush presidency. It was, and remains, one of the proudest moments of the Obama Administration.
Then came a colossal failure. Despite issuing the executive order banning torture, Obama avoided the question of accountability and insisted that he wasn’t interested in a broad investigation of Bush-era intelligence programs. In a January 2009 interview with George Stephanopoulos, President Obama said, “We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”
Mr. Obama, however, did not sway Senate Democrats from launching an investigation of their own. On condition of anonymity, in late February 2009 Senate officials began telling reporters that the Senate Intelligence Committee planned to launch an investigation into the torture program. Then, on March 5, 2009, the panel voted 14-1 to proceed with the investigation. The press release after the vote estimated that the review should take approximately one year.
For the next six years, however, the Obama Administration’s indecisiveness, C.I.A. snooping, and Republican opposition frustrated the Senate committee’s investigation.
Obama continued to vacillate between opposing prosecutions (“nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past”) and suggesting that he might be open to prosecutions (“I would say that is going to be more of a decision for the Attorney General within the parameters of various laws and I don’t want to prejudge that”). In August 2009, Eric Holder opened a “preliminary review” into potential prosecutions, despite being urged by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s chair, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), to wait for the committee to complete its report. In response to Holder’s announcement, Republicans on the committee withdrew from the Senate panel’s review, arguing that the concurrent Justice Department investigation would make C.I.A. employees afraid to answer the committee’s questions.
The C.I.A., far from being cooperative in the investigation, spied on Senate investigators, creating false online identities to access computers used by the investigators and read their emails. In addition, documents repeatedly went missing from the “secure” C.I.A. facility where congressional aides were conducting the investigation. In February 2010, around 870 documents disappeared. Shortly thereafter, another 60 documents went missing. When confronted by the Senate committee, the initial response from the C.I.A. was to deny that the documents went missing. Over time, however, the C.I.A. changed its story and blamed the IT contractors, and then altered course again and blamed the White House. According to Feinstein, the C.I.A. later apologized for removing the documents.
On September 6, 2012, the New York Times reported that the committee’s review was “nearing completion.” And on December 13, 2012, the committee voted 9-6 to approve the report for the declassification process. The report, however, was not declassified right away. After much wrangling between the Senate Intelligence Committee, State Department, C.I.A., Congress, and White House, the committee voted 11-3 to declassify the executive summary and conclusions on April 3, 2014. The White House said the process would be expedited, and on December 9, 2014, the committee released the 481-page executive summary of the report. According to Feinstein, the complete report is now more than 6,200 pages.
The report did not wrestle with the morality or legality of the C.I.A.’s torture program or the operation’s damaging effect on the U.S.’ international credibility. Rather, it focused on mainly a practical question: Did torture accomplish anything of value? After examining case after case, the report answers with an unqualified no. Here are the seven key takeaways from the Senate report.
First, the C.I.A.’s interrogation techniques were more brutal and employed more extensively than the agency portrayed. The report suggested that more prisoners were subjected to waterboarding (which the report called “a series of near-drownings”) than the three prisoners the C.I.A. has acknowledged in the past, and described detainees being subjected to sleep deprivation for up to a week, medically unnecessary “rectal feeding” and death threats.
Second, the C.I.A. interrogation was mismanaged and was not subject to adequate oversight. The architects of the interrogation program had no interrogation experience whatsoever, and the report repeatedly questioned the competence and training of interrogators. Interrogators were “rarely held accountable” for death, injury or wrongful detention, and the C.I.A. resisted congressional oversight and impeded access to information.
Third, the C.I.A. misled members of Congress and the White House about the effectiveness of its interrogation techniques. Statements made by C.I.A. representatives to Congress often directly contradicted internal C.I.A. records. For example, the report includes dozens of examples from C.I.A. Director Michael Hayden’s April 12, 2007, testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In one instance, Hayden described Abu Zubaydah refusing to cooperate with interrogators by “employing classic resistance to interrogation techniques,” making it “clear to [the C.I.A.] that we were unlikely to be able to overcome those techniques without some significant intervention.” C.I.A. records, however do not show that Zubaydah stopped cooperating. In fact, C.I.A. records showed that Zubaydah had provided information on al Qaeda activities, leadership and training, but that the C.I.A. thought he was withholding information about future attacks. Because of this suspicion, Zubaydah was put into isolation for 47 days, and during his next interrogation, he was subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding.
Fourth, the report found that the C.I.A. leaked classified information to journalists in an effort to gain public support for the program. According to the report, C.I.A. officials asked officers to “compile information on the success” of the program to be shared with the news media, which frequently grossly mischaracterized events or included overtly false or incomplete information.
Fifth, the C.I.A. misled Congress and the public about the number of people it detained and subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. Although the agency said it detained “fewer than 100 individuals,” C.I.A. records indicated that it held at least 119 detainees. According to the report, however, “[i]internal CIA documents indicate that inadequate record keeping made it impossible for the CIA to determine how many individuals it had detained.”
Sixth, the report found that at least 26 of the 119 detainees “were wrongfully held.” Among those 26 detainees: an “intellectually challenged” man who was used as “leverage” to obtain information from a family member and other former intelligence sources.
Seventh, the report found that senior C.I.A. officials repeatedly overruled interrogators who questioned the brutal interrogation techniques. “Today’s first session,” a C.I.A personnel wrote after interrogating Abu Zubaydah, “had a profound effect on all staff members present . . . it seems the collective opinion that we should not go much further . . . everyone seems strong for now but if the group has to continue . . . we cannot guarantee how much longer.” In one instance, a senior C.I.A. official pushed back against concern of the “legal limit” of the brutal techniques, insisting that the “guidelines for this activity” had been “vetted at the most senior levels of the agency” and arguing that dissent over the techniques “is not helpful.”
C.I.A. director John Brennan was candid in his response to the report’s release. “In carrying out that program, we did not always live up to the high standards that we set for ourselves and that the American people expect of us,” Brennan admitted. “As an Agency, we have learned from these mistakes, which is why my predecessors and I have implemented various remedial measures over the years to address institutional deficiencies.”
Similarly, President Obama, in a statement on December 9, 2014, said, “The report documents a troubling program involving enhanced interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects in secret facilities outside the United States, and it reinforces my long-held view that these harsh methods were not only inconsistent with our values as [a] nation, they did not serve our broader counterterrorism efforts or our national security interests.” President Obama added, “This is why I will continue to use my authority as President to make sure we never resort to those methods again.”
To truly do so, however, the Justice Department must appoint a special prosecutor to conduct an independent and comprehensive criminal investigation into the Bush-era torture program. As the New York Times editorial board recently noted, “[t]he nation cannot move forward in any meaningful way without coming to terms, legally and morally, with the abhorrent acts that were authorized, given a false patina of legality, and committed by American men and women from the highest levels of government on down.”
Mr. Obama’s preference to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards” is at odds with the basic principle that nobody, no matter how senior, should be above the rule of law. Torture is illegal, under either international or federal law. Americans tortured, and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report erases any doubt as to the depravity and illegality of the Bush-era program.
“I’d do it again in a minute,” Dick Cheney said two weeks ago. But if there’s no accountability, what will stop a future administration from doing just that?
“Starting a criminal investigation is not about payback,” the New York Times wrote, “it is about ensuring that this never happens again and regaining the moral credibility to rebuke torture by other governments.”