Let the public see the report on torture

Amidst ongoing controversy about the Administration’s domestic surveillance policies, there are new revelations that the CIA has been spying not on terrorists or foreign powers, but on…wait for it…its own overseers in Congress: the Senate intelligence committee.  The allegations of unlawful domestic spying—the matter has been referred to the Department of Justice for a criminal investigation—come as part of an ongoing effort by the CIA to undermine the committee’s investigation into its post-9/11 torture program.

A bit of background. Five years ago today, the Senate intelligence committee launched what Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), committee chair, has since called one of the most important oversight efforts in the history of the United States Senate: a comprehensive inquiry into the CIA’s use of torture and other abusive interrogation methods after 9/11.

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The result of that inquiry is a 6,000-plus page report, based on a review of more than 6 million pages of official documents.  Yet five years after the launch of this critical oversight effort, the report remains classified—its findings hidden from the American people.

That’s unacceptable—and it’s in large part due to the CIA’s unwillingness to fully cooperate with the committee, and the White House’s decision to completely defer to the CIA on the matter.  That needs to change now, starting with full cooperation from the White House with the committee’s oversight efforts, and unreserved support not only for the Justice Department’s inquiry into the spying allegations, but also declassification and public release of the committee’s study.

In fact, the study reportedly shows how the CIA had systematically misled Congress, the White House, and other agencies and departments about its torture program in the years after 9/11. 

To advance the public’s understanding of the CIA torture program the Senate intelligence committee should vote to declassify the report with as few redactions as possible.  Meanwhile, the Obama Administration should take steps to cooperate with the committee to have the report released.

Senators familiar with the report have said it will show that abusive interrogation techniques used by the CIA were more widespread than previously thought, and less effective at gathering information than proponents of such techniques claim.  If that’s true, the report could go a long way to discrediting the narrative advanced by certain former government officials, like former Vice President Dick Cheney, that the CIA interrogation program was an effective tool in countering terrorist threats.

Support for releasing the report is bipartisan, widespread, and growing.  Vice-President Joe Biden said the United States needs to “excise the demons” before moving forward on the issue of torture.  Former Pentagon general counsel and current Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson noted that the report could benefit the CIA in much the same way that the military benefited from a Senate Armed Services Committee report on detainee abuse in the military.  Many of our nation’s most respected retired generals and admirals agree, as well as professional interrogators and intelligence officials, who came out last week in support of the report's release. They argue that it could further an understanding of effective interrogation policies.  Even some who are in favor of abusive interrogation methods—such as former CIA General Counsel John Rizzo—support releasing the report.

Some may be concerned that revealing this information could embolden those who wish to do us harm.  But terrorist groups already presume the worse about American interrogation practices, and secrecy only aids their propaganda efforts.  Moreover, information that is likely to reveal intelligence sources and methods, or otherwise cause concrete and specific harm to our national security, can and should be redacted. 

Others are concerned the Senate report may not be accurate because the CIA opposes some of its conclusions, or because the committee did not conduct interviews with former government officials.  These concerns are misplaced.

First, it’s unsurprising that the CIA is not fully supportive of a report that criticizes one of its most significant post-9/11 programs as unsuccessful, and alleges that the CIA misled Congress, the White House, and key agencies and departments.  It’s also important to note that an internal CIA review supposedly supports the conclusions in the Senate report, but contradicts the CIA’s official response to the committee.  Further, the CIA and intelligence committee appear to agree on the facts, even if there are some disagreements on the conclusions.

Second, a comprehensive review of the official documentary record surrounding the post-9/11 CIA interrogation program would be incredibly valuable in its own right.  But those who were instrumental in forming and implementing the program have spoken out about their side of events; their narrative is already out in the public. What’s missing are the facts provided in the Senate report.  Further, the committee did rely on numerous interviews with CIA officials that were conducted by the CIA’s inspector general. Additional interviews would likely not have been possible due to a Justice Department criminal investigation into the program.

For far too long, the conversation about the CIA’s abusive program has been driven by self-serving accounts from the very officials that authorized torture in the first place.  It’s time for that to stop. Americans deserve the truth on torture, and the White House should fully cooperate with the Senate intelligence committee to provide it.

Wala is Human Rights First’s senior counsel for defense and intelligence.

This entry was updated at 2:45 p.m.