Shine a light on the torture program

The Senate intelligence committee will finally take a vote today that promises to end the debate on torture once and for all. For years now, pundits and torture proponents have been able to publicly claim that torture—“enhanced interrogation” as they call it—provided valuable intelligence, led to Osama bin Laden’s capture, and saved American lives. This narrative has gained traction in popular culture largely because counter-narratives based on actual facts have not been readily available to the American people.

This is why today’s vote is so important.

The Senate intelligence committee’s 6,300-plus page report on the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program is based on a five-year review of over 6 million pages of official documents.  Sen. Feinstein (D-Calif.), the committee’s chair, has called it one of the most significant inquiries in the history of the United States Senate and by far the most important study the intelligence committee has ever undertaken.  It is expected to show that the program was far more widespread and cruel than originally thought, and largely ineffective at gathering actionable intelligence, stopping terrorist plots, or saving American lives.  The Senate intelligence committee is expected submit the 400-plus page executive summary of the report for declassification, but it should also expeditiously pursue declassification and release of the remaining portions of the report.

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According to a Washington Post article published this week, the most damning parts of the report might not even be what the CIA did, but that they intentionally misled Congress, the White House, the Department of Justice, and the American people while they were doing it. Sources told Washington Post journalists that the report will indicate that the CIA claimed they were getting actionable intelligence from otherwise uncooperative detainees when, in fact, that information was being obtained through traditional interrogation techniques.  The CIA reportedly even claimed that its “enhanced interrogation” techniques yielded information in cases where detainees provided the relevant information before having been subjected waterboarding or other abusive methods.

This isn’t surprising to people who have spent their lives interrogating our country’s sworn enemies. Col. Steve Kleinman, a former senior intelligence officer at the U.S. Air Force, said: “Having conducted and supervised a number of interrogations, hundreds throughout my career dating back to our first war in Panama, I can see what works and what doesn’t work… What I’ve learned is this; methods that understand behavioral science, that respect the fragility of human memory, that incorporate and lighten cultural finesse have historically proven far more effective than any approach that brings to bear psychological, emotional, or physical pressures.”

Col. Kleinman isn’t alone; every professional interrogator that I’ve talked to knows that torture is unreliable, and that approaches that respect human rights and American values are far more effective.  Because that’s the reality, the Senate intelligence committee report will validate it, and the pro-“enhanced interrogation” former government officials—most of whom have never conducted an interrogation in their lives—will have some explaining to do.

Those opposed to the report’s release continue to argue that the study contains factual errors, and yet no one has been able to point to a specific example of an inaccuracy.  By contrast, the CIA’s official response to the committee’s report is apparently contradicted by the agency’s own internal review of the program, which is said to actually confirm many of the committee’s key findings.  In any event, all of the relevant information—the committee’s report, the CIA’s response, the so-called “Panetta internal review,” and the committee’s minority views—should be made public with supporting evidence, and the American people should decide what the truth is.

In fact, support for release of the Senate intelligence committee report is widespread, bipartisan and growing. For example, just this morning, Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Angus King (I-Maine) announced that they will vote for release. They join a long list of supports who support releasing the report, including current and former members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, dozens of high ranking retired generals and admirals, professional interrogators and intelligence officials, religious leaders, key Obama administration officials (including the president and the vice president), and even John Rizzo, the former top CIA lawyer in the Bush administration and one of the key architects of the torture program.

The recent controversy regarding potential unlawful spying by the CIA on the Senate intelligence committee only underscores the need to have an effective process to quickly declassify and release the report.  The president has committed to declassifying the report, but that’s not enough.  When the committee submits the report to the president for declassification, he should direct his staff in the White House to lead that process, relying on CIA’s input only as necessary.  Even with the CIA’s best intentions, the agency cannot be expected to play an independent and impartial role in deciding what parts of a senate report that’s highly critical of its actions the American people see.     

For far too long the public conversation on torture has been marred by self-serving statements by the same government officials that authorized torture in the first place.  That can’t be allowed to stand.  The Senate intelligence committee vote to declassify its historic report on the CIA’s post-9/11 use of torture has the potential to end the debate on torture, but it’s up to President Obama to help solidify his legacy in the fight against torture by making sure the report sees the light of day.

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

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