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What it took to make the torture report public

America tortured. This much, at least, is common knowledge. But five years after the CIA’s post 9/11 rendition, detention, and interrogation (RDI) program officially closed, the public has yet to receive a full accounting of what went on. 

Until now. With the release of the key parts of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s (SSCI) watershed report, we can finally see what exactly the CIA did in America’s name. It’s not a pretty picture—some of the descriptions of abuse are graphic—but we must reckon with the dark truths outlined in the report. 

{mosads}The key findings: the CIA misled Congress and the White House about the extent and brutality of the abuse. Interrogators used methods that can only be described as torture. They exaggerated the value of intelligence gained from it—indeed, the report says that any intelligence gained could have been—and was—gathered from valid, humane techniques. 

The Senate’s inquiry started with a 14-1 bi-partisan vote after evidence came to light that the CIA misled the SSCI about the interrogation program and destroyed videotapes of interrogation sessions—over the objections of Bush’s White House Counsel and Director of National Intelligence. They aimed to determine how and why the program was created, the intelligence value gained from their interrogations, and whether and to what extend the CIA misled the SSCI and the executive branch about the program. 

Some are trying to depict the report as Democrat smear campaign against the Bush administration and the CIA. But like many claims of torture proponents, this one runs headlong into the truth. 

Despite strong bipartisan beginnings, Republican committee members withdrew their participation in the report because they believed it might further a simultaneous DOJ investigation that they hoped to quash. Nonetheless, in 2012 SSCI Chairwoman Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.)secured a bipartisan 9-6 vote to adopt the report and even more lopsided bipartisan 11-3 vote in April 2014 to declassify and release the executive summary and key findings of the report.  

Republicans on and off the committee strongly support the report’s conclusions and findings, including Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Susan Collins (maine). A wide range of national security experts, including dozens of retired military flag officers, professional interrogators, career diplomats, and former CIA director General David Petraeus support the committee’s work. By contrast, the SSCI minority report does not have bipartisan support, and prominent Republicans such as McCain and Graham have disputed its conclusions.  

Meanwhile, the CIA and Feinstein were locked in a fierce battle as the CIA made every attempt to obstruct the Senate’s investigation. The public learned about the brawl when Senator Feinstein publicly accused the CIA of inappropriately and unlawfully searching computers made available for the exclusive use of her staff. CIA Director John Brennan denied it at first, but in July he came clean after the CIA Inspector General confirmed the wrongdoing. Among the documents the CIA looked for in their search: the “Panetta Review,” reportedly the CIA’s own assessment of their interrogation program, which is said to back up the SSCI report’s findings, but contradict the CIA’s official response to the SSCI report. 

The next confrontation was over redactions. Obama allowed the CIA to oversee them despite a clear conflict of interest. In August the CIA returned their redactions, and predictably, the report was blacked out beyond the point of recognition. After months more of negotiations reluctantly arbitrated by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, they finally reached a semblance of agreement and released the report on Tuesday. 

So here we are. It took years of struggle to make it happen, but the report is out at last—thanks to Feinstein’s determined leadership and three bipartisan votes. Now the American public can participate in a much needed reckoning.  

While its release is a significant accomplishment, the door isn’t quite closed on torture. The report also shows that the CIA and their lawyers went to great lengths to give the program the veneer of legality. While Obama’s 2009 executive order put an end to that, we still need legislation passed by Congress to cement the prohibition. 

In a time when almost nothing has bipartisan support in Congress, this report had—and has— backing from both sides. This is an opportunity for Congress and the White House to come together to slam shut the door on torture.

Wala is advocacy counsel at Human Rights First.

Tags Denis McDonough John McCain Lindsey Graham Susan Collins

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