Partisan anguish: Greater trust between the parties was needed on the torture report

Updated: Jun 16

The recently released Senate report on CIA interrogation practices has produced two conflicting and largely partisan narratives.


Critics of the CIA, mostly Democrats, are denouncing the agency for engaging in torture — a practice they believe is immoral, ineffective and un-American. By contrast, most Republicans contend that such outrage is misplaced because “enhanced interrogation” practices were lawful, fully briefed to Congress and provided information important to the defense of the nation.


It turns out that both narratives are consistent with the facts, but neither tells the full story.


To begin with, there is no doubt that the congressional leadership, to include the chairman and vice chairman of the intelligence committees, were informed by the CIA of its intent to use water boarding as an enhanced interrogation technique. This was deemed legal by the Department of Justice and indeed has sometimes even been used on our own troops as part of their “escape and evasion” training. Moreover, the detainees subjected to enhanced interrogation were not military personnel protected by the Geneva Conventions, i.e., lawful combatants, but terrorists bent on killing civilians.


It is hardly surprising in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade towers that the American people and their government were willing to support exceptionally tough, even brutal, methods to prevent another wave of terrorist attacks.


Water boarding may constitute torture, as many suggest. After all, there is a reason it was favored by the Spanish Inquisition. Moreover, the United States executed several Japanese military officers during World War II for subjecting U.S. soldiers to water boarding. But the fact remains that the Bush administration, DOJ and Congress approved its use to help defend the country from al-Qaida after the loss of more than 3,000 American lives on Sept. 11, 2001.


At the same time, it is also now clear that the CIA sometimes went beyond water boarding and what was authorized by the president and briefed to Congress. Therein lies the key discrepancy in the conflicting accounts of what transpired. Having a prisoner stand on broken legs for extended periods, be subject to rectal feeding and run the risk of hypothermia (which caused one fatality) are examples of excesses documented by the Senate Intelligence Committee that were neither contemplated nor approved by policymakers.


Moreover, although it remains disputed, there is substantial evidence in the Senate report indicating that the CIA concealed or misrepresented details of the program to Congress and the White House. It is not surprising that the CIA director himself has described some of the techniques employed as “abhorrent” and has acknowledged that “mistakes were made” — mistakes that are now proving costly in terms of U.S. diplomacy and security.


Did the brutal methods employed by the CIA save American lives? Not if the extensive review conducted by the Senate committee is to be believed. However, even if some tortured detainees produced useful intelligence, as the CIA still maintains, the consensus among professional interrogators in the military and law enforcement is that conventional methods of interrogation are generally more effective than torture.


As Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has pointed out, information obtained from torture victims is often inaccurate because the victims tend to simply say whatever they think their tormentors want to hear. In fact, the CIA itself even seems to have come around to this point of view. Indeed, President Barack Obama banned “enhanced interrogation” techniques when he came into office and we have been just as safe without employing torture as we were when it was used in our defense. Tellingly, neither the CIA nor its supporters in Congress are arguing today that America should resume enhanced interrogation practices.


With the benefit of hindsight, all we seem to have accomplished through torture is to undermine American credibility on human rights issues and make it easier for dictatorial regimes and terrorist groups to justify violence against their opponents.


In sum, we can see that there is merit in both partisan narratives, though neither tells the whole story. The Bush administration acted within the law and with the best of intentions — to protect America — although in retrospect we can now see that enhanced interrogation was unnecessary and ill-advised. Additionally, some CIA personnel and contractors seem to have exceeded the authorities provided by the president and Congress. The actions of these individuals in particular are an unfortunate blemish on our country and the CIA, whose personnel are overwhelmingly dedicated and patriotic professionals.


In a perfect world there would be more civility and humility on both sides of the issue, more willingness to acknowledge lapses in oversight by both Congress and the executive branch and more focus on lessons learned rather than finger-pointing.


Democrats would make clear that they are not trying to impugn the motives or integrity of officials in the Bush administration, who, after all, were not informed of activities such as rectal feeding and threatened sexual abuse; Republicans would acknowledge that the CIA report raises valid issues about excesses within the program and its management by the CIA. Indeed, with greater bipartisan trust and closer cooperation between the two policy-making branches of government, the abuses that occurred could have been identified and rectified at a much earlier stage, preventing embarrassment to the CIA and the nation.


President Obama banned enhanced interrogation techniques years ago, but the need for more effective, bipartisan management of sensitive national security issues remains. Abandoning simplistic partisan positions on the Senate Intelligence Committee report would be a good place to start.


Read the original article on the Pittsburg Post-Gazette.