The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Virginia
The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Va. Larry Downing—Reuters

How to Read the Senate Torture Report

Dec 08, 2014

More than 10 years after the last al Qaeda operative was waterboarded, the Senate intelligence committee is set to release parts of its 6,000-page report on the CIA's use of so-called “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” (EITs) on senior al Qaeda figures in the years after 9/11.

The report will put new facts on the table about what the CIA did and will draw conclusions about whether it was worth it. Ideally, the new facts would produce a national conversation, maybe even a consensus, about how far America should go to get its enemies to talk.

Instead, we’re likely to get a battle over the barely-concealed political interests of current and past public figures. Here’s what to look for in the report, how to put it in context, and how to avoid becoming an unwitting surrogate for someone else's arguments.

What Was Done?

The report will contain new details about the “brutality” of the EIT program, says a senior Senate aide. The first thing to look at will be these details. Previous government reports have shown how the approved techniques—waterboarding, sleep deprivation, “walling”, among others—were actually implemented. But the Senate staff had access to over 6.2 million pages of operational cables, internal emails, memos and other documents from the CIA. That means Senate Democrats saw pretty much everything—good, bad and ugly—that was ever written by the CIA on the program and what happened in the rooms where it was implemented.

Democrats, including some who approved the EIT program, will say they never thought it would be implemented in such a brutal way. Those involved in the program will argue the excesses are exaggerated, and that Democrats signed off on everything. The Obama administration’s CIA will try to find a safe middle ground.

The important thing is to establish exactly what was done and whether it crossed a moral or legal line. Here’s the anti-torture statute, and here are some arguments for and against the legality and morality of the EIT program.

Was it worth it?

The answer to that question should depend on whether the EIT program advanced the government’s duty to protect citizens without breaking U.S. laws or undermining the core American and enlightenment values they are based on.

Instead, the debate will likely focus on whether the EIT program led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. That argument was launched within hours of Bin Laden’s death here at TIME, and has continued ever since, but the report will put new facts about the case on the table. In particular, it will reveal new details on detainees subjected to the EIT program who provided information about the Bin Laden courier, Abu Ahmed, in whose house in Pakistan the Saudi was staying.

As McClatchy reported last spring, the committee will conclude “The CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques did not effectively assist the agency in acquiring intelligence or in gaining cooperation from detainees.” The report will also say the CIA inflated the value of the intelligence to justify the brutal methods it had used. Opponents of the report will say Hill Democrats are playing down the value of the information gained from the EIT program in order to say the whole program was a mistake. The Obama CIA will say no one can know whether the EIT program made a difference.

Bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. forces is not a great measure of the value of the EIT program. His killing probably has more to do with justice and accountability than with national security; most counterterrorism experts will tell you that, by the time he died, Bin Laden was a largely symbolic figure with very limited operational significance as a terrorist leader. He definitely wasn't a ticking time-bomb.

To judge whether the EIT program was worth its costs, it’s better to look at the totality of the program and the totality of the result. This has been tough to do until now. The report will make it possible to assess—Democrats say, debunk—claims that U.S. success against al Qaeda threats came largely thanks to the EIT program. It will also make it possible to gauge assertions that torture cost the U.S. more than it gained, including perhaps pushing the country to go to war in Iraq.

Who Screwed Up?

Here’s where the politics will get hottest. All sides agree that things went wrong with the EIT program, but who’s to blame is where the loudest voices will be.

The Senate Democrats will assert that the CIA’s leaders deceived everyone from the Bush White House to the Bush Justice Department to both parties on Capitol Hill. CIA officials involved in the EIT program will allege Congressional Democrats pursued the entire review of the program to protect themselves from the fact that they approved it to begin with. George W. Bush will not take the opportunity to throw the CIA under the bus, the New York Times reports.

The report may restart a discussion about accountability: the State Department reportedly expects questions about whether the U.S. government will reopen investigations into the program and the effort to keep it secret. Bush-era intelligence officials say they have already dealt with the program's mistakes and the Obama administration says it investigated those involved and found no reason to bring criminal charges.

What effect will assigning blame have? The CIA says it is so burned by the EIT program that it is permanently out of the business of interrogation and Dianne Feinstein, the hawkish head of the Senate Intelligence committee, says that's fine. The purpose of her report, she says, is to ensure such a program is never again acceptable to Americans.

But plenty of others, from ex-CIA officer Jose Rodriguez, to former Vice President Dick Cheney, to former CIA chief Michael Hayden, say the program should be available for use if there is another major attack on the U.S. Even Obama's CIA chief says only that the EIT program is not now "appropriate," suggesting it might be in other circumstances.

Ultimately, the report's value lies in answering that simple question: should we ever do it again?

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