Thirteen years after the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. by the terrorist group al Qaeda, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a 500-page assessment of the program of harsh interrogation and detention used by the Central Intelligence Agency from 2002 to 2007 on more than a hundred members of the terrorist organization after their capture.
Based on 6.2 million pages of documents, photos and other CIA files, the report presents evidence that the agency’s interrogation methods were brutal and possibly illegal, that they were poorly managed, and that the agency misrepresented it to the White House, the Justice Department, Congress and the American people. Ultimately, the Senate Democrats conclude the methods used were not effective, and were not worth the costs to reputation and national security that resulted from the program.
Aspects of the detention and interrogation of al Qaeda suspects, according to the report, included: a detainee becoming unconscious during the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, requiring medical attention as he regurgitated air and water; a detainee dying from exposure to extreme cold shackled to the floor in what government observers later described as a dungeon; detainees’ injuries being allowed to deteriorate as part of interrogation; and psychological effects from interrogation including hallucinations, paranoia, self-harm and self-mutilation. The report also finds the CIA at times lost detainees and discovered them only after days of neglect.
President Barack Obama said the report detailed a “troubling” program and showed that “some of the actions that were taken were contrary to our values.”
“That is why I unequivocally banned torture when I took office, because one of our most effective tools in fighting terrorism and keeping Americans safe is staying true to our ideals at home and abroad,” Obama said in a statement.
“These techniques did significant damage to America’s standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners,” Obama added. “That is why I will continue to use my authority as President to make sure we never resort to those methods again.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chair of the intelligence committee who has spent years fighting CIA and Republican resistance to producing and releasing the report previously said, “If the Senate can declassify this report, we will be able to ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted.”
Current and former intelligence officials, and Republican members of Congress strongly dispute the characterization of the program and the CIA’s actions, arguing that it produced much of the information that led to the successful efforts by the Bush and Obama administrations to roll back the central leadership of al Qaeda. Republican members of the intelligence committee released at the same time a 100-plus page minority report dissenting with some of the findings and conclusions of the Democrat’s document.
The CIA also released a summary of its response to the SSCI report rebutting many of the findings. Of the 20 cases the SSCI report cites to show the CIA program was ineffective, the agency disagrees with all but two. “We acknowledge that the detention and interrogation program had shortcomings and that the Agency made mistakes,” said CIA Director John Brennan. Brennan said the interrogation of detainees “did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives.” The agency argues that it is impossible to say whether the harsh techniques produced intelligence that would otherwise have been obtained through less harsh methods. Brennan said the SSCI report provides an “incomplete and selective picture of what occurred.”
The report is likely to produce extended political battles over what information was known about the CIA program, by whom and at what time. The report finds evidence that both the CIA and some at the White House took steps to limit questions about the legality of the program and the number of senior Bush administration officials who were aware of it. It finds that President Bush first learned of the details of the interrogation techniques in 2006 and appeared uncomfortable with some of them, including the image of a prisoner shackled and having to go to the bathroom on himself.
The underlying question that authors and opponents of the report both would like to see settled in the debate is whether the techniques described in the report should ever be used again. Vice President Dick Cheney, former CIA director Michael Hayden, and many others argue that it was legal, effective and crucial in the fight against terrorism. Feinstein, President Obama, and many outside human rights groups say the techniques were wrong and crossed the line into torture, violating core American values.