Editorials

The harsh truth on CIA torture finally comes out

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein speaks Tuesday on the Senate floor to release a report on CIA interrogation practices after the 9/11 attacks.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein speaks Tuesday on the Senate floor to release a report on CIA interrogation practices after the 9/11 attacks. AP/Senate Television

As painful and dangerous as it may be, the Senate Intelligence Committee led by Dianne Feinstein of California was absolutely right to release a landmark report on the CIA’s use of torture.

It is an important step in the reckoning that has to happen for America to restore the values we’re fighting to protect in the war on terror.

While the broad outlines were known, the specifics made public Tuesday put a sharper point on what went wrong in the understandable anger and fear that followed 9/11.

The report documents that inhumane treatment was more widespread and far more brutal than what the CIA told the White House, Congress and the public. If top intelligence officials didn’t flat-out lie, they certainly withheld key details, the report concludes.

We now know that more detainees were waterboarded than previously acknowledged. One was chained to a concrete floor and likely froze to death. Many were subjected to nonstop brutal treatment for days or weeks at a time – deprived of sleep, kept in the dark, and given medically unnecessary “rectal feeding” and hydration.

By any reasonable standard, it was torture.

It also wasn’t effective.

The justification has always been that “enhanced interrogation techniques” – the phrase, itself, is a whitewash – were necessary to track down those behind the Sept. 11 attacks and to thwart future terrorist acts. The CIA continues to claim that these interrogations produced essential information, repeatedly citing 20 such cases.

Senate Intelligence staffers looked at each of those cases. The report concludes that torturing detainees produced little, if any, vital intelligence that wasn’t available from other sources. Any real information never defused an imminent threat – the so-called ticking time bomb.

At the same time, there was a shocking lack of oversight by senior CIA officials of what was happening at overseas “black sites,” where at least 119 detainees were secretly interrogated between 2002 and 2009, when Barack Obama ended the program as one of his first acts as president.

There was little training for interrogators, and some had a prior history of abuse. The agency didn’t adequately review the interrogation program’s effectiveness, and it doesn’t appear it looked at its own history, which showed that torture didn’t work.

Unsurprisingly, CIA and Bush administration officials have been waging a campaign in the media, trying to sow public doubt and shield themselves. They issued loud warnings that merely releasing the report would somehow lead to terrorist attacks and endanger Americans serving abroad in the military and at embassies.

In back-to-back speeches on the Senate floor, Feinstein and Republican John McCain of Arizona gave convincing rebuttals to those arguments. As they pointed out, there will always be instability and danger in the world, and terrorists don’t need an excuse for violence.

It is far more important to come to terms with what the CIA did – even if no one is ever prosecuted – and to make sure it never happens again.

McCain, who has personal experience with torture as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, has far more credibility than these critics. He properly praised Feinstein and others on the Intelligence Committee for their persistence in getting this report before the public – despite stonewalling by the Bush and Obama administrations and over-the-top criticism from some Republicans in Congress.

“The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow,” he said. “…The American people are entitled to it nonetheless.”

We probably will never know all the abuses. The report released Tuesday is actually a 500-page redacted executive summary of a still-classified 6,700-page report. More than five years and $40 million in the making, it is based on a review of more than 6 million pages of internal CIA documents.

While releasing this report can’t completely remove the stain on America’s values, it will ultimately strengthen our standing in the world. As McCain said, America can win the war on terror without resorting to torture, but this issue is more about who we are and what we stand for as a people.

“Our enemies act without conscience,” McCain said. “We must not.”

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