The nature and timing of the report on CIA interrogation operations released this week by the Senate Intelligence Committee were ideal for Democratic members of the committee and their allies, and harmful for just about everyone else.
How the report’s revelations will affect the safety of those who represent America abroad, and how they will affect the loyalty of our foreign partners, has yet to be seen. But for now, the important work of the intelligence community has been smeared for partisan, political purposes, not least by the repeated invocations of the term “torture.”
It is certainly possible that actions like waterboarding, or other examples of enhanced-interrogation techniques, could be deployed in such a way as to constitute torture. But it would require a great deal of specific knowledge of techniques used and decisions made in order to prove this happened at CIA sites, and Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee consulted only limited records, photographs, and pieces of existing testimony.
One gets the sense they would have settled for an even lower standard of evidence, as President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder did before even taking office. In 2012, Holder, like Bush-administration lawyers before him, eventually came to conclude that the CIA had not committed prosecutable instances of abuse or deceit. That need not have been the end of the investigations; Americans do deserve to know, when it becomes reasonably safe to make it public, what has been done in their name and what cost is paid for their defense.
But a full and fair accounting of such policies wasn’t what committee chairman Dianne Feinstein and other Democrats set out for. Republicans on the committee soon realized this and quit the effort. It’s simply impossible to conduct a fair investigation without interviewing its subjects, and Senate Democrats did not do so. That is how, for instance, the report concluded decisively that enhanced interrogation didn’t provide significant help in the search for Osama bin Laden — while top CIA officials universally, and credibly, maintain it did.
The decision to pervert this investigation was driven in some part, surely, by vindictiveness over a perceived lack of cooperation from the CIA — perhaps a real problem, but certainly not one to be solved like this — and by a still-burning desire to discredit Bush-era policies. (Or rather, Bush-era policies besides those that the Obama administration has decided to continue.)
The CIA may have misled Congress about its interrogation operations, and at the time it may have overstepped what it was authorized to do. But that time was the months and several years following the attacks of September 11, when virtually every elected official, and the great majority of Americans, were demanding that anything be done to stop another attack. The proximity of another attack was completely unknown, demanding more aggressive tactics than any intelligence officer would prefer.
An accounting of mistakes made during the CIA’s interrogation program is necessary and desirable — as are recommendations for how to improve the CIA’s programs and prevent mistakes in the future. The Senate Democrats’ report includes no such recommendations, as their former colleague Bob Kerrey of Nebraska has pointed out. That lacuna alone reveals the shallowness and bias of the Senate Democrats’ work. Those who want America to be defended responsibly and ethically should be ashamed of this report, not exulting in it.