In March 2009, after a couple years of deliberation, the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence decided to begin a study on the tactics used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to collect intelligence from suspected terrorists. After being sent to the White House for review, an amended version was released to the public on December 9. While the released version is just a fraction of the original report, which is over 6,700 pages, it provides a sobering picture of what the CIA has been up to over the past several years in a supposed effort to make us safer.
The torture report is, to say the least, disconcerting. As Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein writes in the report’s foreword, even the memory of 9/11 cannot justify the “program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values.” Specifically, the methods used by the CIA directly violate President Obama’s 2009 executive order, which prohibits CIA detention other than on a “short-term, transitory basis” and requires that all methods used comply with the Army Field Manual. The report’s findings are not for the faint of heart, but they are an incredibly important step forward in shaping the future of US anti-terrorism policy, as well as the trajectory of our reputation with the international community. Abu Zubaydah, who the US claims was a high-ranking Al Qaeda official, was repeatedly slapped, slammed against walls, deprived of sleep, forced to remain nude, and waterboarded, which caused him to pass out. Another detainee was nearly drowned. Some attempt to defend such practices, maintaining that the intelligence gained is worth it. The report, however, reveals that such tactics were largely unsuccessful. Several detainees failed to provide any information at all, while others fabricated intelligence, calling into question the entire project and wasting federal government resources in the process.
The implications of the report’s release are broadly two-fold. An underreported aspect of the report’s release is its implications for how the US will be perceived in the future in light of the actions it has taken since 9/11. Many of the tactics revealed in the report are in direct violation of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment, which the US has signed and ratified. Flouting international treaty obligations is nothing new for the US, but when we do so in order to indefinitely detain foreign nationals from countries whose cooperation is vital in the fight against terrorism, we set ourselves up for failure. CIA officials cannot seriously have believed that the details of their efforts would never be released, especially after the Senate Select Committee started digging, and now that the international community knows with certainty that the US detained and tortured people from countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Yemen, the effects could be disastrous. These countries now have a solid justification for obstructing future anti-terrorism efforts that do not seem to provide any domestic benefit. With each embarrassing misstep, the US further isolates itself and destroys its bargaining ability. Countries who routinely violate human rights will be difficult to shame if we commit abuses ourselves.
Even if one can accept that the US, a so-called example of freedom and liberty for the world, is using such brutal tactics, the report also highlights a troubling reality within the US government. The CIA, which operates as an independent federal agency, seems to use a given-an-inch-take-a-mile approach, with extremely limited accountability. Certainly an intelligence-gathering agency must have some amount of leeway, but it is difficult to defend the actions of the CIA when it routinely evades, and even lies to, lawmakers. As the report explains, the CIA provided incorrect information to the Department of Justice on multiple occasions, and actively “avoided or impeded” congressional oversight. Even the White House was often kept out of the loop. This utter lack of oversight is concerning in a country in which accountability is supposedly highly valued. The CIA misled the legislative and executive branches for years, keeping high-ranking officials in the dark.
This lack of transparency also led to serious inefficiencies. The CIA’s autonomous efforts made the work of other agencies more difficult, making the program unnecessarily costly. Keeping the FBI and Department of Defense at arm’s length meant that the resources of these agencies could not be fully leveraged. The CIA’s lack of cooperation with the State Department risked international diplomatic incidents due to lack of information and constrained ability of ambassadors to consult with State officials back in Washington. Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of the report, other than the fact that many of the methods used were horrific, is the fact that the CIA began the program with inadequate preparation. According to the report, the agency failed to obtain the necessary permissions in order to begin a “coercive interrogation” program before it captured its first detainee, and lacked a concrete plan for eventual disposition of those it interrogated. Furthermore, the CIA made no attempt to account for its previous coercive tactics experiences, opting instead to hastily construct a strategy based on the opinions of officials with little experience.
Americans are likely to have mixed reactions to this report. Some will undoubtedly claim it is just another example of Democrats attempting to nail the Bush administration to the wall. Many will take the position that the methods, while brutal, were necessary in order to disrupt terrorist plots against the US and our allies. Accepting this narrative is lazy. You do not have to be a human rights activist to acknowledge that the CIA violated international law, that the US government was kept largely in the dark with concerning implications for the fight against terrorism, and that the federal government has a serious inability to rein in its various parts when doing so is most needed. This report is troubling and embarrassing all at once, and it should serve as a lesson to the US going forward. We simply cannot allow one agency and its rogue tactics to dictate what should be a comprehensive fight against terrorism. If we do, we risk not just that fight but also the international stature of the United States.
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