The Democrats on the Senate intelligence committee are preparing to issue their report on the harsh interrogation tactics the CIA used on terrorism suspects, defying the objections of current and former U.S. officials including former President George W. Bush.
The panel plans to release today a summary of a 6,200-page report concluding that the Central Intelligence Agency used extreme interrogation methods at secret prisons more often than legally authorized and failed to disclose all the activities to lawmakers and other officials.
Despite warnings from opponents of the report’s release, including some Republicans on the panel, that Americans would face retaliation overseas, President Barack Obama supports making the conclusions public, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said yesterday.
“The president believes that, on principle, it’s important to release that report, so that people around the world and people here at home understand exactly what transpired,” he said. Earnest said the administration has taken steps to improve security at U.S. facilities around the world.
Releasing the findings will give terrorists fresh ammunition to escalate their violence and put the lives of additional U.S. officials and allies at risk, said Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House intelligence committee.
“All they’ve got to do is find something they think indicates something and they’ll use it for their propaganda machine,” Rogers said yesterday at a meeting of Bloomberg Government reporters and editors. “Why are we going to risk the lives of some diplomat, for what? We’re going to risk the lives of some intelligence official who had nothing to do with this, for what?”
The Obama administration and Senate Democrats are firing back against such warnings.
The eight Democratic members of the intelligence committee, as well as Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, an ex officio member as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to “memorialize” what they said is his support for releasing the report in a Dec. 6 phone call with them, according to a U.S. official who’s read the letter.
“As the government official making the formal decision to declassify, it is your assessment that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the potential damage to national security and that you believe that you share the responsibility for making the committee’s study publicly available,” their letter says, according to the U.S. official and two congressional staff members, all of whom requested anonymity to discuss the internal correspondence.
“There will never be an ‘elegant’ time to release this study, as it describes in stark detail the detention and interrogation actions of the CIA,” the letter continues, according to the U.S. official. “As such, you believe it is better to release the report now so that the intelligence community can begin to move past this chapter of its history.”
The nine Democrats said they disagree with the accuracy of some statements in a classified Nov. 25 intelligence community assessment of the potential consequences of releasing the report, according to the official.
White House officials this morning are scheduled to brief former intelligence and counterterrorism officials who are prepared to defend the report’s release on television and elsewhere.
Secretary of State John Kerry also supports releasing the findings, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters yesterday. Kerry discussed the implications of the release in a phone call with Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chairman of the intelligence panel, and said it was up to her to decide when to do so, Psaki said.
The final report, which cost $40 million and took six years to complete, is the most comprehensive assessment of the CIA’s so-called “black site” detention facilities and “enhanced interrogation techniques” on terrorism suspects following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Obama, who said the program amounted to torture, ordered that the practices never be used again when he took office in 2009.
Subjecting detainees to waterboarding, which simulates drowning, and other harsh tactics such as sleep deprivation and stress positions produced little timely, accurate or valuable intelligence in the U.S. war on terrorism, according to U.S. officials who asked to remain anonymous because the findings haven’t been released.
Republican Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Jim Risch of Idaho, both members of the committee, criticized the report yesterday as “one-sided” and faulted Democrats on the panel for releasing it.
“This report does not qualify as either serious or constructive,” Rubio and Risch said in a statement. “This was a partisan effort that divided members of the committee, and the committee against the people of the CIA.”
Duke University law professor Charles Dunlap, a retired Air Force major general, questioned the warnings that the report will incite new violence, calling Islamic State by an earlier acronym.
“I don’t think that it will particularly directly endanger Americans or American allies because those who represent a danger are already doing everything they can to inflict harm,” he said in a statement. “After all, ISIS is beheading innocent Americans and others — they hardly need more motivation for barbarism.”
Several U.S. military and intelligence officials and diplomats said the real risk is, as Dunlap put it, “really to the ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to get the cooperation it needs from other countries, not to mention the debilitating effect on morale of CIA and other intelligence professionals.”
U.S. officials are bracing for international blowback that could fuel riots and retaliation in countries hostile to the U.S. The Defense Department warned U.S. commands overseas on Dec. 5 to take appropriate force protection measures in anticipation of the findings release, and the State Department and U.S. intelligence agencies have directed overseas posts and personnel to review and in some cases bolster their security.
Some Democrats and human-rights activists have hailed the report for finally exposing flaws and possible crimes in the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program, which largely operated from 2002 to 2005.
The report appears to be “way off-base,” Bush said in an interview Dec. 7 on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“We’re fortunate to have men and women who work hard at the CIA serving on our behalf,” Bush said. “These are patriots. And whatever the report says, if it diminishes their contributions to our country, it is way off base.” Others who are part of the campaign include Bush’s former CIA directors George Tenet and Michael Hayden.
Congressional and administration officials said that current CIA Director John Brennan and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough have battled the Senate committee for months in an effort to redact as much of the report as possible.
Opponents of releasing the report also have created a website, CIASavedLives.com, where they plan to publish declassified documents, opinion pieces and media reports to rebut the Senate Democrats’ report. The site is being curated by William Harlow, Tenet’s former spokesman at the CIA.
Republicans and former Bush administration officials who ran the program condemned the report in advance as a biased attempt to rewrite history. They say the interrogations produced significant intelligence that helped capture terrorists and protect the country.
“Information from the detainees was absolutely crucial to us understanding al-Qaeda and helping disturb, disrupt, dismantle and, in many cases, destroy al-Qaeda networks,” said Charles Allen, who managed the intelligence community’s collection programs from 1998 to 2005.
“It’s hard for people in 2014 to understand how the world fell in on top of the” CIA after the 2001 attacks, said Allen, a principal with the Chertoff Group, a risk-management advisory firm. “There was no wide-scale abuse of any of the interrogation authorities, and CIA officers simply do not lie to the Congress.”
The CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, 183 times in March 2003, according to a 2005 Justice Department legal memorandum released in April 2009. The agency used waterboarding at least 83 times in August 2002 against Abu Zubaydah, who’s an alleged al-Qaeda operative.
Allen, the former CIA official, said “very hard” choices had to be made, and the interrogation methods were necessary. He recalled a meeting in the spring of 2002 where then Tenet asked a group of inter-agency officials to raise their hands if they disagreed with the methods used.
A representative from the Federal Bureau of Investigation was the only one to object and walked out of the room, Allen said. That was acceptable to Tenet and the small group because they knew the FBI operated under different authorities, Allen said.
Another FBI agent, Ali Soufan, has argued in recent years that enhanced techniques are both unnecessary and ineffective. Soufan was the first to interrogate Abu Zubaydah.
“There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics,” Soufan wrote in a 2009 column for the New York Times.
Allen disagreed. “Would we have gotten all the information through a more patient, more gentler approach over a period of months?” he asked. “You don’t know, and certainly the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (1025709D:US) doesn’t know because it’s all hypothetical.”
Some high-ranking military and intelligence veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan disagree, saying their experience is that waterboarding, sleep deprivation, forced nudity and other “enhanced” techniques produce inaccurate, tainted and sometimes false information.
Other critics of the report, inside and outside the U.S. intelligence community, also say it fails to examine how officials in Bush’s White House and Pentagon kept demanding that the CIA extract more information from its captives, and Justice Department officials allowed them to do so by using techniques such as waterboarding that are widely considered torture.