Reason, torture, the CIA, and American influence

Getty Images
Getty Images

“‘There are things which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose.’ An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” This sentence is from Viktor E. Frankl’ seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning, looking at human reactions and actions in times of great violence and stress. Such statement strongly resonates with the current discussion stirred by the release of the Feinstein report on December 9th, 2014. The Feinstein report looks at the role of the CIA and its use of enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs), known as torture, following the 9/11 attacks.

The Feinstein report is one of the most important pieces of reflection in contemporary American history for two reasons. First, it encapsulates the complexity and vitality of American democracy. Very few governments in the world would have looked so closely into one of its darkest hours and denounced its abuses. Second, it as well demonstrates how quickly democratic fondations and basic human, moral and ethical principles can be shattered because of fear and in the name of security. The Feinstein report embodies the best of American democracy – self-reflection and correction – as well as the worst of government policies.

Soul Searching and…

RAMZI HAIDAR via Getty Image
RAMZI HAIDAR via Getty Image

In her foreword, interviews, and articles, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein explains clearly and rationally her motivations for this lengthy work and the publication of the executive summary. The process started in 2009 once the Select Committee realized that the CIA had initiated in 2007 a process of destroying videotapes of detainee interrogations. For over five years, staff members of the Committee Study reviewed more than “six million pages of CIA materials, to include operational cables, intelligence reports, internal memoranda and emails, briefing materials, interview transcripts, contracts, and other records.” The report (access to the executive summary here) published on the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s website includes Senator Feinstein’s foreword and a 500 page executive summary. The final17692408 report, that won’t be released to the public for security reasons, includes over 6,700 pages.

Dianne Feinstein, an old time advocate of the Intelligence Community (IC), explained the moral dilemma in publishing the report. On the one hand, the US had to react after the 9/11 attacks. She underscores in her foreword, that “I can understand the CIA’s impulse to consider the use of every possible tool to gather intelligence and remove terrorists from the battlefield, and CIA was encouraged by political leaders and the public to do whatever it could to prevent another attack.” On the other hand, she is trying to expose the ‘alleged’ abuses perpetuated by the CIA from 2001 to 2009. The pages describing the EITs are a difficult read and lead the reader/citizen to wonder about the ethical and moral justifications behind such program.

207CIA Torture Report

Several findings and conclusions were underscored in the Feinstein report:

  1. The CIA's use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees (p.2)
  2. The CIA's justification for the use of its enhanced interrogation techniques rested on inaccurate claims of their effectiveness (p.2)
  3. The interrogations of CIA detainees were brutal and far worse than the CIA represented to policymakers and others (p.3)
  4. The conditions of confinement for CIA detainees were harsher than the CIA had represented to policymakers and others (p.4)
  5. The CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice, impeding a proper legal analysis of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program (p.4)
  6. The CIA has actively avoided or impeded congressional oversight of the program (p.5)
  7. The CIA impeded effective White House oversight and decision-making (p.6)
  8. The CIA's operation and management of the program complicated, and in some cases impeded, the national security missions of other Executive Branch agencies (p.7)
  9. The CIA impeded oversight by the CIA's Office of Inspector General (p.8)
  10. The CIA coordinated the release of classified information to the media, including inaccurate information concerning the effectiveness of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques (p.8)
  11. The CIA was unprepared as it began operating its Detention and Interrogation Program more than six months after being granted detention authorities (p.9)
  12. The CIA's management and operation of its Detention and Interrogation Program was deeply flawed throughout the program's duration, particularly so in 2002 and early 2003 (p.10)
  13. Two contract psychologists devised the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques and played a central role in the operation, assessments, and management of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program. By 2005, the CIA had overwhelmingly outsourced operations related to the program (p.11)
  14. CIA detainees were subjected to coercive interrogation techniques that had not been approved by the Department of Justice or had not been authorized by CIA Headquarters (p.12)
  15. The CIA did not conduct a comprehensive or accurate accounting of the number of individuals it detained, and held individuals who did not meet the legal standard for detention. The CIA's claims about the number of detainees held and subjected to its enhanced Interrogation techniques were inaccurate (p.12)
  16. The CIA failed to adequately evaluate the effectiveness of its enhanced interrogation techniques (p.13)
  17. The CIA rarely reprimanded or held personnel accountable for serious and significant violations, inappropriate activities, and systemic and individual management failures (p.14)
  18. The CIA marginalized and ignored numerous internal critiques, criticisms, and objections concerning the operation and management of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program (p.14)
  19. The CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program was inherently unsustainable and had effectively ended by 2006 due to unauthorized press disclosures, reduced cooperation from other nations, and legal and oversight concerns (p.15)
  20. The CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program damaged the United States' standing in the world, and resulted in other significant monetary and non-monetary costs (p.16)

… national security

The report created a clear divide and a furor among high level officials of the Bush administration and the CIA. The response by the CIA is not surprising. Its former Directors have disputed the results of the report. And even a group of CIA agents have launched a site ( demonstrating the benefits of their work. If one reads closely the foreword and executive summary, the Feinstein report is not a repudiation of the CIA nor of the Intelligence Community (IC). The report criticizes, more accurately sheds light, on the way the CIA conducted its operations, especially the use of EITs and black sites, from the beginning of the program in 2002 to its end in April 2008 (watch here an interesting short documentary by the New York Times).

The national security’s argument has been raised principally by the Republicans (at the exception of Senator McCain splitting with the Republican establishment), former members of the Bush administration, and high ranking CIA officials. It is undeniable that the release of the allegations of torture may be used by terrorists around the world as a recruiting tool. But which dimension of American foreign policy has not been used as a recruiting tool? Former members of the Bush administration have gone after the credibility of the report by claiming that the conclusions and data are not true, that the Senate was informed, and that the torture permitted the gathering of valuable information. Dick Cheney, former Vice President, still stands behind the use of EITs – as he said that the end “absolutely” justified the means. A group of top intelligence officials responded in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that EITs “saved lives” and framed the report as a “partisan” attack against the Republican establishment. They are accusing the report of a “one-sided study marred by errors of fact and interpretation—essentially a poorly done and partisan attack.”

American Transparency?

The debate occurring in the US about the use of torture in order to gather information from terrorists is an healthy and important one. The release of the Feinstein report should not be perceived as a witch hunt against the CIA and the men involved in torture. It is in fact the exemplification of the check-and-balance system of the different branches of American government.

The executive branch, meaning the White House and President Obama, have yet to take a stand on the issue. President Obama is struggling, calling EITs torture and condemning the persons involved (some even call for the White House to grant a pardon). Even though President Obama never supported the enhanced interrogation program and banned it once in power, he has yet to take a stand on the Feinstein report and remains supportive of CIA director John Brennan. As argued by Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at the Fordham University School of Law, “The intelligence agency has become the lead agency in national security, and therefore he’s beholden to it, and there’s no getting around that. It’s much bigger than before 9/11. It’s not just about Brennan.” The President cannot afford losing the support and the intel provided by the CIA. The report comes at a good time, even though Dianne Feinstein wondered about it by asking “But is there ever a good time to admit our country tortured people?” The war against radical Islamic groups is ongoing and with no end in sight. A debate about the way America gathers information while protecting itself from foreign attacks is healthy and vital. The report may offer the needed admission and closure on this dark era.

(Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission). 

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