The Torture Report’s Long, Winding Road

Any encouragement that torture opponents may take from an initial step toward releasing part of a long Senate report on CIA abuses during the Bush-43 years is tempered by the fact that the declassification process may be glacially slow and still leave much hidden, writes Nat Parry.

By Nat Parry

The Senate committee vote to release part of a 6,300-page report on the CIA’s now-defunct rendition and torture program is something of a mixed blessing.

On one hand, it is significant that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence voted overwhelmingly (11-3) on Thursday to release the findings of the five-year study, which reportedly include details on how much more extensive and brutal this torture program was than has previously been acknowledged – including tragic cases in which detainees were tortured to death – as well as the fact that the CIA has lied about the program’s effectiveness, claiming that it led to useful intelligence when in reality that was not the case.

President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney receive an Oval Office briefing from CIA Director George Tenet. Also present is Chief of Staff Andy Card (on right).

President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney receive an Oval Office briefing from CIA Director George Tenet about the Iraq War. Also present is Chief of Staff Andy Card (on right).

The vote, in this sense, is an important message regarding the role of congressional oversight of U.S. intelligence agencies, especially in the context of the legally and morally murky universe of the “war on terror.”

On the other hand, it should be pointed out that the vote does not necessarily mean that the report will ever see the light of day, much less lead to any real accountability for those who ordered or committed torture in violation of international and domestic law.

For one thing, what the Senate committee actually voted to release was not the full report, but rather the executive summary. While this portion of the report may be relatively comprehensive (apparently running 480 pages), by withholding the other several thousand pages of detailed accounts regarding individual cases, the stage is being set for CIA apologists to offer justifications, obfuscations and repudiations – based of course on the old adage of “plausible deniability.”

Already, we are seeing this play out with leading Republicans dismissing the report as biased and potentially damaging to national security. In a joint statement, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Jim Risch of Idaho called it “a one-sided, partisan report to the CIA and White House for declassification despite warnings from the State Department and our allies indicating that declassification of this report could endanger the lives of American diplomats and citizens overseas and jeopardize U.S. relations with other countries.”

Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, said he was “extremely disappointed in the flawed and biased results” of the report.

In order to counter these charges of bias, it would be useful to have access to the full report in order to independently judge its full scope and methodology. As blogger Marcy Wheeler pointed out, “Because we’ll get just the Executive Summary, we won’t get much hard detail — aside from that which has been public for years — about the allegations that will appear in the Executive Summary, which will make it harder to rebut any claims CIA’s defenders make.”

Unless the CIA’s critics show more aggressiveness, Wheeler argues, in countering the inevitable torture apologia, the release of the report’s executive summary may not have much effect at all.

And this is assuming that even the executive summary is released in its entirety. After all, the SSCI did not actually declassify anything; it simply voted to send the report to the CIA for redactions and then to the President for declassification review and possible eventual public release. Until the declassification process is complete and that portion of the report is released (which could take months or even years), it will remain under wraps.

With these concerns in mind, a coalition of human rights groups sent a letter to the White House calling for President Obama’s staff to expeditiously lead the declassification of the report, rather than leaving it to the CIA. The groups welcomed CIA Director John Brennan’s pledge “not … to stand in the way” of the report’s release, but noted that the agency has an inherent conflict of interest that cannot be overlooked.

“The recent allegations that the CIA searched computers made available to the SSCI, removed documents from them, triggered potential criminal proceedings against congressional staff and took other troubling steps make this inherent conflict of interest very vivid,” the letter says.

This conflict of interest is even more vivid considering that what is at stake is not simply a policy dispute, but clear violations of the law. As media reports based on leaked sections of the report have indicated, CIA agents had illegally detained 26 of the 119 individuals in CIA custody, and the interrogation techniques used on detainees went beyond the methods that had been approved by the Bush Justice Department or CIA’s headquarters (guidelines that were likely overly permissive in the first place).

Also at issue are potential crimes committed including murder and obstruction of justice. As McClatchy reported on April 1, “In the case of the death of Gul Rahman, an Afghan who was shackled, doused with cold water and left in a cold cell partially clothed until he died of hypothermia, the CIA’s internal documents reviewed by the Senate confirm the agency’s culpability.”

A Department of Justice inquiry concluded in August 2012 that there was insufficient evidence to push for the prosecution of individuals in Rahman’s death. As Attorney General Eric Holder said at the time, “Based on the fully developed factual record … the Department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”

But according to evidence uncovered by the SSCI, the agency may have tried to “minimize or sanitize that case” – in other words, to obstruct justice. “The documents initially make it seem like it was an accident,” a former official told McClatchy. “However, evidence pointed to what it actually was: willful negligence or even negligent homicide.”

So, despite the fact that possible criminal charges including homicide are at stake, potentially implicating individual interrogators as well as their superiors, the CIA is being offered the opportunity to redact any sections of the executive summary that it considers too damaging. The term “conflict of interest” is probably an understatement.

As the human rights coalition put it in its letter to the White House, “It seems obviously inappropriate to permit the agency assessed in the report to decide what parts of it your Administration believes the American people should see.”

Nat Parry is the co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush. [This story is cross-posted at Essential Opinion.]

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8 comments on “The Torture Report’s Long, Winding Road

  1. Coleen Rowley on said:

    Here’s another great op-ed, asking whether, after nearly ten years, it isn’t time to end the official foot-dragging and cover-up, and finally allow the American public to learn the truth about the government torture conducted in their names? http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/05/leak-cia-report-torture-redacted-transparency

  2. F. G. Sanford on said:

    It isn’t just Republicans and Democrats who have sold America down the river. It’s also the so-called ‘liberals’, ‘progressives’, ‘secular humanists’, ‘Christians’ of every stripe, intellectuals and even the rational elements of conservative politics – sometimes called “paleo-conservatives” who have sold out. It really isn’t a matter of political ideology. It’s a matter of moral turpitude. Using the ‘boiling frog’ model, a new paradigm has been slowly titrated upon the American psyche in a manner that gradually makes it acceptable.

    Here, we find civil and human rights groups begging “the most transparent administration in history” to divulge evidence not of inequality, but rather evidence of outright murder, massive corruption, subversion of Constitutional law and obstruction of justice. In response, that administration is…thinking about it. Nope, no snap decisions to worry about here!

    While Americans have been duped into thinking that they have made progress on some token issues like ‘gay marriage’, the rest of the rug of democratic society has been pulled from under them. The corrupt duopoly has once again turned the population against itself in an effective distraction from real issues. Instead of a rational policy based on economic equality, the issue has become a red flag which a large segment of the population, like it or not, finds wholly repugnant. Thus, right-wing resolve to further undermine any remnant of real democracy has been passionately fortified. I call this “Apoptocracy”, or programmed self-destruction. Get ready for the repeal of Roe v. Wade. Poor-house prisons aren’t far away either.

    Domestic surveillance revelations have been dribbled out in a way that has led to…legalization and acceptance. Read the mainstream blogs, and the consensus is that, “Them moozlums deserve to get tortured”. And my personal favorite example of American illiteracy: “Ed Snowden is a trader[sic]“.

    Now might be a good time for Glen Greenwald to stop his sanctimonious grandstanding. He could reveal once and for all whether Snowden is a hero, a traitor or a ‘limited hangout’. Parsimonious revelations couched in the hypocrisy of “responsible journalism” have done more to inflame sentiment against a perceived putrid lifestyle than the criminal transgressions they would purport to expose. It’s time for him to come clean before he does himself, his community or democracy any more damage…unless that was his goal in the first place.

    Fear of torture and surveillance are effective forms of oppression – but only if a population knows its government uses them with impunity. So far, what’s been revealed has been greeted with acceptance. Most people think it can only happen to the Greenwalds and Snowdens, so they don’t much care. Exposing the real scope of the crimes is democracy’s only hope.

  3. Eddie on said:

    FGS – Just curious… what would you advocate that the “so-called ‘liberals’, ‘progressives’, ‘secular humanists’, ‘Christians’ of every stripe, intellectuals and even the rational elements of conservative politics” (a group I would consider myself part-of) do instead of ‘selling-out’ as you put it? This politically left (by US standards) category may account for 25-35% of the populace (with the rest being ‘independent’ or conservative), it’s not a majority in and of itself, and therefore can’t pass legislation on its own. It does NOT have the support of the military, MSM, most of the government, or the NRA gun-nuts, so of course any sort of violent revolution is laughable even if it was seriously considered. It has some economic resources, but those are heavily outweighed by the greedy right-wingers. The only major influence this ‘sell-out’ group has is via rational arguments and those have never counted for much in the US.
    So what WOULD you have this group do instead? Begin immolating themselves like Buddhist monks in Vietnam, in the 1960s… or other acts of martyrdom that would be promptly dismissed by the MSM and the rest of the society? Speak up even louder than they have, even though they grew hoarse in the late 70′s and 1980s and it fell upon deaf ears? Please enlighten us as to the REALISTIC options available that are being missed…

    • F. G. Sanford on said:

      I guess I’m wondering what happened to the likes of Peter Rodino, Sam Ervin, Howard Baker and Everett Dirksen…people who kinda realized that democracy requires obeying the law, regardless of party affiliation. Then, of course, there were still a few people in the media who were willing to report both sides of the story…even if they took a partisan view. I know plenty of biased words passed Walter Kronkite’s lips, but when push came to shove, he had a lot more courage than Amy Goodman will ever muster. The bottom line is that heinous crimes demand recourse to the rule of law. Somebody needs to be staring down an indictment or an impeachment. Anything less is a ‘State Crime Against Democracy’.

    • lumpentroll on said:

      So what WOULD you have this group do instead? Begin immolating themselves like Buddhist monks in Vietnam,

      Saigon was full of liberals, progressives, secular humanists, intellectuals, rational conservatives (sic)

  4. Masud Awan on said:

    Democracy in America:
    “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
    Couldn’t put Humpty together again”

  5. William Jacoby on said:

    How would it hurt “sources and methods” if the President ordered the FBI to release the surveillance videos taken from the hundreds of cameras focused on the Pentagon on 9/11/01? How would it hurt our national security to release the time-and-date-stamped airport surveillance videos of the nineteen hijackers boarding four planes on that day–not just a few suspects boarding one plane? How would it hurt our democracy if a new, independent inquiry was convened, with subpoena power, to evaluate the research of leading scientists and engineers, leaders in their field, who have proven that airplanes and jet fuel alone, unaided by pre-planted thermitic explosives, could not have caused three New York skyscrapers to collapse in free fall? What would happen if the CIA were forced to release its 60-year old files about its involvement with Lee Harvey Oswald? How would we be endangered if the remaining documentation of all federal investigations of Wall Street financiers–Harriman, Bush, (George Herbert) Walker, and others–and corporations like Standard Oil, and General Electric, who financed Hitler’s rise to power and the production of his planes, tanks, and synthetic fuel, for trading with the enemy–were released? When these things are done, either the National Security State will have successfully shown that it is a worthy keeper of its treasure trove of secrets, or else the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture will be released in full, along with more evidence of war crimes than the Hague could prosecute in a century of work.