We Can Handle the Truth

The CIA's excuses about torture just don't hold water.

Remember Abu Ghraib? Remember waterboarding, CIA "black sites," and "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as depriving prisoners of sleep for over a week or requiring them to stay in agonizingly uncomfortable "stress positions" by chaining their arms to the ceiling?

I know, you don't really want to remember all that. The details are distressing: Only sadists enjoy contemplating the pain and humiliation of other human beings, even when those other human beings are alleged terrorists. And that whole dark episode is one most Americans would rather put behind them.

Unsurprisingly, the Central Intelligence Agency is a particularly strong institutional advocate of putting it all behind us. Several years back, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) began a massive effort to evaluate and report on the CIA's post-9/11 interrogation practices, seeking to make a definitive determination of whether CIA techniques were lawful and effective. SSCI staff undertook a $40 million investigation over a three-year period, reviewing millions of classified documents and interviewing hundreds of people, inside and outside the government. SSCI chair, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, calls it "by far the most important oversight activity ever conducted by this committee."

The CIA refused to permit SSCI investigators to interview its interrogators, however, and a full year after the SSCI adopted a 6,000-page report on the investigation in a bipartisan vote, the agency continues to resist efforts to make the report public.

Let's take a look at the most common arguments against releasing the SSCI report. None holds water.

"It might be embarrassing."

Well, yes: Those familiar with the report say it concludes unequivocally that the CIA used interrogation techniques that constitute torture and that it misled Congress and the White House about the nature and effectiveness of its interrogation program. (As Caroline Krass, the Obama administration's nominee for CIA general counsel, put it during her confirmation hearing on Dec. 17, "It seems that inaccurate information was supplied.") According to insiders, the report suggests that the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques garnered no valuable information that had not already been obtained through other more traditional (read: non-illegal) methods -- and that the CIA's interrogation was actually counterproductive.

But the role of the SSCI is to oversee the intelligence committee and ensure its accountability to law, not to protect individuals or institutions from embarrassment. If American taxpayers footed the bill for a program that was illegal, ineffective, and defended through the provision of misinformation to Congress and the White House, we need to know about it. The CIA serves the country, not the other way around.

"It might contain factual mistakes."

CIA officials keep charging -- usually anonymously, via unnamed sources -- that the SSCI report is riddled with factual errors. When the report was first completed, the CIA spent more than six months reviewing it and then submitted a 122-page response; after that, SSCI staff met repeatedly with CIA officials to discuss their concerns. At this point, however, CIA objections to the report appear to be objections to the report's interpretation of the facts, not to the facts themselves; SSCI members and staff have objected vehemently to CIA claims that the report contains errors. Regardless, this is no reason not to make the bulk of the report public. The report should be issued with a statement from any dissenting SSCI members, and if CIA officials can identify specific inaccuracies they can issue a CIA response. Why not let the public judge the facts for itself?

"The report might politicize the issues."

There are two versions of this objection, and neither is persuasive. The first version relates to a concern that the issue will split members of Congress along party lines. But for all the polarization in Congress, torture remains one thing that's not a partisan issue. One of the Senate's strongest anti-torture advocates -- and a strong proponent of making the SSCI report public -- is Sen. John McCain, the former Republican candidate for president, and numerous other Republicans have also condemned the Bush-era use of torture.

The second version of this objection relates to a concern that revelations about past CIA misconduct might put Langley under a political spotlight, possibly leading to greater legislative scrutiny of CIA activities. But that's a good thing, not a bad thing. As recent National Security Agency revelations make clear, the intelligence community can't be left to more or less invent its own laws and procedures. It's an essential and valuable part of America's national security apparatus -- but just like the rest of the U.S. government, it's made up of human beings, and humans make mistakes. We permit the CIA to operate behind closed doors -- but precisely for that reason, we need an ongoing, serious, informed public debate about the nature of CIA activities.

"The report might jeopardize the careers of CIA officers who acted in good faith."

Doubtful. Insofar as CIA officials acted in good-faith compliance with legal guidance provided by the Justice Department and the CIA general counsel, they can't be prosecuted -- even if they used or approved interrogation techniques that the law now considers to be torture.

As for their careers, the evidence so far suggests, sadly, that complicity in torture is as likely to be a career-enhancer as a career-ender; look at the Justice Department's John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Steven Bradbury, who wrote the legal memoranda that paved the way for waterboarding and the like. Bybee became a federal judge; Bradbury is a partner at a major international law firm, and Yoo is a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Or consider Jose Rodriguez, former head of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, who got a lucrative private-sector job and was last seen promoting his book about the CIA on 60 Minutes. Or John Rizzo, former acting CIA general counsel, who's now at a big D.C. law firm and has his own just-published CIA memoir. These guys are doing just fine.

"We need to keep classified information classified."

Up to a point, sure. But the purpose of the classification system is to prevent the release of information that could harm the United States if made public, not to cover up waste, fraud, illegality, or abuse -- and certainly not to save officials from embarrassment. In any case, it's Congress that sets the rules concerning what should and should not be classified. To the extent that specific facts in the SSCI report would endanger U.S. security interests if made public, the SSCI can redact the report appropriately.

More to the point, there are some strange ironies here. Rodriguez has written an entire book and gone on national television defending the CIA's interrogation program and his role in it, and Rizzo is about to do the same. It would be mighty strange if former CIA officials can broadcast their version of events to the whole wide world, but the Senate committee charged with overseeing the CIA isn't allowed to share its own assessment with the American electorate.

"Releasing the report might endanger U.S. troops and spur anti-American sentiment."

The opposite is true. America's abuses endanger its troops and spur anti-American sentiment -- and the appearance of Washington's hypocrisy about those abuses does the same. If we want to reduce anti-American sentiment and protect our troops, the best way to do that is to show the world that we live up to our principles -- to demonstrate that we hold ourselves to the same standards we expect others to live up to and that when we mess up, we come clean about it.

After the Senate Armed Services Committee conducted a similar investigation of abuses committed by members of the military in the wake of Abu Ghraib, the report was released to the public in 2009, with no ill effects. Similarly, when he took office in 2009, President Barack Obama ordered the declassification and release of the infamous Justice Department "torture memos" authored by Yoo and company -- again with no negative effect on U.S. security.

Numerous former military leaders have gone on record arguing for a full accounting of U.S. abuses. To cite just a few, consider this statement on the SSCI report by 24 retired general and flag officers, or this recent op-ed by retired generals Paul Eaton and Antonio Taguba. As Eaton and Taguba put it, "The military opened itself up to oversight and is stronger as a result. If the U.S. military can handle it, so can the CIA."

Your hear that, CIA? Man up.

"But it was all so long ago, and anyway, we don't do that stuff anymore. We should focus on the future, not the past."

It wasn't that long ago, actually: less than a decade. And we "don't do that stuff anymore" only because Obama prohibited torture in one of his very first executive orders in 2009. But this could be changed by a future president with the stroke of a pen -- and a future Congress could also take a different view of torture than the current cast of characters on Capitol Hill.

If we want to make sure the United States will never again resort to torture, we need to set out the factual record: what was done and with what effects. Recent polls suggest that the number of Americans who believe torture is useful and acceptable has gone up in the last few years, in part as a result of books like Rodriguez's and films such as Zero Dark Thirty, which suggest that however unsavory it is, torture is an effective counterterrorism tool.

The SSCI report addresses this issue in detail and apparently concludes -- after an exhaustive examination of the evidence -- that this is just plain wrong. Torture didn't reveal anything we didn't already know, and in fact it caused substantial damage to U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Unless the report is made public, however, this debate will remain characterized by misinformation and unverifiable claims -- increasing the danger that in the future, we'll repeat past mistakes.

By all means, let's put the past behind us. But if we want to focus on the future, we first have to face the truth about the past.

Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


Killer Elite

America's foreign policy establishment is out of touch with America -- and the numbers prove it.

Who speaks for American foreign policy? The public or foreign affairs elites? It is a question that people outside the United States frequently ask, confused by the contrast between the erudite reassurances about the U.S. role in the world that they often receive from American diplomats and think-tank pundits and what foreigners disconcertingly perceive as politically driven Washington foreign policy.

This disconnect in perception and priorities between the views of experts and the general public is often discounted (by elites) as either expected or irrelevant. And it does reflect the inevitable tension between policy and politics in any democratic country. But it also comes with a cost: an often contradictory and confusing mixed message to foreigners about America's intentions on the world stage.

The public and the elite do see eye-to-eye on one thing: America's declining stature as a global leader. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, more than five-in-ten members of the public and roughly six-in-ten members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a nonpartisan membership organization and think tank specializing in U.S. foreign policy, agree that the United States plays a less important role around the world than it did a decade ago. Just four years ago, less than half of both groups said that the United States played a less powerful global role.

But the public and the experts judge this relative decline differently. About half of the public says the United States already does too much in terms of helping solve world problems, while only about two-in-ten CFR members see the United States as overextended.

There is similar disagreement on a range of specific international challenges facing the country and the world. With Washington engaged in negotiations to curtail Iran's nuclear program, six-in-ten Americans who have heard at least a little about the talks do not believe that Iranian leaders are serious about addressing U.S. concerns. At the same time, half of CFR members say Iranian leaders are serious.

When it comes to the Middle East peace process -- a major foreign policy priority of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry -- the public and the experts see the U.S. role there differently. Roughly four-in-ten CFR members support greater Washington involvement in resolving the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. But the same proportion of the public says the United States should be less involved in the region.

Seven-in-ten CFR members say the use of military drones to target extremists in places such as Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen has made America safer. Just five-in-ten members of the public agree. And more than four-in-ten foreign policy experts think the war in Afghanistan has improved Americans' safety. Only about three-in-ten members of the public agree.

Recent revelations of National Security Agency (NSA) phone and Internet surveillance similarly divide the public and elites. Roughly seven-in-ten experts say such spying has left the U.S. safer, but only about four-in-ten in the public see it that way. So, it is little wonder that while nearly seven-in-ten CFR members say the leak of classified information about NSA programs by Edward Snowden harmed the public interest, only five-in-ten of the public concur.

Looking forward, the public and elites agree that protecting the United States from terrorist attacks should be a major goal of U.S. foreign policy. More than eight-in-ten members of the public and about three-quarters of CFR members say counterterrorism should be a top priority.

But the public sees many foreign policy goals through a domestic lens. Roughly eight-in-ten Americans rate a decidedly domestic issue -- protecting the jobs of U.S. workers -- as a top long-range foreign policy priority. Only about three-in-ten CFR members agree. This disparity in perspective may help explain the tension foreigners often perceive between the willingness of State Department and Pentagon officials to use U.S. trade policy as a tool of American foreign policy, writ large, and the resistance this tradeoff has encountered on Capitol Hill.

The public also wants U.S. foreign policy to be used in pursuit of other largely domestic objectives. Majorities say that reducing the country's dependence on imported energy sources and combating international drug trafficking should be top international priorities, while nearly half say the same about reducing illegal immigration. But less than half of the experts surveyed see energy independence as a foreign policy goal. And just one-in-six rate drug interdiction as a priority, while only one-in-nine place great value on using foreign policy to halt illegal immigration.

Finally, climate change stands out as yet another issue area where the public and the experts disagree.  Over a third of the public says dealing with global climate change should be a top foreign policy goal, while over half of CFR members would make it a priority.

Some disconnect between public and expert opinion is to be expected. The two groups often have differing insights and interests. But for those outside the United States trying to understand Washington's foreign policy, it is important to understand that the elites they talk to do not necessarily speak for the American public. And that when congressional and White House policies clash with what officials abroad are hearing from the U.S. foreign policy establishment, it may be because the elite is out of touch with the American public.

Scott Olson/Getty Images