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The CIA Torture Debate Is Only Beginning

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). | Alex Wong via Getty Images

The Senate Intelligence Committee is set to vote Thursday on whether to publicly reveal the conclusions of a report on the Bush-era CIA interrogation program. Even if the classified report clears that congressional hurdle and a White House declassification review, however, CIA supporters are setting the stage for another round of debate -- 12 years after the CIA began to use torture tactics such as waterboarding.

In 2012, the Senate Intelligence Committee approved a 6,300-page draft report, described by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) as "comprehensive" and "by far the most important oversight activity ever conducted by this committee." The draft covers the CIA's use of "black sites" for detention and interrogation, and the use of torture. The Senate committee will likely vote Thursday to release a shorter, 300-page executive summary of the draft report.

"If the report isn't released, then I don't see how we're going to get to the bottom of this issue from a factual assessment of what actually happened, because so much of the data is classified," said Alberto Mora, the former general counsel for the U.S. Navy who was outspoken within the Bush administration in his opposition to harsh interrogation tactics.

But even then, Mora added, "I think the report will be the start of the full assessment."

For years, the CIA and its supporters have steadfastly defended the agency's actions -- and fought to keep them secret. After President Barack Obama renounced torture, former Bush officials like Vice President Dick Cheney have maintained --contrary to international consensus -- that waterboarding is not torture, and that it was effective in producing intelligence. The public pressure paid off when Attorney General Eric Holder announced in 2012 there would be no prosecutions for unlawful CIA interrogations.

More recently, CIA Director John Brennan has admitted that the CIA conducted a "search" of Senate computers to see how Intelligence Committee staffers accessed a disputed internal agency review of the interrogation program.

If the White House ultimately declassifies the Senate report's executive summary, CIA supporters have already telegraphed their next tactic: charging that the Senate report is tainted by partisanship and bias.

In a column last week, former CIA General Counsel John Rizzo called for the report's release, but he simultaneously raised his doubts "about whether it can be objective, authoritative or fair." When the draft of the report was approved in 2012, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the Senate Intelligence Committee's top Republican, charged that it "contains a number of significant errors and omissions about the history and the utility of the CIA's detention and interrogation program."

Detractors claim the interrogation report was handicapped by a decision to focus on the written record, rather than interviews with CIA employees. On the other hand, supporters say that the Senate report concludes the CIA repeatedly misled the Justice Department and Congress on the interrogation and detention program's effectiveness, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.

Katherine Hawkins, who formerly worked as an investigator for the non-profit Constitution Project's task force on detainee treatment, said she doubts the report's release will ever convince those with "a direct personal stake" that the CIA was in the wrong with tactics like waterboarding.

"But as to the public and policymakers generally: I think that very much depends on how much is ultimately declassified," she wrote in an email.

The headline issue so far has been whether waterboarding or other tactics euphemistically referred to as "enhanced interrogation" helped lead to Osama bin Laden's death. But the report could shed light on many matters still classified, Hawkins said. That includes reports by the CIA's inspector general, such as reviews of two homicides that involved CIA personnel; CIA detainees' descriptions of their own treatment; details on how psychologists and other medical professionals participated in the CIA program; evidence on whether the CIA actually followed its limits on "enhanced interrogation;" and descriptions of what happened to detainees when they were sent to foreign countries when CIA "black sites" were closed, according to Hawkins.

And there may be much, including "new details about rendition to torture," still unresolved in the public eye, Hawkins said.

Even those who have fought for years to have the full story told on the CIA's brutal tactics don't think the report's release will quell the lingering debate over torture. But they say it is critical to make public the many new details the report, or at least its executive summary, may contain.

“I strongly believe that the only way to correct the inaccurate information in the public record on this program is through the sunlight of declassification,” Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said in December.

If the report is released in some form, however, torture opponents will still have their work cut out for them. A December 2012 HuffPost/YouGov poll found that 47 percent of Americans, a plurality, believe torture can always or sometimes be justified.

"I think the public record is really missing the full extent of the interrogation techniques and a more accurate appreciation of the brutality of them," Mora said. "To publish the report is a necessary first step, but I think it's got to be interpreted and it's got to be communicated persistently to the American public."

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