POLITICS
12/09/2014 12:30 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

CIA Strikes Back At Senate: Torture Program Was Poorly Run, But It Worked

WASHINGTON -- You can tell the CIA that torturing people is immoral. You can accuse it of mismanaging the so-called "enhanced interrogation" program it ran during the post-9/11 years, blame its high-level leadership for internal failures and even say its bungling of the operations diminished America’s international credibility.

But there's one charge the CIA won’t accept: that torture didn't work.

In a carefully worded, 136-page rebuttal to a damning Senate report, the CIA on Tuesday defended itself against congressional investigators’ charges that the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" was ineffective. The agency claims that detainees who were subjected to the techniques did indeed provide valuable information.

The CIA also argues it's simply impossible to know whether that intelligence could have been acquired through other means, because that's not how it was done.

“It is impossible to imagine how CIA could have achieved the same results in terms of disrupting plots, capturing other terrorists, and degrading al-Qa’ida without any information from detainees, but it is unknowable whether, without enhanced interrogation techniques, CIA or non-CIA interrogators could have acquired the same information from those detainees," the agency said in its official response.

The 500-page Senate report, also released Tuesday, is a summary of a much longer study that details the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee's 5-year investigation into the CIA's enhanced interrogation program. In the report, Senate investigators examine the narratives of 20 detainee cases, concluding that the use of harsh interrogation techniques on these detainees did not produce useful information.

The CIA's rebuttal, most of which previously appeared in a July 2013 response to the Senate Intelligence Committee, dissects each of those cases. In 11 of the cases, the agency claims that the interrogation techniques did, in fact, provide valuable intelligence. For 7 of the detainees, the agency admits that it initially inflated the intelligence value of the obtained information, and in the final 2 cases the agency concedes that the intelligence gained was insignificant.

One key case that the Senate report relies on is the highly publicized pursuit of Osama bin Laden, the facts of which have been aired widely thanks to the blockbuster movie "Zero Dark Thirty." Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has herself chastised the filmmakers for implying that the waterboarding of CIA detainees helped reveal the identity of bin Laden’s courier. The courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, ultimately led a U.S. special operations team to the al Qaeda leader's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. But Feinstein's study indicates that the information that revealed al-Kuwaiti's identity was actually acquired before detainees were subjected to enhanced interrogations.

The CIA maintains that the harsh techniques were critical. Of particular consequence were Hassan Ghul, who is portrayed in the film as being the detainee who led agency officers to al-Kuwaiti, and Ammar al-Baluchi.

"In our view, it was detainee Ammar al-Baluchi who was the linchpin in the Bin Ladin case. He provided the information on the courier after EITs and before Hassan Ghul was interrogated. Baluchi is the key to the case," said agency spokesperson Christopher White on Tuesday.

The agency also balks at the notion that it went rogue and tortured detainees in defiance of orders. The Senate investigation suggests that the spies nefariously avoided oversight, lying to authorities on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Yet the CIA insists that the covert program was conducted with the express and direct approval of several high-level officials in the Bush White House.

"The image portrayed in the Study of an organization that—on an institutional scale—intentionally misled and routinely resisted oversight from the White House, the Congress, the Department of Justice, and its own OIG simply does not comport with the record," the response says.

Several of those officials, including former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney, have acknowledged their own involvement in the program, with Cheney to this day continuing to publicly defend the use of torture.

The CIA response criticizes the Senate panel's failure to interview any of the agency officers accused of wrongdoing, something for which the CIA and its defenders have long chastised Feinstein’s staff. Though Senate investigators reviewed millions of documents, cables and records over the course of five years, they did not conduct a single interview, a stark departure from past Senate reports.

The committee has defended its choice by saying that its study relied on communications cables as well as a CIA inspector general report in which agency officials were interviewed.

Though it touts the effectiveness of torture, the agency makes clear in its response that it does not advocate a return to the Bush years. In fact, the CIA agrees with a number of the Senate report’s harsh conclusions. The response admits, for instance, that the interrogation program was indeed plagued by occasional, though unintentional, misrepresentations to lawmakers and the White House.

"We cannot vouch for every individual statement that was made over the years of the program, and we acknowledge that some of those statements were wrong," the agency writes.

And unexpectedly, the agency criticizes itself by conceding that certain elements of the enhanced interrogation program contradicted American values.

There may be more to the story than just the agency’s public response, which is supposedly contradicted by an internal agency review conducted by former CIA Director Leon Panetta. The internal document, commonly called the Panetta Review, allegedly corroborates several aspects of the Senate study that the CIA publicly refutes. Earlier this year, the Panetta Review became the subject of an unprecedented constitutional crisis when the agency allegedly snooped on the computers Senate investigators were using to construct the study.

When investigators recognized that disparities existed between the agency’s public response and the internal review, Feinstein said, Senate staff quietly slipped the document out of a secure CIA facility, citing concerns about previous instances in which the agency had improperly penetrated Senate computers in order to yank documents back. The incident resulted in warring referrals to the Justice Department asking for criminal investigations: one against Feinstein’s staff for taking the document from the facility, and one against the agency for improperly monitoring the Senate staff members' computers.

“As CIA Director Brennan has stated, the CIA officially agrees with some of our study. But, as has been reported, the CIA disagrees and disputes important parts of it," Feinstein said in an explosive floor speech addressing the matter in March. "And this is important: Some of these important parts that the CIA now disputes in our committee study are clearly acknowledged in the CIA’s own internal Panetta Review."

"To say the least, this is puzzling," Feinstein continued. "How can the CIA’s official response to our study stand factually in conflict with its own Internal Review?”

But if discrepancies between the two accounts do exist, the Senate report did not clearly highlight them -- at least in its publicly released version -- leaving the dispute unresolved for now.

The document released Tuesday is only a summary of the full report, which is over 6,000 pages long. But with Republicans taking over the committee in January, it’s unlikely that the remainder of the study will see the light of day anytime soon.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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