THE BLOG
12/15/2014 06:07 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

Why Not Read It?

SAUL LOEB via Getty Images

For the better part of a week now, I have been bombarded by media accounts of and non-stop comment on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's Study of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program.

The study itself, which runs to more than 6,700 pages, is still classified. Last Tuesday, however, the Committee released a Forward to the study written by the Committee's present chair, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Study's Findings and Conclusions, and the Executive Summary of the Study. That Executive Summary alone is 499 pages.

In a nutshell, the study concludes that (1) the CIA engaged in torture, (2) the program didn't work, and (3) the CIA repeatedly lied about the program to Congress, the Department of Justice (DOJ), the media and the public. The word "nutshell" should be taken literally. The 499-page Executive Summary contains 2,552 footnotes and is based, as apparently is the full 6,700-page report, almost exclusively on contemporary CIA documents and other public records. Those documents, moreover, include voluminous memoranda, testimony, emails and reports from the actual on-ground participants in the program on up to the various directors of the CIA. The report, though written by staffers employed by the Democratic majority on the Intelligence Committee, is also bipartisan in its criticism -- it lambastes Obama's appointed CIA directors as thoroughly as it lambastes Bush's.

Following publication of the Executive Summary, the push back has been intense and emotional. Appearing on Fox News, former Vice President Cheney called the report "a bunch of crap." Former Congressman Joe Scarborough said the same thing on his Morning Joe program on MSNBC. And three former directors of the CIA -- George J. Tenet, Porter J. Goss and Michael V. Hayden -- along with two former deputy directors -- John E. McLaughlin and Albert M. Calland -- penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal skewering the Committee for not having spoken to them and stating, point blank, that the CIA program was effective and "deemed ... legal."

Cheney and Scarborough admit they have not read the report and it is not clear whether the former directors and deputy directors have either. In their Wall Street Journal piece, Tenet et al. make a number of claims that the Executive Summary refutes in detail. In discussing specifics, for example, they assert that "The CIA never would have focused on the individual who turned out to be bin Laden's personal courier without the detention and interrogation program"; that "Once they became compliant due to the interrogation program, both Abu Zubaydah [a senior al Qaeda operative who was the first such operative captured by the US] and KSM [Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attack] turned out to be invaluable sources on the al Qaeda organization"; and that the program disrupted and prevented other "mass casualty attacks" in the wake of 9/11, including a "second wave" attack planned against the US west coast.

None of these claims, however, are accurate. In fact, they are refuted by the CIA's own records.

The Zubaydah/KSM and bin Laden courier claims are instructive. In the case of the first, as the Senate report makes clear, Zubaydah had provided actionable intelligence under questioning by the FBI and others long before he was detained by the CIA and subject to torture, and KSM, who was tortured from the point at which he was captured, provided information that more often than not was false. More to the point, the CIA actually concluded during its interrogations that it was not obtaining useful information from KSM by water boarding him. As to the courier, the report makes clear that he was identified long before any tortured detainees pointed the finger at him, that the most accurate information on the courier came from a detainee who had not been tortured, and that the CIA knew -- again from untainted sources -- of the courier's closeness to and intimate involvement with bin Laden. Finally, as to any success in stopping other attacks, the Senate report contains a detailed examination of the CIA's 20 most repeated "success" claims, including disruption of the second wave west coast attack. It explains that, in each of those specific cases, the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" (its euphemism for torture) program did not create the success or disrupt any plot. In particular, the second wave attack cited by Tenet et al. was disrupted upon the arrest of a plotter and information obtained from him without any resort to torture.

The complaint that the directors and deputy directors were not consulted in advance of the Senate report, while technically true, is also more than strained. The Executive Summary is based almost entirely on contemporaneous CIA documents, and the views of the directors and deputy directors -- especially those of Gen. Hayden -- were available from those documents and their own public testimony, and are repeatedly cited and quoted in the Senate report. To claim, therefore, as Cheney and Scarborough have, that the report didn't consider the "other side of the story" -- or the views of the principals -- is false. In fact, the Senate report is for the most part simply a report of the findings of the CIA itself. In other words, the report is based on "their" side of the story as it was told (and memorialized in emails and memos) at the time by the operatives and analysts on the ground and at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

The Senate report contains similar detail -- including accounts of evidence destruction -- in support of its claim that the CIA misled Congress and the public on the scope and success of its torture program, as well as information that it even misled the Department of Justice and the executive branch. All of this is dismissed with a wave of the hand by Tenet et al., who instead insist that the DOJ "deemed" the CIA program legal.

The last claim is more or less true. What DOJ did was authorize limited use of torture in specific cases.

It is also true, however, that the CIA in effect "jobbed" DOJ. As the Senate report makes clear, again based on the CIA's own documents, the agency misrepresented what it was getting absent torture, the number of its detainees, the significance of some of the detainees, the extent of the torture it was planning and then performed (including the use of "rectal infusions"), the medical conditions of those subjected to torture, and the physical/medical effects of the torture. The CIA even misrepresented Sen. McCain's position to DOJ, asserting that McCain had approved of the techniques for which it was seeking approval when he manifestly had not. None of this, of course, covers DOJ in glory; torture, and the techniques the CIA classified as enhanced interrogations and disclosed to DOJ, has and have long been illegal. The US itself prosecuted the Japanese for water boarding prisoners during World War II, and long before DOJ's lawyers got hold of the CIA's post-9/11 requests, there really was no debate on what constituted torture.

Knowing John McCain's position, moreover, does not require a CIA briefing.

The point here, however, is that the CIA's defenders -- including the ex-directors, ex-deputy directors, Cheney and Scarborough -- keep insisting that criticism of the agency is being undertaken without any appreciation of the "context" in which the CIA had to make these decisions, including fear of imminent additional attacks in the wake of 9/11, when the record discloses that the CIA itself did not even accurately describe that context to the overseers at DOJ from whom it was seeking some sort of legal cover.

This is critical. We depend on our leaders and on our agencies to get it right in times of crisis. The easiest "ask" in the wake of 9/11 was the ask for torture. No American would have cared if any al Qaeda operative or detainee had then been tortured to death (and, apparently, one in fact was). Many will not care even today. That we should ought not be used to disguise the fact that we won't and don't. Law, therefore, exists precisely to save us from ourselves. The fact that the US engaged in torture is tragic. The fact that it did not have to do so is, perhaps, even more so. And now, the fact that we cannot have a rational conversation about what occurred -- that a former vice president and a former congressman call a voluminous report, based on contemporary documents making almost indisputable claims given the mountain of evidence amassed and discussed, "crap" without having even read it -- is perhaps the most tragic.

Because we will just repeat these mistakes in the wake of some future crisis.

Even though we should not, and even though we will not have to.

How can we stop this?

Here is a modest proposal.

Before anyone talks about the Senate Select Committee's Study of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program, including the Committee's just published Executive Summary, he or she...

Should read it.