Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

GOP's 'rebuttal' to torture report is tellingly half-hearted

The most convincing proof of the overall accuracy and importance of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture can be found, ironically, in the minority report that was filed by Republican senators, purportedly to rebut the committee findings.*

The minority report makes no attempt to dispute that people died while being tortured, that innocent people were tortured, that the program was shoddily run, that the two contract psychologists who devised and led the torture program had no experience as interrogators or with waterboarding, that the agency ignored many of its own interrogation experts in quickly establishing torture as the norm, that the FBI and military were so horrified that they refused to participate, that some detainees were forced to undergo medically unnecessary "rectal feeding," that another was left standing and shackled to a wall for 17 days because the CIA simply forgot he was there, and that waterboarding and other torture techniques were used far more often than the agency admits.**

The minority report addresses none of those topics.

Instead, it attempts two things:

1.) It attempts, in half-hearted fashion, to rebut claims that the CIA lied to Congress, the executive branch and the American people about what was going on.

2.) It argues that contrary to the majority report, torture (although it doesn't call torture "torture"), did produce important intelligence that saved American lives and helped lead to the capture or elimination of terrorists.

Again, what's telling is what is missing. Major allegations of deception and false testimony by the CIA and its top leaders go completely unaddressed in the minority report. Those allegations are central to the case that the CIA deceived its supposed supervisors in Congress and the executive branch; the fact that minority report makes no attempt whatsoever to rebut them means that they stand unchallenged, as do the conclusions that must flow from them.

And when the minority report does attempt to challenge claims of official CIA deception, it often is forced to concede what it attempts to deny:

"While our review of the documentary record did reveal some instances of inaccurate effectiveness claims by the CIA ..."

"Although these (presidential) briefing materials did contain some erroneous information about KSM's interrogation ..."

"In its response to the Study, the CIA concedes that the agency erred in describing detainee reporting as contributing to al-Marri'sarrest ...."

"The Study correctly points out that CIA statements implying that detainee information led to the "identification" or "investigation" of lyman Faris were inaccurate...."

On the question of whether torture was effective, those who have already made up their minds one way or the other will find evidence to support their claims. The report will not settle that. However, the tone of the debate is best captured in the case of Abu Zubaydah, who was the first detainee to be extensively tortured.

The committee report notes that upon his capture, Zubaydah was fully cooperative, gave very valuable evidence to FBI interrogators and showed every sign that he would continue to respond to traditional techniques. However, upon being turned over to the CIA, he was immediately subjected to torture.

The minority, led by Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, argues that the information that was extracted from Zubaydah after torture began proves that torture works. The majority report argues that since Zubaydah was already cooperating before being tortured, his later cooperation after torture commenced proves nothing.

To my mind, however, here's the most important paragraph in the minority report filed by Chambliss and his colleagues:

"Our review of the facts contained in the documentary record has led us to the opposite conclusion—that the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program, including the use of enhanced interrogation, was an effective means of gathering significant intelligence information and cooperation from a majority of these CIA detainees. Our conclusion, however, should not be read as an endorsement of any of these particular enhanced interrogation techniques." (emphasis mine).

Even in the minority report, Chambliss and his colleagues do not wish to be seen as endorsing the tactics that they are in effect endorsing.

In that moral distancing, they echo the reaction of the CIA's chief of interrogations, who back in 2003 emailed colleagues that he would "no longer be associated in any way with the interrogation program due to serious reservation about the current state of affairs' and was retiring. "This is a train wreak [sic] waiting to happen and I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens."

It also echoes reports from the scene of Zubaydah's torture, filed by CIA officers:

August 8, 2002: "Today's first session ... had a profound effect on all staff members present ... it seems the collective opinion that we should not go much further ... everyone seems strong for now but if the group has to continue ... we cannot guarantee how much longer ...  Several on the team profoundly affected .... some to the point of tears and choking up."

August 9, 2002: "two, perhaps three [personnel] likely to elect transfer" away from the detention site if the decision is made to continue with "enhanced interrogation".

August 11, 2002: Viewing the pressures on Abu Zubaydah on video "has produced strong feelings of futility (and legality) of escalating or even maintaining the pressure." Per viewing the tapes, "prepare for something not seen previously."

In 2007, then-CIA director Michael Hayden was asked point-blank in a Senate hearing: "Did any CIA personnel express reservations about being engaged in the interrogation or these techniques that were used?"

"I'm not aware of any," Hayden told Congress. "These guys are more experienced. No."


*One Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine, broke party lines to support the majority report.

** For example, the committee notes a photograph found in CIA files of a fully operational, well-used waterboard, complete with filled buckets of water, etc., in a prison site at which the CIA had claimed no waterboarding occurred. The agency offered no explanation for how that occurred.)


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.