The CIA and GOP Are Sticking to Their Story: Torture Worked

John Brennan
Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan is sworn in to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 7, 2013. Jason Reed/Reuters

The CIA and Republicans don't dispute that the really bad things described in the Senate Intelligence Committee's torture report actually happened. But they do reject the argument that they deceived Congress about what they were doing in their "black sites" around the world and that their rough techniques produced nothing of any value.

It's unclear, though, if their PR campaign will produce anything they would consider to be of value.

Key conclusions of the 525-page executive summary of the report released Tuesday said the CIA misled Congress about the program. Moreover, the report charged that the "enhanced interrogation techniques," or EITs, that were used to pry information from terror suspects not only went far beyond legal boundaries but they produced no useful intelligence or cooperation with their captors.

Those techniques included waterboarding, which simulates drowning; slamming against walls; slapping; sleep deprivation; stress positions; and confinement in small boxes. The report said prisoners were also subjected to "rectal rehydration," a form of feeding through the rectum; "ice baths"; and death threats against their families.

CIA Director John Brennan adamantly rejected these conclusions Tuesday, saying the agency's own review of the program "indicates that interrogations of detainees on whom EITs were used did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives."

He said the rough interrogation of several detainees produced intelligence that led to location of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind behind the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.

In a statement that coincided with the release of the Senate committee's report, Brennan added, "The intelligence gained from the program was critical to our understanding of Al-Qaeda and continues to inform our counterterrorism efforts to this day."

The detention and interrogation program, in which terror suspects seized around the world by CIA special rendition teams or local authorities working with the Americans, began under President George W. Bush in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks and ended on the orders of President Barack Obama soon after he took office in 2009. "We tortured some folks," Obama said in August.

The Senate Intelligence Committee began its probe into the program in 2009, but Republicans on the panel soon halted their participation when it became clear that a criminal investigation would prevent the committee from questioning CIA officials involved in the program. Since then, committee Republicans have presented the investigation by the committee's Democratic staff as a partisan exercise aimed at blackening the Bush administration's reputation.

Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the Republican vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, together with five other Republicans on the panel, issued their own minority views Tuesday, which slammed the report by the committee's Democratic majority as deeply flawed in its methodology and conclusions. But their views sidestepped the question of whether the techniques used constituted torture.

Noting the committee report "cost the American taxpayer more than $40 million and diverted countless CIA analytic and support resources," the Republicans challenged the report's conclusion that rough interrogation techniques produced no useful intelligence.

The Republicans cited the report's claim that seven of the 39 CIA detainees who were subjected to such techniques gave up no valuable information. "If true, that means that 82 percent of detainees subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques produced some intelligence while in CIA custody, which is better than the 57.5 percent effectiveness rate of detainees not subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques," the Republicans said.

The Republicans also challenged the report's claim that CIA officers themselves often questioned the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation techniques.

"While the opinions of these unidentified CIA officers may happen to coincide with the study's first conclusion, there were at least three other CIA officials who held the opposite view—Directors [George] Tenet, [Porter] Goss and [Michael] Hayden," the Republicans said.

Meanwhile, Brennan also disagreed with the report's conclusion that the CIA had misled the White House, Congress and the public about the effectiveness of the detention and interrogation program. He noted that no interviews were conducted with any of the CIA officers involved in the program, producing what he called an "incomplete and selective picture of what occurred."

Speaking on the Senate floor, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-California, said the report's conclusions about the effectiveness of the program were based in part on the CIA's own interviews with the officers.

Brennan acknowledged there were "mistakes" and "shortcomings" in the detention and interrogation program, admitting to "instances" in which CIA officials provided Congress with inaccurate information about the program. He attributed such problems to the fact that the CIA was "unprepared and lacked the core competencies required to carry out an unprecedented, worldwide program of detaining and interrogating suspected Al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorists."

But Brennan said these mistakes still did not justify the report's implication that the CIA deliberately conspired to mislead others about the program's effectiveness. He said that "within the limits established by the White House," the agency made a "good-faith effort" to keep the congressional intelligence oversight committees informed about the program.

The CIA and Republicans face an uphill struggle in defending the interrogation program. Details of the methods that were used are virtually certain to anger and disgust a broad cross-section of Americans as they become familiar with the report, not to mention critics of the Bush administration's policies overseas, where U.S. forces have been placed on alert against the possibility of violent responses.

In a separate comment on the report, Susan Collins of Maine, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, joined her Republican colleagues in criticizing the committee's investigative methodology. But it was her conclusion that is likely to be remembered most vividly.

"Despite these significant flaws, the report's findings lead me to conclude that some detainees were subject to techniques that constituted torture," she wrote. "This inhumane and brutal treatment never should have occurred."