The battle between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee, which moved from private distrust to allegations of spying to public denunciations, is intensifying today as information about a 6,300-page report prepared by the committee on the Agency’s torture program is finding its way to the public. While the whole report has not been leaked, officials who have seen it have talked to the Post, and the picture they paint is, in many ways, an ugly one.

A report by the Senate Intelligence Committee concludes that the CIA misled the government and the public about aspects of its brutal interrogation program for years — concealing details about the severity of its methods, overstating the significance of plots and prisoners, and taking credit for critical pieces of intelligence that detainees had in fact surrendered before they were subjected to harsh techniques.
The report, built around detailed chronologies of dozens of CIA detainees, documents a long-standing pattern of unsubstantiated claims as agency officials sought permission to use — and later tried to defend — excruciating interrogation methods that yielded little, if any, significant intelligence, according to U.S. officials who have reviewed the document.
“The CIA described [its program] repeatedly both to the Department of Justice and eventually to Congress as getting unique, otherwise unobtainable intelligence that helped disrupt terrorist plots and save thousands of lives,” said one U.S. official briefed on the report. “Was that actually true? The answer is no.”

You can understand why the CIA is clinging desperately to the idea that the torture program yielded all kinds of benefits. When you’ve decided to do something that civilized nations have agreed for decades is morally abhorrent — the use of torture — you really have only three ways you can justify it, to yourself and others. The first is to decide that torture is not, in fact, wrong. The second is to argue that, though torture is wrong, what you’re doing is not torture. The third is to argue that though torture is wrong, in this particular case the alternative to torture is much worse, and therefore it is justified.

The Bush administration and the CIA decided to use both the second and third justifications, claiming that what they were doing was not in fact torture, but even if it was, the stakes were so high that torturing prisoners was necessary (you’ll remember all that talk about “ticking time bombs,” a scenario that happens a lot in movies but almost never in real life). But that second justification was always incredibly weak. Apart from giving it a new name — “enhanced interrogation” — they were never able to explain why, for instance, pulling out someone’s fingernails, which is designed to produce excruciating pain, is torture, but the use of stress positions, which is also designed to produce excruciating pain, is not. Since that was so unconvincing, it was the last argument — not just that torture works generally, but that our torture program in particular is working — that became the heart of their justification.

But if it didn’t actually work — if it didn’t produce vital information that saved so many lives it would justify the pit of immorality into which the Agency descended — then where does that leave the CIA?

In what may be the most damning portion of this report, the Intelligence Committee alleges that as information was passed up the chain of command toward the top levels of the U.S. government, CIA officials would twist the facts to make it seem as though the torture program was producing intelligence that actually came from more traditional interrogation:

One official said that almost all of the critical threat-related information from Abu Zubaida was obtained during the period when he was questioned by [FBI interrogator Ali] Soufan at a hospital in Pakistan, well before he was interrogated by the CIA and waterboarded 83 times.
Information obtained by Soufan, however, was passed up through the ranks of the U.S. intelligence community, the Justice Department and Congress as though it were part of what CIA interrogators had obtained, according to the committee report.
“The CIA conflated what was gotten when, which led them to misrepresent the effectiveness of the program,” said a second U.S. official who has reviewed the report. The official described the persistence of such misstatements as among “the most damaging” of the committee’s conclusions.

None of the participants has, or will ever, suffer any legal consequences for the torture program (even as he shut the program down upon taking office, President Obama made clear there would be no prosecutions). But to this day, all those involved have to insist, for the sake of their reputations and their own self-image as moral human beings, that it was all worthwhile. And they’ll never stop insisting as much, no matter what evidence might emerge showing they’re wrong.