SHORTLY AFTER the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the CIA began taking prisoners captured in U.S. anti-terrorism operations. Some were tortured. This is not news. But a long-classified Senate report released Tuesday depicts the disgusting extremes.
The release of the Democratic report’s findings and executive summary instantly came under heavy criticism — from current and former CIA officials, among others — and reignited a debate about whether the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program” was justified. As before, the answer is no. President George W. Bush and Congress both condoned this barbarity but should not have. You don’t have to accept every assertion in the Senate report to see that.
The report details painful and humiliating interrogation techniques, some authorized in advance, some not. A chief interrogator described an early detention site as a “dungeon,” in which prisoners were shackled in total darkness and then sometimes stripped, hooded and dragged up and down a hallway while guards slapped and punched them. Agents blindfolded a prisoner and began operating a power drill to elicit extreme fear. They subjected detainees to excessive sleep deprivation — up to 180 hours — sometimes to the point that prisoners experienced “disturbing hallucinations.” Prisoners were shackled for days with their arms above their heads, forced into prolonged nudity and soaked in cold water. Some endured “rectal rehydration” and “rectal feeding.” Interrogators demanded that detainees maintain stress positions indefinitely — even treating one for swelling so he could continue standing. Wounds were allowed to worsen. Early on, one prisoner died in CIA custody, probably due to prolonged exposure to cold. And there was waterboarding — leading in one instance to detainee Abu Zubaida becoming “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his full, open mouth.”
This is not how Americans should behave. Ever.
The CIA admits to “grim conditions and inadequate monitoring of detainees” early on. It detained some people under legal interpretations that are “inconceivable” now. But the CIA was not fully reined in until President Obama issued an executive order in 2009.
The Senate report claims that torture was an ineffective tool to obtain intelligence, despite the CIA’s 2003 insistence that “termination of this program will result in loss of life, possibly extensive.” The CIA now responds that it’s “unknowable” whether torture produced intelligence that couldn’t have been obtained some other way. The report’s critics, including senior former agency officials, defend the program’s results even more staunchly.
Any reckoning of outcomes has to account for the severe blow dealt to America’s global reputation by the inevitable exposure of these techniques, harm which the country is still trying to repair. But to our mind, the argument over practical outcomes is mostly beside the point. Torture is wrong, whether or not it has ever “worked.” As an Obama administration official said Tuesday, “The reason we prohibited these techniques is because they are contrary to our values.”
We don’t discount warnings that releasing the report might rouse anti-American sentiment in the near term. But in the long term, the United States will benefit by demonstrating a commitment to transparency and self-criticism — and, most of all, by pledging never to repeat its post-9/11 mistakes.