The release of the executive summary of the Senate’s report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program is a belated but important victory of congressional oversight. Five years in the making, the report in many ways confirms what we already knew: The program, put together hastily in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, was both brutal and ineffective. The report gives graphic new details of the abuse, which included “rectal feeding,” the accidental death of a detainee, and the use of expensive contractor psychologists.
The most shocking information the Senate uncovered, however, wasn’t about CIA torture, but the CIA’s lies. The report makes a strong case that the CIA deliberately exaggerated information gained through these controversial techniques to give the false impression that it played a crucial role in locating Osama bin Laden. While some in the CIA continue to insist it played a vital role, the Senate report leaves little doubt that the agency’s public affairs office planted self-serving stories about the “enhanced interrogation” program in the wake of bin Laden’s death.
If there is a bright side to the Senate’s findings, it is in the objections that were raised by CIA interrogators, who viewed their orders as immoral and ineffective. The report makes clear that several interrogators were deeply disturbed by what they were being asked to do. Some personnel requested transfer. Others openly objected to the techniques, but were ordered to continue by CIA headquarters.
This suggests that responsibility for these abuses lies not with the low-level interrogators, but political appointees and senior officials in the White House and the Justice Department, who imposed these discredited ideas from above on a spy agency that was under enormous pressure following the devastating 9/11 attacks.
President Obama should look at ways to reform the CIA to give more weight to the objections of individual operatives, whistle-blowers, and the CIA inspector general, who play a crucial role in uncovering misguided programs. Obama should also honor those agents who raised objections to the program and ensure that innocent victims of abuse are duly compensated. CIA officials who strayed from their orders ought to be punished, if they have not been already. But low-level operatives who merely did what they were told ought not live in fear for their lives and reputations.
Obama could also consider formally pardoning them, an idea put forth by the American Civil Liberties Union Director Anthony Romero. A pardon would underscore the fact that these tactics constitute torture, which is a crime, while at the same time highlighting the need to forgive and close this painful chapter in our history. As for the senior officials who ordered these techniques, in an ideal world they would be held accountable under the law, but attempting to do so at this point would likely turn into a counterproductive political slugfest.
It is important to remember that as odious as these tactics are, they were performed at a time of near-hysteria by people who were trying to protect the country. The Senate report serves as a vital reminder that sticking to our core values is as important in times of war as it is in times of peace.