White House and GOP clash over torture report
WASHINGTON — On the eve of a long-awaited Senate report on the use of torture by the United States government — a detailed account that will shed an unsparing light on the Central Intelligence Agency’s darkest practices after the September 2001 terrorist attacks — the Obama administration and its Republican critics clashed on Monday over the wisdom of making it public and the risk that it will set off a backlash overseas.
While the United States has put diplomatic facilities and military bases on alert for heightened security risks, administration officials said they do not expect the report — or, rather, the declassified summary of it that will be released Tuesday — to ignite the kind of violence that killed four Americans at a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. Such violent reprisals, they said, tend to be fueled more by perceived attacks against Islam as a religion than by violence against individual Muslims.
But some leading Republican lawmakers have warned against releasing the report, saying that domestic and foreign intelligence reports indicate that a detailed account of the brutal interrogation methods used by the CIA during the George W. Bush administration could incite unrest and violence, even resulting in the deaths of Americans.
Dick Cheney, the former vice president, added his voice to those of other Bush administration officials defending the CIA, declaring in an interview Monday that its harsh interrogations a decade ago were “absolutely, totally justified” and dismissing allegations that the agency withheld information from the White House or inflated the value of its methods.
The White House acknowledged that the report could pose a “greater risk” to US installations and personnel in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Iraq. But it said that the government had months to plan for the reverberations from its report — indeed, years — and that those risks should not delay the release of the report by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“When would be a good time to release this report?” the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, asked. “It’s difficult to imagine one, particularly given the painful details that will be included.”
But he added, “The president believes it is important for us to be as transparent as we possibly can about what exactly transpired, so we can just be clear to the American public and people around the world that something like this should not happen again.”
The administration appeared to have qualms Friday when Secretary of State John F. Kerry telephoned the Democratic chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, to warn her about unrest that might erupt because of the report.
The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, repeated those warnings in a briefing Saturday with several members of the Intelligence Committee. But Clapper told the senators that he favored the release of the report, officials said.
Kerry was not putting pressure on Feinstein to delay the report, administration officials said, but merely informing her about the latest assessment of the security risks, which at that time included a threat to a US hostage then being held in southern Yemen. The hostage, Luke Somers, a photographer, was killed by his captors several hours later during a rescue attempt by American commandos.
In addition to tightening security at embassies, the Pentagon will bolster the protection of its forces in Afghanistan, officials said. Intelligence agencies will ramp up their monitoring of the communications of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Among the administration’s concerns is that terrorist groups will exploit the disclosures in the report for propaganda value. The Islamic State already clads its American hostages in orange jumpsuits, like those worn by prisoners in CIA interrogations. Hostages held by the Islamic State in Syria were subjected to waterboarding, one of the practices used by the CIA to extract information from suspected terrorists.
Cheney, who was one of the Bush administration’s most outspoken champions of this tough approach, said on Monday he had not read the report, but from news reports about it had heard nothing to change his mind about the wisdom or effectiveness of the program.
Cheney said he never believed the CIA was withholding information from him or the White House about the nature of the program, nor did he think the agency exaggerated the value of the intelligence gained from waterboarding and other techniques widely considered to be torture.
“They deserve a lot of praise,” he said.