For most of last week, the report on enhanced interrogations produced by Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence dominated headlines. To the extent that there was a debate at all, it was one-sided. News coverage routinely described the findings as the “Senate torture report,” often failing even to note that it was written exclusively by Democratic staff or account for the differences between techniques used as part of the CIA program and abuses committed outside of that program.
We have no doubts that there were abuses. And some of those abuses, if they happened as the report describes, are horrifying and inexcusable. There is no justification, ever, for pureeing the meal of a detainee and inserting the liquefied results in his anus. This isn’t interrogation, it’s torture.
But approved techniques, including some that test the limits of what ought to be morally permissible, were effective. The report’s attempt to demonstrate otherwise is entirely unpersuasive, and its case is marked by the kind of breathtaking intellectual dishonesty that should make us all wary of trusting its conclusions.
Consider the case of Abu Zubaydah. The Feinstein report claims that Zubaydah’s identification of Jose Padilla, the “dirty bomb” plotter: (1) was of little value, (2) came before he was subjected to enhanced interrogation, and (3) helps prove that EITs were ineffective. Only one of those claims is true, and even that’s true only on a technicality.
The Feinstein report says “there was significant intelligence in CIA databases acquired prior to—and independ-ently of—the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program to fully identify Jose Padilla as a terrorist threat and to disrupt any terrorist plotting associated with him.”
In support of this claim, it relies on an email from February 10, 2004, from the chief of the Abu Zubaydah Task Force. The report quotes this language from the email: “AZ [Zubaydah] never really gave ‘this is the plot’ type of information. He claimed every plot/operation he had knowledge of and/or was working on was only preliminary. (Padilla and the dirty bomb plot was prior to enhanced and he never really gave us actionable intel to get them).” The “them” referenced in the email are Padilla and his accomplice, the ex-Guantánamo detainee Binyam Mohamed.
As presented, the email bolsters the case the authors of the report want to make. But they don’t quote the entire email. And the rest of the email Democrats cite in support of their argument actually invalidates it.
The CIA’s response to the Feinstein report tells us the former head of the Abu Zubaydah Task Force went on to write that Padilla’s “identification would not have been made without the lead from Abu Zubaydah.” The CIA response also notes that the CIA officer explained in the same email that after Zubaydah had been subjected to EITs, he “became one of our most valuable sources on [sic] information on al Qa’ida players.” The CIA summarizes the rest of the officer’s email, saying the officer “backs up that assertion” regarding Zubaydah’s importance “with a detailed recitation of concrete ways in which Zubaydah facilitated interrogations of other detainees by providing specific information concerning their identities and plans.”
Why, if the authors of the Feinstein report wanted a serious examination of the value of Abu Zubaydah and the effectiveness of EITs, would they quote only the part of the email that supports their case? The question answers itself.
More to the point, how many times in the 500-page executive summary released to the public did they engage in such sleight-of-hand? We did not keep a running tally, but the answer is clear: many.
Was the CIA playing games, too? That’s not only possible, but likely. There’s little doubt that the agency sometimes exaggerated the results of its interrogations and, in the case of the “dirty bomb” plot, used old information for too long. (Padilla’s “dirty bomb” plotting, for instance, was aspirational, and he’d moved on to more realistic targeting.)
But the way to resolve those conflicts is to be more transparent, not less. Once the decision was made to release details of the program—something that deserved more debate than it received—it was incumbent upon the committee to provide as much information as possible to the public.
That didn’t happen. Instead, the authors cherry-picked information to make their case and set aside virtually everything that complicated it.