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Senate report on CIA interrogation methods has tortured history

Analysis: The CIA fiercely debates its conclusions; Obama, while supportive, warns it could compromise national security

After a long and drawn-out process involving multiple branches of the U.S. government, the summary of an exhaustive report detailing George W. Bush-era CIA detention and interrogation policies is anticipated to be released on Tuesday. The report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) examines the CIA’s use of torture after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and looks at the efficacy of such intelligence-gathering methods.

The report, which cost the federal government more than $40 million to produce, is said to cast doubt on intelligence gains gleaned from an interrogation program that embraced torture.

The CIA has fiercely debated the report’s conclusions, and Barack Obama’s administration has warned that its public disclosure could prove embarrassing for the U.S. and even compromise its policy positions.

In 2009, Obama signed Executive Order 13491, outlawing torture. However, he has frequently expressed his disinterest in re-examining its past use, saying the nation needs to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”

At the same time, SSCI Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., initiated an investigation into the scope of the CIA program and the efficacy of its methods, which led to the report. To complete the project, researchers combed through more than 6 million pages of classified documents. The report was delivered in December 2012 and runs more than 6,300 pages.

A chronicle of torture

According to congressional records, the report is divided into three sections: the first, a history of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program; second, the intelligence gleaned from the program and how the CIA represented that to the government and public; and third, the specific methods of detention and interrogation used on detainees.

Among other allegations, the report says the CIA misled government officials by using harsher methods than previously disclosed, sometimes acted with impunity and without legal authorization and exaggerated the value of information acquired through torture.

Two Senate staffers and an official who previously spoke to Al Jazeera about the report’s contents said that it “found that some of the harsh measures authorized by the Department of Justice had been applied to at least one detainee before such legal authorization was received.”

The same sources said the report suggests the CIA “knowingly misled the White House, Congress and the Justice Department about the intelligence value of [Guantánamo Bay] detainee Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah when using his case to argue in favor of harsher interrogation techniques.”

The report’s conclusion, which was leaked in April, confirms this. It states that “the CIA inaccurately characterized the effectiveness of the enhanced interrogation techniques.” What’s more, the “CIA manipulated the media by coordinating the release of classified information, which inaccurately portrayed the effectiveness of the agency’s enhanced interrogation techniques.”

The CIA reportedly waterboarded Abu Zubaydah 83 times, saying it helped U.S. officials extract intelligence that led to finding Osama bin Laden.

According to Feinstein, it was intelligence gathered from FBI agent Ali Soufan’s interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, prior to CIA waterboarding, that ultimately led to the Al-Qaeda leader’s whereabouts.

A fraught process

The SSCI voted in April to declassify the 480-page report summary. In the intervening period, the CIA, White House and Senate committee have gone through a contentious process of haggling over how much of that summary to make public.

Before the April vote, public acrimony between the CIA and the Senate committee boiled over with Feinstein’s explosive accusation that CIA personnel intimidated and spied on committee staffers using CIA-approved computers to access millions of documents needed to prepare the report.

CIA director John Brennan subsequently admitted and apologized for the spying, but the agency remains locked with the SSCI in the declassification process.

Last week Feinstein said the report could be released as early as Monday. But in a potential 11th-hour complication, Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday reportedly phoned the senator to remind her of the negative effects the report could have on U.S. national security interests. However, the White House denied that it was trying to delay the report’s publication.

While there is no indication that the report will be delayed, any deferral past December could hinder its publication altogether.

When the next congressional term begins in January, Feinstein will lose her position as chairwoman of the SSCI to a Republican — a result of the Democratic Party’s losses in midterm elections. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., her presumed replacement, has boasted about a direct connection between the use of torture and the killing of bin Laden and has bristled at plans to make the Senate report public.

“I personally don’t believe that anything that goes on in the Intelligence Committee should ever be discussed publicly,” Burr said in March. “If I had my way, with the exception of nominees, there would never be a public Intelligence hearing.”

Questions of accountability

The SSCI report is not the first official accounting of harsh interrogation methods conducted during the Bush administration, but it is the first to examine the CIA’s role.

In 2009 the Senate Armed Services Committee published a report (PDF) detailing the abuse of detainees under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense and the U.S. military. The report included abuse at the now infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The SSCI report is unlikely to directly implicate the Bush administration — which will not sit well with critics who want all parties, including the executive branch, involved in the sanctioning of torture to be held accountable.

“This report is not about the White House. It’s not about the president. It’s not about criminal liability. It’s about the CIA’s actions or inactions,” a person familiar with the contents of the report told the McClatchyDC news group in October.

The SSIC conducted no interviews of detainees who have alleged torture by the CIA, nor did the committee interview any of the participants in the CIA detention and interrogation program. Instead, its researchers relied on existing classified government documents.

Despite his rejection of Bush-era torture policies, Obama has vowed to protect CIA officers who acted in accordance with laws of the time.

After the release of post-9/11 Justice Department memos that gave CIA officers the legal authority to use “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Obama said “the men and women of the CIA have assurances from both myself and from Attorney General [Eric] Holder that we will protect all who acted reasonably and relied upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that their actions were lawful.”

Nevertheless, the SSCI report’s release could help galvanize rights groups and others who believe the United States’ use of torture for intelligence-gathering purposes is wrong.

“The secrecy around the torture program means that torture is never behind us,” Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, previously told Al Jazeera. “The reason for the public to know what happened at the CIA — and in the rest of the government — that resulted in torture and abuse is to help make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Outgoing Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, who has been one of the biggest champions of the report’s release, called torture by U.S. officials “morally repugnant” and has consistently demanded a full public accounting. “When this report is declassified, people will abhor what they read. They’re gonna be disgusted,” he told Esquire magazine.

“The people who conducted these activities in the name of the CIA, in the name of the American people, have a right to be processed. They don’t have a right to [pause] push under the rug what happened,” he said.

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