A Brutal “Torture Report,” but No Accountability

The long-awaited “torture report” released today by the Senate Intelligence Committee on the CIA’s top secret, post-9/11 torture program is certainly brutal, and the Obama administration does not deny that. The administration is, however, refusing to hold anyone publicly accountable.

Yes, it’s brutal. Some detainees were placed in “ice water baths” and at least five were subjected to “rectal feeding without documented medical necessity.” Detainees were forced to stand on injured limbs and kept awake for up to 180 hours, “at times with their hands shackled above their heads.” CIA torturers threatened to kill one detainee’s mother and sexually abuse another’s.

In one notorious torture facility, where untrained CIA officers tortured prisoners before President George W. Bush even authorized the formal “enhanced” interrogation program, detainees were shackled in isolated cells in complete darkness amidst constant noise, with only a bucket to collect human waste. They were forced to walk around naked and shackled. The chief of interrogations described this facility as a “dungeon.” Another official likened the facility itself to a torture device. In 2002, a detainee who was held partially naked reportedly froze to death there.

“The Bush administration’s torture program and the Obama administration’s long battle to keep the truth from coming out are among the most shameful chapters in our nation’s history,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Will we make excuses and try to defend the indefensible? Or will we finally acknowledge that our nation crossed a terrible line, and start talking about accountability?”

The political accusations are also damning. The report claims the CIA repeatedly gave inaccurate information about the program to the Justice Department, which had given the agency legal permission to use torture. (The Justice Department never attempted to independently verify the CIA’s information on the program.) The CIA impeded oversight of the program in Congress, at the White House and by its own inspector general, and the agency provided policy makers with inaccurate claims to justify the program’s effectiveness.

In the end, the report states, the program was not effective. The committee’s analysis of the CIA’s supposed “counterterrorism successes” resulting from the program found no actual relationship between intelligence gathered through torture and thwarted terrorist attacks.

Former top Bush administration officials are already brushing the report aside as a partisan attack, and former Vice President Dick Cheney even told The New York Times that it was “the right thing to do, and if I had to do it over again, I would do it.”

President Obama, who banned the program in 2009, is taking a more even-handed approach to the fallout from the report. In a statement released today, the president called the interrogation program “troubling” and said it “did significant damage to America’s standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners.”

Still, his administration has made it clear that no one from the intelligence community will be held responsible, at least not in public.

“While we recognize that there are strong emotions raised by the release of this report, the one thing that we want to also be clear is that the men and woman who continue to protect this country have the respect of this government and the American people,” said one senior administration official, referring to the US intelligence community. He spoke to reporters on background and asked not to be named.

Both the CIA and the Obama administration admit that “serious mistakes” were made, especially during the early days of the torture program, but the Justice Department decided not to prosecute anyone connected to the program in the CIA and Bush administration after closing two criminal investigations into the program long before the torture report was released.

On Tuesday, senior Obama administration officials would not comment on the Justice Department’s decision, and would not say whether or not a single employee of the CIA had lost their job over the program.

“All of this activity predates this administration,” said one senior official, who also spoke to reporters on background. “I think as a matter of practice, particularly with our intelligence community, agencies do not publicly discuss certain activities that are classified.”

The officials echoed the CIA’s own response to the report, saying 9/11 posed a serious challenge to the US intelligence community, and the CIA was not prepared to take on an unprecedented program of detaining and interrogating terrorism suspects.

Despite the findings of the report, the CIA also claims that valuable intelligence was gleaned through torture, and senior Obama administration officials are backing the agency’s position that there is no way to know if other interrogation techniques could have had the same results.

“We can not know . . . what other interrogation methods may have [yielded],” said a senior official.

Other interrogation methods may not have yielded a decade-old controversy over brutal cruelty that has caused an embarrassing disruption in US diplomatic relations with countries across the world. If anyone has taken the fall for this embarrassment, it has happened behind closed doors.

The report is publicly available here.