Feinstein: Senate Panel’s Probe of CIA Torture Program Concludes It Was “Far More Widespread and Systematic Than We Thought“

It could have been big news, if U.S. torture weren’t so anathema to the press corps, such that reporting upon it is considered either a fruitless and unprofitable enterprise, or among most of those who do venture into such waters, the sine qua non for such reportage must be ignorance and/or cover-up for much of what the U.S. military and intelligence agencies do.

Consider that during the recent Senate debate over the Defense Authorization Bill — the one that passed provisions on indefinite detention that drew cries of outrage from a number of law professors, and stoked fear among government opponents — Senator Dianne Feinstein, while speaking against provisions of the bill that would subject U.S. citizens to indefinite detention also made some serious points concerning the torture-interrogation amendment offered by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire). (See PDF link of her remarks – h/t Marcy Wheeler.)

Feinstein announced that the much-heralded, and much forgotten review of CIA torture undertaken by the Senate Intelligence Committee, first reported by Jason Leopold back in April 2010, is wrapping up its investigation. But her comments went unregarded and unreported, as patience for such things as fighting torture is not the strong suit of American political discourse, nor is much expected anymore from a Congress that has so clearly lost its bearings.

But, nevertheless, the announcement is not without interest, as Feinstein told her colleagues:

As chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, I can say that we are nearing the completion [of] a comprehensive review of the CIA’s former interrogation and detention program, and I can assure the Senate and the Nation that coercive and abusive treatment of detainees in U.S. custody was far more systematic and widespread than we thought.

Moreover, the abuse stemmed not from the isolated acts of a few bad apples but from fact that the line was blurred between what is permissible and impermissible conduct, putting U.S. personnel in an untenable position with their superiors and the law.

That is why Congress and the executive branch subsequently acted to provide our intelligence and military professionals with the clarity and guidance they need to effectively carry out their missions. And that is where the Army Field Manual comes in.

It is not surprising to hear the torture was worse than already known. After all, the purpose of secrecy and the cult of classification, so assiduously courted by the current Administration, is to hide crimes. So one can only hope the Intelligence Committee will, when the review is truly and finally complete (and let’s hope it’s not another 18 months), that its findings will be released publicly. In fact, in a decent world, it would be demanded.

Lies that facilitate torture – Case-in-point: the Army Field Manual

One reason for the lulled non-murmur over torture is the outrageous lie that Obama, after coming into office, “ended torture.” He enshrined the Army Field Manual as the supposedly humane alternative to the Bush torture regime of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Feinstein, who certainly knows better, is an exemplary model for such myth-making — “myth” because the Army Field Manual actually uses torture of various sorts, and even though about half-a-dozen human rights and legal organizations, and a number of prominent government interrogators have said so (see this Nov. 2010 letter signed by 14 well-known interrogators to then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates) — as her following comments on the Army Field Manual (AFM) demonstrate.

Here, Sen. Feinstein is polemicizing against the Ayotte amendment, which was ignominiously dismissed via a parliamentary maneuver, along with a few dozen other amendments, after an ostentatious Senate “colloquy” on the matter by Senators Ayotte and Lieberman (with Lindsay Graham chiming in at the very end). The amendment awaits its resurrection, seeking passage attached like an obligate parasite to another bill some months down the line. (The authorization bill is currently “in conference,” as a final version is worked out that reconciles both House and Senate versions. It is not unknown for provisions to be slipped in under such circumstances, and I wouldn’t count out yet Ayotte/Lieberman/Graham’s attempt to insert a new secret annex to the AFM, not until, like the undead, a stake is driven through its heart.)


However, Senator Ayotte’s amendment would require the executive branch to adopt a classified interrogation annex to the Army Field Manual, a concept that even the Bush administration rejected outright in 2006.

Senator Ayotte argued that the United States needs secret and undisclosed interrogation measures to successfully interrogate terrorists and gain actionable intelligence. However, our intelligence, military, and law enforcement professionals, who actually interrogate terrorists as part of their jobs, universally disagree. They believe that with the Army Field Manual as it currently is written, they have the tools needed to obtain actionable intelligence from U.S. detainees.

As an example, in 2009, after an extensive review, the intelligence community unanimously asserted that it had all the guidance and tools it needed to conduct effective interrogations. The Special Task Force on Interrogations–which included representatives from the CIA, Defense Department, the Office of the Director of Intelligence, and others–concluded that “no additional or different guidance was necessary.”

Since 2009, the interagency High Value Detainee Interrogation Group has briefed the Select Committee on Intelligence numerous times. The group has repeatedly assured the committee that they have all authority they need to effectively gain actionable intelligence. As a consummate consumer of the intelligence products they produce, I agree.

Unfortunately, Sen. Feinstein is oddly correct. Between standard interrogation methods and CIA-derived interrogation techniques meant to break down a prisoner psychologically, they do really have all they “need.”

Feinstein never mentions the years-long protests about certain provisions of the AFM, many of them gathered in the document’s Appendix M, that have been found tantamount to torture — the use of drugs (so long as they don’t “induce lasting or permanent mental alteration or damage,” the harsh manipulation of fears and phobias, the elimination of wording from the previous version of the AFM that would ban stress positions, the use of isolation, sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation techniques. All of these are mingled in with a number of other basic interrogation techniques, but that doesn’t diminish the cruel irony of Feinstein’s IC-based assurance that that government interrogators “had all the guidance and tools it needed to conduct effective interrogations.” Guidance and tools, indeed.

Perhaps she could have quoted the letter to Gates, signed by Ali Soufan, Steven Kleinman, Jack Cloonan, Robert Baer, Mark Fallon, Malcolm Nance and others, which noted “the use of potentially abusive questioning tactics” in the Army Field Manual. Of course, these government interrogators softened their language (“potentially”?) and couched their opposition in terms of what hurts the national interest, versus what is wrong or illegal.

But when it comes to protecting the massive military-intelligence complex, such awkward facts as the use of cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of prisoners, as well as outright torture enshrined in the Army Field Manual are not worthy of note. Even the many human rights groups who opposed the Ayotte amendment all buried any past critique of the AFM or its Appendix M in their polemics against Ayotte’s “classified annex” proposal. This is not the way to win a battle!

Honoring “our values”?

Feinstein concluded:

We cannot have it both ways. Either we make clear to the world that the United States will honor our values and treat prisoners humanely or we let the world believe that we have secret interrogation methods to terrorize and torture our prisoners.

But what about interrogation methods that are not secret, Sen. Feinstein?

I don’t seriously expect her to respond. Instead I ask readers, what kind of a country is it that has torture written into its public documents, and no one raises a fuss (or practically no one)?

The failure to take on the AFM and its Appendix M abuses in a serious fashion has led in a straight line to the political pornography of watching torture debated in Congress and among Presidential candidates, as well as a surge of political effort being made in some circles to make sure all such abuse is hidden forever behind a veil of classification. This failure is directly the responsibility of the human rights groups, who have not made it clear to their constituencies and the public at large how serious the problem currently is. While most of them are on the record of opposing the abuses described above, they repeatedly have pulled their punches for political reasons (as during the recent debate on the Ayotte amendment), and as a result, they must take the hard criticism when it comes, until, or unless they turn this around.