A now-defunct U.S. program that used harsh interrogation techniques against terror suspects still casts a shadow over Washington, with the CIA and Congress locked in a bitter dispute over its legacy.
Launched in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks by ex-president George W. Bush, the “detention and interrogation program” was designed to force captured suspects to talk about Al-Qaeda’s plots against America.
Intent on preventing another catastrophic attack on U.S. soil, the Bush administration ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to “take the gloves off,” approving a list of aggressive techniques for interrogators.
Detainees were whisked away to secret prisons and subjected to “enhanced interrogation” techniques, including waterboarding or simulated drowning, so-called “stress positions” and other harsh methods.
Bush administration and top CIA officials who oversaw the project have argued it was a crucial tool that saved lives, but rights groups and foreign governments condemned the methods as torture.
After entering office in 2009, President Barack Obama scrapped the program, agreeing with rights advocates that it amounted to torture.
But he opted not to pursue prosecutions or to push investigations of any wrongdoing, and Americans remain divided over the program.
Fearing a divisive, polarizing battle over the issue, the White House chose to move on — despite demands from some fellow Democrats and rights advocates for a full reckoning with the CIA.
After learning about more damning details, the Senate Intelligence Committee has been engaged in a years-long effort to publish a definitive account of the now-closed CIA program.
As committee staff members waded through millions of CIA documents, tensions between the agency and the committee steadily mounted.
Senators accused the CIA of dragging its feet or trying to hide incriminating details, while intelligence officials alleged the staffers were reviewing documents they had no authority to retrieve.
– CIA under spotlight –
The distrust finally erupted in public this week, with the influential chairwoman of the intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, dropping her customary reserve to lash out at the CIA.
She accused the agency of illegally snooping on senate staffers’ computers in a bid to “intimidate” lawmakers overseeing the inquiry.
Feinstein warned a fundamental democratic principle — the legislature’s responsibility to hold the executive branch accountable — had been jeopardized by the spy service’s behavior.
CIA director John Brennan denied any wrongdoing but he did not directly address all of Feinstein’s allegations, fueling speculation the agency had something to hide.
“I’m becoming convinced that the CIA is simply fearful of the interrogation report being made public, and I think it’s time for the American people to get that information,” said Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the intelligence committee.
Obama has said he supports the public release of the committee’s report, a move that civil liberties groups praised as long overdue.
But a former CIA officer, Paul Pillar, said he was skeptical that the 6,300-page document or more hearings would change any minds when it comes to the long-running argument over torture and security.
“It’s more just a matter of wallowing in still more details,” Pillar told AFP. “I think we have more than enough to have a healthy debate that we want to have.”
He also said the truth behind the CIA feud with Congress may be less dramatic, and more the result of bureaucratic bungling, as well as a changing political climate when it comes to fighting terror threats.
– ‘Let light dispel darkness’ –
The head of the CIA has insisted he wants the report to be released so the agency can move on.
“We want to learn from the past, which we have, and we have done a number of internal reviews, but I look forward to having this chapter of CIA history behind us,” Brennan said.
For critics of the spy service, however, the only way to settle the issue and avoid future abuses is to end the secrecy around the interrogation program and give the subject a thorough public airing.
“The CIA says it wants to turn the page on this unpublished chapter. You can’t turn the page if you haven’t read it,” wrote Tim Weiner, author of a comprehensive and critical history of the agency, “Legacy of Ashes.”
The indelible stain left by torture “cannot remain an issue for another day,” he wrote in a commentary in Politico.
“Print the report, take the testimony and let some light dispel this darkness.”
[Image via Agence France-Presse]