Agency argues no one can prove or disprove its interrogation techniques were needed to get information that prevented attacks
The Central Intelligence Agency is no longer arguing that torture worked. At least not exactly. Its current position, prompted by a damaging report by its Senate overseers released on Tuesday, is that it’s impossible to know whether torture yielded critical intelligence – so the Senate is wrong to say it didn’t.
The CIA’s shift contrasts with the continued insistence by many of the torture program’s architects at the agency that without the “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs) the agency used from 2002 to 2007, the US would have experienced another catastrophic terrorist attack, or perhaps not found Osama bin Laden.
The discrepancy, along with the CIA’s fervent belief that the Senate report sold the agency out, introduces new ambiguity about whether Langley’s abandonment of torture and secret prisons will outlast President Barack Obama.
Until Obama’s election the CIA’s argument for torture was straightforward. “The intelligence acquired from these interrogations” – the torture sessions – “has been a key reason why al-Qaida has failed to launch a spectacular attack in the West since September 2001,” an unnamed official in the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center wrote to a justice department lawyer on 2 March 2005. (This was despite the Madrid train bombings a year before killing nearly 200 people, and al-Qaida sympathizers attacking London four months after that.)
The justice department lawyer, Steven Bradbury, summarized the agency’s position: “The CIA believes it would have been unable to obtain critical information from numerous detainees, including KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] and Abu Zubaydah, without these enhanced techniques.”
Four years later the CIA director who presided over the end of the torture program insisted : “The use of these techniques against these terrorists made us safer.”
The CIA’s new position is more complicated.
In a Tuesday statement the CIA said it now “takes no position on whether intelligence obtained from detainees who were subjected to EITs could have been obtained through other means or from other individuals”. Determining the answer, it continued, “is, and will remain, unknowable”.
But while conceding “serious problems” within the torture program, the CIA contends that some of the detainees whom it tortured – 39, according to the Senate – subsequently produced intelligence it considered valuable or that helped avert terrorist attacks. It stops short of saying torture elicited that valuable intelligence, saying merely instead that valuable intelligence followed the application of torture.
The CIA’s new position “is not an endorsement” of torture, its statement said, but “merely a reflection of the historical record”.
The Senate report – from which all Republicans on the intelligence committee dissented – considers that “historical record” to be fanciful. It concludes the agency substantially inflated the success of torture, to itself as well as to the rest of the government, and took no rigorous measures to challenge its own assumptions. The CIA’s three studies on the effectiveness of torture, complete by 2007, all relied on “CIA personnel involved in the program” who had an interest in answering the question affirmatively, the Senate report found.
“There are no indications in CIA records that any of the past reviews attempted to independently validate the intelligence claims related to the CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques that were presented by CIA personnel in interviews and in documents,” the Senate found.
Yet those independent inquiries existed. One, a voluminous 2005-2006 study by former interrogators and behavioral scientists and sponsored by a US intelligence advisory panel, found that decades of test cases backed using non-physical approaches to build “rapport” (one of its architects said in a 2008 interview that its text was written gingerly so as to avoid offending a CIA still involved in torture).
The CIA’s current delicate position on torture reflects the current delicate position in which director John Brennan finds himself. Embracing torture would be a rebuke to Obama, his boss. Rejecting it outright would be a rebuke to a substantial part of his workforce and even more of its veterans. Calling torture’s value a matter of theology and the Senate intelligence committee’s case unproven – even unprovable – offers a middle ground, especially when sympathetic committee Republicans come into their majority next month.
One of Brennan’s predecessors was less conflicted. Batting back a question from NBC’s Brian Williams on Tuesday, Michael Hayden, who headed the CIA from 2006 to 2009, said: “My concern, or my outrage, if that were ever done to any of my family members would be somewhat muted if my family members had just killed 3,000 of my citizens.”
Left unanswered between the two CIA responses is how the agency will act if Obama’s successor orders a return to torture.
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