The Senate Intelligence Committee spent roughly $50 million on its investigation into the CIA and apparently couldn’t find Michael Hayden’s phone number.
The committee portrays Gen. Hayden, the former CIA director, as a liar who deceived Congress about the agency’s interrogation program, yet the committee couldn’t be bothered to interview him.
That’s because the committee, led by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, didn’t bother to interview anyone. The committee didn’t want to include anything that might significantly complicate its cartoonish depiction of a CIA that misled everyone so it could maintain a secret prison system for the hell of it.
The Feinstein report scores some points. It makes plain that the CIA program wasn’t adequately controlled, especially at the beginning, that it went too far, and that the agency became too invested in defending it.
But the thrust of the report is devoted to the proposition that torture, or harsh interrogation, never works. This is important to critics of the CIA program because they are almost never willing to say that torture is wrong and that we should never do it — even if it sometimes works and potentially saves lives. They lack the moral conviction to make their case solely on principle.
Even though its executive summary runs more than 500 pages, the report lacks basic context, specifically an account of the post-Sept. 11 environment in which nearly everyone expected another attack and wanted to do everything possible to avoid it. This is why the likes of the impeccably liberal Jay Rockefeller, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, could say after we captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2003 that we should be “very, very tough with him.”
The interrogation program was born against this backdrop. No one was saying of KSM, “Let’s give him some dates and olives and hope, once he finds out what nice people we are, he spills his guts and gives up Osama bin Laden’s location.”
The harsh methods that the CIA adopted don’t, in isolation, shock the conscience. There’s nothing, for instance, about throwing someone up against a flexible wall, grabbing and shaking him, keeping him in a tight space or slapping him that is clearly out of bounds.
It is cumulatively, over an extended period — as with Abu Zubaydah, who was put through the ringer for two weeks — that the methods take on a different complexion. Reasonable people can disagree about whether we went over the line of what we should do to anyone in any circumstance. But in making a totalist case against the CIA program, the Feinstein report implausibly asserts that it had no benefits whatsoever.
It points out, as though it settles something, that terrorists lied when they were subjected to coercive interrogations. Of course, terrorists also lied when they weren’t subjected to coercive interrogations. The standard shouldn’t be if the CIA program produced 100 percent truthfulness, but whether it produced intelligence that otherwise wouldn’t have been available as quickly or at all.
The Feinstein report insists that the harsh interrogation of Abu Zubaydah didn’t help lead to the capture of KSM. The Republican counterreport notes, “There is considerable evidence that the information Abu Zubaydah provided identifying KSM as ‘Mukhtar’ and the mastermind of 9/11 was significant to CIA analysts, operators, and FBI interrogators.”
The Feinstein report pooh-poohs the notion that the interrogations helped put the CIA onto bin Laden’s courier, in part because the agency had information about him prior to its interrogations. But the interrogations highlighted the importance of the information already in the CIA’s possession.
The overall contention of the report is that we would have been just fine and achieved the same results in the war on terror with less information, rather than more. Not only does that defy common sense, it is a bet no one would have been willing to make in 2002.
Nor would anyone have guessed 10 years ago that it would be considered more in keeping with American values to assassinate people from drones rather than capture them and ask them questions under duress.
Rich Lowry is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at: email@example.com.