Tortured Interpretation

“We are not going to engage in this debate,” a White House spokesman said about the furor following the release of the Senate report on CIA interrogation methods.

The president seems to have gotten it right. Eschewing the quotable and opting for the responsible, the White House seems to be avoiding taking sides on what has become known as “the torture report.”

The media thrive on sensational sound bites. And the Senate Intelligence Committee didn’t quite live up to its name in the manner in which the report was issued. It would not be incorrect to say the report and its presentation were irresponsible in at least three ways:

• It was one sided, yet presented as if it were the verdict of an international tribunal.

• It placed CIA operatives, U.S. military and, indeed, all Americans at grave risk.

• Whatever the benefits of releasing the report — in terms of transparency and holding the United States to a higher standard — those benefits could have been achieved by a summary of the report without the sensationalism of focusing on the techniques of torture.

Taking these items step by step:

First: In an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, former CIA Directors George J. Tenet, Porter J. Goss and Michael V. Hayden (a retired Air Force general), and former CIA Deputy Directors John E. McLaughlin, Albert M. Calland (a retired Navy vice admiral) and Stephen R. Kappes write:

“The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Central Intelligence Agency detention and interrogation of terrorists, prepared only by the Democratic majority staff, is a missed opportunity to deliver a serious and balanced study of an important public policy question. The committee has given us instead a one-sided study marred by errors of fact and interpretation — essentially a poorly done and partisan attack on the agency that has done the most to protect America after the 9/11 attacks.”

They go on to refute major allegations in the report including:

The claim that the interrogation was ineffective:

• It led to the capture of senior al-Qaida operatives, thereby removing them from the battlefield.

• It led to the disruption of terrorist plots and prevented mass casualty attacks, saving American and Allied lives.

• It added enormously to what we knew about al-Qaida as an organization and therefore informed our approaches on how best to attack, thwart and degrade it.”

Moreover, they assert, “The interrogation program formed an essential part of the foundation from which the CIA and the U.S. military mounted the bin Laden operation.”

The most egregious claim against the CIA was that it lied to the Justice Department, Congress and the president and kept its treatment of prisoners secret. Here again, the former CIA directors assert, “The report’s argument that the CIA misled the Justice Department, the White House, Congress and the American people is also flat-out wrong. Much of the report’s reasoning for this claim rests on its argument that the interrogation program should not have been called effective, an argument that does not stand up to the facts.”

Moreover, the entire report has to be placed in the context of the timeframe of the actions it judges — a post-9/11 world where the U.S. was at war with al-Qaida and had information that they were planning new attacks, including nuclear weapons possibly being smuggled into New York City.

As for the second point — placing the CIA and all U.S. citizens at risk, — numerous media reports indicate that Secretary of State John Kerry personally phoned Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Friday morning to ask her to delay the imminent release of her committee’s report on CIA torture and rendition during the George W. Bush administration.

Kerry was not going rogue — his call came after an interagency process that decided the release of the report early next week, as Feinstein had been planning, could complicate relationships with foreign countries at a sensitive time and posed an unacceptable risk to U.S. personnel and facilities abroad. Kerry told Feinstein he still supports releasing the report, just not right now.

If Senator Feinstein was not willing to listen to Secretary of State Kerry’s cautioning her against the wisdom of releasing the report when and how she did, one can only wonder at her motivations.

And the third point: A detailed, graphic account of the techniques — rather than a summary — was needlessly incendiary. We are not talking here about an abstract — the report itself was a 528-page “summary” of a 6,700-page study. It certainly would have benefited from additional editing.

Again, the president got it right when he said, “Rather than another reason to refight old arguments, I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong — in the past.”