Originally posted at The New York Times.
Senator Dianne Feinstein was still speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday morning about the Intelligence Committee’s report excoriating the C.I.A.’s interrogation program when a new website went live. Its name was self-explanatory: ciasavedlives.com.
The site, created by a dozen former top officials of the Central Intelligence Agency, was only one element in a broad counterattack against the long-awaited Senate report, which says the program, which is now defunct, violated American ideals by torturing Al Qaeda suspects and got little useful information in return.
The program’s outspoken defenders say the C.I.A. was advised that its methods were not torture, that the program played a critical role in dismantling Al Qaeda and that the interrogators deserve praise, not vilification.
It is a fight over history, with profound consequences for America’s image and personal implications for former C.I.A. officials in particular. The Senate report, approved by the Democratic majority of the Intelligence Committee led by Ms. Feinstein, of California, portrays them as overseeing a dark, regrettable chapter in history. The officials made it clear on Tuesday that they will not stay quiet while the report shapes their reputations or that of the agency.
“As lamentable as the inaccuracies of the majority document are — and the impact they will have on the public’s understanding of the program — some consequences are alarming,” wrote three former C.I.A. directors and three former deputy directors in a lengthy op-ed essay for The Wall Street Journal.
They said the Senate report not only distorted the facts but would also force C.I.A. officers to worry about shifting political winds, make foreign intelligence agencies wary of helping the C.I.A. and give terrorists “yet another valuable recruiting tool.”
The ciasavedlives.com website was organized by Bill Harlow, the C.I.A.’s director of public affairs from 1997 to 2004, who still acts as a spokesman for George J. Tenet, the C.I.A. director when the interrogation program began.
“Our concern is that right now people are reporting the Feinstein report as if it’s true,” Mr. Harlow said. “We don’t think it’s true.” The website, he said, is “only a small part” of what the former C.I.A. officials plan to do to, in their view, correct the public record.
Senator Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, and five other Republicans released a 100-page dissent attempting to refute the 6,000-page main report, which was written solely by Democratic committee staff members. Those Republicans denounced it as a sloppy, partisan effort that got the facts wrong.
The C.I.A. itself released its own lengthy response to the Senate report, trying to steer a middle course between admitting that the program had significant faults in its early months and defending its contribution to the hunt for Al Qaeda operatives.
The current C.I.A. director, John O. Brennan, is a former top aide to President Obama, who ran for office against the interrogation program and ordered the closure of the agency’s secret jails overseas on his first day in the White House. But Mr. Brennan is also a C.I.A. veteran whose instinct is to defend the agency’s work force.
The contrary pressures on the agency were evident in two news releases its public affairs office issued on Tuesday. The first struck a cautious tone, acknowledging “serious mistakes” by the agency while saying the Senate report’s findings went too far. The second was more forthright, declaring bluntly: “Was the detention program effective? Yes.”
The various critiques of the Senate report by the C.I.A. defenders include scores of pages dissecting specific case studies — arguing, for example, that C.I.A. interrogations played more of a role than the report acknowledges in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But the pushback included some broad complaints.
- Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, commended the release of the Senate torture report, saying “the truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow,” but the American people are “entitled” to it. Video by Associated Press on Publish Date December 9, 2014. Photo by Stephen Crowley/The New York Times.
- The Democratic staff members reviewed six million pages of C.I.A. documents but did not conduct any interviews, in part because the program was under criminal investigation for a time and agency staff members were unlikely to talk. The Republicans’ minority response says the failure to talk to C.I.A. officials led to “significant analytical and factual errors” in the report.
- The Senate report takes a “prosecutorial” approach to the subject, the program’s defenders say, highlighting complaints about the program’s flaws and ignoring its achievements. Though some of the most damning comments in the report were made by C.I.A. officers in critical cables to headquarters, they represent a skewed selection of views that should come as no surprise in any complex undertaking, critics say.
- The report does not adequately consider “the whole context of the time” after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said Mr. Harlow, when anthrax letters, reports of rogue Pakistani nuclear scientists and a stream of threats created a fearful atmosphere. C.I.A. officers worried every day about missing a repeat attack and wanted to be certain they extracted from detainees any clues to plots.
- The Senate report accuses the agency of illegal torture, but the C.I.A. repeatedly consulted the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel about the brutal methods it intended to use. Legal opinions — later discredited and withdrawn — assured the agency that all of its so-called enhanced techniques were lawful and did not constitute torture.
- The Senate staff members understated the valuable information the program provided at a time when the United States’ understanding of Al Qaeda’s network of terrorists was rudimentary at best. The dispute is in the details of when various prisoners gave up useful information and whether the brutal treatment was necessary to persuade them to talk.
- The defenders of the interrogation program say little about two men whom are portrayed especially harshly by the Senate report: James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, two former military psychologists who devised the list of brutal interrogation methods the C.I.A. used and later were paid $81 million to run the program for four years. As the report points out, Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen, had neither experience in interrogation nor knowledge of Al Qaeda, but their influence was crucial on the decision to use waterboarding and other measures long considered torture.
The partisan nature of the divide over the Senate report undoubtedly means it will not come close to ending the debate over the C.I.A. program. But one notable exception to the Democrat-Republican split, for many years and again on Tuesday, was Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who repeatedly called for the Senate report to be made public. His experience being tortured as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam has made him perhaps the most outspoken foe of torture in Congress.
Mr. McCain praised the report his fellow Republicans were lambasting, saying the C.I.A.’s conduct “stained our national honor” and had done “much harm and little practical good.”
Read more at The New York Times.
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