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Dems, rights advocates are about to lose the battle over torture

May 11, 2018

The criminal investigation by special counsel John Durham had an impact. CIA officers had to hire lawyers and spend hours testifying before a grand jury. The stress and fear of that experience is one reason most former CIA officers believe that the agency would never again engage in brutal interrogations.

But in the end, no charges were filed, despite documented abuses. Durham “declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt,” according to a statement by Eric Holder, then the attorney general.

That investigation unfolded in secret, and the evidence has never been made public. For years, only bits and pieces of what the CIA did were known to Americans.

Dems, rights advocates are about to lose the battle over tortureDems, rights advocates are about to lose the battle over torture

That changed in 2014, when the Senate Democrats released the executive summary of their long-awaited investigation into the CIA’s interrogation program. Senate Republicans had pulled out, and the CIA took issue with many of the conclusions — especially its assertion that brutal interrogations failed to produce unique, lifesaving intelligence.

But even for those who don’t accept that, the report, based on millions of pages of secret CIA records, cannot be discounted. It showed for the first time that the interrogations were far uglier than the public had been led to believe, and that many CIA officers objected to the tactics.

The CIA was forced to acknowledge that the report showed that the program initially had been badly mismanaged and that officers exceeded what was allowed.

The report also appears to document that the CIA repeatedly misrepresented the nature and the results of the interrogations to the Justice Department and to Congress.

Haspel did not speak to any of that during the hearing, but she did not apologize for anything the CIA did.

Sen. Ron Wyden, who has seen classified documents about Haspel’s role, asked her whether, between 2005 and 2007 when the program was winding down, she called for it to be continued or expanded.

“Like all of us who were in the counterterrorism center and working at CIA and those years after 9/11, we all believed in our work,” she responded. “We were committed, we had been charged with making sure the country wasn’t attacked again, and we had been informed that the techniques in CIA’s program were legal and authorized by the highest legal authority in our country and also the president.”

Two people who were present for her testimony in the closed committee session said she struck a different tone behind closed doors, acknowledging that in retrospect, the harsh CIA interrogations eroded American’s standing in the world. She told senators that she did not want to be seen as impugning her colleagues by saying something similar in public.

After the Senate report was published, human rights activists hoped that it would serve as a measure of accountability and a warning to future policy-makers.

But it’s not clear that has happened.

The CIA and Republicans in Congress have denounced the report as a one-sided hit job. Chairman Burr also asked the executive branch to return all copies of the more detailed, more damning classified version of the report to the committee. The result of that decision is that the report is not subject to the normal declassification review, and may sit for decades in a congressional vault before it is ever made public. The courts have ruled that the report is a congressional record, not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Meanwhile, polls show that the public is split about whether torture of terror suspects is appropriate.

A Pew survey in November 2016 found that 48 percent of Americans say there are some circumstances under which the use of torture is acceptable in U.S. anti-terrorism efforts, while 49 percent say there are no circumstances under which the use of torture is acceptable.

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