The Central Intelligence Agency, in the years following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, engaged in activities that flouted international law and tainted the ideal of American values. We were told that it was necessary for the United States, in the words of then-Vice President Dick Cheney, to “spend time in the shadows,” to engage in activities in secret and outside the lines in order to protect its citizens.
Evidence that has emerged since has suggested otherwise, but almost six years after President Obama ended the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program, the United States has yet to fully reckon with this dark period.
That’s why the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has investigated the CIA program of detention, rendition and interrogation, should waste no more time in declassifying its findings. Maine’s two senators, Susan Collins and Angus King, who both sit on the committee, should publicly support the declassification, and work to make it a reality.
The 6,300-page report, compiled over three years at an expense to taxpayers of $40 million, was approved by the Senate committee in December 2012. Since then, the committee has wrangled with the CIA over the details found by the investigation.
The agency filed a 120-page response in June, four months after the committee’s deadline. A separate, internal CIA report came to the committee’s attention only late last year.
What exactly is in all those pages is unclear. Statements from those who have seen them, however, suggest the committee’s report is highly critical of the CIA. The agency rebutted the report in its official response, but its internal review is said to confirm the committee’s findings.
What we do know is that the CIA program involved at least 100 prisoners. Some of them were held in secret, U.S.-run prisons abroad and subjected to abuses that can only be described as torture. Others were handed over as suspected terrorists to foreign governments, with the U.S. government’s implicit knowledge they would be tortured.
In a few well-documented cases, the suspects turned out to be innocent. Maher Arar, a Canadian who ultimately was found to have no connection to terrorism, was turned over to Syria, where he was tortured and held for more than a year. Khaled El-Masri was held for four months in a secret CIA prison, where he was tied and beaten, only because his name was similar to that of a suspected member of al-Qaida.
All the while, the American public was told the methods were necessary to keep the country safe. The physical toll of waterboarding and stress positions were downplayed, and their ability to extract valuable information was touted.
That narrative has held strong. “Enhanced interrogation” has been credited with stopping terrorist attacks and, in the ultimate argument, crucial in finding Osama bin Laden.
At the same time, the CIA has done its best to conceal the truth about the program from the public, and perhaps from the government officials charged with oversight.
The agency destroyed tapes of interrogations, and it may have lied – to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Justice Department and the Bush administration – about the effectiveness of the “enhanced” methods.
Of course, the truth may be more complicated. The 9/11 attacks left the United States raw, and its citizens and government eager to dole out justice and prevent further attacks.
The CIA was a tool in that quest. In that way, we are all complicit in what was done in our country’s name.
It is important to have a full accounting of that time, to lay bare all that is known and allow an accurate history to be written.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report is the closest we’ll come to that full accounting, and it should be made public for all to see.