After five years of investigations, 6.3 million pages of documents and one constitutional crisis over CIA snooping on Senate computers, Senate Democrats’ “torture report” revealed striking new details of the extent of interrogation techniques used by the CIA, but even the 525-page summary of a 6,700-page report, complete with 38,000 footnotes, was unlikely to be the last word.
Instead, the release amounted to a national bloodletting — a chance for Americans to hear some of the worst details, including waterboarding, death threats, rectal force-feedings and being stripped and punched while dragged down a dirt hallway.
“I believe the American people have a right — indeed, a responsibility — to know what was done in their name,” said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who himself spent years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp and who broke with many fellow Republicans who wanted the report kept secret.
“The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow. It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. It is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us.
But the American people are entitled to it, nonetheless,” Mr. McCain said.
President Obama, speaking to Univision, said the report showed the U.S. “did some things that violated who we are as a people.”
“Any fair-minded person looking at this would say that some terrible mistakes were made in allowing these kinds of practices to take place,” he said.
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The report ticked off some of the worst excesses of treatment for 119 detainees held at “black site” locations overseas, but its key finding was that the CIA repeatedly misled its overseers in both the executive and legislative branches.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat and Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman who led the investigation, said there was even evidence that the CIA subjected more persons to waterboarding than just the three that the CIA has acknowledged — though the evidence for that was inconclusive.
The CIA, while admitting mistakes and excesses in its past practices, said those stopped years ago — and also pushed back on some of Mrs. Feinstein’s conclusions, insisting that what it calls “enhanced interrogation techniques” had produced important intelligence that, among other victories, helped lead them to Osama bin Laden.
“The intelligence gained from the program was critical to our understanding of al Qaeda and continues to inform our counterterrorism efforts to this day,” said CIA Director John O. Brennan, in a statement also challenging the finding that his agency misled Congress and the public.
Whatever the remaining disputes, the report provided the first, and likely only, independent look at a program that had previously been described chiefly through CIA leaks, said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
“For the most part, the debate has been controlled by the spin that officials have been able to put on this program. What this does is it provides some facts to counterbalance the spin,” she said. “People may differ with the conclusions of this, but they can’t dispute the facts.”
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She said the report cries out for Congress to do a better job of overseeing the intelligence community, and said the report will shock anyone who reads through it.
“It’s nauseating what we did to these detainees. I can’t read it without my stomach turning. It is worse than anyone knew. It is worse than it’s been portrayed,” she said.
The CIA had tried to keep the report bottled up, and Mrs. Feinstein fought for months to get it declassified in time for release. She was racing an end-of-year deadline, because Republicans take control of the Senate next year and they would almost certainly have prevented the report from ever being released.
Matters got so touchy that Democrats were considering having one of their members take to the Senate floor to read the report into the record, this using the Constitution’s absolute protection for lawmakers’ speech and debate as a shield against prosecution for releasing classified information.
As it was, the report was heavily redacted.
Earlier this year Mrs. Feinstein accused the CIA of snooping through a Senate computer, breaking both an agreement and potentially spurring a constitutional crisis between the two branches of government. Mr. Brennan this summer apologized for the snooping.
Opponents within the intelligence community and some Republicans in Congress predicted the report’s release could spur retaliatory attacks on U.S. interests overseas, but none were apparent in the hours after the long-awaited report. Still, administration officials said they remained on alert.
President Obama and his top aides had sent mixed signals about whether they wanted to see the report released, though White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday they welcomed the findings as a way of regaining American moral authority.
But the administration has already said it won’t pursue criminal charges against operatives or agency leaders involved, despite Mr. Obama himself concluding that the U.S. engaged in torture, which is illegal under American law.
“In so far as individuals were carrying out U.S. government policy consistent with the Office of Legal Counsel judgment, consistent with the directions that they’d been given, we’re not going to aim to hold them accountable if they are operating within the guidelines they’ve been given,” a senior administration official told reporters.
Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee criticized the investigation, saying they’d been excluded from it. They also questioned how Mrs. Feinstein was able to reach conclusions without interviewing any of the CIA leaders or operatives involved.
Mrs. Feinstein defended using documents as the basis for the report, and said they did use committee interviews conducted years earlier with key officials and which “covered the exact topics we would have asked about had we conducted interviews ourselves.”