How The CIA Torture Report Lets American Leaders Off The Hook

The Senate's long-awaited report on Bush-era torture techniques puts too much blame on the CIA, and not enough on the American political leadership.

Larry Downing / Via Reuters

The lobby of the CIA Headquarters building in McLean, Virginia, in August 2008.

The Central Intelligence Agency tricked everyone. Senate Democrats' recently released inquiry into Bush-era torture revealed a lot of shocking new details, but none quite as shocking as the the idea that the CIA successfully misled Congress, President George W. Bush, and even top intelligence officials about how brutal and ineffectual the program really was.

Most damningly — and politically conveniently — the report somehow manages to combine harrowing details of torture while exonerating nearly every top official whose job it was to prevent it from happening, and place the blame on a powerful political entity that is the most likely to emerge unscathed: the CIA itself.

The report recasts the country's political leadership as useful idiots for an intelligence agency gone rogue, concluding that Bush was only fully briefed on the interrogation program in 2006, as the details were coming out in the press. But it's hard to believe that the Bush administration couldn't have had any clue about what was really going on at the CIA. Less than a week after the 9/11 attacks, Bush signed an order allowing the CIA to detain and interrogate terror suspects, and in February 2002, he signed "a memorandum stating that the Third Geneva Convention did not apply to the conflict with al Qaeda and concluding that Taliban detainees were not entitled to prisoner of war status or the legal protections afforded by the Third Geneva Convention," according to a 2008 Senate Armed Services' Committee investigation.

So: Mere months after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration was already rewriting the law to make it easy to torture detainees in U.S. custody. You don't start declaring exceptions to the Geneva Convention if all you're planning to do is play a competitive game of spades. When the first torture memo was written in August 2002, it redefined torture to limit it only to acts that would inflict "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." It was following the White House's lead.

More plausible is the new report's conclusion that the CIA lied to members of Congress, the White House, and top intelligence officials about how well torture actually worked. But the idea that the details of how torture was being implemented would have somehow shocked the conscience of the Bush administration or altered its legal appraisal of the program is dubious at best.

Perhaps the new details will linger in the public's memory — if not out of sympathy for the detainees in U.S. custody, or revulsion at the agency's disregard for human decency, but because the program itself was as incompetently managed as it was brutal. The agency reportedly allowed officials with violent histories and admitted sexual predators to participate in a program that sexually assaulted detainees through "rectal feeding" without medical necessity.

The CIA managed to torture two of its own informants, abuse detainees based faulty on intelligence information, and block sanctions for an official involved in a detainee's death. The CIA also "placed individuals with no applicable experience or training in senior detention and interrogation roles." Internal CIA critics of the program were silenced and urged not to put their objections in writing.

Despite the fact that agency officials involved in the program reportedly misled Congress, the White House, and the Justice Department, the agency has so far faced no meaningful accountability for its actions. That's because the CIA's wrongful detentions and interrogations affected an unpopular group against whom violence can be easily justified. Americans are, at best, ambivalent about, if not supportive of, the use of torture when it comes to suspected terrorists — particularly those who can be perceived as foreign.

That many of the detainees were not terrorists — at least a fifth of the them were unjustly detained, according to the report, including an "intellectually challenged" man who was held to coerce a family member into cooperating — matters little. Though the report states that torture was immoral and effective, it also presents a narrative of American elected officials as helpless to intervene with a rogue intelligence agency, staffed with incompetent, dishonest, and in some cases sociopathic officials hellbent on violating both the law and human decency.

Faced with a duty to ensure the CIA didn't exceed its powers, the report portrays the agency as outwitting every single elected official charged with overseeing it, and shielding itself from accountability both legal and bureaucratic. And that's before the CIA spied on Congress itself in an attempt to prevent investigators from revealing embarrassing details about its torture program.

The report's conclusion that the CIA made fools out of the entire Bush White House, the Department of Justice, and Congress isn't comforting. It's terrifying — even if it's not quite true.

The CIA didn't go rogue. It did more or less what the Bush administration, and perhaps even the public, wanted it to do. Faced with the hawkish political climate of the post-9/11 years, Congress was too paralyzed by fear or indifference to stop them. With the gruesome details now made public, the Obama administration would like to move on like nothing happened, even though the next Republican president could overturn his 2009 order banning Bush-era torture with nothing more than a pen.

The CIA's interrogation program was a spectacular, grisly failure. But it wasn't theirs alone.

  • Adam Serwer

    Adam Serwer is the national editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, D.C. His secure PGP fingerprint is 883A 7AB8 4736 1BB9 A061 D26A F2B5 71C0 391A 0252

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A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.