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The Spy Museum Is Now Planning To Overhaul Its Controversial Torture Exhibit

The museum intends to implement changes to the exhibit by March after it faced widespread criticism for playing down the brutality of the CIA’s torture program.

Posted on January 9, 2020, at 11:25 a.m. ET

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WASHINGTON — The International Spy Museum is working on sweeping changes to its controversial torture exhibit following backlash from lawmakers, national security and human rights experts, and former intelligence officials.

Last month, three Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee wrote to the museum, accusing it of “sanitizing” the CIA’s torture program and requesting information about proposed changes to the exhibit, BuzzFeed News first reported. In 2014, the committee released an executive summary of a classified report concluding that the Bush-era program failed to produce "unique" or "valuable" intelligence and that the CIA misled lawmakers about the program’s effectiveness.

In a newly obtained letter sent to lawmakers a day after BuzzFeed News’ report, the museum’s president described the planned changes to the exhibit, which include adding the executive summary of the committee’s torture report to the display. “The new exhibit will focus more broadly on the history of interrogation, to include both coercive methods (physical and psychological) and non-coercive methods (such as rapport building),” reads the Dec. 20 letter to Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Martin Heinrich, and Ron Wyden. “We also intend to add content on scientific and technical innovations to detect deceit (to include a polygraph artifact), as well as legal definitions of torture.”

As it stands, the museum’s so-called interrogation exhibit focuses on physical torture methods used in centuries past, as well as the techniques — such as waterboarding — used by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks. It also leaves open the question of whether torture works, despite the committee’s findings.

Jason Leopold/BuzzFeed News, Emma Loop/BuzzFeed News

The museum, which counts a handful of former CIA officials who were staunch defenders of the torture program as advisers, has been harshly criticized since it reopened last spring and unveiled the new exhibit.

Experts railed against the museum for the exhibit’s both-sides approach, depictions of the agency’s brutal torture techniques, and inclusion of a poll asking visitors if they would support torturing suspected terrorists. Torture is banned under the Geneva Conventions, and President Barack Obama signed legislation authored by Feinstein and Sen. John McCain into law that specifically prohibited the techniques used by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks.

Feinstein and Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, wrote to the museum in May asking that it include the committee’s study in the exhibit and the prohibitions against the use of torture in interrogations.

After that, committee staff toured the museum and addressed “mischaracterizations and inaccuracies that were present in the exhibit,” a committee spokesperson previously said. At the time, the museum said it was revising the exhibit, but did not provide details on the planned changes.

The new exhibit will feature “an expanded timeline of the history of the [CIA] program,” according to the Dec. 20 letter from museum president Tamara Christian, in addition to the inclusion of the committee’s report.

“As you know, the Museum is an independent, educational organization, and as such is ultimately responsible for the integrity, accuracy and balance of its own exhibits,” Christian wrote. “We welcome input from all quarters. Input from those responsible for the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program has been of particular value.”

Christian said the museum’s board has been updated on the planned changes and that the goal is to implement them by March. Christian also offered to provide the senators with further updates about the progress. A spokesperson for the museum declined to comment.

In a statement, Heinrich, Feinstein, and Wyden said they were “pleased that the museum has confirmed it is moving forward with changes to its interrogation exhibit.” They also said they welcomed an invitation from the museum to meet its “leadership, historians, and curators to ensure that the changes being implemented reflect the truth about the brutality and ineffectiveness of torture.”

One of the Intelligence Committee staffers who has been involved in the effort to change the exhibit is Evan Gottesman, who served on the committee during the torture program study and worked on the 6,700-page classified report. The museum provided Gottesman an update on the proposed changes in the fall, according to the Dec. 20 letter.

But Daniel J. Jones, the chief investigator on the committee’s study, said he remains doubtful of the museum. “The museum’s promotion of the CIA’s torture program, blind allegiance to the CIA’s talking points, and willful avoidance of the documented facts is appalling,” Jones, who has not visited the museum but has seen videos of photos of the exhibit, told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday. “Even more so when you consider the museum’s main audience — our nation’s schoolchildren.”

“Based on what I’ve seen so far — how far they’re off the mark — I’m more than a little skeptical that they can make the necessary corrections to this exhibit. But we will see in March if they’re serious,” he said.

Jones, who is portrayed by Adam Driver in The Report — the critically acclaimed movie about his work — noted that the “CIA’s own secret internal review echoed the Senate’s findings.” The CIA has blocked attempts to release the top-secret document, known as the Panetta Review and named after then–CIA director Leon Panetta, saying it was incomplete and never meant to be seen by the Senate.

“The same individuals that should have faced legal and professional accountability continue to spread the same misinformation and defend the use of torture,” Jones said. “The Spy Museum has been so careless with the facts here that it should cast doubt on the integrity of their entire enterprise. Absent a major reversal, our nation’s school leaders should think twice before adding the Spy Museum to their students’ class trip agendas.”

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    Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.

    Contact Jason Leopold at jason.leopold@buzzfeed.com.

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