Torture report leak: CIA methods "brutal," "worse than communicated"

Leaks from the lengthy and controversial Senate report on Bush-era torture highlight the need for declassification

Published April 11, 2014 5:30PM (EDT)

Tensions between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee over the classified 6,000-plus page report on CIA torture did exactly what political spats do best: focus attention away from the matters to which we ought to be paying the most attention.

Once again, we have a leak to thank for a much-needed refocus, in this instance, on the subject of the classified Senate study: torture. A leak containing the report's key conclusions found that -- as has been long assumed -- CIA methods were "brutal, and far worse than the agency communicated to policymakers."

The lengthy report took four years to complete and still remains largely shrouded from public view. The treatment of 100 detainees was addressed -- this, even though the official administrative line has long been that far fewer suspects were interrogated at CIA black sites. The report expressly states that the CIA misled the media and the public about the effectiveness of cruel and unusual interrogation. "The CIA manipulated the media by co-ordinating the leak of classified information, which inaccurately portrayed the effectiveness of the agency’s enhanced interrogation techniques,” wrote the Senate Intelligence Committee.

As the Guardian reported:

According to the leaked conclusions, the committee found that that the agency poorly managed its interrogation and detention efforts. It relied extensively on outside contractors for design and implementation, especially “two contract psychologists,” whom an earlier Senate Armed Services Committee investigation identified as Bruce Jessen and Jim Mitchell. Both men were influential in retrofitting techniques that had been designed to train captured US troops to survive and resist torture by foreign adversaries for use on detainees.

“Numerous internal critiques and objections concerning the CIA’s management and use of the Detention and Interrogation [sic] were ignored,” according to the committee findings.

Issues around the report elevated tensions between the CIA and committee Democrats (Dianne Feinstein in particular). The spy agency has been accused of unconstitutionally spying on Senate aides working on the report, while the CIA has slammed the report's contents as fallacious. Meanwhile, the public has received only dribs and drabs of the investigation's contents -- all of which affirm the appropriately established understanding that the CIA's post-9/11 use of torture was rampant and inefficacious. Meanwhile, contentions around the report have set the stage for the White House to play the transparency-touting good guys. President Obama has more than once postured about the need to declassify some of the report's critical contents. Yet, the White House announced last week that the CIA itself will lead the executive-branch panel recommending how much of the Senate report’s executive summary, findings and recommendations to make public. The conflict of interest therein beggars belief.

The Obama administration has long used the fact of black site CIA torture as a benchmark against which to counterpose itself to the Bush administration in terms of human rights abuses. But while Obama may have closed the black sites, he has upheld the culture of impunity under which official U.S. torturers acted. CIA director John Brennan -- appointed under the Obama administration -- is not only a key architect of the increased militarization of the CIA, but was highly complicit in Bush-era torture. With Guantánamo Bay still in operation, where torturous practices like force-feeding are given the green light, President Obama cannot help himself to a vast distancing from Bush-era misconduct. And let's not forget our current president's oversight of shadow drone wars, misleadingly referred to as "targeted killing programs." This is no apologia for the Bush administration by comparison; it's a condemnation of the paranoid national security state that both Bush and Obama have overseen -- no one has clean hands.

But it remains in the public interest -- the public need -- that we know just how bloodied U.S. hands are and have been. Patently, it should not be under CIA remit to decide how much of a damning report on CIA torture makes it into the public domain. Meanwhile, the executive branch will give us little more than gestures toward transparency. Once again, then, we have leaks to thank for critical information about government agency gross misconduct. It is yet another reminder that leakers, whistle-blowers and dissenters need our allegiance.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Blacksites Cia Dianne Feinstein Interrogation John Brennan Leaks Torture Report Transparency