Skip to main content

The release of the executive summary (itself 500 pages) of the report of the Senate Intelligence Committee on “enhanced interrogation” practices of the CIA in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, far from settling the argument, serves to confirm our political divisions.

CIA Torture Report Released

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), outgoing Chair of the Committee, obviously knew that if the report didn’t come out now, the incoming Republican majority would bury it. The study was a project of the Democratic majority that has held the Senate since 2006. The focus was on the policies and practices authorized and defended by the Bush administration in the first few years after the 9/11 attacks. So it is scarcely surprising that reactions to the report have been strongly partisan. Democrats have in general been supportive, and relieved that the report is finally in the public domain.

Republican attacks have been of two sorts. Dick Cheney and his neoconservative acolytes have strongly backed the arguments of present and former CIA leaders, that the controversial interrogation techniques were in fact crucial to gaining intelligence that saved thousands of lives. This is contradictory to a key argument of the report, that such techniques in fact yielded no significant intelligence.

The second Republican reaction has been to ignore the substance of the report entirely, but to object to its release on grounds that its findings are so explosive as to pose imminent danger of revenge attacks on Americans abroad. But this line of attack was undercut by none other than Senator John McCain (a torture victim himself during his imprisonment during the Vietnam War). McCain supported the release because it was essential that the American people know the truth.

The release of this report, however, must be seen as a victory for Democratic liberals. They have won a key battle. The larger war over governing principles in foreign policy and international affairs will go on.

The truth, as seen by the Democrats on the Committee and their staff, is that the CIA was ill-prepared to take on the assignment that President Bush gave it, that it failed to use prior interrogation experience within the agency and elsewhere in government, that it used interrogation techniques known to be brutal but ineffective, that it deceived the Congressional oversight committees, that it failed fully to inform all members of the National Security Council, that it used leaks strategically to misinform public opinion, and that it suppressed dissent about the program within the CIA.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Even if the neocons continue to reject the report, it is now on the public record. It is not encoded in law, but any future president will have a much harder time than Bush did in authorizing such an assault on human rights under cover of national security. The question has been squarely posed: shall the United States conduct and condone the torture of prisoners?

This is actually a cleavage of very long standing, going back at least a century to Woodrow Wilson’s articulation of a liberal vision for international relations. He was reacting to what he saw as the catastrophic suicide of conservative statecraft in the Great War. That was a world in which the powerful had no compunctions about abusing those less powerful. The only truly binding law was the national interest.

But Wilson was wrong: conservative statecraft suffered grievous self-inflicted wounds in the Great War, but it lived on, becoming again the dominant mode of thinking among state leaders worldwide. It is that worldview that we see in the neoconservative defense of enhanced interrogation.

There are today almost no Republican defenders of a liberal perspective on foreign affairs. There is a small but powerful group of “realists” among the Democrats, who won’t call themselves neoconservatives, but who look at the world in much the same way. They largely controlled the foreign and defense policies of the Clinton administration, and have also been predominant in the Obama administration.

The release of this report, however, must be seen as a victory for Democratic liberals. They have won a key battle. The larger war over governing principles in foreign policy and international affairs will go on.

The age of a bipartisan foreign policy is a fading memory. The Democratic support that President Bush enjoyed for awhile after 9/11 won’t be there for the next Republican president. Republicans determined after Obama’s election to undermine his every move. Hyperpartisanship will be with us for a long time, because it is about more than which party is to hold power, more than simplistic ideological conflicts. It is about fundamental differences over how the world should work.

john peeler

John Peeler