Reading Cheney’s Response To The New CIA Documents

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Former vice president Dick Cheney has responded to the Monday release of new CIA documents, showing abuse, mismanagement and potential criminal violations in the harsh interrogation program that he approved. He offers a striking statement for three reasons.

But first a look at what Cheney says:

The documents released Monday clearly demonstrate that the individuals subjected to Enhanced Interrogation Techniques provided the bulk of intelligence we gained about al Qaeda. This intelligence saved lives and prevented terrorist attacks. These detainees also, according to the documents, played a role in nearly every capture of al Qaeda members and associates since 2002. The activities of the CIA in carrying out the policies of the Bush Administration were directly responsible for defeating all efforts by al Qaeda to launch further mass casualty attacks against the United States. The people involved deserve our gratitude. They do not deserve to be the targets of political investigations or prosecutions. President Obama’s decision to allow the Justice Department to investigate and possibly prosecute CIA personnel, and his decision to remove authority for interrogation from the CIA to the White House, serves as a reminder, if any were needed, of why so many Americans have doubts about this Administration’s ability to be responsible for our nation’s security.

So what is surprising?

First, Cheney does not mention the claim, which he has made elsewhere, that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques produced information that saved lives. Rather, he claims only that “individuals subjected to Enhanced Interrogation Techniques provided the bulk of intelligence we gained about al Qaeda.” This statement is neither in dispute, nor much of a revelation. The enhanced techniques, when they were used as designed and not by rogue agents without proper supervision, were employed on a select few detainees who knew a lot about al Qaeda. The outstanding question is whether the enhanced techniques were necessary to produce the information, and on that score the memos continue to paint a muddy picture, as TIME’s Bobby Ghosh explains today in this piece. In fact, the CIA IG concludes that measuring the effectiveness of the harsh techniques is a “subjective” task, with no clear result.

[Update on Wednesdsay: Yesterday, after I published this post, Ben Smith reported that a “person close to Cheney” was reporting that the careful language was not symbolic of a shift in Cheney’s position. I contacted a spokesperson for Cheney to confirm this, and received this emailed statement this morning: “Vice President Cheney believes that the newly released documents show that employing the EITs [Enhanced Interrogation Techniques] led to the release of new information that saved lives.” I will write another post on this issue in the coming days.]

The second surprise concerns Cheney’s decision not to directly address two other memos that the CIA released Monday. Back in April, in an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program, Cheney was asked “Why were those tactics [waterboarding, sleep deprivation, insects] needed, necessary, and why do you think they continue to be necessary?” In his answer, Cheney said there were classified memos held by the CIA that would answer the question:

And there are reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of this activity. They have not been declassified. I formally asked that they be declassified now. I haven’t announced this up until now, I haven’t talked about it, but I know specifically of reports that I read, that I saw that lay out what we learned through the interrogation process and what the consequences were for the country. And I’ve now formally asked the CIA to take steps to declassify those memos so we can lay them out there and the American people have a chance to see what we obtained and what we learned and how good the intelligence was, as well as to see this debate over the legal opinions.

These memos soon became a cause celeb for conservatives, who accused the Obama Administration of withholding key evidence showing the effectiveness of harsh interrogation. Later, in a major speech on the issue of national security, Cheney charged that Obama was intentionally withholding the memos. Said Cheney:

As far as the interrogations are concerned, all that remains an official secret is the information we gained as a result. Some of his defenders say the unseen memos are inconclusive, which only raises the question why they won’t let the American people decide that for themselves.

But now that the memos have been released–with redactions–they provide no clarity to the question Cheney claimed they would answer: Did the enhanced techniques produce results? Rather the two memos describe the value of information provided by Al Qaeda detainees, which one memo calls a “crucial pillar of counterterrorism efforts.” The memos, as redacted, are silent on the role of harsh interrogation in producing that information. One memo describes another effective technique–dubbed the “building block” process–that dd produce significant information. This process is an standard technique, of confronting one detainee with information from another detainee to produce more information. It does not involve any physical coercion. Does Cheney want other parts of the same memo, which were redacted in the latest release, made public? It is unclear.

The third surprise in Cheney’s statement is the blanket praise he offers to CIA employees and contractors, even, apparently, those who violated the Bush Administration’s own guidance. “The people involved deserve our gratitude,” Cheney writes. “They do not deserve to be the targets of political investigations or prosecutions.” The CIA IG report reveals a number of instances where CIA employees disobeyed the rather precise instructions of the Bush Administration and the Department of Justice. These are the only cases that Attorney General Holder has said he wants to pursue further. For instance, the Justice Department never gave permission to a CIA contractor to beat a detainee to death with a flashlight, an incident that is alleged in the report. And yet, in his statement, Cheney characterizes such investigations as “political investigations and prosecutions.”