The Truth About Torture

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A debate has erupted about the new film Zero Dark Thirty, and whether it inaccurately suggests that U.S.-sanctioned torture (aka “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”) led to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

That claim was memorably asserted within hours of bin Laden’s death by Jose Rodriguez, the former head of the CIA‘s clandestine service in an interview with TIME. Rodriguez made the case more fully in his book, Hard Measures.

The argument was then persuasively countered by Senators Diane Feinstein and Carl Levin and by several others with direct knowledge of the program, including former CIA interrogation supervisor, Glenn A. Carle and by Rodriguez’s nemesis, former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan.

The definitive answer to whether there is a link between information gained through torture and the killing of Osama bin Laden is available to those with the necessary security clearances thanks to years of painstaking work by the staff of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In March 2009, the committee voted 14-1 to write a report on the history of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, and its effectiveness, after reviewing and being shocked by CIA cables that described interrogations.

After Attorney General Eric Holder decided in Aug. 2009 to investigate whether interrogators had gone beyond the legal guidelines outlined for them by the Justice Department, Republican members of the committee pulled out of the SSCI effort to produce the report. The Democratic staff continued, reviewing some 6 million documents and ultimately writing a 6,000 page report with 35,000 footnotes. The report was adopted this week by the committee 9-6, with Republicans claiming errors and omissions.

The report remains classified and it is not clear when any of it will be made available to the public. SSCI chair Diane Feinstein released a statement on the committee’s adoption of the report, which she called “one of the most significant oversight efforts in the history of the United States Senate, and by far the most important oversight activity ever conducted by this committee.”

The report uncovers startling details about the CIA detention and interrogation program and raises critical questions about intelligence operations and oversight. I look forward to working with the president and his national security team, including the Director of National Intelligence and Acting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, to address these important issues, with the top priority being the safety and security of our nation.

Conducting oversight is sometimes a difficult and unpleasant task for all involved, but I am confident the CIA will emerge a better and more able organization as a result of the committee’s work. I also believe this report will settle the debate once and for all over whether our nation should ever employ coercive interrogation techniques such as those detailed in this report.

I strongly believe that the creation of long-term, clandestine ‘black sites’ and the use of so-called ‘enhanced-interrogation techniques’ were terrible mistakes. The majority of the Committee agrees.

Ultimately the renewed debate over Zero Dark Thirty shows that the U.S. has not come to terms with its embrace of torture after 9/11 and that doing so remains a crucial piece of unfinished business for Washington and the country.

Two final points: Soufan and Rodriguez agree that “enhanced interrogation” by Egyptian authorities produced bogus intelligence about collaboration between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, intelligence that Colin Powell used in 2003 to make the case for invading Iraq (see Hard Measures, pp. 52-53).

Lastly, for those who think waterboarding is not torture, I settle that issue in discussion with a variety of senior Bush administration officials here.