CIA vs. Congress: Does torture prevent terror attacks? The Bush era battles continue

The current battle might be the most public since the ‘70s when Congress had, for the first time, obtained strong oversight powers.

US Capitol building 300 (photo credit: REUTERS/Jim Bourg)
US Capitol building 300
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jim Bourg)
A battle royal of mammoth proportions is taking place between the CIA and the US Senate over the use of torture against terrorists.
The Senate’s Intelligence Committee (mostly the Democrats who control the committee) oversees the CIA and its oversight can, at times, lead to rifts between the Senate and the CIA. But the current battle might be the most public since the ‘70s when Congress had, for the first time, obtained strong oversight powers.
The detainee program was made internationally infamous for its use of the water-boarding “enhanced interrogation”/torture technique to gain information from terrorists to stop potential attacks, and has been spiritedly defended by Bush administration officials.
Underneath all of the intrigue and the incredibly developing plot, the heart of the debate is that the two government bodies disagree about whether torturing terrorist detainees is an effective method to obtain information to stop future attacks.
Recently, Diane Feinstein’s Senate committee voted to disclose a 6,300-page comprehensive and hard-hitting report against the CIA’s torture techniques, however, US President Barack Obama will make the final decision.
The sides have been fighting for years about how much to disclose to the public about the Bush era programs. And the intrigue has grown into unprecedented proportions.
Feinstein, normally no softheart and a stalwart supporter of the intelligence committee she oversees – she had substantially supported the NSA spying programs despite public criticism – and Jose Rodriguez – who ran the CIA’s detainee interrogation program under president George W. Bush – have written dueling op-eds lambasting each other’s positions.
Feinstein has been quoted as wanting a report that would be so tough on the CIA that it would ensure that enhanced interrogation techniques would never be used again.
But the infighting does not end there.
Reportedly, the CIA inadvertently gave Senate investigators access to an internal critical CIA review of the detainee program (not to be confused with the Senate’s report), which was meant to remain classified.
The CIA then searched the Senate staffs’ computers (located at a CIA facility), which eventually led it to request the US Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into how the staffers got a copy of the review.
Of course, more liberal Americans have been calling for years for criminal charges to be brought against the CIA officials who ran the detainee program.
This makes debating an already complex issue even harder.
So, can torturing detainees get information that would prevent terror attacks? One of the more interesting positions on this issue is that of Prof. Alan Dershowitz, who told The Jerusalem Post that he believes torture should be banned, but that intelligence agencies will never stop using it, especially when security threats keep getting greater.
In that light, Dershowitz said that torture should be regulated, since it will happen anyway.
Israel’s High Court of Justice banned torture in 1999, but created a single “ticking bomb” exception: Torturing terrorists to get information of an imminent attack.
That decision was a massive shift from Israel’s prior position that using torture against terrorists is acceptable, since the ends – especially against morally indefensible terrorists – justify the means – saving civilians from imminent death.
But some have said that the carve-out for torturing ticking bomb terrorists has allowed Israel’s intelligence agencies to continue enhanced interrogation techniques and was an indirect admission that even liberals are prepared to accept torture under extreme circumstances – the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) refused to comment on the US debate for this article.
The US Supreme Court never officially banned torture and declined to take a clear stance when it had a chance in 2004, but the US has prosecuted and condemned torture at times in the past.
But will the government and the country really come down on the detainee program if it helped stop attacks in the post-September 11 environment? Especially against such arch-terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Muhammad who masterminded the 9/11 attacks, who detainee program-supporters said was caught through the torture of another detainee.
And while there have been few major terror threats against the US in the past 13 years, if there was another catastrophic attack, would a report by Feinstein stop the government and the CIA from trying to defend the US by “any means necessary” – regardless of terrorists’ rights? This is why Feinstein’s report argues that the 20 cases of terror attacks, which detainee program-supporters say were stopped by using torture to get information, could have been stopped using other intelligence gathering techniques.
Feinstein and other critics of using torture also say that torture gets terrorists to lie and make up plots that do not exist, but cannot be disproved, just to end the torture.
Finally, they say that torture by the US leads to torture against US personnel by others over time and, more importantly, undermines the huge intangible asset of the US being a moral authority.
Rodriguez and supporters of the detainee program have argued that the report (aspects of wish they still hope to get Obama to block from being released) does unproven hindsight analysis on other methods that could have been used to get the key information.
They say that in real-time, after 9/11, culling intelligence to respond to the attacks and preventing new ones was like a jigsaw puzzle with millions of pieces. And since it was unclear how to solve the puzzle, all means needed to be used.
Some of them might also say that the US’s position worldwide is not just undermined by using torture, but could also be undermined when it is viewed as being too weak either in dealing with terror or in confronting international aggression (such as in Syria or Ukraine).
There is also debate about whether there was torture or how much there was.
Rodriguez says that many techniques written about in the media were used illegally by the US Army in Abu Ghraib Prison, in Iraq, not by the CIA.
He added that water-boarding has not been used since 2003 and was only done against three arch-terrorists – with a water bottle on a medical gurney as opposed to its portrayal on the big screen.
It is unclear whether these last arguments improved or hurt the CIA’s case.
With the CIA and the Senate at loggerheads over both the past and future use of enhanced interrogation techniques, the real answer on where the debate is in the US will probably only be provided the next time there is a ticking bomb, or after the next major attack.