CIA torture report: A victory for moral outrage and a blow for US democracy

Torture report confirms fears expressed about CIA when it was formed in 1947

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The Independent Online

The Senate report on the brutal interrogation methods employed by the CIA after 9/11 not only makes shocking reading: another dark day for an agency, and an ugly stain on the global reputation of the US. It also raises, not for the first time, the question of how and to what extent the activities of an intelligence agency can be made accountable in a democracy like the US.

The report is a devastating indictment. But for all the precautions taken to protect retaliation against American troops and installations in the Middle East, the report’s biggest impact is likely to be political, here in the US. It can only further inflame relations as a Democrat-controlled Senate, backed by a Democratic White House, passes judgement on the Republican administration of George W Bush.

Indeed politics partly explain why it is being published now, by the existing Democratic majority on the Intelligence Committee. From next month, Republicans run the Senate; they would surely have prevented the report coming out. Yes, the waterboarding of detainees and other practices spelt out in graphic detail are abhorrent – but they have been known about for eight years. And Islamic extremists surely have enough reason already to retaliate against the US.

The real questions are two. Did the agency lie to the White House and Congress about what it was doing, not revealing the extent of its use of torture and then incriminating evidence afterwards? And did these savage methods produce vital intelligence that could not have been obtained by conventional, non-violent, interrogation? The Democratic report authors deliver an emphatic “yes” to the first, and an equally clearcut “no” to the second.

In moral terms, the report is admirable in its outlining of the betrayal of America’s professed values (not to mention international norms) by the appalling behaviour of the CIA. It speaks volumes for the vigour of US democracy: publication of such a brutal assessment in Britain or France is hard to imagine. “Never again,” was the message sent by Dianne Feinstein, the Committee’s chairwoman, and the veteran Republican John McCain in their speeches on the Senate floor, and who can disagree?


But the impact on the CIA is another matter. Critics will say that this documented use of torture proves that the world’s most powerful intelligence agency is out of control. Whatever conspiracy theorists may say, the US is a remarkably open system founded on checks and balances. Yet in the case of the CIA, it has not found a way of making the checks and balances work. Obviously demands for “transparency” in the operations of an intelligence agency are a contradiction – but the agency must be accountable.

The ultimate fault may lie in the nature of the beast. Most of the great controversies that dog CIA history relate not to its spying, but to its paramilitary operations: the Iran coup of 1953, the Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1961, the practices outlined in the 1977 Church report, the Iran-Contra scandal of 1986, and now the establishment of secret “black” sites where agency operatives carried out their infamous “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Sometimes the paramilitary function has offered a president what amounts to a private army. But many have disputed its need. Indeed, back in 1947, Dean Acheson – soon to become Secretary of State – expressed “the gravest forebodings” about the fledgling agency, warning that no-one, not even the President, would be in a position to know what it was doing or to control it. The virtually rogue operation run the wake of 9/11 would seem to confirm Acheson’s every fear.