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Opinion: Columnists

The tortuous debate over the CIA's 'torture' report

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Opinion,Columnists,Jed Babbin,CIA,National Security,Torture

The biggest political drama of the summer isn’t about Hillary Clinton or immigration reform. It’s the intense behind-the-scenes battle between the CIA and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence over the committee's report on the CIA’s alleged torture of terrorist detainees during the George W. Bush administration.

The committee wants to publish a 600-page summary of the 6,000-page report authored by committee Democrats to accuse the CIA of torturing prisoners by using the “enhanced interrogation techniques” — EITs — President Obama prohibited in 2009. The CIA is desperately opposed to publication, so much so that it admittedly spied on committee staffers writing the report.

The CIA’s objection to releasing the report seems strange because in 2012 Attorney General Eric Holder announced that there would be no prosecution of CIA interrogators. The CIA’s fear must be that whatever conduct the report blames them for is so terrible that it could ignite another round of intelligence “reforms” like those of the 1970s Church Committee which obstructed intelligence-gathering for many years.

Committee Democrats apparently want to revive the torture debate in time for the 2016 elections, perhaps to accompany a push to close Gitmo or repeal the post-Sept. 11 authorization for use of military force when, per Obama’s schedule, the last American forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan.

The report apparently plays a lot of games with facts. One of its principal conclusions is rumored to be that EITs, which ranged from a slap in the face to waterboarding — were unnecessary because the intelligence gained through them could have been obtained by other means. That is speculative and it begs the question of timing. Was the intel gained and, if so, when? At this point, all we know is contained in former CIA Director George Tenet’s memoir, which says EITs yielded more valuable intelligence than the CIA, FBI, NSA and military operations combined.

The EITs — including waterboarding — were legal when they were used. An August 2002 Justice Department legal opinion for the CIA listed the EITs, including waterboarding, and found them legal. Under the legal definition, one of the criteria defining torture was whether the act caused lasting mental harm. Because thousands of American pilots had been waterboarded in Survival, Escape, Resistance and Evasion training without lasting mental harm, waterboarding was found to be legal. (The CIA reportedly varied its waterboarding techniques from the one used in SERE school and thus may have violated the law.)

Many people, including Obama, wrongly conflate EITs with torture. They are enabled by Sen. John McCain’s 2005 amendment to U.S. law that added "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" to the definition of torture. That nonsensically equates many EIT’s, such as the “degrading face slap,” with real torture. That’s not the only example of congressional malfeasance and dishonesty on the subject.

Before Rep. Nancy Pelosi became House speaker, she was ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. When she became speaker she publicly accused the spy agency of failing to brief her that waterboarding had been used in interrogations, saying specifically that intelligence committee members were briefed on EITs but not told they were actually used.

An unclassified CIA document showing which members were briefed on EITs (and when) was leaked to me by a member of the intelligence community on May 27, 2009. My article based on that memo explained that it showed that Pelosi was briefed, on Sept. 4, 2002, not only about what the EITs were, but which ones were used on Abu Zubaydah, one of the three detainees who were waterboarded.

The Senate Intelligence Committee report will be released with CIA approval — or leaked — at a politically advantageous time for the president and the Democrats. The public needs to know the truth about the “torture” allegations. Sadly, it’s not likely to get it from that report.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy under secretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration and is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research. He is co-author with Herbert London of The BDS War Against Israel.
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Jed Babbin

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The Washington Examiner

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