WASHINGTON – The partisanship demonstrated in the timing of the release this week of the Senate report condemning CIA enhanced interrogation techniques on terrorists who threatened American lives was exceeded only by the report itself, according to some critics.
After two years of delays, Senate Democrats chose to release the report of George W. Bush-era practices Wednesday morning, just as former Obamcare adviser Jonathan Gruber was asked under oath by member of Congress to elaborate on confessions captured on video of his plotting along with the White House to employ deception in the crafting of the Affordable Health Care Act so it would get through Congress and not be blocked by the "stupid American people."
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Three former CIA directors were among the intelligence experts and commentators who strongly criticized the Senate Intelligence Committee's 6,000-page review of the CIA's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" in the post-9/11 era, calling it unfair and unbalanced.
The report is a "missed opportunity to deliver a serious and balanced study of an important public policy question," the former directors said in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal.
"The committee has given us instead a one-sided study marred by errors of fact and interpretation – essentially a poorly done and partisan attack on the agency that has done the most to protect America after the 9/11 attacks."
The op-ed piece was written by former CIA Directors George J. Tenet, Porter J. Goss and Michael V. Hayden along with former CIA Deputy Directors John E. McLaughlin, Albert M. Calland and Stephen R. Kappes.
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The study was released as the Democrat majority in the U.S. Senate is about to be turned over to the Republicans following the outcome of the November elections.
The report was highly critical of CIA interrogation methods it labeled as "torture," including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and forced rectal feeding.
Such practices were abandoned soon after President Obama took office.
"Astonishingly, the (Senate) staff avoided interviewing any of us who had been involved in establishing or running the program, the first time a supposedly comprehensive Senate Select committee on Intelligence study has been carried out in this way," the former CIA directors wrote.
Asserting that the Senate staff was "cherry picking" facts, the former directors said they can only conclude panel did not want to risk dealing with data "that did not fit their construct, which is another reason why the study is so flawed."
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"What went on in preparing the report is clear: The staff picked up the signal at the outset that this study was to have a certain outcome, especially with respect to the question of whether the interrogation program produced intelligence that helped stop terrorists," they wrote.
Meanwhile, former CIA official Gary Berntsen called the report the "single greatest hit job on the CIA."
The value of the interrogation program was indisputable, he said.
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"This allowed the CIA to take out the second tier of al-Qaida," he said.
He explained that after 9/11, Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders went underground. But the U.S. knew other attacks were being planned, and the interrogation provided information used to stop them.
See the interview with Bernsten:
Fox News commentator Brit Hume said the report was unbalanced, noting none of the Republicans on the committee participated and that key figures were not even interviewed by Democrats.
He said America decries what Rolling Stone magazine did in the University of Virginia rape story, publishing information from only one side. But he said it's the same with the Senate Democrats.
The report, she said, will create "demonstrably real" risks for Americans around the globe.
See Hume's comments:
Vice News released an extended interview with retired Air Force Psychologist Dr. James Mitchell, an architect of the enhanced interrogation program. But he said under a nondisclosure agreement he couldn't answer many questions about the Senate Intelligence Committee's report.
Onetime Obama CIA Chief Michael Morell expressed outrage, calling the report "deeply flawed" and its conclusions "simply wrong."
Morell said the program was effective, and the CIA informed Congress and the executive branch of the activities.
Some in Congress at the time, he noted, "thought it didn't go far enough."
See the Morell interview:
Jose Rodriguez, who formerly ran the CIA's clandestine services, said the program was urgently needed.
"We had general information an attack was coming. We didn't know when, where, how," he said.
The techniques allowed the extraction of information that provided enough information about the attackers to "protect the homeland, save lives."
That, he said, "is the bottom line.
See the Rodriguez comments:
Senate Republicans blasted the report, with newly elected Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying it "serves no purpose other than to endanger Americans around the world at a time of growing concern about the rise of terrorism."
See the report on the Senate's response:
Finding bin Laden
The study contended the methods employed to extract information did not play an integral part in finding al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. The report accused the CIA of preparing a public relations campaign to tout a tie to tracking down bin Laden.
Bin Laden was discovered by tracing his courier to the al-Qaida leader's hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, less than a mile from Pakistan's top military academy, the equivalent to the U.S. Army's West Point.
Bin Laden was killed May 1, 2012, when U.S. Navy SEALs descended on his compound in an extraordinary operation that has been portrayed in the movie "Zero Dark Thirty" and in recent books published by members of SEAL Team 6 who took part in the operation.
"The country and the CIA would have benefited from a more balanced study of these programs and a corresponding set of recommendations," the former CIA directors said. "The committee's report is not that study. It offers not a single recommendation."
The former directors then listed a litany of the Senate report's faults, including the allegation that it was ineffective in producing intelligence that help disrupt, capture or kill terrorists.
They also cited examples of the successes of the program, including the capture of Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, or KSM, mastermind of 9/11, senior operative Abu Zubaydah and financier Ramzi bin al-Shibh.
KSM and Zubaydeh were subjected to extensive waterboarding, which the panel claimed extracted little valuable intelligence.
The former directors disagreed.
"Information provided by Zubaydah through the interrogation program led to the capture in 2002 of KSM associate and post-9/11 plotter Ramzi Bin al-Shibh," they said. "Information from both Zubaydah and al-Shibh led us to KSM. KSM then led us to Riduan Isamuddin, aka Hambali, East Asia's chief al Qaeda ally and the perpetrator of the 2002 Bali bombing in Indonesia – in which more than 200 people perished."
The removal of the senior al-Qaida operatives saved thousands of lives because it ended their plotting, the former directors asserted.
"KSM, alone, was working on multiple plots when he was captured."
It was through the interrogation methods that Zubaydah and KSM "turned out to be invaluable sources on the al-Qaida organization," they said.
"We went back to them multiple times to gain insight into the group. More than one quarter of the nearly 1,700 footnotes in the highly regarded 9/11 Commission Report in 2004 and a significant share of the intelligence in the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on al-Qaida came from detainees in the program, in particular Zubaydah and KSM.
The former directors said there is "no doubt that information provided by the totality of detainees in CIA custody, those who were subjected to interrogation and those who were not, was essential to bringing bin Laden to justice."
"The CIA never would have focused on the individual who turned out to be bin Laden's personal courier without the detention and interrogation program," they said.
The "bottom line," the former directors said, is the interrogation program "formed an essential part of the foundation from which the CIA and the U.S. military mounted the bin Laden operation."
Program already scrutinized
The former directors also were critical of the Senate panel's assertion that the CIA went beyond the interrogation techniques authorized by the Justice Department.
They pointed out that Obama in 2009 had directed an experienced prosecutor, John Durham, to investigate the interrogation program for possible violations of U.S. criminal statutes.
The investigation, concluded in August 2012 under the direction of Attorney General Eric Holder, "was professional and exhaustive, and it determined that no prosecutable offenses were committed," they argued.
The former directors also were critical of assertions that CIA had misled the Justice Department, the White House, Congress and the public.
"Much of the report's reasoning for this claim rests on its argument that the interrogation program should not have been called effective, an argument that does not stand up to the facts," they said.
The former directors said the detention and interrogation program needed to be put into context of being formulated in the aftermath of the killing of almost 3,000 Americans on 9/11.
At that time, they said, there was evidence al-Qaida was planning a second wave of attacks on the U.S.
They also had information that bin Laden had met with Pakistani nuclear scientists and wanted nuclear weapons. This was coupled with information that nuclear weapons were being smuggled into New York City.
In addition, there was hard evidence that al-Qaida was trying to manufacture anthrax.
"It felt like the classic 'ticking time bomb' scenario – every single day," they asserted.
"In this atmosphere, time was of the essence and the CIA felt a deep responsibility to ensure that an attack like 9/11 would never happen again," they said. "We designed the detention and interrogation programs at a time when 'relationship building' was not working with brutal killers who did not hesitate to behead innocents. These detainees had received highly effective counter-interrogation training while in al-Qaida training camps. And yet it was clear they possessed information that could disrupt plots and save American lives."
The former directors said the committee failed to make clear in its report that the CIA was not acting alone in carrying out the interrogation program. There was extensive consultation with the national security adviser, deputy national security adviser, White House counsel and the Justice Department.
"The president approved the program," they said. "The attorney general deemed it legal."
In addition, they said the CIA had briefed Congress some 30 times, initially at presidential direction to the so-called "Gang of Eight" bipartisan group of senators, a limitation permitted under covert-action laws.
"The briefings were detailed and graphic and drew reactions that ranged from approval to no objection," they said. "The briefings held nothing back."
"Congress' view in those days was very different from today," the former directors said. "In a briefing to the Senate Intelligence Committee after the capture of KSM in 2003, committee members made clear that they wanted the CIA to be extremely aggressive in learning what KSM knew about additional plots. One senator leaned forward and forcefully asked: 'Do you have all the authorities you need to do what you need to do?'"
The former directors said the question the Senate panel should have asked was whether or not the interrogation program was the right policy, but it never took on this "toughest of questions."
"On that important issue it is important to know that the dilemma CIA officers struggled with in the aftermath of 9/11 was one that would cause discomfort for those enamored of today's easy simplicities," the former directors said.
"Faced with post-9/11 circumstances, CIA officers knew that many would later question their decisions – as we now see – but they also believed that they would be morally culpable for the deaths of fellow citizens if they failed to gain information that could stop the next attacks."