US braced for backlash on release of CIA torture report

Senate panel set to publish long-awaited critique of Bush-era interrogation tactics

The US government and embassies are bracing for a backlash as some of the darker practices in the so-called “war on terror” look set to be cast into a very public spotlight with the expected publication of a long-awaited report this week.

The 480-page document, a summary of a 6,000 page examination of the CIA's so-called "rendition, detention and interrogation programme," was compiled by the Senate intelligence committee.

Democrats on the committee, led by its chairwoman, Californian senator Dianne Feinstein, are pushing for its publication before she cedes control of the committee when the Republican take control of the Senate in January.

The report has been the source of rancour not just between Democrats and Republicans, but between the US intelligence community and their Senate overseers.

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Details of the five-year study has been significantly leaked over the past year. It is expected to be severely critical of the spying agency’s interrogation of al-Qaeda suspects in the years after the September 2001 attacks on the US.

Torture’s effectiveness

The most damaging aspects of the report are expected to centre on just how effective the torture, which included “waterboarding” or the simulated drowning of suspects, was in producing useful information about the plotting behind 9/11 and other planned attacks.

The report is expected to say that CIA agents in the field lied to their superiors at the agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia about the efficacy of the programme. They in turn misinformed the president and members of Congress tasked with monitoring the agency.

Al-Qaeda suspects in CIA custody were transported through the agency’s secret prisons or “black sites”, some on planes that refuelled at Shannon Airport. That they were tortured is in no doubt.

"We tortured some folks," said president Barack Obama at a White House news conference in August in his most explicit comments about the practices of his predecessor's administration.

“When we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques, techniques that I believe and I think any fair-minded person would believe were torture, we crossed a line, and that needs to be understood and accepted.”

While Mr Obama has cast a moral judgment on George W Bush-era tactics, his administration has tread carefully on how much detail of the CIA’s programme should be public.

Mr Obama fears the repercussions of criticism against the intelligence agency, which still reports to the White House, and a violent reaction overseas as the Obama administration battles the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The president’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and Senate Democrats have liaised closely for months on what the intelligence committee should make public.

The White House and CIA prefers that many details remain classified or secret. They reportedly want all pseudonym references to field agents to be blacked out on concerns that revealing even pseudonyms could endanger lives.

The secretary of state, John Kerry, went further, asking Ms Feinstein on Friday to delay publication of the report, warning that it could invite violence in the Middle East.

Ms Feinstein is, however, adamant that the report be published, given the work that has gone into the study and to make sure that the practices never happen again.

"We have to get this report out," she told the Los Angeles Times on Sunday.

The report could be published as early as today, though Mr Kerry may issue stronger warnings when he appears before the Senate foreign relations panel on Capitol Hill.

Warned of release

Republicans, who take control of the Senate in January, have warned against the release of the report.

Congressman Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee in the House of Representatives, told a CNN talk show on Sunday that foreign governments and US intelligence agencies had warned that the report would cause "violence and deaths".

Former president George W Bush and senior aides in his administration who oversaw the controversial CIA programme have rubbished some of its findings and defended the work of the US intelligence community after 9/11.

"To say that we relentlessly, over an extended period of time, lied to everyone about a programme that wasn't doing any good – that beggars the imagination," said Michael Hayden, who led the CIA during the final years of the Bush administration, on CBS's Face the Nation.

Mr Hayden said the CIA programme had been “so valuable” that the agency “couldn’t stop it altogether”. Just three people were waterboarded and the last of those was in March 2003, he said, noting that the practices were stopped by Mr Bush himself.

The former president defended the CIA without even seeing the findings of the report.

“We’re fortunate to have men and women who work hard at the CIA serving on our behalf,” Bush told CNN in an interview broadcast on Sunday. “These are patriots, and whatever the report says, if it diminishes their contributions to our country, it is way off base.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent