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President Obama, Don’t Let the CIA Control the Torture Narrative

Matthew Harwood,
Former Managing Editor,
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May 7, 2013

When former White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan went before the Senate in early February for his confirmation hearing to lead the CIA, he made a startling admission. After reading the 300-page summary of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s (SSCI) mammoth 6,000-page report on the CIA’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation program, Brennan’s belief in the life-saving value of the torture program was shaken.

Responding to a question from Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) about whether the program “saved lives,” Brennan replied:

I clearly had the impression, as you say, when I was quoted in 2007 that there was valuable intelligence that came out of those interrogation sessions. That’s why I did say that they save lives. I must tell you, Senator, that reading this report from the committee raises questions about the information that I was given at the time, the impression I had at the time.

This power to change minds, particularly those close to the program, is one of the primary reasons why the committee’s report deserves to be read by anyone interested in America’s resort to kidnapping and torture after 9/11. The report, however, is currently still classified as the committee awaits the CIA’s review.

Yesterday, the ACLU along with seven other human rights organizations sent President Obama a letter urging him to ensure that the CIA’s review of it isn’t the only response from the executive branch that the committee receives. To ensure that doesn’t happen, the coalition urges the president to designate a senior White House official to coordinate one executive branch response to the committee’s report, which incorporates the views of all its relevant agencies. The SSCI deserves a big-picture view of the torture program, and the White House should provide a response that doesn’t give undue deference to the program’s creator and defender.

It’s important to remember that the CIA doesn’t hold the only worthwhile opinion on the United States’ descent into the dark side. As our letter reminds the president:

Other agencies—including the FBI, the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence—also have relevant knowledge of the CIA program and its effects, as does the White House itself.

During those immoral years, many courageous government officials and employees objected to the torture program on both moral and strategic grounds, particularly its power to stoke anti-American hatred and provide terrorist recruiters with a compelling justification for their own atrocities.

Nevertheless, the torture program has its stalwart defenders, including former senior officials, who continue to peddle the false narrative that these unlawful practices were necessary to save lives and protect the United States from further terrorist attacks.

The only way to effectively combat these lies and inaccuracies is for the report to be made public. Otherwise, it’s nearly impossible to correct the record, as SSCI member Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) made plain at Brennan’s confirmation hearing.

[I]naccurate information on the…effectiveness of the CIA’s detention-interrogation program was provided by the CIA to the White House, the DOJ, Congress and the public. Some of this information is regularly and publicly repeated today by former CIA officials. And although we now know this information is incorrect, the accurate information remains classified, while inaccurate information has been declassified and regularly repeated.

The American people deserve to know what was done in their name. More importantly, they deserve to know that falling far short of our ideals didn’t protect national security—it harmed it. American ideals are too often described as an impediment to our security, when in reality our adherence to our values provides for our long-term security.

But our nation won’t understand how wrong the torture apologists are until the committee’s vital report is available for everyone to read. Only a public reckoning with our post-9/11 past can ensure the United States never takes another ride into the abyss again.

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