The Senate Report on CIA Torture: “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly”

by Robert E. Hunter

Finally, someone in the US government has followed through on President Barack Obama’s judgment that CIA-conducted and “-outsourced” torture—let’s call it by its common name—is “not who we are” as a nation.  Finally, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has given us a (still heavily-redacted) account of what the CIA did between 2002 and 2006.

There is good as well as bad news in all of this mess.  After all, the Senate Committee (or at least its Democratic members) was prepared to see the United States “come clean” about some practices that—certainly in hindsight and, for people of any true moral sense, as should have been obvious at the time—are unacceptable  to a civilized society.

How many other countries would have done the same? Quite a few it turns out, at least 28 at last count, in what are typically known as “truth and reconciliation commissions.” Notable have been those in South Africa, Argentina, and Chile. However, by contrast with crimes in those countries, mostly against their own people, what was done by US government officials and their paid servants—some US “contractors” and some foreign governments—directly affected only a few people; most of them were avowed enemies of the United States; and at least some of whom were involved in the worst foreign attack on the continental US since 1814.

The published part of the report actually contains few surprises, other than to reveal that some of the “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs), an antiseptic euphemism like the Vietnam War’s “termination with extreme prejudice,” was much more brutal than hitherto reported.  More details than previously known were provided by how officials of the Central Intelligence Agency lied to Congress—a felony—and also, supposedly, to senior officials in the George W. Bush White House (which had its own share of the cover-up).  Further, the report confirmed what many terrorism experts and insiders-now-outsiders had said before: that such techniques rarely if ever produce “actionable” intelligence and certainly not in this case.

Thus, the argument is now being made widely around the world that the United States—self-styled since 1630 as a City Upon a Hill,  the producer of regular human rights reports about  every other country on the planet, and a list-keeper of other peoples’ misdeeds—has confessed to its own inhumane acts.

Yes, that is still part of the (relatively) good news.  Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.) and her Senate committee did not have to release the report. While the journalism community would continue to sniff at the edges of scandal, and awareness of thus-and-so would long be whispered around Washington, the full picture could have probably been buried, not quietly, but still buried.

The unalloyed bad news comes in different forms. As the inevitably-to-be-leaked list grows of foreign countries that either allowed the CIA to build private, purpose-built prisons or even took part in the “extraordinary rendition” of US terrorism suspects (to be tortured away from prying American eyes), there will be domestic embarrassment for some political leaderships that have not already been called to account (e.g., as has happened in Poland). As President Obama summed it up this week: “These techniques did significant damage to America’s standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners.”

The “bad guys,” especially the thugs of the world who have been subjected to American criticism or who themselves engage in immoral actions—like al-Qaeda, Islamic State (ISIS or IS), and a host of brutal governments, many but not all in the Middle East—will now claim a US precedent for what they do, and terrorist groups will use the Senate Committee revelations as a recruiting tool.

By any standard, the US is not in their league as a miscreant.  There is the issue of provocation to balance against the immorality of the CIA’s torture program. But at the same time, there is also the issue of efficacy—was the immorality worth the price? As President Obama said of the report this week: “It reinforces my long-held view that these harsh methods were not only inconsistent with our values as a nation, they did not serve our broader counterterrorism efforts or our national security interests.” They were not only wrong; they didn’t work.

More bad news will be felt immediately by America’s diplomats abroad.  They will just have to hunker down, stick to the talking points that Washington gives them and, we hope, contrast our openness (though it took far too long) with rampant terrorism and state oppression by people who would not dream of repentance or accountability. We can also expect Schadenfreude on the part of some of our closest allies, including in Europe. “Too bad about what happened in the United States, tut, tut,” they will say. Some friendly governments will face popular resistance to cooperating with the US in other actions abroad, as this report comes hard on the heels of revelations about the National Security Agency’s spying on foreign leaders.  However, these views will be tempered among those who recognize that damage to America’s standing could also negatively impact  them, since they still need us as a security guarantor, a point that was underscored earlier this year by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

We are already seeing the worst of the bad news, and it is at home.  Senator John McCain (R-Az.), who himself was tortured in a North Vietnamese prison, has welcomed the issuance of the report; but for most other Republican members of Congress, it is the Democrats and Barack Obama who are somehow to blame for this whole business. They contest the evidence and claim that water-boarding and other EITs did indeed help forestall further terrorism on our shores.  They see a witch hunt by the current administration, although President Obama said in April 2009 that “For those who carried out some of these operations within the four corners of legal opinions or guidance that had been provided from the White House, I do not think it’s appropriate for them to be prosecuted.” (Whether such a pledge should have been made is another matter.) The Attorney General, Eric Holder, followed through on that pledge in August 2012 by dropping two prominent cases. Even worse are former officials of the CIA who have joined the chorus in arguing that what was done protected the nation. Their efforts at self-justification add to the case that the CIA needs a thorough house-cleaning.  The agency’s leaders during the period in question should be denied any further government service. Those who lied to Congress should be prosecuted; the lawyers who justified the breaking of laws should be disbarred. (If that could be done to a sitting president for lying about sex, surely it should be done in this case.)  And no one should be allowed to get away with saying, however they phrase it, “We were just following orders.”  That line of argument fell to pieces at Nuremberg almost seven decades ago. Prosecution?  Maybe not—though it would be true to the rule of law and would send a useful message. No further government service? Definitely. Actions, whatever the sincerity of motives, must have consequences.

Maybe some larger good can begin to come out of all this. I do not mean just, as President Obama has said:  “I will continue to use my authority as president to make sure we never resort to those methods again.” That is a worthy goal—though all-too-likely of short duration, as can be testified to by those of us who remember the hearings in the 1970s by the Senate’s Church Committee, whose report and resulting national debate should have stopped in its tracks what the CIA did after 9/11.

The larger good can be a recognition that accountability needs to be returned to government, in general – a quality that has never been in great supply. The last senior political figure to quit over an issue of principle and policy was Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in 1979, following the abortive hostage rescue mission in Iran.  While Britain tried to sort out responsibility after its prime minister, Tony Blair, misled his country into joining the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, we have never done so and never will. We have never held accountable the small group of senior officials who consciously misled not just the president of the United States but also the American people, thereby leading the country into one of the most costly mistakes ever in US engagement abroad.

There can be no doubt that we are a great nation; we are basically a moral society, and the overwhelming majority of people in government, including most but unfortunately not all elected politicians, Republicans and Democrats, are so as well and work to do what they think is the best for our country.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has started us thinking once again about the demands of creating “a more perfect union” and has reminded us that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Let us hope that we also make a serious start on raising both the standard and the practice of accountability, across the board, to validate President Obama’s statement: “Today is also a reminder that upholding the values we profess doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us stronger and that the United States of America will remain the greatest force for freedom and human dignity that the world has ever known.”

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. “[Obama:] I do not think it’s appropriate for them to be prosecuted.” (Whether such a pledge should have been made is another matter.)”
    –Actually, it’s a matter of Obama breaking the law.

    Convention against Torture
    Article 6
    1. Upon being satisfied, after an examination of information available to it, that the circumstances so warrant, any State Party in whose territory a person alleged to have committed any offence referred to in article 4 is present shall take him into custody or take other legal measures to ensure his presence. The custody and other legal measures shall be as provided in the law of that State but may be continued only for such time as is necessary to enable any criminal or extradition proceedings to be instituted.

  2. If we’re a “Nation of Laws”, then indeed, we should uphold those laws, bar none. As far as “O” letting those responsible to get off, well, he’s not clean either. So, with that in mind, it’s O.K. for the U.S. government heads to skate free, but not the rest of the population? Corruptness, whether moral or outright, which the country, indeed the world has witnessed here in the U.S., needs to be stamped out, regardless of who is/was involved, otherwise, the country is doomed to decay, as it certainly appears to be taking place today. The so-called “war on terror”, has been a convenient cover up for the crimes committed, both here in the U.S., as well as in the world. It would be fitting if those who will deny these abuses, underwent the same mind bending experience[s], then perhaps they wouldn’t be so pious about letting others off the hook.

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