How Torture Became Just Another Government Bureaucracy

The battle isn't about morals or ethics, but rules and control.


When government employees with guns choose effectiveness over principles, we're going to have a problem.
Abu Ghraib

The appendix that concludes the Senate Intelligence Committee's 499-page report on the CIA's "Detention and Interrogation Program" during the early years of the Iraq War is a full accounting of the many "incorrect" statements made by former National Security Agency and CIA Director Michael Hayden to a Senate Committee during a single hearing in 2007.

For 37 pages the report measures the difference between the things Hayden said to the Senate, like that "enhanced interrogation" methods helped elicit information from detainees who were not otherwise cooperative; that the personnel chosen to interrogate detainees were carefully screened and trained; that interrogators and observers had never attempted to call attention to problems with interrogations; that only those believed to know about threats to the United States were exposed to interrogation;  that all of the detainees provided information useful for intelligence reports; that the CIA always started with the least coercive interrogation methods; and that threats of physical abuse, sodomy, and rape of detainees' family members did not take place, with the actual documentation from the CIA itself. According to the CIA's own records, Hayden's claims are simply not true.

Current CIA Director John Brennan released a lengthy response to the report (pdf). Brennan's response acknowledges and agrees with some criticism of the program: that the CIA was unprepared as it began detaining and interviewing prisoners; that some of the people they detained were not valid targets; that it failed to evaluate how effective its interrogation methods were; and even that sometimes unauthorized interrogation methods were used. But the CIA is still sticking with the argument that their enhanced interrogations succeeded at gathering intelligence, helped saved lives, and prevented terrorist attacks.

What is the source of this defensiveness? The CIA and its supporters aren't even denying that these interrogations methods were used and in its own response to the terror report emphasizes that "we are not arguing in favor of the decision to use the enhanced techniques to which these detainees were subjected. We are not endorsing those techniques, we are not making an 'ends-justify-the-means' case for them, nor are we implying that those techniques were the only way to obtain the information from detainees. We only are assessing the accuracy of CIA's representations in response to the Study's allegations that those representations were false." A couple of pages later, the report states that in hindsight, claiming that enhanced interrogation was the only way the CIA couldn't have gotten critical intelligence was "sincerely believed but inherently speculative."

In this politicized fight between the contents of hundreds of thousands of pages of reports and reviews, the actual debate centers on disagreement over two issues: How honest or dishonest the CIA represented what it was doing in communication with those charged with oversight; and whether enhanced interrogation or torture actually succeeded in accomplishing what the CIA claims it did. Strip out the torture and terrorism and you've got any other troubled government program. Was the Department of Health and Human Services honest with those charged with oversight about the state of Obamacare health insurance exchanges prior to their launch, and has it succeeded in providing affordable health insurance? It's the same argument.

Torture was just another bureaucracy. As such, hundreds of eye-watering pages of the report are not about shoving hummus up a guy's ass, but rather who knew what, when, and whether various Department of Justice officials or inspectors general were in the loop about certain details, and so much paperwork. Like every bureaucratic battle, it's about making sure nobody can be directly held accountable even when mistakes are admitted to in the most passive of language. Procedures were followed, and when procedures weren't followed they were corrected eventually (maybe). We made the sausage that you asked for. Why are you upset? Hayden went on NBC News following the release of the Senate report to complain, "I was in government for ten years after 9/11, and let me tell ya, a phrase I never heard from anybody in any position of authority: 'Whatever you guys do about this terrorism threat, please, please don't overreact.'" Our former head of the CIA, ladies and gentlemen, who apparently had to be told not to overreact or else we should just expect waterboarding by default. "It's a training issue" is a defense that apparently goes all the way up the government food chain.

The whole dispute even has a cronyist, rent-seeking component typical of government programs. The two psychologists who put together the CIA's enhanced interrogation programs, and also managed to put themselves in charge of evaluating the success of their own program, got themselves a deal with the CIA and made out with $81 million before their $180 million contract was cancelled in 2009.

Some components of the CIA's defense smacks of lazy deflection. Senate aides pored over thousands of CIA documents over the course of years to put the report together (remember:the 500 pages we're seeing is just the summary. The actual report is more than 6,000 pages). When the report came out, former CIA officials went to The Wall Street Journal to complain that they weren't interviewed for the report, making it appear as though the Senate used the cover of an ongoing Department of Justice investigation as an excuse not to talk to them. Even though the report is made almost entirely from CIA reports, the argument is that without these interviews, important context or details about other non-documented discussions may be missing. However, the Senate report claims that it was the CIA who said it would not compel its employees to be interviewed.

And it's important to remember how the CIA has been fighting the report all along. Earlier in the year, the CIA was caught snooping on Senate staffers because they wanted to find out how the aides got their hands on the so-called Panetta Review. This was an internal evaluation of the CIA's enhanced interrogation methods that reportedly validates the Senate's report, an important counter to the claims that the report is a partisan Democrat affair. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who lost re-election in November, has been a major force for pushing for more transparency from the government, including the release of the torture report. After seeing the CIA's defense of its tactics, he took to the Senate floor Wednesday morning to reveal some details from the Panetta report (still classified). He said the review "found that the CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information to the Congress, the president and the public on the efficacy of its coercive techniques. The Brennan Response, in contrast, continues to insist the CIA's interrogations produced unique intelligence to save lives, yet the Panetta review identifies dozens of documents that include inaccurate information used to justify the use of torture and indicates that the inaccuracies it identifies do not represent an exhaustive list."

A bureaucracy always protects its own existence above any and all things. The nature of the CIA's acknowledgements of deficiencies are about fixing the bureaucracy and actually expanding it. More oversight! More guidelines! This program needs to exist, but we just need to be better at it! It's the bureaucracy-lover's equivalent of saying "My problem is that I just care too much." We see similar arguments about the problems with the implementation of Obamacare and with the IRS targeting conservative nonprofits. Never mind that in many cases, according to the Senate report, interrogators in the field were telling CIA leadership that these tortured detainees didn't have the information they were looking for. CIA officials insisted that they did. But instead of pushing out an incomplete, broken web site to sell health insurance because of pressure from above, they strung men up naked in stress positions and refused to let them sleep. The CIA must argue that the program worked, or else they might have to consider that the program shouldn't have happened and they shouldn't have been granted these additional powers.

Resist the urge to buy into the partisanship arguments, which holds that the report is a Democratic hit job. The comparison to recent scandals is not an intent to shift blame to the Obama Administration (though it kept thousands of pages of documents shielded from Senate review for the report). The Senate report actually tries to shield President George W. Bush by stating he didn't know the details of the interrogation methods until 2006. The CIA's response says that Bush knew about it in 2002.

Do take away from this report how quickly terrible government ideas, once started, become systemic parts of a bureaucracy that perpetuate on their own. Take note of how quickly arguments about the tools of a bureaucracy become removed from any discussion of principle or morality. Take note of how people with power will argue anything, anything at all, to keep from relinquishing power once they've tasted it, and how unwilling they are to admit any sort of failure.