The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) just released the executive summary of its massive report on the CIA’s interrogation efforts following 9/11. We will pointedly leave it to others to comment on the specifics of the interrogation program, the actual substance of that report, and the political knife fights that occurred behind the scenes. We hope, however, that Congress and the country will use the report’s publication as a pivot point to address current, pressing intelligence challenges.
Many believe this report will help “set the record straight” about the enhanced interrogation program. We suspect the straightness of that record will remain a point of contention. Sadly, it seems the report, rather than informing a dialogue about intelligence methods, will be a source of acrimony and will fuel a divisive debate for some time to come.
But it is important to keep in mind that the country has already reached consensus about the techniques in question. The enhanced interrogation program essentially ended in 2006 and was formally shut down in 2009. The President has rejected the techniques. The country has largely rejected the techniques. And the intelligence community has rejected using the techniques.
It is our experience that, among those intelligence professionals not directly involved in the interrogation program, many have come to believe that these techniques were a strategic mistake and that, as a tactical matter, there are other approaches to elicit information from detainees that would have proven sufficient to achieve the mission in most circumstances. Any “lessons learned” about interrogations CIA could have taken from this report were already learned years ago. After all, CIA has shown itself extremely capable in taking apart al Qaeda core, even without using enhanced interrogation techniques.
So where can we go from here? Let’s be honest – few will actually read the report’s 500-page executive summary. No one who provides instant analysis in the next few days or so – the coin of the 24/7 media realm – will have actually read it to make the cable news programs.
And chances are that most interested parties have long made up their minds about the “perfidy” of CIA or the “fecklessness” of the Democrats in Congress. Beyond the inevitable finger-pointing that will occur over the next week or so before the news cycle moves onto another topic, here are three long-term positives that could emerge:
First, the SSCI report’s release will begin the process of restoring accountability to Congress and its oversight function of the Intelligence Community. The first priority for the new intelligence committees in the 114th Congress should be to regain public trust in their oversight role. Whatever one’s feeling about this particular issue, the report servers an important function if it furthers that goal.
Yes – this report might foster distrust between some in the intelligence community and its congressional overseers. But that tension between the executive agency and the legislature on intelligence issues can be beneficial, especially if it helps build trust with the broader public and creates a more solid, long-term foundation for the country’s intelligence efforts.
Second, the report may provide insights into institutional weaknesses that still exist today. However flawed this document might be, it could nonetheless shed light on how CIA communicated with Congress and the White House about the interrogation program and what dynamics shaped those communications. Such insight could inform our judgments about current operations and the dynamics that shape assessments of those operations.
Third, the release of the SSCI report clears the political decks. It’s doubtful anyone in Congress will reexamine this issue again, in any great detail. Congress and the IC can now move forward instead of expending even more effort on this topic, which consumed tens of thousands of working hours and the attention of key national security policymakers. Congress should take this opportunity to craft an oversight agenda that tackles many of the challenges the IC faces today. Overt Action will begin our Intelligence Committee Agenda series this week dedicated to that task.
The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, required our top policymakers and intelligence professionals to make difficult choices, the repercussions of which are fully on display this week. But we face new challenges today that require a different set of hard choices. America should try to use the publication of the SSCI report as an opportunity to reevaluate how we prosecute these efforts and respond as a country to those new threats.
Photo: CIA Original Headquarters Building (OHB) entrance.