The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report Tuesday on the CIA’s use of torture is unlikely to trigger major policy changes or even official introspection, but it ignited a new uncivil war of words between Republicans and Democrats in Congress that’s likely to last through the 2016 election campaign.
Senators traded insults and charges as they learned of the findings. “It’s absolutely irresponsible,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said of the report. “This study ensures that the truth about the CIA’s brutal torture program finally comes out,” countered Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo.
There was little appetite for new legislation. President Barack Obama banned the controversial practices when he came into office in 2009, and torture itself has been illegal for decades under U.S. law and international treaties that the U.S. has signed.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who will become the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman next month, said he planned no further action.
“I just don’t know what you would accomplish with hearings,” he said. Asked whether he saw any kind of follow-up, Burr said, “No. Put this report down as a footnote in history.”
Yet the report was too detailed, too disturbing, to many lawmakers, who couldn’t simply grumble and move on.
“I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spent five and a half years as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war. “I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it.”
Most of all, McCain told colleagues, “I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies: our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights.”
The issue will simmer, some senators said, and might erupt anew as the 2016 presidential campaign unfolds.
“We’ve gone from one extreme to the other. Now we just read people their Miranda rights,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a senior Armed Services Committee member. He was referring to the legal requirement that U.S. law enforcement officials inform suspects of their rights before interrogation.
“I’m not for waterboarding but I’m not for (just) reading them their Miranda rights,” said Graham, a veteran military attorney. “They’re enemy combatants. This is going to cost us dearly in terms of intelligence gathering.”
He’d like a Senate hearing on current detention and interrogation practices and whether the United States is losing valuable intelligence. “Maybe we can find some legislative fixes,” Graham said.
Others shared his sentiment, though with different views.
“For all of the misinformation, incompetence and brutality in the CIA’s program, the committee’s study is not, and must not be, simply a backward-looking condemnation of past mistakes,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., an Intelligence Committee member who’s retiring.
He called the report “a tremendous opportunity to develop forward-looking lessons that must be central to all future intelligence activities.”
At the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest was circumspect. “We’re talking about many classified programs . . . so even if there are some changes made, they may not be the kind of changes we can announce,” he said.
As long as Burr and other top Senate Republicans remain reluctant to do much follow-up, there’ll be little congressional action. Starting next month, Republicans will control both chambers of Congress for the next two years.
What’s more likely is more dialogue on the campaign trail and in the media. The 2016 presidential campaign season has already begun, and anything that makes a candidate look tough on terrorists is alluring to current and potential presidents.
Rubio, often mentioned as a White House candidate, issued a joint statement with Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, even before the report’s release. Both are Intelligence Committee members.
Later, Rubio told McClatchy, “There’s no reason to have released this report other than the pure partisan joy they’re going to get from embarrassing people in the Bush administration.”
Democrats saw ominous implications in the CIA acts. “When America engages in these acts with authorization from the highest levels of government, we invite others to treat our citizens the same way,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., an Intelligence Committee member.
Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she’d gone through “a great deal of introspection” about whether to delay the release.
“This clearly is a period of turmoil and instability in many parts of the world,” Feinstein said. “Unfortunately, that’s going to continue for the foreseeable future, whether this report is released or not.”
Most Republicans, though, didn’t think the disclosure was worth the potential price. A group of Senate Republican leaders told a news conference that Democrats were simply trying to score political points.
“I think it doesn’t tell us much that we didn’t probably already know anyway, but significantly endangers Americans around the world,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Risch had a slightly different take. Think long term, he urged.
“There will probably be more righteous indignation and breast beating in America for some short period of time,” he said. “The difficulty is we work on a very short calendar. The people on another side of this work on a calendar measured in centuries, rather than days. The full fallout of this will not be known for a lifetime.”