Did Senator Dianne Feinstein do the right thing?

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Torture Report Is a Reminder of CIA's Past

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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Two wise veterans of America's national security wars were of mixed mind after the release last week of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture. The panel blistered the Central Intelligence Agency for subjecting terrorism suspects to brutal and seemingly ineffective interrogation techniques and misrepresenting what it was doing.

"This may result in some retreat by the agency for a while," said Les Gelb, now president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former New York Times foreign policy columnist. "But it won't change much."

Frank Wisner, a former top diplomat and ambassador, also expressed discomfort. "We will survive any foreign policy hit or external terrorist threat," he said, referring to critics who claim the disclosure will jeopardize U.S. security. "But I'm very shy about accepting the line that this brings closure to the issue" of torture.  

These men know the territory. As a senior Pentagon official more than four decades ago, Gelb was the lead author of the Pentagon Papers, a secret account of the U.S. misadventure in the Vietnam War. When the report was leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971, the government tried to prevent its dissemination, warning that it would endanger the nation's security, much as the CIA has tried to sidetrack the torture report.

Wisner was a top State Department official and ambassador to Egypt and India. His father was one of the leading lights of the early CIA after World War II.

Both have some criticism of the report, which was hailed by Democrats and a few Republicans, including Arizona Senator John McCain, who was tortured in captivity during the Vietnam War and believes such methods are ineffective and inimical to American values.

Wisner agreed that torture is incompatible with those values. Nevertheless, he's not "entirely persuaded" by the report's implication that such methods are always ineffective. He said he could envision rare cases in which what the CIA calls "enhanced interrogation techniques" might yield results.

And both wonder why the committee didn't interview some former CIA directors and interrogation officials. 

"That bothers me," Gelb said. A parallel Justice Department investigation created conflicts, and the committee had access to internal interviews with those officials. Nevertheless, the Senate investigators could have requested sessions.

Moreover, Wisner notes, the CIA was directed to oversee terrorism interrogations and detentions by the George W. Bush administration in 2001: "The agency didn't ask for this," he said.

At the same time, Gelb and Wisner said they were bothered by the claims of former directors and their supporters that the methods, including waterboarding to the point of unconsciousness, sleep deprivation and rectal feeding, were all authorized, effective and disclosed.

"Did the agency lie?" Wisner asked. "They certainly used weasel words. I wish they had leveled more."

The two men shared outrage that the CIA outsourced much of the interrogation program, in particular that the agency paid more than $80 million to two psychologists with flimsy credentials.

"This is unconscionable," Wisner said. Gelb called it "highway robbery."

Gelb said some the charges are familiar because the CIA has often exceeded its authority. "During the Vietnam War, they were assassinating by the hundreds and never had any direct authorization," he said.

And he believes the report obscures larger questions, especially the intelligence deficiencies of the agency, which failed to anticipate the breakup of the Soviet Union. "Where the hell were they on the ISIS threat? Or Saddam's weapons of mass destruction or the crosscurrents today inside Iran?"

The report raises tough questions as it meticulously details CIA practices, many of which were opposed by people inside the agency. It is buttressed by thousands of internal documents.

Yet Wisner finds something uplifting in the episode, particularly the performance of Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a longtime CIA champion who insisted on releasing the report to the public.

"It shows America is a nation of democratic principles," Wisner said. "We debate, we talk, we put things on the table and we change. Dianne feels very deeply about this, and she was speaking to a strain of conscience."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net