Last Thursday, Amy Zegart wrote a post at Lawfare Blog on the flaws in the SSCI’s highly partisan study into the CIA’s RDI (or just the detention and interrogation aspects) Program(s). Here’s part of what she wrote:
Four key process errors doomed the Senate report to eternal controversy: it was not bipartisan, took too long to write, made little effort to generate public support along the way, and produced a declassified version that constituted a tiny portion of the full study. The influential 1975-76 Church Committee investigation of intelligence abuses made different calls on all four issues that helped it achieve significantly more impact. While Feinstein’s effort ultimately consisted entirely of Democrats (she could not even get moderate Republican Susan Collins, who had co-sponsored John McCain’s anti-torture statute, on her side), the Church Committee was bipartisan from start to finish. [ii] While the Feinstein investigation took 5 long years, the Church committee investigation took 15 short months. This was deliberate: As one Church committee source told the New York Times in December 1975, “If you wait too long, both the public and the members of Congress forget what you’re trying to reform.”[iii] He was right. While Feinstein’s staff labored away from 2009 to 2014, public outrage about torture faded. In fact, support for coercive techniques increased. In a 2007 poll, 27 percent of Americans said the U.S. should torture captured terrorists, while 53 percent said the U.S. should not. In my 2012 YouGov poll, support for torture rose 14 points while opposition fell 19 points.[iv] What’s more, Feinstein’s investigation did not hold a single public hearing to generate public attention or support.[v] Church’s investigation held 21 public hearings in 15 months, some of them nationally televised. [vi] In addition, Feinstein’s report is still almost entirely classified. The “report” released in December 2014 was a redacted executive summary of 500 pages – that’s less than 10% of the 6,700 page report. No one knows when the other 6,200 pages will see the light of day. Church, by contrast, released a redacted version of the full final report when his investigation ended.[vii] For Feinstein’s report, all of these process errors gave CIA defenders the upper hand. When the summary was released, former CIA officials launched an unprecedented public relations campaign replete with a web site,[viii] op-ed onslaught, [ix] and even a “CIAsavedlives” Twitter hashtag.
These process mistakes were compounded by the report’s substantive weaknesses. Because nearly all of the report remains classified, the public has far more information about the study’s conclusions than the evidentiary record on which they are based. But intelligence assessments are highly context dependent; without a fuller understanding of context, history, and nuance, the same words can mean very different things. For example, what exactly constitutes the intelligence “tipoff” on Bin Laden’s courier that ultimately led to the Abbottabad compound? The Feinstein report defines “tipoff” as the first mention of information about the courier, which came from detainees who were not subjected to harsh interrogation techniques.[x] Defenders of the CIA program assert that this original information wasn’t recognized as important until harsh interrogation techniques produced more. For them, the “tipoff” was additional information that catalyzed a new and fruitful focus on the courier.[xi] With so little of the full record publicly available, there is still not enough evidence to know which of these interpretations is closer to ground truth.
In addition, Feinstein’s investigation relied exclusively on written documents. But documents reveal only so much. Often the more important information – ideas, intentions, relationships, conversations – rests in heads, not files. Interviews also force investigators to confront their own assumptions and weaknesses which can sharpen their evidence and analysis. The Church committee interviewed 800 people. Feinstein’s staff interviewed no one.[xii] It showed. The report is an analytic jumble that argues coercive techniques are ineffective when its chief complaint is really that they are immoral. Couching moral arguments in efficacy terms weakens the analysis. For example, the report notes that multiple detainees subjected to the harsh techniques provided “fabricated information.” [xiii] That’s hardly surprising. The more important efficacy question is whether harsh methods produced more instances of faulty intelligence than non-coercive techniques –a comparison the report never asks or attempts to answer.
For all of these reasons, the report is likely to remain more a Rorschach test than smoking gun, reinforcing existing views of the past rather than informing them.
For anyone who’s bothered to go through the executive summary of the Feinstein Report, you owe it to yourself and honest dialogue to check out “Rebuttal The CIA Response” (which also has the Republican Minority Views published in its pages). IMO, it reads far more rationally and comes across as far less ideologically-driven than the Feinstein Report- in its introspection and self-criticism as well as in its defense and clarification on some of what’s been distorted and reported in half-truths in the SSCI partisan study.