U.S. Senate report on CIA torture flawed on several fronts, Stanford scholar says

Stanford political scientist Amy Zegart says the U.S. Senate's 2014 summary report on alleged CIA torture and interrogation during the "war on terror" contains errors and weaknesses that only served to weaken its ultimate influence.

Amy Zegart

Political scientist Amy Zegart says the U.S. Senate summary report on the allegations of CIA torture during the ‘war on terror’ contains errors and weaknesses that should concern all Americans. (Image credit: Rod Searcey)

The U.S. Senate summary report on the allegations of CIA torture during the “war on terror” failed to live up to its original purpose, a Stanford scholar said.

In a new journal article, Stanford political scientist Amy Zegart wrote that the report has “not changed minds on either side of the torture debate and is unlikely to do so.”

In December 2014, after five years of research, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued a summary report of its investigation into the Central Intelligence Agency’s terrorist detention and interrogation program between 2001 and 2006.

As Zegart noted, the Senate’s summary released to the public amounted to less than a tenth of the full report, most of which remains classified. In an interview, she said the issue at hand should concern all Americans.

“How do secret agencies operate in a democratic society? Were the CIA’s interrogation methods effective? Were they legal or moral? What role should the Congress have played when decisions about detainees were being made? All of these are vital questions which, sadly, remain unanswered and hotly contested – in large part because they have been caught in the maw of politics on both sides,” said Zegart, the co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

‘A tiny portion of the full study’

Zegart explained that four key errors have 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,” she said.

In contrast, Zegart said, the U.S. Senate’s 1975-76 Church Committee investigation of intelligence abuses made different calls on all four issues, which helped it achieve significantly more impact. That committee was formed in the wake of Watergate and disclosures in the New York Times that U.S. intelligence agencies had engaged in a number of illegal activities for years, including widespread domestic surveillance on American citizens.

She said the Church Committee was bipartisan and finished its job in 16 months. As a result, Congress passed new laws aimed at curbing aggressive spying on Americans and political assassinations abroad, among other measures.

Zegart wrote, “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.’ He was right.”

On the other hand, she said, the Senate committee investigating CIA torture consisted entirely of Democrats and took five years to deliver what turned out to be a heavily redacted report. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) chaired the committee.

While Feinstein’s staff worked from 2009 to 2014, Zegart said, public outrage about torture faded – in fact, public support for coercive techniques actually increased. According to Zegart, a 2007 Rasmussen poll showed that 27 percent of Americans said the U.S. should torture captured terrorists, while 53 percent said the U.S. should not. A 2012 YouGov national poll conducted by Zegart found that support for torture rose 14 points while opposition fell 19 points.

Another problem was that the investigation did not hold a single public hearing to generate public attention or support, she said. In contrast, Church’s investigation held 21 public hearings in 15 months.

Finally, the Senate report is still almost entirely classified, Zegart said.

“The ‘report’ released in December 2014 was a redacted executive summary of 500 pages – that’s less than 10 percent of the 6,700-page report. No one knows when the other 6,200 pages will see the light of day,” she wrote.

‘Extraordinary resistance’

The aforementioned factors gave CIA defenders the upper hand when the report was eventually issued, she said.

“When the summary was released, former CIA officials launched an unprecedented public relations campaign replete with a web site, op-ed onslaught, and even a ‘CIAsavedlives’ Twitter hashtag,” Zegart wrote.

And so, the episode represented one of the controversial episodes in the history of the CIA’s relationship with the U.S. Senate, Zegart said.

“They [the Senate)] faced extraordinary resistance from the CIA that included spying on the investigation; stonewalling and whittling away what parts of the report would be declassified; and a publicity campaign to discredit the study as soon as it was released,” she wrote.

Zegart said the Feinstein investigation serves as a “cautionary tale” for Congress in its constitutional role of intelligence oversight.

“Even those who consider the interrogation and detention programs a dark mark on American history should be wary of calling the Senate report the definitive account of the subject or a model of intelligence oversight success,” she wrote.

Media Contacts

Amy Zegart, Center for International Security and Cooperation: (650) 725-4202, zegart@stanford.edu
Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu