Democrats battle with CIA conjures up old question: What constitutes torture?

Feinstein accuses agency of blacking out the truth

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Old battles are raging overseas, in Europe, between Russian-backed separatists and the government in Ukraine, and in the Middle East, between Israel and Hamas and sectarian factions struggling over control of the government in Iraq. So it’s understandable if you missed the fact that right here in Washington an old war between Senate Democrats and the Central Intelligence Agency recently flared up as well.

The latest skirmish came last week when the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., rejected the declassified version of a report the committee's investigators have spent years compiling on the CIA's interrogation methods. In fact, what Feinstein shunned were redactions the CIA added to the report in order to clear it for public release. She accused the CIA of trying to literally black out the truth of its terror practices, viewed by many Americans as torture.

Feinstein summed up her decision in this terse statement: 

“We need additional time to understand the basis for these redactions and determine their justification. Therefore the report will be held until further notice and released when that process is completed.”

Feinstein's refusal to release the report was only the latest round in her long battle with the CIA. Just a couple of weeks ago, CIA director John Brennan was forced to reverse course and publicly acknowledge what Feinstein had long accused his agency of doing: spying on the computer use of Senate staffers as they researched the torture report.

The dispute goes back at least to 2007. That's when the New York Times first reported that CIA operatives destroyed as many as 100 videotapes depicting the agency's "enhanced interrogation" techniques. That news is largely what led Feinstein to launch her probe.

For the most part, the war between the CIA, Feinstein and other Senate Democrats has taken place away from public view. Partly that's by design: Battles between spies and their domestic overseers play out largely behind the scenes and usually only spill into public when one side sees an advantage in leaking.

But it's also due to distraction. The news media and the public have been, quite rightly, focused on a steady torrent of crises overseas – most of which make Washington’s power struggles seem petty by comparison.

Feinstein’s decision was well-timed. There's an old Washington axiom that says, "never try to make news in August" when Americans are worried far more about shaking the sand from their beach shoes than fretting over world events. As long as the CIA report needs more sunlight, then, why not spend August pulling back the shade? If you want the report to make an impact on the public, why not wait until the fall?

Senate Republicans are planning to release their own minority report, highlighting the view that enhanced interrogation (their words) caused al-Qaida detainees to give up information instrumental in killing Osama bin Laden.

Predictably, this is reopening the debate dating back to the middle of the George W. Bush administration over what constitutes torture. President Obama touched off the reprised debate at a White House news conference in August. "We did a whole lot of things that were right (after 9/11), but we tortured some folks," he said.

Some GOP lawmakers are still set to argue techniques like waterboarding aren’t torture. Others, like Sen John McCain, R-Ariz., himself a victim of torture at the hands of north Vietnamese soldiers, insist it is.  

Raising the question today - “is waterboarding really torture?” - seems ridiculous. For many Americans, that question was answered years ago. Apparently that’s not the case for some in Congress or the CIA.

Todd Zwillich is Washington correspondent for The Takeaway from Public Radio International and WNYC. He's covered Washington and Capitol Hill for more than 15 years. Follow him on Twitter @toddzwillich.
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