by / Dec. 16, 2014 10pm EST

Just about everybody in the print press, broadcast press, and political blogosphere has sounded off in the past week about the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence executive summary report on the CIA torture program.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney told Fox News on December 11 that the report was “full of crap,” and current CIA director John O. Brennan said at a December 11 press conference that the people who worked in the torture program were “patriots.” Those two utterances, if nothing else, should tell you the report is worth a look. 

The story isn’t in so much in what the report says, but rather in what it carefully avoids saying. Since so much is redacted or blacked out it is not an easy read. It’s like a word-for-word transcript of a stutterer with Alzheimer’s. But knowing what people want to keep secret is factual and informative too.

The full title is Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, Findings and Conclusions, Executive Summary. Work on the report began in March 2009 after an investigation (that began in December 2007 and led to nothing) into the CIA’s destruction of torture interrogation videotapes. The summary report was approved on December 13, 2012; it was updated for release on April 3, 2014; declassified on December 3, 2014; we got to see it on December 9, 2014. The full report (that we will never get to see) runs 6,800 pages and cost $40 million.

There was a lot of infighting, involving CIA, the White House, and the Senate, before we got to see this summary of governmental dysfunction and criminal behavior. Almost everyone involved wanted to keep it in the closet, both officials in the Bush administration, who initiated the torture program, and officials in the Obama administration, who inherited it. 

What the report says

Most of the report’s major points are known to anyone who, in the past decade, was a regular reader of New York Review of Books, New York Times, the Washington Post, or the better online political sites. It’s hard not to think of Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca “discovering” gambling in Rick’s café: “I am shocked—shocked—to find that gambling is going on here.”

The Senate Select Committee reported 20 “Findings and Conclusions,” most of which had to do with CIA lying to oversight agencies and its own Inspector General about the nature and brutality of what it was doing to prisoners. The committee noted that the CIA farmed out 85 percent of the coercive work to contractors who billed $81 million for the service, and that it misrepresented the number of prisoners held and tortured. 

The last of the 20 findings is this: “The CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program damaged the United States’ standing in the world, and resulted in other significant monetary and non-monetary costs.” There’s a surprise.

The program “cost well over $300 million in non-personnel costs.” It produced just about nothing. If the guys in charge of this worked in industry, they’d all be out on the streets. But the CIA “rarely reprimanded or held personnel accountable for serious and significant violations, inappropriate activities, and systemic and individual management failures.”

War crimes

Basically, it’s like presenting the kind of evidence you would hear in a war crimes courtroom, only you’re not getting the 6,800 pages of evidence, but a summary of those pages, and the summary itself is so full of thick black felt-tip lines that some pages are hardly readable. And, more important, neither the redacted 525 pages we do get to see nor the 6,800 pages we don’t get to see are about the right guys anyway. 

It’s as if, after World War II, we looked into evidence about the people who ran the camps, not the people who ordered that the camps be built and run that way. 

The Senate Select Committee decided at the very beginning not to examine the behavior, the choices, and the orders of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the rest of that crew that lied us into war. How could it not tear apart the convoluted legal memos of John Yoo (now a law professor at Berkeley) setting forth the rationale that Bush needed to put the torture apparatus into motion?


They say the devil is in the details, and that is what makes this interesting: the details of the behavior of, incompetence in, and mendacity by the CIA, and the details of the report itself, which obscures as much as it reveals.

We knew that the CIA waterboarded, sleep-deprived, beat, and did all sorts of horrible things to prisoners. We didn’t know how many and how much. It’s like suspecting that your lover is having an affair and then finding out it is indeed true, but the affair is not with one person but a platoon of them.

CIA claimed that the torture program prevented attacks in the US and on US stations abroad. It didn’t. They learned nothing from the torture program they or the FBI or foreign intelligence agencies hadn’t learned already through conventional, legal routes. In their process, they seem to have done as much as they could to prevent other US government agencies from latching on to real villains. 


The Senate report consistently refers to the monumental deception at all levels connected with this program as “this representation was inaccurate.” No, it wasn’t inaccurate; it was lies, often in testimony or official reports, which means some of it was perjury. Some people in CIA lied to other people in CIA. They lied to Congress. They lied to the White House. Those blacked-out lines hide the names of a huge number of felons. 

There are other euphemisms here: prisoners are referred to as “detainees” and torture is consistently called some variation of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

President George W. Bush gave a speech on September 6, 2006, lauding the results of the CIA’s torture program. Both Time and The New York Times poked holes in that speech immediately, saying the torture program had produced no useful intelligence. This report says that the key points of Bush’s speech “are not supported by CIA records.” Abu Zubaydah, for example, provided the same information before he was tortured as he did while he was being tortured and after it. The CIA and Bush claimed otherwise and Dick Cheney still does.

A February 2007 report by the International Red Cross on the treatment of prisoners held by the CIA said that what they’d found “amounted to torture and/or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” The CIA disagreed. The report was posted on the New York Review of Books website in April 2009.

Rendering, waterboarding, sleep deprivation, deaths: None of this is news. Remember the Abu Ghraib photographs? Former detainees have given interviews about them for years. So far as I know, the only persons who got punished for the Iraq war, other than the countless people on all sides who were killed, mutilated, widowed, orphaned, and otherwise damaged by it, are a CIA covert operative whose career was wrecked by the White House because her husband wrote an official report saying that one of the foundational justifications for the Iraq war—Saddam’s pursuit of yellow cake uranium—was untrue, and another CIA employee who blew the whistle on the torture program: John Kiriakou, who was imprisoned by the Obama administration.

The extent of the CIA’s illegal behavior, lying, and incompetence is dazzling. One fact in this report seemed to illustrate it all: The torture program seems to have been grounded in advice given by two psychologist consultants—it was their firm that got the $81 million—who themselves had no experience interrogating anybody. Long-time professionals in CIA objected to this foolishness, and they were ignored. 

There is a strange disjunction here. It is as if there are two CIAs, a good one and a criminal one, and the Senate report never distinguishes which one is which. The report tells us that the CIA deceived the CIA. After the fourth or fifth time that line came up I began to feel they’d been overdosing on Alice in Wonderland. That happens because the report doesn’t name anybody responsible for any of this: Who, or what directorate, hid information, lied to everybody, and overpaid hired hands, and who, or what branch, was trying to make the CIA the sort of agency you see on Homeland?


Most people I know, when they use the phrase “shove it up your ass,” are speaking metaphorically. Not the CIA. The CIA does it literally. 

The CIA wouldn’t use so vulgar a term, of course. They call it “rectal infusion.” They used that term in their reports on what they did to Majid Khan, who was “subjected to involuntary rectal feeding and rectal hydration, which included two bottles of Ensure. Later that same day, Majid Khan’s ‘lunch tray,’ consisting of hunmius[sic], pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins, was ‘pureed’ and rectally infused.” After several years of this kind of treatment they decided he didn’t know anything and hadn’t done anything so they transported him to another country and cut him loose.

Did the CIA know what raping the ass of a Muslim man meant? Of course they did. But they didn’t call it that; they called it “rectal infusion,” so it was okay. It’s like Nazi documents referring to the killing program: They’re full of euphemisms that name everything but what they were really doing to people.


The six Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee took no part in this, but they did join to write a 100-page rebuttal. So far, the only Republican in the Senate to endorse the report is John McCain, himself a victim of torture while a prisoner in North Vietnam. For the others, torture is just a theoretical matter and doesn’t hurt. 

John McCain has also pointed out that after World War II, the US hanged Japanese soldiers who had waterboarded American prisoners-of-war.

The CIA is fighting back: The website, which the New York Times says was created by a dozen former top officials in the CIA, attacks the report in all sorts of unsubstantiated, innuendo-fueled ways. 


Not only does the report fail to examine in detail the choices made by the White House, but it fails to examine in detail the failure of the US Senate, which oversees the CIA, to do its job. Just as the CIA allowed the two psychologist consultants who urged torture to evaluate their own success, Congress allowed the CIA to evaluate itself. It never dug deep, until now, long after the program was terminated. 

And it didn’t dig that deep: The Committee’s staff went though millions of documents, but they didn’t interview anybody. A Senate committee has subpoena power. They could have hauled anyone they wanted into a closed-door session and asked the villains some hard questions. They didn’t do that. They didn’t want to embarrass anyone. They didn’t, for example, call in Dick Cheney and ask him, “What did you know and when did you know it?” They could have. They chose not to. 

George W. Bush fought to keep the torture program alive. The report suggests that was because he was misled by fraudulent reports from people in the CIA several layers below the director. CIA, the report says, lied in memos to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, CIA Director Leon Panetta, and others. Is that true? So who is responsible? We can’t tell, because all information leading to such things is redacted or blacked out or printed in capital letter pseudonyms. The only names that appear are those of some of the victims of the CIA’s torture program and high-level government officials, none of whom are faulted for anything.

And, most importantly, we don’t know if the lying took place because some low-level thugs in the agency were trying to cover their collective asses or because the whole thing was really taking place at the direction of the president and vice president. We don’t know that because the Select Committee never asked such questions and none of the paper trails they turned up answered such questions. The absence of a paper trail proves nothing except no paper trail exists or has been found. That is the case with a lot of villainy.

As I said earlier, this report is important for what it says and for what it does not say. One line struck me more than any other. It was a CIA memo from 2003: “…the WH [White House] is extremely concerned that Secretary Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s been going on.”

That suggests that some people in the White House were fully aware of all of this this. So aware that they wanted to hide it from their own secretary of state. 

Colonel John Wilkerson, who was Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, told an MSNBC reporter, “I’ll go out on a limb and I’ll say the only person who was completely read in, and no one knows all the details, but the one who was read in on both the need to cover their rear ends and the need to continue the program because it was effective was Richard Bruce Cheney. He was the man in the shadows orchestrating all of this from the White House.” (You can see the interview at

What happens now

People are still dying in Iraq, where we started a war grounded on false premises. No one has been or ever will be held accountable for the countless deaths, mutilations and forever traumatized minds caused by that war. This was a chance to do it. Everyone bailed out. The Republicans took no part in it whatsoever, and the Democrats, who wrote the report, kept themselves on a very narrow trail: The only villains they point to are all lower level functionaries who are never named. 

What will happen now is nothing. Obama’s comment on the report was that it showed he was right to stop the torture program and close the secret prisons (no argument there) and that we should let bygones be bygones and move on. In a few weeks, the Republicans own Congress: They’re not going to do anything. This is where it ends. Nobody gets to see the full 6,800-page report except a few senators and staffers, all sworn to secrecy.

The last words on this report on nothing new are not mine; they are Macbeth’s:

…it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Bruce Jackson is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at the University at Buffalo.