Sorting Through The Senate Intelligence Committee’s Report

December 15, 2014 at 5:00 am 1 comment

Credit: Huffington Post

Credit: Huffington Post

The allegations are shocking, but the committee is suspect. Last Tuesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee released portions of a report on the C.I.A.’s secret prison program and their use of enhanced interrogation techniques. Almost immediately, many panned it as a partisan hit on the C.I.A. Even former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey found the report disconcerting, writing, “I do not need to read the report to know that the Democratic staff alone wrote it. The Republicans checked out early when they determined that their counterparts started out with the premise that the C.I.A. was guilty and then worked to prove it.”[1] Still, the report has raised grave concern over what exactly happened at those secret prisons and whether or not it amounted to torture.  Republican Senator John McCain was deeply disturbed by the report, saying, “[The C.I.A.’s policies] stained our national honor, did much harm and little practical good … This question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be … Our enemies act without conscience. We must not.”[2]

Certainly, there is still much from this report to sort out. Questions need to be asked like, “Why didn’t the Committee interview anyone involved with these prisons and instead rely solely on documents it received from the C.I.A.?” Or, “How is it that we are unable to conduct a bipartisan, even-handed investigation into anything – even into something as nationally critical and morally weighty as our use of enhanced interrogation techniques with enemy combatants?”

It is far beyond the pale of a post such as this one to answer any and every question that could be raised about this report and the contents therein. But a line from Senator Kerrey’s opinion piece, I believe, is worth our special consideration: “[The report] contains no recommendations. This is perhaps the most significant missed opportunity, because no one would claim the program was perfect or without its problems.” I could not agree more. To make the claims that this Committee’s report makes and then to offer no recommendations going forward is not only unhelpful; it is outright irresponsible. There is a very good chance that, once again, this country will be struck by a terror attack. If we fail to learn from what happened in our intelligence gathering efforts this time, we will not be able to improve on them for next time. We need to get our act together – both for our national security and for our ethical integrity. It is with this pressing need in mind that I offer three lessons I think we can learn from the Committee’s report.

Lesson 1: Count the cost.

There is much that can be disputed in the Intelligence Committee’s report. Some basic facts, however, do emerge. Prisoners were subjected to rectal feeding and rehydration as a way to try to obtain information.[3] Some 26 detainees in these prisons did not meet the government’s standards for detention.[4] One intellectually challenged person was held solely to get information out of one of his family members.[5] During a waterboarding session, a detainee became, according to the report, “completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.”[6] Another detainee who was doused with water and left partially unclothed died of hypothermia.[7]

Jesus, when speaking of what it takes to follow Him, uses an analogy that can be helpful in analyzing what happened during these interrogations:

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. (Luke 14:28-32)

When undertaking a building project or going to war, contractors and generals ask, “Will the money spent or the lives lost produce the outcome we need?” If not, we don’t do it.

Similarly, no matter how hard these questions may be, we must ask of our interrogation techniques: What did we gain and what did we lose? What intelligence did the interrogations gain for us? What ethics did they compromise in us? There are times when a good end might justify some rough, though never unjust, means. One needs to look no farther than the cross. In the divine economy, God determined the end goal of our salvation was well worth means of the sacrifice of His one and only Son. Yet, this cost was unique because, in this case, not only did the end justify the means, but the means, in a much more profound way, justified the end! This is why Paul can write, “We have now been justified by [Christ’s] blood” (Romans 5:1).

We need to interrogate these interrogations. If we don’t count the cost from this time, we will repeat this time’s errors next time.

Lesson 2: Accountability is key.

One of the most startling aspects of the Intelligence Committee’s report was the lack of oversight and accountability in these secret prisons. For example, the C.I.A. contracted with two psychologists to evaluate whether or not detainees could continue to endure the strain of enhanced interrogations. Shockingly, the only accountability for these psychologists was evaluations the psychologists conducted on themselves! Unsurprisingly, they gave themselves high marks for their work.[8] Similarly, The New York Times reports that President Bush was, for four years, kept in the dark on the kinds of tactics that were being used on detainees. Finally, in 2006, when President Bush was “told about one detainee being chained to the ceiling of his cell, clothed in a diaper and forced to urinate and defecate on himself, even a president known for his dead-or-alive swagger ‘expressed discomfort.’”[9]

When checks and balances are removed from any system, the system becomes ripe for foolish decisions at best and outright corruption at worst. The old saying, “Two heads are better than one” really is true. If there is no one to point out a blind spot or offer an alternative perspective, disaster is not far behind.

Lesson 3: Don’t make the exception the rule.

Senator McCain, while coming out against the interrogation techniques used in the C.I.A.’s secret prisons, also admitted:

I know in war good people can feel obliged for good reasons to do things they would normally object to and recoil from.

I understand the reasons that governed the decision to resort to these interrogation methods, and I know that those who approved them and those who used them were dedicated to securing justice for the victims of terrorist attacks and to protecting Americans from further harm. I know their responsibilities were grave and urgent, and the strain of their duty was onerous.

I respect their dedication and appreciate their dilemma.[10]

Senator McCain is right. The C.I.A. specifically and our government generally was faced with some excruciatingly difficult decisions and dilemmas after the September 11 attacks.

Yet, it amazes me how often we use the extraordinary circumstances of big headlines to excuse our behavior in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life. I do not know how many times I have taught on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39), only to be asked, “But what if someone breaks into your house in the middle of the night and threatens to kill you and your family? Should you just turn the other cheek and let them do it?” Whenever I receive this question, I want to ask, “When was the last time this happened to you? Is this a weekly occurrence that you need a standard strategy for dealing with break ins and death threats?” The apostle Paul notes there are exceptional circumstances when we may not be able to turn the other cheek (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:19-21). But let’s not make the exception the rule. The fact of the matter is this: 99 times out of 100, we can turn the other cheek. What we do with our enemies every day is just as important as a debate over what the C.I.A. does with enemy combatants during extraordinary days. Let’s not lose our perspective.

Perhaps the analysis that has most gripped me during this debate is one by Jim Manzi for National Review Online. In 2009, long before the release of the Intelligence Committee’s report, Manzi wrote on the ethical dilemma of waterboarding:

I think that any thoughtful person who aggressively advocates for one position or the other surely asks himself in quiet moments: “Am I certain I’m right?” The waterboarding critic asks himself “Am I being naive?”; the waterboarding defender, “Am I losing my soul?”.[11]

I’ll be honest: it’s Manzi’s last question that haunts me most. After all, it’s the question Jesus asks.


[1] Bob Kerrey, “Sen. Bob Kerrey: Partisan torture report fails America,” USA Today (12.10.2014).

[2] The Editorial Board, “C.I.A. torture stains American ideals: Our view,” USA Today (12.9.2014).

[3] Mark Mazzetti, “Panel Faults C.I.A. Over Brutality and Deceit in Terrorism Interrogations,” The New York Times (12.9.2014).

[4] Jeremy Ashkenas, et al., “7 Key Points From the C.I.A. Torture Report,” The New York Times (12.10.2014).

[5] Mark Mazzetti, “Panel Faults C.I.A. Over Brutality and Deceit in Terrorism Interrogations,” The New York Times (12.9.2014).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Julie Tate, “The C.I.A.’s use of harsh interrogation,” The Washington Post (12.9.2014).

[8] Matt Spetalnick, “Report slams psychologists who devised Bush-era interrogation,” Reuters (12.9.2014).

[9] Peter Baker, “Bush Team Approved C.I.A. Tactics, but Was Kept in Dark on Details, Report Says,” The New York Times (12.9.2014).

[10] John McCain, “Floor Statement By Senator John McCain On Senate Intelligence Committee Report On C.I.A. Interrogation Methods,”, (12.9.2014)

[11] Jim Manzi, “Against Waterboarding,” National Review Online (8.29.2009).

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Mirror, Mirror On The Wall… Tackling Terrorism

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Anonymous Person  |  December 15, 2014 at 7:21 am

    Hello Pastor Zach,

    I really liked this blog and the points you note for going forward. I would like to suggest an additional paper for you to read. It was released on the same day as the SSCI report and may make you feel better about whether the issue has been analyzed for lessons learned from this ordeal. It is the CIA rebuttal to the SSCI report and you can find it on the CIA website. In my opinion, it shows an organization that realizes mistakes were made, has taken a long hard look at the program, and has noted areas in which to keep this type of thing from happening in the future. Would love to hear your opinion after you read the CIA rebuttal.


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