The Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, released a report Tuesday condemning the use of torture on detainees, claiming it entailed far more brutal conduct than the "enhanced interrogation techniques" previously disclosed, in quest of information that could have been obtained without it.
The report alleges that the Central Intelligence Committee intentionally misled Congress and ultimately the American people about the scope of the program central to the U.S. response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In doing so, the report can revive the political debate that has haunted the presidency of George W. Bush since his departure from the Oval Office nearly six years ago.
Whether or not the disclosures trigger feared demonstrations and violence against U.S. embassies and other facilities, it is likely to rekindle the domestic debate over the use of such techniques, now said to be discontinued but to have caused lasting damage to America's image around the world.
Release of the report, criticized by some Republicans in Congress as politically motivated and as inviting such violence abroad, throws the CIA on the defensive. Such officials as former Deputy Director John McLaughlin contended yesterday that the committee produced a selective account of what was done with the sanction of the previous White House.
Nevertheless, Ms. Feinstein as the committee chairwoman defended the release of the report on the grounds that the American people were entitled to know what an agency of their government did in their name. She argued that the resort to the methods used did not in the end contribute materially to their safety, or to the ultimate finding and killing of the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden.
The timing of the report's release, only weeks before Ms. Feinstein is obliged to step down as chairman of the committee with the loss of Democratic Party's majority in the Senate, was her final chance to do so. But one prominent Republican colleague who opposed the use of torture, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, took the floor immediately afterward to commend her action.
He also disputed that the use of these "enhanced interrogation techniques," which the report pointedly included the waterboarding of captured al-Qaida leaders, made Americans safer. "The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow," he said. "It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. It is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us. But the American people are entitled (to know) nonetheless."
Mr. McCain went on: "What might come as a surprise, not just to our enemies, but to many Americans, is how little these practices did to aid our efforts to bring 9/11 culprits to justice and to find and prevent terrorist attacks today and tomorrow. That could be a real surprise, since it contradicts the many assurances provided by intelligence officials on the record and in private that enhanced interrogation techniques were indispensable in the war against terrorism.
"And I suspect the objection of those same officials to the release of this report is really focused on that disclosure -- torture's ineffectiveness -- because we gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer. Too much."
The re-emergence of the debate over the use of torture of detainees captured in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars by the Bush administration may provide some temporary relief and diversion for President Obama from his own war pressures in the Middle East, where he struggles to shape his response to the Islamic State.
But his disavowal of the use of waterboarding and other "enhanced" interrogations at the start of his own presidency has rendered the debate on torture yesterday's news to many Americans. He has had to move on to the new enemy, and to what he intends to do about it.
In addition, the 44th president now has a CIA with a badly damaged reputation of its own on his hands. Meanwhile, his predecessor, the 43rd, basks in the limelight of his best-selling book on his father, the 41st. It's No.1 on the New York Times non-fiction list. Such are the shifting fortunes of the powerful.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.