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CIA strikes back after the Senate torture report

There has been much gnashing of teeth over the Senate Intelligence Committee's report documenting use of "enhanced interrogation techniques," widely labeled as torture, that were approved in the George W. Bush presidency and then outlawed by successor Barack Obama in 2009.

But on the release of the report by Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, President Obama tiptoed around its central conclusion: that such techniques did not substantially contribute to what was learned about the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that could have been learned without such tactics.

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The report, he said in a statement released by the White House, "reinforces my long-held view that these harsh methods were not only inconsistent with our values as a nation, they did not serve our broader counter-terrorism efforts or our national security interests."

Defending the public release, Mr. Obama argued that "one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better."

But he offered no specifics on what changes he might make in light of the Senate report, written by the Democratic committee staff, that has blistered the CIA performance from 2001 through early 2009.

The president pointedly indicated he was unwilling to revisit the argument over torture in light of the committee's damning details. "Rather than another reason to refight old arguments," he said, he hoped the report "can help us leave these techniques where they belong — in the past."

He even seemed willing to give his Oval Office predecessor a pass, saying that "with legitimate fears of further attacks and with the responsibility to prevent more catastrophic loss of life, the previous administration faced agonizing choices about how to pursue al-Qaida and prevent additional terrorist attacks against our country."

Mr. Obama took note, too, to praise intelligence personnel who "have worked tirelessly to devastate core al-Qaida, deliver justice to Osama bin Laden, disrupt terrorist operations, and thwart terrorist attacks." Evidently he preferred to let his 2009 prohibition of the torture tactics to speak for him on the issue.

Current CIA director, John Brennan, disputed the claim that nothing was gained by the tactics. "Our review indicates that interrogations of detainees on whom [the harsh techniques] were used did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives," he said. "The intelligence gained from the program were critical to our understanding of al-Qaida, and continues to inform our counter-terrorism efforts to this day."

Three former CIA directors of the George W. Bush presidency — George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden — and three acting directors also weighed in with a Wall Street Journal op-ed article. They argued that the agency had indeed provided intelligence that led to the capture of key al-Qaida operatives and identification of Osama bin Laden's courier that was instrumental in locating and killing the al-Qaida leader.

The former CIA bosses blasted the Senate report as "a one-sided study marred by errors of fact and interpretation — essentially a poorly done and partisan attack on the agency that has done the most to protect America after the 9/11 attacks." They acknowledged "there were undoubtedly things in our program that should not have happened," but when done they were reported to the CIA inspector general and Justice Department, and "corrective action" was taken.

From all this, it's clear that President Obama does not want to open another can of worms by directly taking on such critics with any full-throated attack on the Bush administration's previous embrace, or even just acquiescence in, the torture techniques.

So it may be said fairly that while he has outlawed further use of the interrogation tactics, which Dianne Feinstein said in releasing the Senate committee report should "never again" be adopted by the CIA, most other business as the nation's top spy agency is likely go on as usual — with no heads rolling.

With Ms. Feinstein soon to lose chairmanship of the committee with the Republican takeover of the Senate in January, this source of bird-dogging of the CIA isn't likely to keep the agency bosses up late worrying about another such rebuke anytime soon.

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 juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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