Congressional Democrats, leftwing groups, and the mainstream media were certain this month’s Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA enhanced interrogation program (which they call torture) would spark a groundswell of anger against Bush administration officials and the CIA that would change the subject from the president’s growing unpopularity and the Democratic Party’s poor showing in the mid-term elections.
The left had every reason to be hopeful about the so-called “torture” report. It was written entirely by Senate Democratic staffers who cherry picked CIA documents and emails with the most salacious and gruesome accounts of the enhanced interrogation program. No interviews were conducted to prevent CIA officers familiar with the program from introducing exculpatory information into the investigation.
To promote media interest in the report, classified details of the investigation’s findings were leaked to the press by Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee (and possibly Democratic Senate staff) over the last few months. Embargoed copies of the 499-page declassified summary were provided to major news outlets in advance of its official release to ensure extensive press coverage.
Despite these efforts to foist the enhanced interrogation report on the American people, three polls indicate most Americans reject the report’s findings. An ABC/Washington Post poll found 59% of Americans believe the enhanced interrogation program was justified while only 31% said it was unjustified. A Pew Research poll had similar numbers: 51% justified, 29% not justified. So did a CBS News poll by a margin of 49%-36%.
Why did the enhanced interrogation report turn out to be a flop? I believe there are five reasons.
- The American people are not stupid. Most Americans realize the enhanced interrogation program was initiated in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and was only used against terrorist suspects. They believe this program was justified and have little sympathy for liberal partisans trying to score political points by claiming al Qaeda members with possible knowledge of imminent terrorist attacks may have been treated roughly. Most Americans also know there is no comparison between the enhanced interrogation techniques used by the CIA against terrorist suspects and actual torture.
- Americans believe the war on terror continues. With this year’s beheadings and other atrocities by the Islamic State and the recent execution of 122 Pakistani children by the Taliban, Americans do not want to deny the U.S. government counterterrorism tools that could stop future terrorist attacks and atrocities. Many Americans also believe releasing the declassified summary of the report was a mistake since it may play into the hands of radical Islamists.
- Former CIA officers fought back hard against the Senate report. Former CIA Directors George Tenet, Porter Goss, Michael Hayden and other CIA officials conducted a media blitz defending the enhanced interrogation program and Agency personnel with lengthy op-eds in major newspapers and dozens of TV interviews. Unnamed CIA officers who worked on the enhanced interrogation program created a well-designed website, ciasavedlives.com, which tells their side of the story and is a resource of information about the program’s actual record. The former CIA officials were joined by several Bush administration officials in countering the Senate report, including Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Vice President Dick Cheney. Even former President George W. Bush, who usually avoids commenting on political questions, spoke out in defense of the program and the CIA officers who ran it.
- The left overreached. Most Americans strongly reject claims made by the report’s supporters that the enhanced interrogation program hurt America’s moral standing in the world. Americans have also been turned off by demands by some on the left that President Bush, Vice President Cheney, CIA officers and other officials be put on trial for war crimes over this program and regard those making such demands as moonbats. Not surprisingly, the New York Times is leading the moonbat chorus on this issue and recently doubled down on its call for prosecutions of Bush officials and CIA officers in a December 21 editorial titled “Prosecute Torturers and Their Bosses.”
- The Obama administration provided lukewarm support for the Senate report. Although President Obama endorsed the findings of the Senate report, he seemed to be going through the motions when he discussed its release and has shown little interest in doing anything about the program since 2009. The president’s remarks also were undermined by the efforts his administration made to prevent the report from being issued because of concerns it would damage U.S. interests in the Middle East and threaten U.S. personnel and facilities abroad.
The bottom line: the Senate report on the CIA enhanced interrogation program flopped with the American people because they believe this program was a justifiable and effective effort to protect the United States against terrorist attacks in the aftermath of 9/11. Americans also refused to go along with attempts by congressional Democrats, leftwing groups and the mainstream media to use this issue to score political points.
I believe the American people’s rejection of the Senate report means the debate over this issue is over. But the effect of the report may linger due to the damage it did to congressional oversight of intelligence and with U.S. military and intelligence partners. While I believe the Islamic State and other radical Islamist groups could use the report in the short term as an excuse to stage new terrorist attacks or atrocities, I am hopeful that any increased threat level will dissipate in 2015 as interest in the report fades and is eventually forgotten.
Fred Fleitz, a former CIA analyst and member of the House Intelligence Committee staff, is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Security Policy.