The Senate Intelligence Committee’s Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, released on Tuesday, has been described in such terms as “a bombshell”, “shocking”, and “appalling”. While it may be those things, it doesn’t contain much to surprise those who have been critical of the program since it began and were skeptical of the government’s arguments in favor of it. The first 24 pages give 20 key findings of the report, describing the program’s ineffectiveness and brutality, and the CIA’s dishonesty and incompetence in its operation.

Journalism on the report has tended to focus on its most “shocking” details. I suggest that the most important things about the program are not in those details, and the report may actually be concealing them by directing our discussion towards sensationalism and partisan accusation. So here are five of the government’s biggest lies about the torture program that most likely won’t be discussed widely.


1. The report is telling us the whole story


It’s no secret that the state keeps secrets and lies about what it does share. This report in particular is actually an executive summary of the full report, which is more than 6,700 pages long and will remain classified and hence unavailable to the public until either the state decides it is more politically advantageous to release it, or someone leaks it; whichever happens first. The CIA is already condemning the report as a partisan attack on the agency—which may be true, but does not change the nature of the findings, which include that

  • the CIA leaked false “classified” information to journalists
  • despite the Agency’s insistence that only terrorists were tortured, the detainees included people who were not even suspected of terrorist affiliations
  • the number of detainees was consistently and grossly underrepresented

The document cracks the door to a closet full of skeletons, but while critics of the program will talk about those skeletons, we should be mindful that the door actually leads to a vast catacomb. It would be unwise to believe that we have been made privy to anything close to the truth.


2. The government is surprised by the findings


One of the bases on which the report is being criticized is its partisan origins. We can agree with that criticism to the extent that the present administration and his party will benefit from the release of the information. But let us not be led to believe that Democrats were innocent of the knowledge it contains. Hillary Clinton, for example, has a history of close ties to the program, and in 2009 personally intervened to stop the release of evidence in the case of an Ethiopian refugee to Britain who was tortured under the program.

The report was somewhat conciliatory towards George W. Bush, indicating that he did not know the nature and extent of the program, and was surprised to learn about it. Cheney now claims that the report is false on that point. Not that I recommend trusting Mr. Cheney necessarily, but if he is being earnest, that supports the proposition that the report is slanted to obscure knowledge that high officials had about the program.


3. “Mistakes were made”


No doubt, plenty of mistakes were made; and as we should have expected, the CIA is blaming a lack of preparedness and resources for the travesty. But one might here consider the saying, “Sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.” And I note two things in particular that reveal at least some people in the CIA knew exactly what they were doing.

First, they paid 80 million dollars to a pair of psychologists in order to develop the techniques that were used; it was hardly a matter of ad hoc experimentation or the bungling of a “hurry-up offense”, as some early discussion has suggested.

Second, the interrogators included personnel with known bad histories, having “engaged in inappropriate detainee interrogations, had workplace anger management issues and had reportedly admitted to sexual assault”. The report seems to show that the CIA deliberately sought people free of moral scruples, which would be very much in line with the Agency’s history.


4. This will change anything


The hope among the people for significant government reform is one of the only ways in which a modern state can preserve itself, and that is something that this report might appear to offer. But don’t believe it. The President has implied that he believes he has done all he can on the issue, and Federal prosecutors claim that the report does not reveal any information that would make prosecution or reform necessary, although vague language of “increased oversight” has been made. We cannot trust the government to police itself, especially with regards to an extraconstitutional organization such as the CIA. The whole purpose of creating such an organization is that, once it has been established, it is not constrained by the rule of law. The arrogance of CIA officials in response to this report is founded on their knowledge that they are basically immune to significant legal repercussions.


5. The efficacy of the program is the issue


Most of the material in the report discussed the lack of effectiveness of the program, and implicit in that emphasis is the idea that if it had been effective, it would have been justified. I challenge that idea on both hypothetical and retrospective grounds.

Retrospectively, we know that despite the lack of success, the US has not suffered a significant terrorist attack by anyone credibly alleged to be affiliated with any of the terrorist organizations the program targeted. Therefore, if the program had not been conducted at all, it would have been no loss to the security of the US, and the US would be better off for not having engaged in the torture program (which, by the way, has been shown to have inspired more terrorist activity rather than preventing it, and also to inspire the methods by which groups such as ISIS conduct their own atrocities).

Hypothetically, even if the program had yielded essential information, that would not mean that it would have been justified. The report notes the atmosphere of “pervasive fear” of the nation after 9/11, and seems to subtly attempt by that to excuse much of what resulted in the interrogation program. But whereas “pervasive fear” may explain much, it excuses nothing. Decisions made out of fear are almost certain to be poor ones; and even understanding that, the government had over a decade to start making better decisions, which they did not do. Perhaps that is because a national atmosphere of fear is the perfect condition in which a government may increase its power, both by degrees and by great leaps.

In his book Crisis and Leviathan, Dr. Robert Higgs describes how governments routinely use national emergencies to disregard the rule of law and establish precedents which would be impossible to achieve in peacetime. In short, states thrive on fear. The idea that America should become a nation that supports the torture of persons merely suspected (and in some cases, not even that) of terrorist affiliations would have shocked us a few decades ago. Further back, the idea that we should support torture at all would have been unthinkable. The government appeals to our fear in times of crisis and promises to keep us safe at the cost of our liberty, our critical thinking, and—most importantly—our moral sense. In so doing they turn aside the blame they share in causing the crises and preemptively excuse whatever they do to us, or to others in our name, in response. In the case of modern terrorism, the government dearly hopes that we do not consider how their past actions have contributed to the problem: most poignantly, how none other than the CIA itself funded and trained many of those who came to be known under the umbrella term “Al Qaeda”, and how their improportional and indiscriminate War on Terror has swollen the ranks of terrorist organizations.

The CIA’s enhanced interrogation program demonstrates the hubris, brutality, and incapability of admitting fault that characterizes the state in general; not only the Agency specifically. Read the report, if you have the time and can stomach it. But if you are surprised at what you find in it, you shouldn’t be. Perhaps the most important thing we should learn from this report is that we should not fear whom the state tells us to fear. At its heart, the state that claims to protect you is as much a monster as any it would endeavor to slay.