This week, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence voted to release its report on the post-9/11 CIA interrogation programs. Committee Democrats view the report as a comprehensive indictment of CIA’s moral and political failings, but the substance of the report is being sharply disputed by Republicans and by former directors of the CIA, who characterize the report as a partisan hatchet job.

What the release of this report in fact demonstrates is that the Senate Democrats fundamentally misunderstand their constitutional role as members of the legislature because they prefer demagogic moral posturing to the difficult work of actually governing.

Certainly the report does not advance American interests abroad. That is why Secretary of State John Kerry opposed its release, fearing that its inflammatory contents might provoke our enemies to violence against Americans.

Nor does it do any good for the country at home. The report does nothing to change American law. It does not cut or increase the CIA’s funding. It does not outlaw any particular interrogation technique. It does nothing to change the mission or organizational structure of our national spy agencies.

The released report does not even make any recommendations about what policies should be changed or adopted.

It does not hold anyone “accountable” for any real or alleged violation of law. It is worth reiterating that after President Barack Obama took office, his attorney general re-examined the Bush administration’s conclusion that no one should be indicted or tried for law-breaking in connection with the interrogation programs — and reached that very same decision.


Releasing this report does not even make any more likely the sorts of policy or legal changes the Senate Democrats on the committee apparently desire but failed to include in their report. Notice that they voted to release it only after the election, presumably because they feared it could damage Democratic electoral prospects.

Because it is so clearly a partisan product, produced without the cooperation of Republicans, who insist that it “contains evidence of strongly held biases,” its lurid details about the harsh and brutal treatment to which some detainees were subjected will only inflame but not enlighten.

Justifying his determination to see the report released, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in an NPR interview that now “we’re going to have a real debate” about the CIA’s use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques.

That is absurd.

The public will never be in a position to decide whether the Republicans or the Democrats on the Intelligence committee have the better case to make. Even if one were to read through all 525 pages in the majority’s document and 167 pages in the minority’s reply, we still would not have any access to the underlying evidence and so would still be left with the fundamental problem of whom to believe. Democratic politicians? Republican politicians? The CIA?

The public has long known, in a general way, that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the CIA used painful, terrifying, and morally suspect interrogation techniques on a relatively small number of foreign detainees and that the effectiveness of those techniques is asserted by some and forcefully denied by others.


Now that the documents have been released and the rebuttals issued, that is pretty much all we still know.

Except that now, in addition, we are treated to the spectacle of Democratic senators delighting their most partisan supporters by accusing their own government of engaging in what they call “torture,” which (they say) they never really approved in the first place, because (they say) they were lied to by the CIA, and which (they say) in any case never produced any useful information anyway.

Speaking on the Senate floor, the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told her colleagues that the report “shows that the CIA’s actions a decade ago are a stain on our values.”

That, I think, is the real reason why the leading Democrats so desperately wanted to see this report published: not because they believed it would lead to any constructive change in law or policy, but as acts of personal atonement. They wanted to wash their own hands of what they feel as “the stain” of association with the controversial CIA policies.

But we do not send them to Congress to keep their hands clean. We send them to Congress to make laws and to set public policy. If the CIA is as evil and incompetent as the Democrats now allege, they should have used their majority to fix it.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: