The Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on CIA torture today, and the news is as bad as it could be. Of the 119 prisoners detained by the CIA, more than one in five were wrongfully imprisoned, while CIA interrogators ran through a host of barbaric tactics including Russian roulette, shoving hummus up a detainee's rectum, and simply leaving targets to freeze to death in an unheated cell. And while all of it was happening, many officials within the agency harbored real doubts about whether the program was working at all.
You've probably seen these details pass across Twitter three or four times by now, but it's worth thinking about what they really mean, and what it means that this program went on for so many years, sucking in hundreds of people who had never imagined themselves as torturers before now. In one note from the report, President Bush is troubled by the sight of a man chained to the ceiling, wearing a diaper, and soiling himself. Surely Bush wasn't the only one to see the picture and recoil. But it didn't matter. The machine kept turning. You start to wonder how it kept going so long. Why didn't someone do something?
The short answer is that someone did. Before this report, most of what we knew about the torture program came from a string of leaks in 2006 and 2007. One CIA employee took a particularly visible stand, an analyst named John Kiriakou who had run the agency's counterterrorism activities in Pakistan. Kiriakou left the agency after the water-boarding of Abu Zubadayah and became a public critic of the practice. He also became a valuable source for news outlets hungry for details, and appeared on ABC in 2007 to talk about the agency's troubling advanced interrogation techniques.
Today, John Kiriakou is in a federal prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania, serving two and a half years for disclosing classified information — confirming the name of a CIA agent to a New York Times reporter. Facing 30 years, he took a plea deal for 30 months. He has five children, and it's been difficult to see them while he's been inside. He's scheduled to move to house arrest in February, before his sentence finishes up in May.
Already, it seems unlikely that anyone of the interrogators revealed today will have to face the same troubles. The same Attorney General that put Kiriakou in jail has already declined to prosecute any of his colleagues. The international courts have called for prosecutions, but it's unlikely they'll come to anything. It seems absurd to say that what Kiriakou did was more criminal than what the interrogators did, but politics has never shied away from the absurd. It's worth remembering Kiriakou not as a call for retribution or even justice, but just to make sense of what happened. Why were we so committed to useless atrocities? Why did it take six years to give up practices that had been outlawed for decades? Why was it so hard to stop doing the wrong thing? The sad answer is that when someone did the right thing, we gave them hell for it.
By Russell Brandom