State Dept. 'Torture Talking Points' Reveal White House PR Machine Ahead of Senate Report
Obama administration to argue that revelation of CIA torture program is an example of "America's democratic system"
A State Department document obtained by the Associated Press reveals part of the Obama administration's attempt to ready its public relations response to an upcoming Senate report on the CIA's torture program.
Due to be declassified in the coming days, the report is said to criticize the agency for its post-9/11 illegal torture of detainees in secret prisons. The document details some of the administration's prepared talking points to be used once a White House-approved version of the report is released.
Reportedly sent by accident via email to the AP, the State Department memo describes the report as a demonstration of American democracy, rather than as an indictment of the CIA's torture practices. The document states that "no American is proud" of the CIA's tactics, but that "the story" of illegal, indefinite torture and imprisonment is part of a larger message, one in which "America's democratic system worked just as it was designed to work in bringing an end to actions inconsistent with our democratic values." That story, the document proclaims, is one in which Americans can take pride.
In this case, "democratic values" do not seem to refer to the humane treatment of prisoners, but to the CIA no longer being able to hide its illegal operations from the public.
"America can champion democracy and human rights around the world not because we are perfect, but because our democratic system enables us to confront and resolve our problems through open and honest debate," reads one talking point. "This report will help the American people can understand what happened in the past, and that will help to guide us as we move forward."
The document contains a few subtle errors in its dates and phrasing. At one point, it claims that the "interrogation methods were debated in our free media, challenged in our independent courts, and, just two years after their introduction, restricted by an act of our Congress sponsored by Senator John McCain and overwhelmingly backed by members of both of our political parties."
As investigative journalist Marcy Wheeler notes, that "act of Congress" likely refers to the Detainee Treatment Act — but that legislation was passed in 2005, almost four years after the launch of the CIA's Retention, Detention, and Interrogation (RDI) program, not two. In addition, the RDI program has rarely been "challenged in independent courts," as both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama regularly prevented the details of the program from coming to light by invoking the "state secrets privilege," a rule which allows governments to hold back evidence in a legal case by claiming that disclosing the information might endanger national security.
According to the AP, it is unclear who wrote the document, although it is common practice for the White House and other governments to develop a key message in anticipation of a major news event.
The Senate report is also said to confirm what the public has long known about the RDI program — that in addition to torturing detainees, the agency lied to Congress about the program's efficacy, claiming it was essential to gather information about al-Qaeda. The document states that the report "leaves no doubt that the methods used to extract information from some terrorist suspects caused profound pain, suffering and humiliation. It also leaves no doubt that the harm caused by the use of these techniques outweighed any potential benefit."
However, it deliberately does not refer to the RDI program as torture.
The document also writes up questions from the press and members of Congress that are likely to be asked after the report is released:
"Isn't it clear that the CIA engaged in torture as defined in the Torture Convention?"
"Doesn't the report make clear that at least some who authorized or participated in the RDI program committed crimes?"
"Now that the report is released is the White House prepared to concede that people were tortured — or will these be like the non-coup in Egypt where you won't admit the obvious?"
"Will the Justice Department revisit its decision not to prosecute anyone?"
"What are you still trying to hide?"
The State Department also appears to be concerned about the U.S. government's reputation with other spy agencies, anticipating questions such as, "Isn't release of this report going to destroy our intelligence relationships?" and, "How can our intelligence partners trust us in the future?" It notes that in some cases, ambassadors "knew of these activities, but were told by the CIA not to report them to the State Department."
The Senate report has been the source of a lot of conflict between Congress and the intelligence community. Senate Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) previously accused the CIA for of spying on the committee's investigative panel and for redacting important information from the report. Several government agencies have fought to keep it unpublished, as CIA director John Brennan claimed that declassifying the report could risk the safety of agents working overseas and destabilize U.S. foreign relations. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colorado) warned the White House last week that they were willing to use Senate Resolution 400 to force the report to be published if the administration continued to stall.
The final question in the State Department's document asks, "Why didn't the White House intervene to put an end to this report before it was completed?"