The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques—a report prepared by Democrats—has immediately been processed by the partisan sorting machine. Democrats support it, and Republicans are almost unanimously against it, criticizing how the report was produced and the fact that it was released at all. In the fracas, Americans’ underlying distaste for torture, which has been weakening since its revelation during George W. Bush’s administration, is likely to get weaker as it starts to look like just any other debate.
During the height of outrage about the CIA’s use of torture, a series of Republican senators took on the Bush administration. Led by Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and John Warner, a host of Republican senators supported efforts to force constraints on the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques. In 2009, as David Corn notes, then-Senate candidate Rand Paul repeatedly said torture was a stain on the Republican Party. “This is not what America should stand for. If Republicans can’t understand that and Republicans want Dick Cheney to be the representative of our party still defending torture, which is not something America stands for, it is just another way to shrink the Republican Party.”
On Tuesday, in the wake of the report’s new revelations of CIA abuse and misconduct, the Republican discussion about terror was far more muted. McCain praised the report by the Democratic majority and gave an impassioned moral condemnation of CIA practices. Sen. Susan Collins was his only real Republican ally. Sen. Paul still said it’s important not to torture, but questioned the amount of transparency: “The gruesomeness of the details may well inflame people,” he said. “Whether or not you have to go into all the gory details, whether that's good for the country, maybe not.” Graham reaffirmed his dislike of torture but focused the thrust of his remarks on criticizing the timing and political nature of the report’s release. Republicans charge that Sen. Dianne Feinstein published the report now because she will lose her chairmanship of the committee in the new, Republican-controlled Congress. She worried Republicans would not publish the report, or that if they did, it would be a significantly watered-down version.
Most other Republicans criticized the report’s release, not its findings (though a minority report of more than 100 pages challenges the report’s conclusion that interrogators brutalized terrorists, gained no useful intelligence that could not be obtained through other methods and repeatedly lied to Congress about what they were doing). Republicans argued the issues had already been debated, the policy had been stopped, and releasing the inflammatory details so many years later would only weaken America, confuse its allies, and endanger troops and facilities overseas. “Those who served us in aftermath of 9/11 deserve our thanks not one sided partisan Senate report that now places American lives in danger,” tweeted Sen. Marco Rubio. Incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said it was “one last thumb in the eye to the Bush administration.” If Democrats pointed to McCain, Republicans pointed to former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, who said Democrats on the committee had “slipped into the same partisan mode that marks most of what happens on Capitol Hill these days.” The majority of Republicans didn’t mention torture, an issue that was once so toxic even Bush administration supporters had to at least address it, or the allegations the CIA lied to Congress. For Republicans concerned with managing the unpopular portions of the Bush legacy, this is the best political response: avoid debates about the underlying policies but criticize Obama for his policies enacted in the aftermath.
Republicans aren’t the only ones who have benefited from the reduced toxicity of the torture issue. In 2008, John Brennan withdrew his name from consideration as CIA chief because of his association with the Bush-era interrogation techniques at issue in the report. He is now director of the CIA, and a senior White House official repeated on Tuesday that the president has “complete confidence in Director Brennan."
Despite the revelations, White House officials said no one associated with the program would be punished, “The policies were authorized as legal, and people acted with that understanding,” said an administration official. The Justice Department has declined to prosecute.
That decision will not stir the public, which has never been that outraged about torture. At the height of the torture revelations, a majority thought the practice was justifiable in some cases. In 2005, an Associated Press poll showed that 36 percent of the public said torture was never justified. Now, only 27 percent say it is never justified. Given the public’s sudden support for military action against ISIS, it’s hard to imagine there would be a great public outcry if harsh techniques were used against one of its executioners.
In 2009, President Obama blocked the release of photographs showing detainees being tortured, on the theory that they would lead to a backlash against U.S. troops. A senior White House official said in that case the photographs were very similar to what had already been released, there were more U.S. troops in active combat conditions, and the interests of transparency are greater in this case. “The transparency of this report is qualitatively different,” said the official. “It’s not an exact science, the president tries to be as transparent as possible, and manage the risks that are associated with transparency as much as possible.”
The one risk the president didn’t need to calculate was the political one. Because there really isn’t one.