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Ron Wyden's point-by-point smackdown of the CIA's defense of torture

Sen. Ron Wyden.
Sen. Ron Wyden.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

After the Senate Intelligence Committee's torture report was released, a group of former CIA directors published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal defending the Agency's torture policy. In response, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) wrote a new version of the op-ed — one that points out some pretty embarrassing flaws in the CIA directors' argument.

For example, the CIA defenders claimed that detainees had "received highly effective counter-interrogation training while in al Qaeda training camps," so they basically had to be tortured. Wyden's staff notes that there's no actual evidence of this training in CIA records. When the former directors say the report ignored intelligence of impending al-Qaeda attacks on America, Wyden's team points out the pages of the report that talk about it.

And that's to say nothing of the by-now routine, but clearly false, claims that torture saved lives. It's a pretty thorough takedown:

Wyden Torture Rebuttal by zbeaucha

Now, this is obviously a political document, so it's wise not to take everything in it at face value. And there's definitely some empty rhetoric, especially near the end.

But, aside from the obvious value in fact-checking the CIA directors' misleading and downright incorrect pro-torture arguments, there are at least two other interesting things to say about the Wyden document.

First, it's part of a broader campaign by senators to fact-check the CIA's case. Yesterday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein — the report's leading backer — live-tweeted a takedown of CIA Director John Brennan's press conference responding to the report. Clearly, the Senators behind the report want to use it hold the CIA publicly accountable for its false claims about torture.

Second, the Wyden document shows just how valuable the Senate Intelligence Report is in that effort. The key contribution of the report is that it relies on internal CIA documents to arrive at its conclusions. We can now show publicly that op-eds like the one published in the Wall Street Journal are at odds with the CIA's own internal assessments.

Without these kinds of sources to discuss publicly, it would be hard for the Wyden activity to come across as anything but partisan sniping. But because it's not Wyden's judgments, but the CIA's, that the arguments depend on, the fact-check is much more credible. The intellectual heft the report gives to the anti-torture case is one of the key reasons it's such a strikingly effective way of forcing accountability for the torture era.