Let’s Not Forget Dianne Feinstein’s Moral Clarity on Torture

Her valiant stewardship of the CIA torture report is a monument to congressional oversight

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File Photo of Senator Dianne Feinstein

The debate over the use of torture in the post-9/11 era has been one of the most contentious and morally charged issues in American politics. At the center of this storm stood Senator Dianne Feinstein, a figure whose principled stand and unwavering commitment to transparency redefined the discourse surrounding CIA torture practices.

It’s a shame that Feinstein, who died Thursday night at age 90, became “became a bleak sideshow,” as Mark Leibovich put it in The Atlantic, as she wobbled about the Senate in her final months, laid low by repeated illnesses and hospitalizations and myriad other woes, all of which sapped not just her physical strength but her mental acuity and led to cringe-worthy exchanges with reporters and committee witnesses. 

Lost in all the rightful distress about octogenarians in Congress (not to mention the White House) reignited by Feinstein’s passing, is her landmark work exposing the evils and inefficiencies of waterboarding, beatings and sleep deprivations employed under the CIA’s “enhanced interrogations” program. To this day, many of the CIA’s post-9/11 leaders and their boosters refuse to call it torture, even though we prosecuted Japanese officers as war criminals for using the exact same techniques on American prisoners.  

And even if it is torture, their are many who think it’s justified.

“In poll after poll since the 9/11 attacks,” I wrote in 2021, “a slim majority of Americans has said torture can be justified either ‘often’ or at least ‘sometimes,’ because, they believe, it produces valuable intelligence. The views of many, no doubt, have been reinforced by such popular fare as Zero Dark Thirty and 24, to name just two.

“Few seem to notice that the bad guys always crumble under torture, our guys rarely do.”

The landmark report that detailed the CIA’s use of torture techniques against detainees in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, released in 2014 after years of research under Feinstein’s purview as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, revealed the extent of the brutal methods employed, including waterboarding, stress positions, and sensory deprivation. It’s been said that this disclosure shocked the world and raised profound ethical questions about the United States’ approach to national security.

And that was from just the heavily redacted, 525-page  “executive summary” of the full 6,700-page report, which remains under lock and key all these years later.

“Dianne Feinstein’s greatest contribution to this field was to get all of these investigations into the black sites released so people could make up their own minds,” David Martin, the veteran CBS national security correspondent told me in an SpyTalk podcast interview to be released next week.

Moral Clarity

Throughout the investigation, Feinstein exhibited remarkable moral clarity and political courage. She was unyielding in her pursuit of the truth, even in the face of fierce opposition from committee Republicans—only one voted for its release— many in the intelligence community and from within her own party . Feinstein argued passionately that the report’s release was essential not only for accountability but also to reaffirm America’s commitment to its core values, notably the prohibition of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

Feinstein’s efforts to declassify and release the report were not solely about exposing past wrongdoings. They were about acknowledging these transgressions, learning from them, and ensuring they would never happen again. By pushing for transparency, Feinstein reinforced the importance of democratic oversight and accountability in safeguarding the nation’s moral integrity.

Feinstein’s role in the CIA torture debate left an enduring legacy. Her advocacy for human rights and her unshakable stance against torture set a powerful precedent. The report she championed became a catalyst for a broader conversation not only in the United States but also on the international stage, prompting other nations to reevaluate their own interrogation methods and treatment of detainees.

Moreover, Feinstein’s actions rekindled a national conversation about the balance between security and civil liberties, forcing Americans to confront uncomfortable truths about the methods employed in their name. Her insistence on transparency underscored the importance of an informed citizenry in upholding democratic values, even in the face of national security concerns.

In the annals of American history, Dianne Feinstein’s role in the debate over CIA torture stands as a testament to the power of moral conviction and the necessity of holding those in power accountable. Her legacy serves as a reminder that, even in the darkest of times, the pursuit of truth and justice must remain unwavering. That should not be lost in the ruckus over control of the Senate and members of Congress overstaying their welcomes. 

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the editor-in-chief of SpyTalk, a newsletter covering U.S. intelligence, defense and foreign policy, on the Substack platform. Previously, he was the SpyTalk columnist (and national security correspondent) at Newsweek, and before that, the SpyTalk blogger at The Washington Post.

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