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CIA torture report raises concern of potential reprisal attacks against U.S.

12/10/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 02/08/2015 05:59 EST
A U.S. Senate report describing brutal CIA interrogation techniques has sparked fears that the disclosures may compromise foreign intelligence relations and incite attacks on U.S targets abroad, while others downplay the potential effects.

"The unfortunate after-effect of these kinds of revelations is that we risk having our government's counterterrorism efforts being seen as illegitimate among the most important communities and populations around the world, whose help we need to confront the terrorist threat effectively," said James Forest, professor and director of the graduate program in security studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. 

A 500-page executive summary, taken from a classified 6,700-page report, detailed interrogation techniques used against suspects following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Those tactics, said Senate intelligence committee chair Dianne Feinstein, were "far more brutal" than had been previously revealed and certainly amounted to torture. 

They included sleep deprivation, slapping and slamming of detainees against walls, confining them to small boxes, keeping them isolated for prolonged periods and threatening them with death. Three detainees faced the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding.

Leading up to the report, officials had warned there could be potential retaliation on U.S. targets. Secretary of State John Kerry had called Feinstein on Friday, warning of possible ramifications.

State department issued warnings

"There may never be the right time to release this report," Feinstein said on Tuesday. "This report is too important to shelve indefinitely."

While U.S. embassies were put on high alert, the State Department issued warnings to U.S. citizens in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Thailand, saying the release of the report "could prompt anti-U.S. protests and violence against U.S. interests, including private U.S. citizens," the Washington Post reported.

"I would be concerned about blowback directed at U.S. diplomatic missions, similar to the attack in Benghazi," said Fred Burton, the vice-president of intelligence for the geopolitical intelligence firm ​Stratfor. "Where mob violence could very rapidly escalate to the point where they could overrun a compound."

"Depending upon the degree of dissemination and organized effort on the part of terrorist groups that are hell bent on carrying out some sort of attack — this could be that kind of motivator," said Burton, a former deputy chief of counterterrorism at the Diplomatic Security Service of the State Department.

"And that’s where you have to worry about the spark, that fuse being lit in certain places, by a degree of organized chaos. Much like we saw in Benghazi. With the right motivation by certain key people you can generate that kind of mob violence."

But Daniel W. Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University, rejected the notion that the Senate report would provoke retaliation against American interests in the Middle East.

"There is no shortage of U.S. foreign policy actions and inactions in the region to inflame enemies," he wrote in the Washington Post. "The Senate report is small potatoes compared to that."

However, the report does have the potential to compromise foreign intelligence relations, Burton said, particularly with countries that acted as so-called "black sites" where the interrogations took place.

'Creates a sticky wicket'

Although the names of countries like Poland, Afghanistan, Thailand and Romania that were involved in the interrogations were blacked out in the report, their identities have either been widely reported previously or were being decoded by media.

The CIA had probably done a fair amount of lobbying and preparation with foreign intelligence services ahead of the release of the report, Burton said, but "it still creates a sticky wicket when you have to go back hat in hand and ask for something."

Charles Dunlap, a law professor and the executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University, said there's no doubt the report will make it very challenging for U.S. intelligence agencies to get co-operation from some allied nations, especially in the near term."

But as for longer-term effect, Dunlap referred to what former secretary of defence Robert Gates said about the impact of U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden's disclosure of government documents: that foreign governments will still deal with the U.S. because it's in their interests.

"I think that much the same might be said about this report, especially since the techniques described haven’t been used for years."

Yet Dunlap said the report could make intelligence agencies skittish about conducting any sort of interrogation. 

"Since it is so difficult to penetrate extremist organizations with human assets, intelligence organizations may come to depend even more heavily on obtaining information by technical means … surveillance and interception."

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