WASHINGTON -- With the Senate Intelligence Committee conducting a full frontal assault against the CIA about the agency's use of torture in the post 9/11 years, Bush administration officials have been sacrificially coming to the spies' defense. Senators on the intelligence panel, however, are baffled that people like former Vice President Dick Cheney are claiming responsibility for a program that the committee insists they didn’t run.
“We just don’t have any evidence for ... the representation by some that this was Dick Cheney’s program,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). “That was kind of my assumption going in, is that that might be the case. But there’s no evidence to support that. That’s what important about these sorts of reports."
Cheney has firmly rejected the notion that the CIA lied to him, a contention put forth in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s recently released summary of its massive report on the torture program. The former vice president maintains that he and President George W. Bush knew full well what the agency was doing.
Heinrich, one of the Senate Intelligence Committee's junior members, came onto the panel in early 2013, just a month after the Senate study had been completed. He previously served in the House of Representatives, and has said he didn’t have access to the same information then that he does now, as a member of the upper chamber’s intelligence committee.
In fact, prior to joining the panel, Heinrich said, he held the same views on the CIA's torture program that he believes many Americans did: that it was an initiative approved and directed by officials at the highest levels of the Bush administration.
“When I first started to read the report when I joined the committee, the fact that this was sort of the brainchild of a few people in the CIA and a handful of contractors, and in no way was sort of generated from the White House and sort of handed off to the CIA, was a very interesting and important fact,” Heinrich said.
The shift in the senator's perception illustrates the stark divide that has emerged in the aftermath of the intelligence committee's report: While Senate investigators insist that the CIA acted on its own and lied to administration officials, those same officials argue that they knew about the torture program all along.
The Senate panel’s document unequivocally concludes that the abuses of harsh interrogation tactics were due to a rogue CIA manipulating nearly all of its overseers, including the White House. Although Cheney and then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice were briefed on the program, the report says, those officials' approval of the program was misguided because the agency provided them with false information.
Senate investigators also say that Bush was not briefed on the program until 2006, at which time he “expressed discomfort” at the image of a detainee chained to a ceiling wearing a diaper, who was forced to urinate and defecate on himself.
Despite the committee's conclusions, though, Cheney has balked at the idea that the agency misled him and his colleagues in the Bush White House.
"The men and women of the CIA did exactly what we wanted them to do," Cheney said Wednesday on Fox News.
Cheney also said recently that Bush was fully aware of the agency’s actions, and said the committee’s claim to the contrary is “a flat-out lie.”
But Heinrich stands by the Senate document's conclusions, and said the amount of resistance against the report only speaks to its importance.
“There's a lesson there for those of us on the committee that real oversight is not easy,” he said. “It takes time and it takes an enormous amount of stick-with-it-ness.”