If there was ever a parable about the futility of Congressional “oversight,” it’s surely the uproar over the CIA’s secret destruction of the videotapes of its torture sessions with the Al Qaeda men Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. Here we have the spectacle of members of the CIA oversight committees, like Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, saying virtuously that the CIA never told them at the time about deep-sixing the videos. If true, the CIA was stupid. All the agency needed to have done was set up a secret viewing room on Capitol Hill and hold “last peek before we burn them” sessions. Sworn to silence, a few senators and reps would have trooped along, no doubt with Larry Craig in the front row hogging three seats with his wide stance. The CIA says it did brief key legislative overseers about torture techniques in about thirty private briefings. Democrats thus briefed included Pelosi, Harman and Rockefeller, along with Republicans Graham and Goss. With one unknown exception the politicians said it all looked fine to them, except the CIA should be rougher.

It’s all in the labeling. Former CIA interrogator John Kiriakou says he used to think waterboarding wasn’t torture but an enhanced interrogation technique–even though he refused to inflict it after experiencing it. Now that he’s retired he thinks torture is the word to use. In the Algerian war of independence, the French general Jacques Massu had a twelve-volt battery clipped to his body to see how bad it was before he OK’d its use in interrogation, or so the story goes–though his torturers certainly finished off many of their victims. Let all these fence-hoppers, on the Hill or in the government or on the campaign trail, pontificating on what is or is not torture, get waterboarded, subjected to isolation, intense sound, savage cold, starvation and frequent physical abuse. Then let them give their opinion.

The CIA continues to maintain it doesn’t go in for torture. As Jeffrey St. Clair and I describe in detail in Whiteout, our book on the CIA (available at www.counterpunch.org), the documented record of its savageries in this area goes back decades, starting with the recruitment of Nazi torture technicians in Operation Paperclip. The 1950s saw its increasing obsession with brainwashing and sensory deprivation. The CIA supplied the interrogators for the Phoenix program in Vietnam. Witnesses in Congress in 1972 testified that the torturers cut off fingers, ears and testicles, used electroshock, shoved wooden sticks through the skulls and into the brains of some prisoners and rammed electric probes up the rectums of others. Bart Osborn, a US Army Intelligence officer, told Congress in 1972, “I never knew in the course of all these operations any detainee to live through his interrogation. They all died.” In 1968, in Bien Hoa prison outside Saigon, CIA psychologists–frustrated by their failure to break their captives–performed horrifying atrocities.

Down the years, the CIA has methodically destroyed records on matters pertaining to torture, assassination and mind control. Every decade there are protestations that malpractices have definitively ceased, usually just before the tenure of the CIA director making the claim ends. Every decade they continue.

Even today, though the Bush Administration is pro-torture, the CIA shrinks from the word, preferring more genteel vocabulary, like “harsh interrogation.” This prudery has now landed the agency in its public relations debacle, trying to explain (a) why in 2002 it secretly videotaped “harsh interrogation” of two members of Al Qaeda, and (b) why it secretly destroyed these tapes in 2005.

Explanation for the videotaping takes the pious line that the CIA gave supervisors the ability to assess whether harsh interrogation had slipped over the line into the no-no land of torture. What they were actually doing to Zubaydah and Nashiri was abusing them physically in various violent forms, ultimately suffocating them underwater–the notorious “waterboarding”–and the more plausible explanation is that the videotaping was for training purposes. If the sessions were being filmed to ensure only legal applications of force, then why hastily destroy the tapes three years later? The CIA says destruction was prompted by the fear that the tapes might surface in some court proceeding or as reality TV and the CIA interrogators would be identified by hostile elements. Translation: the tapes were conclusive evidence of felonious conduct, and the head of Clandestine Operations ordered them destroyed.

The White House, still incandescent with rage about the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nonproduction of nukes–one in which the CIA was of course involved–is taking enormous pleasure in expressing official dismay at this attempt to purge the historical record. Since Bush’s posture toward archival data is like that of the early Christians to the great library in Alexandria, it’s amazing the White House press official didn’t burst out laughing as she made this claim.

The uproar has reignited the familiar debate about torture, with the emphasis on utility rather than moral principle. The retired CIA interrogator Kiriakou says that after thirty-five seconds of water torture Zubaydah babbled out Al Qaeda’s plans for attack on the Christian West, and thus thousands of lives were saved. A somewhat different assessment can be found in Ronald Suskind’s recent book The One Percent Doctrine, based on many interviews with intelligence officials. They told Suskind that the CIA team that captured Zubaydah soon determined he was not a senior Al Qaeda man and furthermore was clinically insane. Nonetheless, they grilled him with great brutality. Frantic with pain and terror, he shrieked out one imaginary plot after another, including planned assaults on New York’s water supplies, nuclear plants, shopping malls, banks, the Brooklyn Bridge. At each disclosure, Suskind writes, “thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each…target.” Thus “the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.”