7 Facts About Torture the CIA Never Wanted America to Know

Source: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein speaks to reporters after release of CIA torture report. Source: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama acknowledged in August that following the 9/11 terrorist attacks that the U.S. intelligence “tortured some folks.” But Obama’s words — while historical — were just rhetoric. The long-awaited 6,700-page report on the CIA’s use of torture, researched and authored by the Democratic staff members of the Senate Intelligence Committee between 2009 and 2013 without the participation of the Republican members, will serve as a far more important account of how the intelligence agency employed so-called enhanced interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists..

A 525-page executive summary of the report was released Tuesday, with the names of CIA personnel, countries that hosted the agency’s secret prisons, known commonly in military terminology as black sites, and other key details blacked out. Alongside this document, the Senate committee’s Republican members released a dissenting opinion, challenging a number of the report’s findings. Even with the redactions, the document will give the American public important new facts, facts that the CIA worked very hard to keep obscured; the Senate staff had access to more than 6.2 million pages of CIA operational cables, internal agency emails, memorandums, and other key documents, meaning the Senate investigators had access to nearly every word written by the agency on the controversial, now-shuttered interrogation program.

“Nearly 13 years later, the Executive Summary and Findings and Conclusions of this report are being released. They are highly critical of the CIA’s actions, and rightfully so. Reading them, it is easy to forget the context in which the program began — not that the context should serve as an excuse, but rather as a warning for the future,” wrote Senate Intelligence Committee Chair, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, in the foreword to the report. And while she acknowledged that it “is worth remembering the pervasive fear in late 2001 and how immediate the threat felt,” the senator asserted that such pressure and fear did not justify or excuse the actions taken by the CIA. The report concluded, as Feinstein wrote, that the CIA’s use of torture was ineffective, the agency’s justification for the use of torture was based on inaccurate data, and the methods used were far more brutal than previously represented. “It is my personal conclusion that, under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured,” Feinstein finished. “I also believe that the conditions of confinement and the use of authorized and unauthorized interrogation and conditioning techniques were cruel, inhuman, and degrading. I believe the evidence of this is overwhelming and incontrovertible.”

Here are seven key points the Senate’s heavily redacted summary explained.

Purported CIA "black site" in Lithuania. Source: Petras Malukas/AFP/GettyImages

Purported CIA “black site” in Lithuania. Source: Petras Malukas/AFP/GettyImages

1. The interrogation techniques used by the agency on detainees “were brutal and far worse than the CIA represented to policymakers and others.”

The Senate report described waterboarding — which was used on more than three detainees, a figure the Bush Administration eventually cited — as a “series of near drownings.” It found that detainees were kept in “complete darkness and constantly shackled in isolated cells with loud noise or music and only a bucket to use for human waste.” Sleep deprivation was a frequent form of interrogation, which included keeping detainees away for up to 180 hours, or more than a week. A detainee froze to death after being forced to sleep on a concrete floor with no pants, and at least five were subjected to “rectal hydration” without documented medical necessity. Even more chilling, the report chronicled the extent to which interrogators saw themselves as above the law. One interrogator told a detainee that he would never go to court because “we can never let the world know what I have done to you.” CIA officers also threatened at least three detainees with harm to their families — to include threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to “cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat.”

And the harsh techniques were described as leading to “psychological and behavioral issues, including hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia, and attempts at self-harm and self-mutilation.”

2. The CIA actively avoided and impeded congressional oversight of the enhanced interrogation program


Source: The New York Times

It was not until September 2002 — after these techniques had been approved and used — that the CIA briefed the leadership of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The agency never responded to Chairman Bob Graham’s request for more information; it resisted efforts by Vice Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV to investigate the program, refusing in 2006 to release key documents requested by the committee. The CIA restricted congressional access to information about the enhanced interrogation program until September 6, 2006, the day Bush publicly acknowledged the program. But even after that time, briefings included “inaccurate descriptions of how interrogation techniques were applied and what information was obtained from CIA detainees.” Even after a number of senators voiced criticism of the program and expressed concerns to then-CIA Director Michael Hayden, he “nonetheless told a meeting of foreign ambassadors to the United States that every Committee member was ‘fully briefed,’ and that ‘[t]his is not CIA’s program. This is not the President’s program. This is America’s program.’”

The Senate report included a number of examples of how Hayden’s key testimony before the Intelligence Committee on April 12, 2007, contradicted internal CIA records. But one particular discrepancy between what the CIA Director told Congress and what actually happened in CIA detention facilities exemplifies the degree to which the intelligence agency obscured the facts to peruse its own agenda.

Hayden’s April 2007 statement explained that:

[I]n June, after about four months of interrogation, Abu Zubaydah [who the CIA alleged was a top lieutenant of Osama Bin Laden and is currently in detention at Guantanamo] reached a point where he refused to cooperate and he shut down. He would not talk at all to the FBI interrogators and although he was still talking to CIA interrogators no significant progress was being made in learning anything of intelligence value. He was, to our eye, employing classic resistance to interrogation techniques and employing them quite effectively. And it was clear to us that we were unlikely to be able to overcome those techniques without some significant intervention.

Comparatively, the internal documents obtained by the Senate showed that Abu Zubaydah had stopped cooperating with interrogators. After providing information on al Qaeda — including activities, leadership, and training — he refused to divulge any information about future attacks on the United States, which the CIA believed he was withholding. In an attempt to extract that knowledge, he was isolated for 47 days and then interrogated using “enhanced” techniques like waterboarding.

3. The CIA also impeded effective White House oversight and decision-making

According to CIA records, Bush was not informed of the exact nature of the interrogation methods until April 2006 — by which time 38 of the 39 detainees had been subjected to enhanced interrogation without approval from CIA headquarters. And at the direction of the Bush White House, neither the secretary of defense or the secretary of state — both principal members of the National Security Council — were briefed on the specifics of the agency’s interrogation techniques until September 2003. One CIA email dated July 2003 outlined the problem. It read:

The White House is “extremely concerned that [Secretary of State Colin] Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s been going on.” Of course, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage complained that both he and Powell had been “cut out” of the National Security Council coordination process.

In fact, “the CIA blocked State Department leadership from access to information crucial to foreign policy decision-making and diplomatic activities,” found the Senate report. “Moreover, CIA officers told U.S. ambassador not to discuss the CIA program with State Department officials, preventing the ambassadors from seeking guidance on the policy implications of establishing CIA detention facilities in the countries in which they served.”

The CIA also impeded oversight of its own Office Inspector General, and provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice, which slowed its legal analysis of the agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program.

4. The CIA was unprepared for more than six months after being granted detention authorities, and the interrogation program was mismanaged

Just days after the 9/11 attack, Bush signed a document known as the “Memorandum of Notification,” which codified a plan designed by then CIA Director George Tenet. It allowed CIA paramilitary officers to join forces with anti-Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan, and granted the CIA an unprecedented role in counterterrorism, including the authorization to covertly capture and detain individuals “posing a continuing, serious threat of violence or death to U.S. persons and interests or planning terrorist activities.” But it was silent on the subject of interrogations and coercive interrogation techniques. It was not until January 2003 that Tenet issued formal guidelines for interrogations and regulations for the appropriate confinement conditions at detention sites, even though 40 of the 119 known detainees had already been captured by the CIA. And the CIA only began interrogation training seven months after taking custody of Abu Zubaydah and three months after the use of enhanced interrogation techniques began — techniques that were lifted from a training program at the U.S. Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school, which prepared military personnel for treatment they might be subjected to if ever caught by countries (or organizations) that did not apply to the Geneva Conventions.

The two psychologists who developed the interrogation techniques had no experience as interrogators, no specialized knowledge of al Qaeda, no background in counterterrorism, and no “relevant cultural or linguistic expertise,” yet their contract was worth more than $180 million.

Furthermore, senators on the Intelligence Committee found that intelligence officials themselves were concerned with the competence and training of interrogators, as the excerpt included below illustrates. One junior officer, with no previous experience or training on handling prisoners or conducting interrogations, whose name is blacked out, was manager of a detention facility during a time period in which one detainee died and others were subjected to inappropriate interrogation techniques. He was given that appointment even though records show that other CIA officers had previously noted he lacked “honesty, judgement, and maturity.”


Source: Senate Intelligence Committee report

Officers like the one described above were “rarely held accountable” for death, injury, or wrongful detention. And interrogators in the field who tried to stop the use of these techniques were overruled by senior CIA officials

George W. Bush briefed by CIA Deputy Director Steve Kappas (L) and CIA Director Michael V. Hayden in August 2008. Source: Getty Images

5. The CIA misled both Congress and the White House on the effectiveness of its interrogation techniques

In order to show the White House, the National Security Council, the Department of Justice, the CIA Office of Inspector General, Congress, and the public that the “enhanced” interrogation techniques were an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainees cooperation, the CIA pointed to specific examples of terrorist plots that were “thwarted” and specific terrorists who were captured. But the agency’s justifications were based on inaccurate claims.

The Senate committee reviewed 20 examples of counterterrorism successes used by the CIA and found all to be false in some respect. “In some cases, there was no relationship between the cited counterterrorism success and any information provided by detainees during or after the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.” In the remaining cases, the CIA claimed erroneously that specific and otherwise unavailable information was obtained from a detainee “as a result” of CIA techniques, when in reality the information was either a corroboration of knowledge already known (meaning it was not “otherwise unavailable”) or it was acquired from the detainee before the enhanced interrogation methods were even used.

Plus, according to CIA records, seven of the the 39 detainees known to have been subjected to these techniques produced no intelligence while in custody. Multiple detainees fabricated information, giving the CIA faulty intelligence. This fabricated information was represented as critical intelligence to the CIA, and included terrorist threats that the agency identified as its highest priorities.

“Some of the plots that the CIA claimed to have ‘disrupted’ as a result of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques were assessed by intelligence and law enforcement officials as being infeasible or ideas that were never operationalized,” concluded the report.

But in March 2008, Bush vetoed the Intelligence Authorization Bill, which would have effectively banned techniques like waterboarding by applying the standards in the U.S. Army Field Manual to the entire government. The president justified his decision in a radio broadcast, repeating CIA claims that the interrogation program supplied intelligence that foiled specific terrorist plots. And the House of Representatives failed to override his veto. Early in his presidency, Barack Obama issued executive order 13491, requiring that manual to be applied to the entire government, banning the use of enhanced interrogation techniques.

6. The CIA both underreported the number of people detained, and a sizable number of detainees did not meet the government standard for detention

According to the report, the CIA never gave an accurate count or a list of suspected terrorists detained or subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. In 2008, before an open Committee meeting, Director Hayden stated that over the life of the program, the CIA detained fewer than 100 people. That was inaccurate. An email obtained by the intelligence committee showed that one officer was instructed by Hayden to “keep the detainee number at 98” because that was the figure the CIA gave to Congress. However, 13 “additional CIA detainees” beyond the original 98 had already been “identified.” And the Senate committee found that 26 of the 119 detainees identified in the report did not meet the standards required for detention. In four specific cases, detainees were held in prisons in host countries because they did not meet U.S. standards.

7. The CIA leaked classified documents to journalists, including inaccurate information on the effectiveness of the enhanced interrogation techniques

“The CIA’s Office of Public Affairs and senior CIA officials coordinated to share classified information on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program to select members of the media to counter public criticism, shape public opinion, and avoid potential congressional action to restrict the CIA’s detention and interrogation authorities and budget,” read the report.

A memo the deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center wrote to a colleague before a media interview in 2005 illustrates just how concerted an effort this was. The director noted that “we either get out and sell, or we get hammered, which has implications beyond the media. [C]ongress reads it, cuts our authorities, messes up our budget…we either put out our story our we get eaten. [T]here is no middle ground.”

For context, this detention and interrogation program cost $300 million, excluding personnel costs. These hundreds of millions of dollars went to the construction and maintaining of detention facilities, including two that were never used partly because of political concerns voiced by the host country. The CIA also provided millions of dollars in cash payments to foreign governments to encourage them to secretly host these facilities.

Meanwhile, the political backlash has begun

For now it is highly unlikely that the heated discussions that have already begun will focus on how the United States, as a country, should form a consensus on how far the government should go to force its enemies to talk. What will dominate the national debate are the same political concerns of both past and present leaders that have long characterized American politics. While the U.S. military is on worldwide alert in case the graphic details of the report incites retaliation, Republicans and Democrats have begun the long process of fighting for their version of events to be the one accepted by the American public. The Republican rebuttal to the report claimed it gave the “false impression that the CIA was actively misleading policy makers and impeding the counterterrorism efforts of other federal government agencies during the Program’s operation.” And the former CIA deputy directors and directors wrote a lengthy opinion column for the Wall Street Journal detailing the Senate’s inaccuracies.


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