For CIA, Truth About Torture Was an Existential Threat

For the CIA officials involved in torture, one thing was clear from the very beginning: The only way they would be forgiven for what they did was if they could show it had saved lives. It was the heart of their rationale. It was vital to public acceptance. It was how they would avoid prosecution.
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WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 10: U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney (R) listens as U.S. President George W. Bush speaks during a swearing-in ceremony for Jim Nussle as Director of the Office of Management and Budget September 10, 2007 in Washington, DC. Nussle replaced Rob Portman as the director of the Office of Management and Budget. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 10: U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney (R) listens as U.S. President George W. Bush speaks during a swearing-in ceremony for Jim Nussle as Director of the Office of Management and Budget September 10, 2007 in Washington, DC. Nussle replaced Rob Portman as the director of the Office of Management and Budget. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

For the CIA officials involved in torture, one thing was clear from the very beginning: The only way they would be forgiven for what they did was if they could show it had saved lives.

It was the heart of their rationale. It was vital to public acceptance. It was how they would avoid prosecution.

The executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee's grindingly exhaustive torture report released Tuesday indelibly captures CIA officials turning their back on human decency, and it all starts with a "novel" legal defense floated in November 2001 by CIA lawyers -- and arguably prompted by their White House masters, lurking offstage -- that the "CIA could argue that the torture was necessary to prevent imminent, significant, physical harm to persons, where there is no other available means to prevent the harm."

Specifically, they pointed out: "states may be very unwilling to call the U.S. to task for torture when it resulted in saving thousands of lives."

And so, when the tragically predictable sequence of events began to unfold -- and torture, as it always has, produced false confessions and little to no intelligence of value -- admitting that it had failed was not even an option.

Instead, those involved made up stories of success.

They insisted that Abu Zubaydah was a top al Qaeda figure who, only after being waterboarded, provided information that foiled a major attack on the U.S. -- even though Zubaydah wasn't in al Qaeda, the plot was a farce, and the only related information he provided came before he was tortured.

They cast Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's false confessions as deadly threats, then announced they had been thwarted.

They viciously brutalized people, some of them entirely innocent, and described what they were doing as an art and a science.

Senate investigators, who had access to millions of pages of original CIA cables and other source material, used most of the 499 pages in Tuesday's release documenting example after example of CIA officials doing gruesome things, then telling convenient falsehoods to each other, to their bosses, to the White House, to anyone who questioned them, and to Congress -- all to prove to everyone that torture worked.

By mid-2003, the CIA's constant mantra was that "enhanced interrogation tactics" had "saved lives," "thwarted plots," and "captured terrorists." Saying otherwise was like blasphemy.

The end result was that when President George W. Bush and other top government officials finally told the public about the program, they trafficked in almost nothing but misinformation.

Should we call these lies? The Senate report doesn't. (Then again, it also doesn't call what happened "torture.")

The people who actually knew the facts certainly lied, obliging the requests from their superiors for examples of effective torture.

Maybe some of the people who heard the lies, and passed them on, let themselves believe they were true. For the CIA, that would be even worse, because a susceptibility to lies is a fatal flaw for an agency charged with providing fact-based intelligence to keep the nation safe.

What the Senate's summary tells us is that the modern CIA is actuated by fantasy and faith. It's a familiar charge; we saw the same pattern in the CIA when its political masters wanted a case for war in Iraq.

Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden observed on Tuesday that "The current CIA leadership has been alarmingly resistant to acknowledging the full scope of the mistakes and misrepresentations that surrounded this program for so many years."

There are no indications the CIA is ready to turn things around, of course. CIA Director John Brennan went to extraordinary lengths to stymie and discredit the investigation. And now, he is rebuffing its conclusions.

Brennan's statement Tuesday acknowledged "shortcomings" and "mistakes," but reasserted "that interrogations of detainees on whom [enhanced interrogation techniques] EITs were used did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives." He angrily rejected the report's "inference that the Agency systematically and intentionally misled" Congress, the Executive Branch, and the public."

And while they remain offstage by design, nothing in this report in any way exonerates the people who were running the show from the White House.

Other reports and works of journalism have clearly identified Vice President Dick Cheney as the prime mover in creating a torture regime that extended not just to the black sites, but to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and elsewhere. Cheney was no victim of misinformation; he was its architect.

And George W. Bush might have remained unfamiliar with the details until as late as 2006: "According to CIA records, when briefed in April 2006, the president expressed discomfort with the 'image of a detainee, chained to the ceiling, clothed in a diaper, and forced to go to the bathroom on himself'." But he must have had some idea what Cheney and others were up to in the basement.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The report adds nauseating new details to the already substantial record of the CIA's enthusiastic descent into savagery after capturing its first terror suspects, post-9/11.

There's the image of the CIA's first fully documented torture victim, Abu Zubaydah, becoming "completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth" after a session of repeated near-drownings on the waterboard.

There are descriptions of sleep deprivation that "involved keeping detainees awake for up to 180 hours, usually standing or in stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads."

The report identifies 26 detainees, out of the CIA's 119 in total, who the agency itself determined should never have been held at all. That unfortunate group includes "Abu Hudhaifa, who was subjected to ice water baths and 66 hours of standing sleep deprivation before being released because the CIA discovered he was likely not the person he was believed to be," and "Nazir Ali, an 'intellectually challenged' individual whose taped crying was used as leverage against his family member."

The report also creates new additions to the CIA's lexicon of torture euphemisms, such as "rectal rehydration" and "rectal feeding":

At least five detainees were subjected to rectal rehydration or rectal feeding. There is at least one record of Abu Zubaydah receiving "rectal fluid resuscitation" for "partially refusing liquids." ... KSM was subjected to rectal rehydration without a determination of medical need, a procedure that KSM interrogator and chief of interrogations [REDACTED} would later characterize as illustrative of the interrogator's "total control over the detainee."

The authors don't just document these new atrocities, they cite them to illustrate how baldly CIA officials deceived others about what was really going on.

A particular sore point is the inaccurate information the CIA fed to Congress. First CIA officials disavowed torture, and promised that the Senate Intelligence Committee would be notified about every individual detained by the CIA. Then came the misinformation and the outright subterfuge.

A 2005 proposal from Senator Carl Levin to establish an independent commission to investigate detainee abuse, for instance, "resulted in concern at the CIA that such a commission would lead to the discovery of videotapes documenting CIA interrogations." As a result, the CIA destroyed them.

The summary devotes a 37-page appendix on "Inaccurate CIA Testimony" by former CIA Director Michael Hayden in one Senate Intelligence Committee hearing alone.

At the April 12, 2007, hearing, Director Hayden verbally provided extensive inaccurate information on, among other topics: (1) the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, (2) the application of Department of Defense survival school practices to the program, (3) detainees' counter interrogation training, (4) the backgrounds of CIA interrogators, (5) the role of other members of the interrogation teams, (6) the number of CIA detainees and their intelligence production, (7) the role of CIA detainee reporting in the captures of terrorist suspects, (8) the interrogation process, (9) the use of detainee reporting, (10) the purported relationship between Islam and the need to use the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques, (11) threats against detainees' families, (12) the punching and kicking of detainees, (13) detainee hygiene, (14) denial of medical care, (15) dietary manipulation, (16) the use of waterboarding and its effectiveness, and (17) the injury and death of detainees.

Hayden told the Senate Intelligence committee: "Punches and kicks are not authorized and have never been employed." But interviews conducted for two CIA internal reviews described the treatment of Gul Rahman, the detainee was died at the Salt Pit. One witness stated:

[T]here were approximately five CIA officers from the renditions team... they opened the door of Rahman's cell and rushed in screaming and yelling for him to "getdown." They dragged him outside, cut off his clothes and secured him with Mylar tape. They covered his head with a hood and ran him up and down a long corridor adjacent to his cell. They slapped him and punched him several times... a couple of times the punches were forceful. As they ran him along the corridor, a couple of times he fell and they dragged him through the dirt (the floor outside of the cells is dirt). Rahman did acquire a number of abrasions on his face, legs, and hands, but nothing that required medical attention. (This may account for the abrasions found on Rahman's body after his death. Rahman had a number of surface abrasions on his shoulders, pelvis, arms, legs, and face.)

Hayden also lied to Congress about how many detainees were held. At first, the CIA's lowball numbers were, amazingly enough, just a mistake

Internal CIA documents indicate that inadequate record keeping made it impossible for the CIA to determine how many individuals it had detained. In December 2003, a CIA Station overseeing CIA detention operations in Country [REDACTED] informed CIA Headquarters that it had made the "unsettling discovery" that the CIA was "holding a number of detainees about whom" it knew "very little."

But five years later, when a CIA officer informed Hayden that the correct number was 112 or more, the officer sent himself an email to memorialize the conversation: "DCIA instructed me to keep the detainee number at 98 -- pick whatever date i [sic] needed to make that happen but the number is 98."

At a 2006 congressional hearing, then-CIA director Porter Goss said the CIA's interrogation program is "not a brutality. It's more of an art or a science that is refined."

But the report provides new, horrifying details about what it calls COBALT -- the notorious Salt Pit facility in Afghanistan, that one CIA official described as a "dungeon."

The CIA kept few formal records of the detainees in its custody at COBALT. Untrained CIA officers at the facility conducted frequent, unauthorized, and unsupervised interrogations of detainees using harsh physical interrogation techniques that were not--and never became--part of the CIA's formal "enhanced" interrogation program. The CIA placed a junior officer with no relevant experience in charge of COBALT. On November [REDACTED], 2002, a detainee who had been held partially nude and chained to a concrete floor died from suspected hypothermia at the facility.

Although most of the misinformation documented in the report dates back to the Bush years, Senate investigators also debunked the narrative -- spread by Obama-era CIA officials -- that torture was responsible for the capture of bin Laden.

Within a day of the UBL operation, the CIA began providing classified briefings to Congress on the overall operation and the intelligence that led to the raid and UBL's death. On May 2, 2011, CIA officials, including CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, briefed the Committee. A second briefing occurred on May 4, 2011, when CIA Director Leon Panetta and other CIA officials briefed both the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Armed Services Committee. Both of these briefings indicated that CIA detainee information--and the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques--played a substantial role in developing intelligence that led to the UBL operation.

The report documents the ample information the CIA had from other sources about the courier who ultimately led them to bin Laden.

The CIA did not receive any information from CIA detainees on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti until 2003. Nonetheless, by the end of 2002, the CIA was actively targeting Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti and had collected significant reporting on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti--to include reporting on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti's close links to UBL.

In fact, the information in the report supports the argument that torture may have slowed the hunt for bin Laden.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Attorney General Eric Holder has frequently stipulated "that the Department of Justice will not prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the Office of Legal Counsel regarding the interrogation of detainees."

The Senate report makes clear that the DOJ memos giving legal cover to CIA officers were based on crucial misrepresentations by the CIA of its needs and its conduct. The DOJ memos "relied on the CIA's claim that the techniques were necessary to save lives," the investigators wrote.

Although the CIA proceeded to interpret its authorities more generally, the initial memos were largely derived from what the CIA told DOJ about Zubaydah, and much of that was simply not true.

Most notably, CIA "headquarters" informed DOJ and White House officials in July 2002 that Abu Zubaydah's interrogation team believed he possessed information on terrrorists and terrorist threats in the U.S.

"The CIA officials further represented that the interrogation team had concluded that the use of more aggressive methods 'is required to persuade Abu Zubaydah to provide the critical information needed to safeguard the lives of innumerable innocent men, women, and children within the United States and abroad,' and warned 'countless more Americans may die unless we can persuade AZ to tell us what he knows.'"

But according to the CIA cables, the Senate investigators reviewed, the interrogation team had not made any such determination -- quite the contrary. They wrote that they were operating under the assumption that Zubaydah was "not holding back actionable information concerning threats to the United States beyond that which [he] has already provided."

The report also finds that some tactics employed by the CIA went beyond what was allowed by those memos, concluding for instance that the routine use of nudity, abdominal slaps and cold-water dousing were not approved by the Justice Department.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Supporters of the CIA's interrogation tactics prefer not to call them torture. And some media outlets still shy away from the term. But it's preposterous to call them anything else.

And one telling series of events described in the report (initially revealed in a 2009 New York Times article by Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane) makes it clear that CIA officials knew exactly what it was they were doing.

It's a White House tradition that the President makes an obligatory and anodyne proclamation each year on the occasion of the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

In 2003, George W. Bush's included the following language:

The United States is committed to the world-wide elimination of torture and we are leading this fight by example. I call on all governments to join with the United States and the community of law-abiding nations in prohibiting, investigating, and prosecuting all acts of torture and in undertaking to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment. I call on all nations to speak out against torture in all its forms and to make ending torture an essential part of their diplomacy.

But when then-CIA general counsel John Rizzo heard about that statement -- along with a quote from White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan that all prisoners being held by the U.S. government were being treated "humanely" -- he panicked.

Rizzo wanted to make sure this didn't represent a change in policy.

He called John Bellinger, then the legal advisor to the National Security Council, to "express our surprise and concern at some of the statements."

Rizzo told his CIA colleagues that it "might well be appropriate for us to seek written reaffirmation by some senior White House official that the Agency's ongoing practices... are to continue."

CIA director George Tenet then sent a memo to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice seeking reaffirmation of White House support because "recent Administration responses to inquiries and resulting media reporting about the Administration's position have created the impression that these [interrogation] techniques are not used by U.S. personnel and are no longer approved as a policy matter."

Not coincidentally, it was right about then that the CIA started making a major effort internally to build the case that what they had been doing was effective.

The report documents, for instance, the effort by the chief of ALEC station -- the CIA unit charged with finding Osama bin Laden -- requesting information from his subordinates on the "value and impact" of CIA detainee information, which he said was being compiled for senior CIA leadership. He wrote asking for information "that helped reveal or stop plots, reporting that clinched the identity of terrorist suspects, etc."'

Subordinates responded enthusiastically. And information started flowing up the chain of command.

On July 29, 2003, as a result of DCI Tenet's July 3, 2003, request seeking reaffirmation of the CIA's detention and interrogation policies and practices. Tenet and CIA General Counsel Scott Muller conducted a briefing for a subset of the National Security principals. According to a CIA memorandum, Muller represented that CIA "detainees subject to the use of Enhanced Techniques of one kind or another had produced significant intelligence information that had, in the view of CIA professionals, saved lives."

The CIA briefing provided the "results" of using the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques in briefing slides with the heading: "RESULTS: MAJOR THREAT INFO." The slides represented that KSM provided information on "[a]ttack plans against US Capitol, other US landmarks"; "[a]ttacks against Chicago, New York, Los Angeles; against towers, subways, trains, reservoirs, Hebrew centers, Nuclear power plants"; and the "Heathrow and Canary Wharf Plot." The slides also represented that KSM identified Iyman Paris, the "Majid Khan family," and Sayf al-Rahman Paracha. These representations were largely inaccurate.

Eventually, those lies made their way up to George W. Bush.

On September 6, 2006, President Bush delivered a speech based on information provided by the CIA, fully vetted by the CIA, that was full of misinformation.

Marc Thiessen, who wrote the speech and is now a columnist for the Washington Post, described its genesis several years later:

This was the most carefully vetted speech in presidential history -- reviewed by all the key players from the individuals who ran the program all the way up to the director of national intelligence, who personally attested to the accuracy of the speech in a memo to the president.

But as the report powerfully argues, the speech "included numerous inaccurate representations about the CIA program and the effectiveness of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques."

In fact, the CIA's vetting of the speech, which is detailed in CIA "validation" documents, made it even more inaccurate.

One week before the scheduled speech, a passage in the draft speech made inaccurate claims about the role played by Abu Zubaydah in the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh and the role of Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi bin al-Shibh in the capture of KSM, but did not explicitly connect these claims to the use of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques.

CIA records show Zubaydah played no role in the capture of al-Shibh, and the capture of KSM had absolutely nothing to do with either of them. But the final version of the speech went even further, directly connecting the use of the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques" against Zubaydah to bin al-Shibh's capture.

Bush also said: "Once in our custody, KSM was questioned by the CIA using these procedures, and he soon provided information that helped us stop another planned attack on the United States."

But the convoluted story Bush told was completely untrue and unsupported. The CIA "validated" the claim with a June 2003 cable, leaving out any mention of a March 2003 cable which showed that information about the alleged plot, such as it was, actually came out before KSM said anything.

"Terrorists held in CIA custody have also provided information... [that] they helped stop a plot to hijack passenger planes and fly them into Heathrow or the Canary Wharf in London," Bush said.

But according to Senate investigators:

A review of records indicates that the Heathrow Airport and Canary Wharf plotting had not progressed beyond the initial planning stages when the operation was fully disrupted with the detentions of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, KSM, Ammar-al-Baluchi, and Khallad bin Attash. None of these individuals were captured as a result of reporting obtained during or after the use of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques against CIA detainees.

The Senate report also exposes what was perhaps the Bush administration's single most cited example of how torture saved American lives as, quite literally, a joke.

Bush and others frequently said that information gained by waterboarding led to the disruption of a plot by U.S. citizen Jose Padilla in Chicago that involved blowing up apartment buildings in the United States and possibly "using a 'dirty bomb' in the U.S."

But the Senate report discloses that that Padilla and his associate, Binyam Mohammed, conceived what the CIA called the "Dirty Bomb Plot" after reading a satirical magazine article, "How to Make Your Own H-Bomb," that instructed would-be bomb makers to enrich uranium by putting liquid uranium hexafluoride in a bucket, attaching a six-foot rope to the bucket handle, and swinging "the rope (and attached bucket) around your head as fast as possible... for about 45 minutes."

According to the Senate report, that's exactly how Padilla was planning to build the "dirty bomb." That ludicrous plan is what landed him in a military brig for three and a half years, labeled as an enemy combatant, before the Bush administration released him to federal court to face other charges.

Furthermore, CIA operational cables and other records showed "that the use of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques played no role in the identification of Jose Padilla or the thwarting" of any plot. When Zubaydah provided information on a "dirty bomb" attack, he didn't identify Padilla by name -- and in any case, whatever he did say was while talking to the FBI, three months before the CIA started torturing him. And the CIA first heard about Padilla from a foreign government, the report states.

A fascinating footnote to the Padilla case involves the CIA's refusal to admit its error, even years later. In 2008, the Intelligence Committee sent the CIA a question: "Why was this information [related to Padilla], which was not obtained through the use of EITs, included in the 'Effectiveness Memo'?"

Committee investigators found that one CIA official drafted a response admitting that the agency had "simply inadvertently reported this wrong. Abu Zubaydah provided information on Jose Padilla while being interrogated by the FBI."

But someone higher up on the foodchain had that draft killed. The truth was simply too much of a threat.

(Crossposted from The Intercept, where Froomkin is a senior writer.)

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