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CIA Releases Report on Torture Practices

R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 25, 2009 12:00 PM

Post staff writer R. Jeffrey Smith takes your questions about a newly released CIA inspector general report, written in 2004, that describes the extent of the agency's interrogation techniques.

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New York: About what percentage of the CIA report is blacked out? Thanks.

R. Jeffrey Smith: we have not done a precise page count, but i would say around half, or perhaps more, is still censored.

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Helena, Montana: Was the Washington Post a part of the FOIA for the release of these documents or did the ACLU go it alone? If not, why not? I think the media has failed the American people since 9/11/01 by catapulting the propaganda and by a naive trust that the government was telling the truth. So if you weren't a part of the request for the release of these documents, why not?

R. Jeffrey Smith: we were not part of the FOIA lawsuit to obtain this document, although we have sought and obtained other documents through FOIA. the WPost is trying, generally, to avoid the expense of bringing a FOIA lawsuit, but we have joined other publications occasionally to share that expense.

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Topeka, Kan.: Does the material released support the claims by former VP Cheney that the waterboarding was successful?

Are we a nation where the ends justify the means?

R. Jeffrey Smith: these are two good and important questions. the material released yesterday, including portions of the two memos that Cheney sought to get released, makes clear that important information was obtained through the CIA interrogation programs. what it does not say is whether more information, or more accurate information, might have been obtained through more cooperative interrogations. that analysis remains to be done. some CIA officials who have seen everything say this argument -- about the effectiveness of the program -- is essentially unresolvable with the information available to date. but it is clear that the CIA practices were at odds with U.S. traditions, including military and FBI traditions.

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Hemet, Calif.: Has anything been revealed in this report that we didn't already know? Have the mock executions and drill threatening been confirmed?

R. Jeffrey Smith: the report confirmed those episodes and provide new detail on those and on others, including episodes in which interrogators threatened to kill the children of khalid sheikh mohammed (whose children were in fact in custody at the time), and in which a detainee was repeatedly choked and then shaken awake. the report also details for the first time exactly what the CIA inspector general concluded about this -- the methods were "inhumane," the guidelines were inadequate, and the benefits did not clearly outweigh the potential legal and political costs. we see now why this review was not so well-received by top officials.

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"Traditions" or "Laws": You mention "tradition" above, but aren't there laws on the books (and international treaties the U.S. is subject to) that were actually broken here?

R. Jeffrey Smith: this is what the DOJ prosecutor, Mr. Durham, is now tasked with deciding.

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Tampa, FL: It seems to me that the issue is not whether torture elicited actionable intelligence. The issue is whether is was as effective as or better than traditional interrogation techniques. We know traditional interrogation techniques were successful. We know that torture gives terrorists a very effective recruiting tool. If torture was less effective than traditional interrogation techniques, then it was counterproductive, and those who ordered it were incompetent.

So when we say torture was produced results, we need to specify the baseline and compare it to that, and not evaluate it on a stand-alone basis.

It's like buying a bond. If you own a bond paying 3%, would you sell it to buy another bond paying 2% and carrying a higher risk of default? If you have interrogation techniques that work, would you switch to ones less effective that play right into the hands of our enemies?

R. Jeffrey Smith: another good question, and somebody should have been posing it --if no one else did -- when the program was getting off the ground. we have not yet heard of anyone insistently asking this, however. instead, the atmosphere was: if they aren't cooperating, we need to be more harsh, until they do, and we're in a big hurry, so let's not delay.

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Lake Lucerne, WI: Thanks for taking questions, Mr. Smith. Doesn't not investigating those who excused torture (and developed the torture programs) run up against our national and international legal obligations to investigate and try those who authorized these types of crimes? Are there two separate legal systems in the U.S. now? One draconian one for rank-and-file citizens and another less-strict one for our leaders?

R. Jeffrey Smith: well, let's wait and see where the Durham investigation goes. there was no limit placed on it, according to what we heard yesterday, although both obama and holder reiterated that those who followed orders will not be prosecuted for doing so. the question remains, what about those who wrote those orders, and what about those who went beyond what those orders allowed? time will tell who exactly comes under the microscope.

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Woodbridge Va: I had a friend in the Pentagon and a cousin in the World Trade Center. How does the discomfort endured by the terrorists compare to inhaling flaming aviation fuel or being driven by heat to jump from the 90th floor? Will interogaters at least be allowed to use a stern voice when questioning them or is that too injurious to their delicate sensabilities?

R. Jeffrey Smith: a reasonable question. i suggest you look at published accounts of the interrogation methods in the newly-revised Army Field Manual. there are some that could be used to apply significant emotional -- not physical -- pressure against detainees. but the law is clear, according to one of the memos we got this morning: government officials are not allowed to use conditions of confinement or interrogation to PUNISH. that's illegal, flatly. and also bear in mind that the purpose of interrogation is not to make someone talk, but to elicit information that is true. those are quite different ambitions.

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Where's that OPR Report, btw?: Why didn't Eric Holder release the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) report yesterday along with the rest of the torture docs? Seems to me he doesn't want attention focused on the role played by Justice Department, because the release of the OPR report would fuel more discussion of the role played by John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Steven Bradbury - not to mention the link between the CIA and Vice President Cheney's office? Am I missing anything?

R. Jeffrey Smith: well, we frankly don't know why it was not released yesterday. but i suspect it won't be long. there is no way to avoid its release altogether, and then these questions will again be on the front page.

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Boonsboro, Md: I am sure the left wing commenters will be out in force, so I just wanted to make the point that 80% of the country could not care less if someone blew smoke into the face of a terrorist. Notice the reaction to the idea to move the Gitmo prisoners to the US. Just saying.

R. Jeffrey Smith: yes, i agree that blowing smoke in someone's face is not the biggest offense listed in the report. you can still be a victim of that experience at restaurants in some states.

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Raleigh, N.C.: If the Democratic Party that had committed these atrocities, the Republican Party would be prosecuting full-tilt.

Do you agree?

R. Jeffrey Smith: a provocative question. but remember that this was not a matter of political parties -- those involved were a mix of political appointees and career professionals. a lot of different folks got swept up by this whirlwind, under significant pressures and anxieties that another attack was right around the corner. some of those pressures doubtless came from shame at not having stopped the first one -- which may have made folks extra zealous to keep another one from happening.

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Rockville, Md.: If the prisoners would only give us the information asked, there would be no "torture" tactics - right? The choice is up to them...

R. Jeffrey Smith: actually, significant elements of choice -- or policy discretion -- have been removed from such deliberations, by a set of international and domestic laws stating that torture is simply illegal. as a people, we have decided in advance to put constraints on our own actions, not knowing fully what the future holds.

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New York: Jeffrey, correct me if I'm wrong, but laws were broken -- Mr. Durham's predecessors concluded as much. They also concluded, however, that the evidence wasn't strong enough for a conviction, so decided not to bring cases against the perpetrators. But I think it's accepted fact that both U.S. and international strictures against torture and inhumane treatment did occur.

R. Jeffrey Smith: unfortunately, so far it has depended on who you listen to. folks in the bush administration said waterboarding was legal. obama and holder have called it torture. the final authority in such matters is usually the supreme court (or some world court, if cases are referred their by countries). but no case stemming from the CIA program has reached the courts yet and tested the limit of what was legal and what was not. stay tuned -- this will take years to resolve.

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New York: Jeffrey, the CIA referred this information to prosecutors, who concluded that most of the cases couldn't be prosecuted. Isn't Durham going over the same ground? Does AG Holder think there might be a different result? Thanks.

R. Jeffrey Smith: i wish i had a good answer to this one. holder has not explained yet precisely why he thinks the earlier probes were deficient or incomplete. it's an important issue, and we need to collect a response.

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Logan Circle: Lots of talk about whether torture was an effective means of getting info, but is anyone asking how many innocent people were tortured? Or how many guilty people were tortured who simply had no additional info to provide? Did the people who authorized and implemented these policies really grow up in the same country I did?

R. Jeffrey Smith: they did grow up in the same country. those involved say that no one who was not inside the bubble of daily threat reports and warnings can understand what that was like. those reviewing the program now with fresh eyes say the folks inside must have been infected by a virus that made them forget some fundamental American principles. only a historian with access to the complete classified record will be able to give us a credible independent explanation for what happened. as journalists, we're doing our best, but there is a lot we don't know and won't for a long time.

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Richmond, Va.: Were other allied intelligence services aware or contribute to the interrogation techniques used?

Thank you.

R. Jeffrey Smith: we got some advice from intelligence services in the middle east and from a few other countries. but the bedrock model was the SERE program, in which US military and intelligence personnel are subjected to techniques that count among the most brutal imagined, as practice to resist such techniques if captured by an enemy. we essentially threw the most coercive methods we've learned about in other countries at the detainees in our own custody.

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The law is the law. Period.: It doesn't "depend on who you listen to." If I understand your argument (above), you're fine with the fact that high-level political officials are now free to break the law, and are even free to torture, provided they first obtain a permission slip from a low-level DOJ functionary?

R. Jeffrey Smith: you misunderstood. breaking the law is hardly okay. i'm just not going to act like a judge and decide myself who did it and who did not. that's the role of the courts.

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New York: Has it been proven that the people who were exposed to these cruel treatments were all indeed 'terrorists'? And I mean all, not two or three. Thanks.

R. Jeffrey Smith: this will be my last reply. many thanks for all your great questions, and your interest in this important subject. i think that what we do at moments of crisis -- as individuals and as a country -- really does define who we are. it's the hard tests that matter, not the easy ones.

as to the question, we know that some of the folks who wound up in guantanamo were put there without evidence against them that held up. we also know that some of those sent on CIA flights to countries with poor human rights records were misidentified as terrorists. we do not know as of now if some of the nearly 100 folks held by the CIA were completely innocent. while there is little doubt that many of those subjected to rough treatment were connected to terrorism or those involved in terrorism, we don't know about everybody. it's certainly worth trying to learn more.

thanks again. signing off now. cheers everybody.

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