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The gigantic disaster of the CIA’s torture program

The Senate Intelligence Committee released the executive summary of its report on the CIA’s use of torture in the years after the September 11 attacks, which took place at “black sites” in foreign countries (the full report can be read here). While we’ve known a good deal about this for some time, many of the details are new, and I want to focus attention on a few of them to make a particular point about this program and how we’re debating it today.

The picture the CIA itself and Bush administration officials have always tried to paint of the torture program is one of highly trained professionals using carefully considered, perfectly legal techniques that were limited and humane, and produced valuable intelligence that directly saved American lives. When you read the Senate report, however, you see something very different: people who essentially had no idea what they were doing.

Their task was urgent, and their fear was genuine, but in that urgency and fear they brutalized prisoners, withheld information and in some cases lied outright to other agencies of government (including Congress, the State Department, and the White House), and generally made a mess of things. There’s no other way to put this: the torture program was a gigantic disaster; if this weren’t a family newspaper I’d use a word that starts with “cluster.”

First, let me quote from the executive summary of today’s report, about one of the black sites:

Conditions at CIA detention sites were poor, and were especially bleak early in the program. CIA detainees at the COBALT detention facility 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. Lack of heat at the facility likely contributed to the death of a detainee. The chief of interrogations described COBALT as a “dungeon.” Another senior CIA officer stated that COBALT was itself an enhanced interrogation technique. At times, the detainees at COBALT were walked around naked or were shackled with their hands above their heads for extended periods  of time. Other times, the detainees at COBALT were subjected to what was described as a “rough takedown,” in which approximately five CIA officers would scream at a detainee, drag him outside of his cell, cut his clothes off, and secure him with Mylar tape. The detainee would then be hooded and dragged up and down a long corridor while being slapped and punched.

One of the detainees at this site was left overnight shackled to the wall and naked from the waist down in near-freezing temperatures. The next morning he was found dead of hypothermia.

Now let me cite a couple of the specific cases. This an email from a medical officer present for the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah:

The sessions accelerated rapidly progressing quickly to the water board after large box, walling, and small box periods. [Abu Zubaydah] seems very resistant to the water board. Longest time with the cloth  over his face so far has been 17 seconds. This is sure to increase shortly. NO useful information so far.. ..He did vomit a couple of times during the water board with some beans and rice. It’s been 10 hours since he ate so this is surprising and disturbing. We plan to only feed Ensure for a while now. I’m head[ing] back for another water board session.”

In addition to waterboarding, Zubaydah was subjected to extended use of stress positions, which are designed to produce excruciating pain. At the end of the intensive period of interrogation, CIA officers declared the torture a success — not because Zubaydah had actually given up information on upcoming attacks, but because the officials decided they had completely broken his will and satisfied themselves that he had no such information to give.

Quite naturally, what concerned interrogators most was the prospect of future attacks. However, in multiple cases, they were faced with prisoners who were cooperative and supplied intelligence on things like the structure of al-Qaeda, but if the prisoner said he had no information about upcoming attacks, that would be taken as proof that he should be tortured further.

A significant amount of the report focuses on the site known as Cobalt, which is described not only as a horrific “dungeon” but a place where personnel rotate in and out and few seem to have any idea what they’re doing. Here’s the result of a visit there by a military legal advisor:

The U.S. military officer also noted that the junior CIA officer designated as warden of the facility “has little to no experience with interrogating or handling prisoners.” With respect to al-Najjar specifically, the legal advisor indicated that the CIA’s interrogation plan included “isolation in total darkness; lowering the quality of his food; keeping him at an uncomfortable temperature (cold); [playing music] 24 hours a day; and keeping him shackled and hooded.” In addition, al-Najjar was described as having been left hanging — which involved handcuffing one or both wrists to an overhead bar which would not allow him to lower his arms — for 22 hours each day for two consecutive days, in order to “‘break’ his resistance.” It was also noted al-Najjar was wearing a diaper and had no access to toilet facilities…According to the CIA inspector general, the detention and interrogation of Ridha al-Najjar “became the model” for handling other CIA detainees at DETENTION SITE COBALT.

But it wasn’t always the on-site interrogators pushing the interrogations to be more brutal. In one case cited by the report, the interrogators judged that the a detainee named Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was implicated in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, was being cooperative and forthcoming, based on their interactions with him and the fact that he was giving information on things like the structure of al-Qaeda. But he claimed that he didn’t have any information on upcoming attacks. The interrogators’ superiors at CIA headquarters wrote to them, “it is inconceivable to us that al-Nashiri cannot provide us concrete leads…. When we are able to capture other terrorists based on his leads and to thwart future plots based on his reporting, we will have much more confidence that he is, indeed, genuinely cooperative on some level.”

In other words, the idea that the prisoner simply didn’t have information on upcoming attacks was inconceivable to them. So they sent an untrained interrogator known for his temper to the site, who proceeded to do things like threaten the prisoner with a gun and an electric drill.

When that also failed to produce information on upcoming attacks, a contractor psychologist visited and created a new interrogation plan, based on yet more brutal techniques. This led the CIA’s chief of interrogations to inform his colleagues that he was retiring. In an email, he wrote, “this is a train wreak [sic] waiting to happen and I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens.” Eventually, everyone concluded that al-Nashiri didn’t have any information on upcoming attacks.

That’s just a bit of what’s in the report. One other interesting detail that jumped out at me was that on a couple of occasions, interrogators used mock executions, a favorite psychological torture technique of the Iranian regime.

We should note that many in the CIA dispute the details, particularly whether they were dishonest in their dealings with other agencies. What seems beyond dispute, however, is that the United States of America initiated a program of torturing prisoners that was planned and executed by people who knew next to nothing about interrogation.

As John McCain — who was subjected to some of these same torture techniques as a prisoner of war in Vietnam — said about this report: “The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow. It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. It is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us. But the American people are entitled to it, nonetheless.” Many in his party don’t share that belief.

And even the White House can’t seem to bring itself to call this by its true name. Today I was on a background call with a group of senior administration officials, and they were asked repeatedly why they seemed so reluctant to use the word “torture,” even after President Obama admitted that “we tortured some folks.” One official replied, “We’re not going to go case by case in a report like this and try to affix a label to each action.” But they do affix a label: “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which they used again and again, accepting the euphemistic label the Bush administration affixed to it.

The White House certainly deserves credit for ultimately supporting the release of this report (even if they seemed reluctant to do so). For all the protestations of the CIA, Bush administration officials, and their supporters, a few things are beyond dispute. George W. Bush and the people who worked for him made torture the official policy of the United States government. The program that carried out their wishes was an unholy mess. It was an affront to all the values that this nation is supposed to stand for. And it made it much easier for terrorist groups to recruit new adherents.

And there are a lot of people talking on television, writing op-eds, and even running for office who sound like they’d be only too happy to do it all over again.