“The Enhanced Interrogation Program saved lives, prevented attacks, & produced intel that led to Osama bin Laden. The techniques were the same as those used on our own people in the SERE program.”
— Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), in a tweet responding to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), March 13
“The torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history. The Senate must do its job in scrutinizing the record & involvement of Gina Haspel in this disgraceful program.”
— McCain, in a tweet, March 13
Talking about whether the administration of President George W. Bush allowed the torture of al-Qaeda suspects — and whether the techniques, which included waterboarding, achieved results — is a lot like talking about religion. Either you believe it or you don’t, and there is little bridging the chasm.
McCain was tortured while a prisoner of war in Vietnam and emerged as one of the most forceful critics of the Bush-era program — which then-President Barack Obama in 2009 once described as torture. “I believe that waterboarding was torture and, whatever legal rationales were used, it was a mistake,” he said in 2009 after he announced a ban on the interrogation techniques.
Cheney is a daughter of former vice president Richard B. Cheney, one of the foremost defenders of the policies.
With President Trump’s nomination of Gina Haspel to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the debate will be replayed. Haspel, currently deputy director, ran a “black site” prison in Thailand where the techniques were used and was involved in the decision to destroy tapes of the waterboarding sessions.
Here’s a guide to how both sides make their case, using the two sentences in Cheney’s tweet as a basis for discussion. We will consider them in reverse order for purposes of clarity.
“The techniques were the same as those used on our own people in the SERE program.”
SERE is an acronym for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape, a program that helps U.S. military personnel in survival techniques if they are captured by an enemy.
The military’s use of techniques such as waterboarding and being placed in a confinement box were cited in a 2002 memo from the Justice Department to the CIA approving the use of waterboarding on Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein (better known as Abu Zubaida), an al-Qaeda facilitator.
Waterboarding is intended to simulate drowning. A person is strapped to a board with the upper part of his body on a downward incline. Then, a cloth is placed over the person’s mouth, and water is poured over his face, causing the person to have difficulty breathing and to feel as though his lungs are filling with water.
The DOJ memo, quoting from a memo provided by the CIA, said that only the Navy continued to use the waterboard in training. “You have informed us that other services ceased use of the waterboard because it was so successful as an interrogation technique but not because of any concerns over any harm, physical or mental, caused by it,” the memo said. “It was also reported to be almost 100 percent effective in producing cooperation among trainees.”
“Of the 26,829 students trained from 1992 through 2001 in the Air Force SERE training, 4.3 percent of these students had contact with psychology services,” the memo added. “Of those 4.3 percent, only 3.2 percent were pulled from the program for psychological reasons.”
James Mitchell, a former Air Force psychologist who under contract with the CIA oversaw the interrogations, told The Fact Checker that there are several levels of SERE courses, which has led to confusion. “Most people think references to ‘the same techniques’ being used are referring to the techniques used in the basic resistance to interrogation courses, but the techniques used in advanced courses were the basis for the techniques suggested to the CIA,” he said.
A 2004 CIA Inspector General report said the “SERE waterboard experience is so different from the subsequent Agency usage as to make it almost irrelevant.” But Mitchell said this description did not match up with the Navy SERE school water boarding procedure contained in an appendix of the same IG report.
Mitchell added that the interrogations he oversaw of the detainees were “not as intense” as the most advanced SERE course, which he described as “PhD” level. “I know people will say that is BS but it’s true.”
Mitchell said the rationale for the interrogations was “we were looking for a way to shift their priorities” so the detainees would begin to cooperate. He said that Abu Zubaida told him “you have to do this to all of the brothers” until they cannot longer hold out, as then they would not be punished by Allah.
A Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA program, released in 2014, said that using the SERE program as a guide for the interrogations was a mistake because it was “designed to prepare U.S. military personnel for the conditions and treatment to which they might be subjected if taken prisoner by countries that do not adhere to the Geneva Conventions.”
David J. Morris, a former Marine infantry officer, described his 1995 SERE experience in an article for Slate: “While I was in the school, I lived like an animal. I was hooded, beaten, starved, stripped naked, and hosed down in the December air until I became hypothermic. At one point, I couldn’t speak because I was shivering so hard. Thrown into a 3-by-3-foot cage with only a rusted coffee can to piss into, I was told that the worst had yet to come. … I was incarcerated at SERE for only a few days, but my mind quickly disintegrated. I became convinced that I was being held in an actual prisoner of war camp.”
In other words, the techniques were not intended to be used against detainees in U.S. custody, so critics argue that Liz Cheney has it backward: “Our own people” were not supposed to use such interrogation techniques according to the Army Field Manual, which allows for “separation” but prohibits “inhumane treatment.”
A Senate Armed Services Committee investigation in 2008 revealed that the source of the information on student training in the 2002 DOJ memo, Dr. Jerald Ogrisseg of the Air Force, said that “the conclusions in his memo were not applicable to the offensive use of SERE techniques against real world detainees and he would not stand by the conclusions in his memo if they were applied to the use of SERE resistance training techniques on detainees.”
Ogrisseg testified that before drafting his memo, he was asked about using the waterboard against the enemy. “Wouldn’t that be illegal?” he said he responded, adding that he said: “I wouldn’t go down that path because, aside from being illegal, it was a completely different arena that we in the Survival School didn’t know anything about.”
“The Enhanced Interrogation Program saved lives, prevented attacks, & produced intel that led to Osama bin Laden.”
If “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs) did indeed lead to bin Laden, that would be seen as a vindication of those tactics. Both sides in the debate have their own narratives to support their case that the discovery of the courier who led to bin Laden either would or would not have taken place without waterboarding.
Bush administration officials have said that only three people were waterboarded: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks; Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who headed al-Qaeda’s Persian Gulf operations; and Abu Zubaida, who officials initially thought was a more important figure in al-Qaeda.
As we have noted before, it’s still a matter of dispute whether Mohammed and Abu Zubaida were waterboarded 183 and 83 times, respectively. Those numbers refer to applications of water, some seconds long, during sessions that lasted 20 minutes. Mohammed endured 15 sessions, with an average of 12 pours per session.
In any case, the effectiveness of the techniques is unclear. The Washington Post reported in 2009 that Abu Zubaida began talking after waterboarding, “unspooling the details of various al-Qaeda plots, including plans to unleash weapons of mass destruction,” but just about every lead “ultimately dissolved into smoke and shadow.” The article said the most useful information came before he was waterboarded.
McCain, in a 2011 Post article, argued that “the trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.” Instead, the first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the courier, came from a detainee who was not tortured. “None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda,” he wrote. He added that the interrogation techniques of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed “produced false and misleading information,” including saying the courier no longer worked for al-Qaeda.
A chronology released by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2014 made the case that the most helpful intelligence collected on bin Laden’s location came from detainees in foreign custody who had not been subject to harsh techniques. One key detainee provided important information before he was subject to enhanced interrogation, the committee report said. Meanwhile, “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed states that Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti was not a courier and that he has never heard of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti transporting letters to bin Laden.”
But this is disputed by the CIA. Michael Morell, former deputy CIA director, said in a 2014 interview with Charlie Rose that “the information that we got after EITs from these two detainees who made it very clear that he was bin Laden’s courier.” He said that it’s possible the information would have been discovered eventually, but the “very specific information … led us to take this particular lead — remember there’s hundreds of leads out there — to take this particular lead to the top of the list.”
“Ammar al-Baluchi, after undergoing EITs, was the first detainee to reveal that Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti served as a courier for messages from Bin Laden after Bin Laden had departed Afghanistan,” says the CIA’s response to the Senate report, citing a footnote in the report. “Before that, CIA had only general information that Abu Ahmad had interacted with Bin Laden before the group’s retreat from Tora Bora in late 2001, when Bin Laden was relatively accessible to a number of al-Qaeda figures.” (The Senate report adds that Baluchi later retracted this statement and denied Kuwaiti was a courier.)
Moreover, Morell said, when Mohammed was asked about Kuwaiti, at a time when he was being cooperative, he said that the courier had left al-Qaeda. Two other detainees who are being cooperative lie and say they had never heard of him — which suggests he’s “really important.” Then, when “KSM goes back to his cell and we’re monitoring the conversations and KSM tells everybody he can reach ‘don’t talk about the courier,’” investigators realize they have stumbled on something significant, which eventually leads to using voice samples to locate Kuwaiti in Pakistan.
You can see how the two narratives can be constructed from the same facts.
The CIA says the lies, at a time when the detainees were cooperative because of enhanced techniques, were an important clue. But a rebuttal of CIA statements by the staff of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) dismisses this as ridiculous: “The argument that these lies are evidence of the effectiveness of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques in eliciting the truth is one of the more bizarre justifications put forth by the CIA and its former leadership in defense of torture.”
Mohammed himself told the International Committee of the Red Cross: “During the harshest period of my interrogation I gave a lot of false information in order to satisfy what I believed the interrogators wished to hear in order to make the ill treatment stop.”
When the Senate Intelligence Committee report was released, then-CIA Director John Brennan said: “The Agency takes no position on whether intelligence obtained from detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques could have been obtained through other means or from other individuals. The answer to this question is and will forever remain unknowable.”
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