David Cole teaches constitutional law at Georgetown University and is the legal affairs correspondent for the Nation. He is the author of “The Torture Memos: Rationalizing the Unthinkable.”
When then-CIA Director Michael Hayden appeared before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in April 2007 to testify about the CIA’s coercive interrogation program, he should have felt pretty comfortable.
The program, after all, had been blessed repeatedly by the Justice Department, which by then had written multiple secret memos explaining why slamming people into walls, depriving them of sleep for up to 10 days and waterboarding them was perfectly legal. President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Attorney General John Ashcroft, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and other Cabinet officials had all personally approved of the program. Bush had declared a few months earlier, in fact, that the program had “saved innocent lives.” The Senate committee, whose leaders had been briefed on the program as early as September 2002 and had done nothing to halt it, had a reputation for coddling as much as overseeing the intelligence community. This was hardly a hostile audience. Hayden was talking to the home team.
Why, then, did Hayden misrepresent virtually every aspect of the program to the committee?
His misstatements are carefully catalogued in a damning appendix to the committee’s report, released Tuesday. According to the appendix, Hayden made false or unsupported statements about the genesis of the program; the interrogation of Abu Zubaida, the CIA’s first disappeared detainee; the qualifications and training of the interrogators; the ability of interrogators and observers to halt interrogations at any time; the number of detainees held; the intelligence allegedly obtained from coercive tactics; abusive and illegal conduct by interrogators; and the effectiveness of waterboarding. Hayden has objected that the committee took some of his statements out of context, and he has noted that, in any event, the program preceded his tenure as CIA director. But the evidence of false and unsupported testimony is overwhelming.
Consider just three examples. Hayden claimed that all of those conducting the program were “carefully chosen and carefully screened” and underwent more than 250 hours of specialized training. In fact, the CIA’s records show that it chose interrogators who “had engaged in inappropriate detainee interrogations, had workplace anger management issues, and had reportedly admitted to sexual assault,” according to the Senate report. Some interrogators were given no training at all; others had 65 hours — not 250.
Hayden also claimed that all interrogations were observed by nonparticipants and that “any observer can call ‘knock it off’ at any time.” He said no one expressed any reservations. In fact, CIA records show that many involved did object to the procedures, to no avail. When one team member questioned the legality of the techniques being applied to Abu Zubaida, for example, CIA supervisor Jose Rodriguez instructed the team member to stop using “speculative language as to the legality of given activities” in agency cables. During the interrogation of Abu Zubaida, CIA cables report that several team members were “to the point of tears and choking up,” and that two or three said they would seek transfers if the abuse continued. (And it did continue.)
Hayden also denied that any interrogators ever punched anyone or threatened family members of detainees, and assured the committee that any abuse would be reported. In fact, CIA records disclose the use of a “hard takedown” method, in which about five team members jumped a detainee, hooded him, cut away his clothes, punched him and dragged him down a hallway. Other records show that interrogators threatened to kill, capture or assault family members if suspects did not talk. Some of the most notorious abuses, including the use of a gun and an electric drill to threaten one detainee, were never reported, because the supervisor assumed the tactic had been approved.
Hayden was following a well-trod path. The CIA gave false information about Abu Zubaida to the Justice Department when seeking initial approval to use waterboarding and other torture tactics, asserting that he was uncooperative when in fact he had been providing a great deal of information to FBI agents using lawful interrogation methods. The CIA later claimed that the waterboarding of Abu Zubaida had produced critical intelligence about other al-Qaeda members, but the agency’s records show that Abu Zubaida provided that information before being subjected to coercive tactics.
The CIA stonewalled Intelligence Committee requests for information about the program, and it falsely told the White House, the Justice Department and the intelligence panel that its coercive tactics had elicited critical intelligence that disrupted plots and led to the capture of many al-Qaeda members. On Thursday, CIA Director John Brennan admitted that the agency does not actually know whether any of its coercive tactics led directly to useful information — and indeed that it is “unknowable.”
There is a simple reason Hayden and the CIA would misrepresent so much about a putatively lawful program. The truth about torture is unremittingly ugly — and therefore could not be acknowledged. That’s why the CIA destroyed its videotapes of the interrogations of Abu Zubaida and Khalid Sheik Mohammed. It knew that if the tapes were seen, the truth about torture would be self-evident.
The report notes that after Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) called for an independent commission to investigate detention and interrogation in 2005, CIA General Counsel John Rizzo warned in an e-mail that such an investigation “obviously would serve to surface the tapes’ existence,” and he recommended that approval be sought to destroy them. A senior CIA lawyer responded: “You are correct. The sooner we resolve this the better.”
The CIA lied because in truth, there is no way to subject a human being to forced nudity, prolonged sleep deprivation, shackled stress positions, slamming against walls, confinement in small boxes and waterboarding that is not deeply repugnant and morally corrupt. This is why CIA defenders still refer to “enhanced interrogation techniques” — or better yet, “EITs” — rather than describing what interrogators actually did.
The truth about torture is that when government agents are given a green light to treat other human beings without the most basic respect for their dignity, they will inevitably engage in abuse. Torture transgresses the most fundamental of moral precepts: Do unto others only as you would have them do unto you. The only way to live with the practice, from the interrogator’s point of view, is to deny the humanity of those being subjected to it. And once that happens, should we be surprised that rectal feeding, a threat to slit the throat of a detainee’s mother and threats to kill a detainee with an electric drill follow?
But there are two more-complicated truths about torture, neither of which the committee report adequately acknowledges. The first, as Brennan has now admitted, is that we cannot know whether torture “works.” Basic ethical rules prohibit experiments in which we give some subjects donuts and coffee, while suffocating others, in order to see what technique is more likely to produce the truth. Experienced interrogators almost universally assert that building rapport is the best way to get information, and that using force is likely to shut suspects down or cause them to give false answers. In fact, they don’t really know, either. It is certainly possible that for some people in some circumstances, torture might well compel them to tell a secret they otherwise would not divulge.
But whether torture works, a major preoccupation of the Senate report, is the wrong question. The world’s governments did not negotiate a treaty banning it under all circumstances because it’s ineffective. They did so because it is immoral, inhumane and unacceptable — even if it works.
There is still another truth about this particular torture, one that the Senate report obscures, perhaps intentionally. The CIA was by no means the only culpable actor in this story. Focusing on its deceptions suggests that, had the agency not misled the rest of the government, we would not have gone down this road. It lets off the hook the White House, the Justice Department and, most important, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence itself.
Yes, the CIA lied. But all of the other relevant actors knew more than enough to say no. They knew that the CIA was disappearing suspects into secret detention sites — a grave international human rights violation on its own — and then subjecting them to prolonged sleep deprivation, waterboarding, physical assaults and painful stress positions. This was the brutality that the Justice Department and the president expressly approved. This was the brutality that the Senate committee leadership knew about. Yet no one sought to stop it.
Torture was not just the work of a rogue agent or agency, but the formal policy of the highest levels of our government, executive and legislative. And we the people are also complicit, as long as we do not demand accountability. That’s the more difficult conclusion, one the Senate committee did not have the courage to reach. But that’s the whole truth.
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