Three days after the planes had plunged into New York’s tallest towers, a secret message went out to CIA stations overseas. Start making a list of potential detention sites, it said, a request that was relayed as an “urgent requirement” from the chief of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center.
It would be three more days before the CIA would even be given authority to capture and hold terrorism suspects as part of a highly classified memorandum signed by President George W. Bush. But with that frantic plea from headquarters, the CIA had taken an initial, fateful step toward setting up its secret prisons.
In time, the agency would establish a clandestine archipelago of “black sites” in countries including Afghanistan, Thailand, Poland, Romania and Lithuania. The brutal means the CIA employed in those compounds to get terrorism suspects to talk would have far-reaching consequences for the agency and the United States’ fight against terrorism, as well as the country’s standing in the world.
A long-awaited report by the Senate Intelligence Committee released this week describes those interrogation measures in unprecedented detail, a document that is designed mainly to make the case that such harsh tactics failed to produce any decisive intelligence.
But the 528-page report also serves as the most comprehensive history of the interrogation program so far revealed to the public. It includes details on how the CIA selected the prison sites, the multimillion-dollar inducement payments it made to countries that hosted them, as well as the extent to which their locations were kept secret from U.S. ambassadors, members of Congress and even the president.
The Senate study traces the CIA’s embrace of what President Obama would call torture. In particular, the document delineates the roles of two questionably credentialed advisers, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who designed harrowing regimens of waterboarding and other abuse under classified contracts that paid more than $80 million before the CIA cut ties with them.
The account that emerges is one of an agency that was admittedly unprepared for its role as warden — a spy service that most agree deserves credit for dismantling the core al-Qaeda organization that plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but committed grievous errors in an interrogation program that followed an erratic and often troubling course until it was dismantled in 2009.
The agency’s hurtling response to the Sept. 11 attacks “resulted in significant lapses” in its handling of prisoners, Brennan wrote in a formal CIA rebuttal, problems that “were the result of a failure of management at multiple levels.”
The initial call for “input on appropriate locations for potential CIA detention facilities” was issued on Sept. 14, 2001, according to the Senate report, at the direction of Cofer Black, who was chief of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center in the years leading up to the attacks.
Over the coming weeks, the CIA considered five countries on two continents as “possible hosts for detention facilities,” according to the Senate study, and scouted at least “three proposed site locations” within those nations’ borders.
The countries are not identified in the report, but most of those initial proposals were discarded, according to current and former U.S. officials, as the agency fruitlessly explored other options — including the possibility of holding prisoners at a U.S. military base — before being forced to return to its original idea.
In a pattern that would repeat throughout the program, the CIA wouldn’t resolve the issue until it was compelled to do so by events. In March 2002, Pakistani authorities working alongside the CIA captured alleged al-Qaeda facilitator Abu Zubaida, setting in motion a scramble to treat his serious wounds, press him for intelligence and find a place to put him.
The agency rejected placing Abu Zubaida in U.S. military custody, in part because doing so would mean declaring him to the International Committee of the Red Cross, according to the report. Bringing him to the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, risked “possible loss of control to U.S. military and/or FBI,” which had been involved in questioning Abu Zubaida from the outset.
So, in a matter of days, the CIA settled on a location in Thailand that would become the agency’s first black site. The decision was reached without input from the National Security Council at the White House, the State Department, the U.S. ambassador in Thailand or even the CIA’s station chief in that country.
The decision to bypass so many layers set a precedent the CIA would follow repeatedly. The Thailand site was approved by Bush, according to the Senate study, but it would be “the last location of a CIA detention facility known to the president or the vice president,” as the shroud of secrecy extended into the Oval Office to “avoid inadvertent disclosures.”
Almost immediately, there were tensions with the Thai government. The day after Abu Zubaida arrived, Thai officials began placing new conditions on their acquiescence, demanding access to U.S. intelligence that officials familiar with the Senate report said had nothing to do with terrorism. The Thai officials who had approved the CIA plan were suddenly replaced by others who objected to the deal and demanded that it be closed “within three weeks.”
CIA lobbying got Thai officials to relent, but by November, the location had leaked. The New York Times refrained from publishing the Thai connection, but “the fact that it had the information, combined with previous media interest, resulted in the decision to close” a site known by the code name “Cat’s Eye.”
Abu Zubaida’s capture also exposed the extent to which any CIA expertise in interrogation — much of which argued against the use of coercive methods — had atrophied since the Vietnam War. Senate investigators found scant evidence that the CIA devoted any energy to examining available research on the subject after the Sept. 11 attacks — with one portentous exception.
In early 2002, an obscure CIA department known as the Office of Technical Services commissioned a report from two contractors who had been psychologists with a U.S. Air Force school that trained elite U.S. military personnel on how to survive if taken prisoner by countries that engaged in torture.
Neither Mitchell nor Jessen “had experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialized knowledge of al-Qaeda, a background in terrorism, or any relevant regional, cultural, or linguistic expertise,” according to the Senate report. The two are identified in the document only by pseudonyms.
Mitchell seized on a controversial concept known as “learned helplessness,” the idea that a prisoner could be reduced through dehumanizing treatment to utter dependency on his captors.
In a July 2002 meeting at CIA headquarters, Mitchell proposed techniques that the CIA would come to define the agency program, including stress positions, sleep deprivation and waterboarding.
The CIA rejected one — mock burials — as too cruel.
CIA lawyers for months had been laying the legal groundwork for the use of harsh methods. But the Senate study underscores the unique responsibility of the two contractors.
“The CIA did not seek out [Mitchell and Jessen] after a decision was made to use coercive interrogation techniques,” the report said. Rather, the two men “played a role in convincing the CIA to adopt such a policy.”
Mitchell and Jessen did not return messages seeking comment. In its rebuttal to the Senate report, the CIA said “their expertise was so unique that we would have been derelict had we not sought them out when it became clear that CIA would be heading into the uncharted territory of the program.”
By August 2002, Mitchell and Jessen were no longer merely academic advisers but the leading practitioners of their proposed methods, sent to Thailand to run the interrogation of Abu Zubaida, who was kept in a coffin-sized box for hundreds of hours and waterboarded until he “became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through is open, full mouth.”
Abu Zubaida never provided any significant new information after being subjected to the harsh measures, according to Senate investigators. But based in part on the argument that the interrogation had helped rule out the possibility that Abu Zubaida was withholding information, Mitchell and Jessen sent a cable to CIA headquarters describing the interrogation as “a success,” and recommended that the approach “be used as a template for future interrogation of high value captives.”
In whole or in part, the “template” was used on an additional 38 detainees over the next seven years.
The CIA closed the Thailand site in December 2002. But by then, the interrogation program was taking on aspects of formality and permanence. Weeks earlier, 11 CIA officers emerged from the agency’s first “interrogator training course,” a two-week program on techniques including “abdominal slap” and “finger press.”
The agency also began to scout new locations for secret prisons, including three in Eastern Europe and a fourth, in Morocco, that was abandoned before it ever held any prisoners.
Abu Zubaida and another detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, were relocated to a facility in Poland, hidden behind a two-story villa on a Polish military training base three hours north of Warsaw.
Other prisons would include a block of six prefabricated cells in the basement of a government building in Bucharest, Romania, and a two-story, windowless structure at a riding stable in Lithuania.
The facilities were part of what came to resemble a detention shell game, as detainees were moved from sites that were forced to close to ones that were newly opened, and as the agency sought to hide the facilities’ locations and true purposes from officials overseas and in Washington.
The Senate report describes several heated confrontations. In 2003, after the U.S. ambassador in Romania learned that the CIA had established a secret prison there, he sought to notify his superiors at the State Department. The CIA’s station chief in Romania told the ambassador this was “not possible, and that no one at the State Department, including the Secretary of State, was informed” about the secret prison.
The ambassador demanded a signed document from then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice confirming that the site was authorized and met “legal and human rights standards.” CIA officials at headquarters headed this off by turning to Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, who called the ambassador to settle the issue but also told the CIA to start keeping him and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell better informed.
Michael Guest, who served as U.S. ambassador to Romania from 2001 to 2004, did not respond to requests for comment.
The Senate reports other cases in which the CIA struck agreements to build secret prisons in additional countries and instructed foreign officials “not to inform the U.S. ambassador there.”
To smooth frequent ruptures with host governments, the CIA doled out millions of dollars in subsidies. Officials at agency headquarters encouraged operatives in Romania to “think big” in finding ways to please their counterparts in that country. The CIA officers in Romania came back with a seven-figure “wish list,” and then received a sum at least $1 million more than had been requested.
The pages of the Senate report describing these deals are among the most heavily redacted sections of the document, with exact figures blacked out.
A former senior agency officer said the program had “more money than we could possibly spend we thought, and it turned out to be accurate,” according to the Senate report. The agency official then went on to describe how he and Jose Rodriguez, head of the Counterterrorism Center, gave the Polish intelligence service $15 million in boxes containing $100 bills.
“We never counted it,” the official said. “I am not about to count that kind of money for a receipt.”
Despite the rich payments, the CIA’s relations with partner governments broke down repeatedly, especially as media exposure fueled anger among foreign officials. A Washington Post story in 2005 that disclosed significant details about the interrogation program prompted Romania to issue a demand within hours that the secret site within its borders be closed.
The CIA shuttered other locations because of concerns over a lack of access to adequate medical care. In Lithuania, a local hospital refused to admit a CIA detainee, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, in the midst of a medical “emergency.” The Pentagon also refused to help, forcing the agency to pay multiple millions of dollars to secure assistance from “third-party countries.” The CIA closed the Lithuania facility in 2006.
The logistical challenges were compounded by other problems in the program. Among them were emerging conflicts in the CIA’s relationship with the contractors Mitchell and Jessen.
Beyond conducting the interrogations, the two were also responsible for psychological assessments of the detainees, effectively putting themselves in position to evaluate the effectiveness of their work and minimize any mental or emotional toll.
Among the interrogations they ran was that of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, who was captured in 2003 and subjected to an avalanche of coercive methods including nudity, sleep deprivation and threats to his children, according to the Senate report. He was also waterboarded 183 times in Poland.
Not everybody at the CIA approved of the arrangement with Mitchell and Jessen. The Office of Medical Service raised “concerns about conflict of interest.”
There was also grumbling about the contractors’ compensation, which the Senate report said was $1,800 a day — four times the rate paid to other contract interrogators not authorized to use the waterboard.
Mitchell and Jessen formed a company in 2005 and recruited former CIA employees who had worked in the program. They provided interrogators, psychologists, debriefers and security personnel for the secret prisons and were even tasked with writing a history of the program before they were cut loose.
The CIA also agreed to a $5 million indemnification contract that covered the costs of any criminal prosecution. The pair hired a prominent criminal defense lawyer beginning in 2007 and billed the CIA more than $1 million in legal expenses until 2012. Under the indemnification contract, the CIA remains obligated to pay their company’s legal expenses through 2021.
By early 2005, a CIA official in Romania was complaining of fundamental “mission fatigue.” Some detainees “have been all but drained of actionable intelligence,” the officer wrote, and the facility had gone from one of generating information to long-term detention.
Media exposure, bureaucratic fights and disputes with foreign governments had all taken a substantial toll. But the real unraveling came as the legal underpinnings of the program — a series of memos requested by the CIA and issued by the Justice Department — were narrowed, if not rescinded, by reexaminations and court rulings.
Since Sept. 11, the CIA had taken custody of 119 detainees. At the start of 2006, it had 28 left in custody, at just two remaining sites — in Afghanistan and Lithuania. When the latter closed, the agency went from prospecting for new sites to looking for someone willing to take those it had left in Afghanistan.
Then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld initially refused to allow the detainees to be taken to Guantanamo Bay. But when CIA Director Porter Goss was poised to complain to the White House that Rumsfeld had eliminated the agency’s “only viable endgame,” the Pentagon relented.
The agency released some of its remaining prisoners to at least nine countries and then moved the rest to Cuba shortly before Bush publicly acknowledged the program for the first time on Sept. 6, 2006, and declared the black sites empty.
The program, however, was not quite finished.
The following year, the agency took custody of Muhammad Rahim, an al-Qaeda facilitator captured in Pakistan who is described in the Senate report as “the CIA’s last detainee.”
He was taken to a secret prison in Afghanistan and subjected to a battery of methods including sleep deprivation and facial slaps, but not waterboarding or other tactics that by then had been discontinued. Rahim’s resistance appears to have infuriated CIA officials, who felt stripped of their most potent interrogation weapons.
When CIA Director Michael V. Hayden approved extending Rahim’s detention to continue questioning him, Rodriguez refused to sign on, saying, “I do not believe the tools in our tool box will allow us to overcome Rahim’s resistance.”
Rahim was ultimately transferred to Guantanamo Bay. His interrogation by the CIA, according to the Senate report, “resulted in no disseminated intelligence reports.”
Juliet Tate and Carol Morello contributed to this report.