Senate Intelligence Committee Report Reveals A Dark and Regrettable Time In American History
Notwithstanding warnings from some members of the intelligence community as well as former members of the Bush Administration, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its long anticipated unclassified report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture and other enhanced intelligence techniques during the Bush Administration:
WASHINGTON — A scathing report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday found that the Central Intelligence Agencyroutinely misled the White House and Congress about the information it obtained from the detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects, and that its methods were more brutal than the C.I.A. acknowledged either to Bush administration officials or to the public.
The long-delayed report, which took five years to produce and is based on more than six million internal agency documents, is a sweeping indictment of the C.I.A.’s operation and oversight of a program carried out by agency officials and contractors in secret prisons around the world in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It also provides a macabre accounting of some of the grisliest techniques that the C.I.A. used to torture and imprison terrorism suspects.
Detainees were deprived of sleep for as long as a week, and were sometimes told that they would be killed while in American custody. With the approval of the C.I.A.’s medical staff, some C.I.A. prisoners were subjected to medically unnecessary “rectal feeding” or “rectal hydration” — a technique that the C.I.A.’s chief of interrogations described as a way to exert “total control over the detainee.” C.I.A. medical staff members described the waterboarding of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, as a “series of near drownings.”
The report also suggests that more prisoners were subjected to waterboarding than the three the C.I.A. has acknowledged in the past. The committee obtained a photograph of a waterboard surrounded by buckets of water at the prison in Afghanistan commonly known as the Salt Pit — a facility where the C.I.A. had claimed that waterboarding was never used. One clandestine officer described the prison as a “dungeon,” and another said that some prisoners there “literally looked like a dog that had been kenneled.”
During his administration, President George W. Bush repeatedly said that the detention and interrogation program, which President Obama dismantled when he succeeded him, was humane and legal. The intelligence gleaned during interrogations, he said, was instrumental both in thwarting terrorism plots and in capturing senior figures of Al Qaeda.
Mr. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney and a number of former C.I.A. officials have said more recently that the program was essential for ultimately finding Osama bin Laden, who was killed by members of the Navy SEALs in May 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The Intelligence Committee’s report tries to refute each of these claims, using the C.I.A.’s internal records to present 20 case studies that bolster its conclusion that the most extreme interrogation methods played no role in disrupting terrorism plots, capturing terrorist leaders — even finding Bin Laden.
The report said that senior officials — including the former C.I.A. directors George J. Tenet, Porter J. Goss and Michael V. Hayden — repeatedly inflated the value of the program in secret briefings both at the White House and on Capitol Hill, and in public speeches.
As Ms. Feinstein was preparing to speak, the C.I.A. director, John O. Brennan, issued a response that both acknowledged mistakes in the detention and interrogation program and angrily challenged some of the findings of the Senate report as an “incomplete and selective picture of what occurred.”
“As an agency, we have learned from these mistakes, which is why my predecessors and I have implemented various remedial measures over the years to address institutional deficiencies,” Mr. Brennan said.
But despite the mistakes, he added, “the record does not support the study’s inference that the agency systematically and intentionally misled each of these audiences on the effectiveness of the program.”
The entire report is more than 6,000 pages long, but the committee voted in April to declassify only its 524-page executive summary and a rebuttal by Republican members of the committee. The investigation was conducted by staff members working for Democratic senators on the committee.
he New York Times and other news organizations received an advance copy of the report and agreed not to publish any of its findings until the Senate Intelligence Committee made them public. The Times did not receive an advance copy of the Republican rebuttal.
Many of the most extreme interrogation methods — including waterboarding — were authorized by Justice Department lawyers during the Bush administration. But the report also found evidence that a number of detainees had been subjected to other, unapproved methods while in C.I.A. custody.
The torture of prisoners at times was so extreme that some C.I.A. personnel tried to put a halt to the techniques, but were told by senior agency officials to continue the interrogation sessions.
The Senate report quotes a series of August 2002 cables from a C.I.A. facility in Thailand, where the agency’s first prisoner was held. Within days of the Justice Department’s approval to begin waterboarding the prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, the sessions became so extreme that some C.I.A. officers were “to the point of tears and choking up,” and several said they would elect to be transferred out of the facility if the brutal interrogations continued.
During one waterboarding session, Abu Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” The interrogations lasted for weeks, and some C.I.A. officers began sending messages to the agency’s headquarters in Virginia questioning the utility — and the legality — of what they were doing. But such questions were rejected.
“Strongly urge that any speculative language as to the legality of given activities or, more precisely, judgment calls as to their legality vis-à-vis operational guidelines for this activity agreed upon and vetted at the most senior levels of the agency, be refrained from in written traffic (email or cable traffic),” wrote Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., then the head of the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Center.
“Such language is not helpful.”
The Senate report found that the detention and interrogation of Mr. Zubaydah and dozens of other prisoners were ineffective in giving the government “unique” intelligence information that the C.I.A. or other intelligence agencies could not get from other means.
The report also said that the C.I.A.’s leadership for years gave false information about the total number of prisoners held by the C.I.A., saying there had been 98 prisoners when C.I.A. records showed that 119 men had been held. In late 2008, according to one internal email, a C.I.A. official giving a briefing expressed concern about the discrepancy and was told by Mr. Hayden, then the agency’s director, “to keep the number at 98” and not to count any additional detainees.
The committee’s report concluded that of the 119 detainees, “at least 26 were wrongfully held.”
“These included an ‘intellectually challenged’ man whose C.I.A. detention was used solely as leverage to get a family member to provide information, two individuals who were intelligence sources for foreign liaison services and were former C.I.A. sources, and two individuals whom the C.I.A. assessed to be connected to Al Qaeda based solely on information fabricated by a C.I.A. detainee subjected to the C.I.A.’s enhanced interrogation techniques,” the report said.
There’s plenty of horrific detail set forth in the report in addition to the above, of course, much of it details that we already knew, some of it brand new to those outside the Senate Intelligence Committee, and a great deal of it horrifying to anyone with even the slightest sense of decency. The revelation that is both the most and in some sense the least surprising, though, is that intelligence officials appear to have deliberately kept President Bush ill-informed about exactly what its agents and contractors were doing in the name of the United States at the various secret holding sites around the world where these activities were conducted. Officials also kept Secretary of State Colin Powell completely in the dark about the program for fear that he would “blow his stack” if he knew the truth about what was going on. At first glance, of course, it should be shocking to anyone who believes in the concept of Constitutional government that the person theoretically responsible for authorizing the behavior in question should be deceived in this manner. After all, in the past members of the Bush Administration from the former President on down have justified the use of these techniques as something that was necessary for the security of the nation, something which has saved lives, and, allegedly, something which helped to extract information that was ultimately used to find Osama bin Laden and launch the raid that ended in his death at the hands of Seal Team Six. On the other hand, of course, there are reasons why it would be wise to keep the President only vaguely informed about the techniques used given the fact that there are clear concerns that the techniques themselves violated American and international law and that even being involved in authorizing them could expose not only the people involved in the interrogations but also people higher up the food chain to some form of legal liability either domestically or internationally, although after all this passage of time it seems unlikely that any such thing is going to happen. It’s the concept of deniability, one which we saw during the Iran/Contra scandal and at other points in history when the President was shielded from exactly what was going on in order to provide him with some level of political and legal shielding from the consequences of potentially illegal action.
Politically, the reaction to this has been about what you’d expect. Republicans, who are largely standing by the report signed off on by all but one of the Republican members of the Intelligence Committee, are contending that the primary purpose of the report was to embarrass the Bush Administration and the GOP as well as repeating the arguments raised before the report was released that doing so will endanger Americans around the world. Even some elements of the Administration were opposed to the timing of the release of the report, with Bloomberg reporting on Friday that Secretary of State Kerry was lobbying Committee Chairwoman Diane Feinstein to delay the release of the report, a request which was ultimately rejected. Once the report was released, though, the Obama Administration released a statement in which it stated that the report, in both its recitation of what was done by the CIA and rebutting the already flimsy claims that the enhanced techniques “worked” in some sense of the word, vindicated the President’s decision to end all such programs when he became President. Perhaps the best response to the report, though, came from Senator John McCain, who knows better than anyone else in the Senate what torture is all about, who took to the Senate floor after Feinstein and gave a passionate speech about the immorality of torture under all circumstances and the importance of bringing this information to light:
I’ve been critical of Senator McCain many times, but on this issue he deserves the thanks of a nation for being willing to speak the truth.
On balance, it strikes me that releasing the report was most certainly the right thing to do. For too long, the American people have been kept in the dark about this part of our recent history, and it seems to me that its far beyond the time at which the dirty laundry must be aired. Those who argue that releasing the report will put Americans at risk are clearly engaging in scare tactics and, ironically, are largely the same people who tell us that making the argument that terrorists strike at Americans and the West because of our policies are “blaming America” even when there is clear evidence that this so-called “blowback” is a real phenomenon, and one that is often used quite effectively to recruit new terrorists into groups like al Qaeda and its affiliates, ISIS, and other organizations intent on causing harm to the West. In any case, as I have long said, much of what it is in this report consists of things that have long been known or suspected about what was going on in the early years after the September 11th attacks in secret locations all over the world. Releasing this report now is unlikely to do anything but confirm things that people have already known or suspected. In addition to the importance of the truth seeing the light of day, there is also value of the people being held accountable, by the judgment of history if not the legal system, for actions that were clearly illegal and contrary to every principle of American law up until the early 21st Century when the President of the United States essentially signed off on legal findings that said that the CIA could engage in illegal action in the name of the “War On Terror.” Finally, the fact that the program was far more extensive than first believed, and that the details of that program were deliberately concealed from the people in charge is something that should shock the conscience of any American regardless of what political party they belong to. Sadly, in today’s hyperpartisan world, that is unlikely to happen.
In any case, feel free to judge for yourself, as I’ve linked all the relevant reports below:
- Senate Intelligence Committee Report
- Senate Intelligence Committee Minority Report
- Central Intelligence Agency Response to Senate Intelligence Committee Report.
After all, this was done in your name and mine. It’s time we knew the truth.