The Problem With the Torture Report

$40 million, 6,000 pages, and 5 years in the making, the investigation into CIA enhanced interrogation is still full of holes.


Two years after a 9-6 bipartisan vote, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) will reportedly finally release a declassified executive summary (of between 480 and 600 pages) of the committee’s report (itself over 6,000 pages long) into the CIA’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation program. Despite the best efforts of news organizations, the SSCI’s report has not been leaked, although, in April, McClatchy did report that it contains 20 main conclusions, among them that the CIA used methods not approved by the Justice Department, and that the agency impeded congressional oversight of the program. SSCI member Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has claimed that the report shows “mistakes, misdeeds and falsehoods that were repeated over a period of years,” while minority chair Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) has termed the entire investigation a “mistake.”

Releasing the executive summary is worthwhile, even though it cannot be emphasized enough what little ground this report will actually cover. For example, no torture victims were interviewed by SSCI investigators, nor does the report evaluate the troubling interrogation techniques used by the Department of Defense on a vastly greater number of detainees. A more complete public account will still be needed into the extent to which the CIA covered up or obfuscated its activities at black sites, whether coercive interrogation techniques were more effective at gathering timely and reliable information than lawful interrogation, and, as Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) put it, to help “reach a consensus in this country that we will never again engage in these horrific abuses.”

When reading the executive summary, Americans should try to look beyond these specific abuses and ask the fundamental question: How could senior officials at the CIA, White House, and the Department of Justice have unanimously approved the use of torture? According to officials’ memoirs and historical accounts examining the four months between March 28, 2002, when al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah was captured in Pakistan, and Aug. 1, when the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memo authorizing the enhanced interrogation techniques was completed, not one senior official aware of the program registered an objection to it. Current CIA Director John Brennan, who was the agency’s deputy executive director in 2002, later claimed he had “personal objections” to “waterboarding, nudity, and others,” but he never made this officially known, not even to the CIA’s top lawyer, John Rizzo, whose office was just 15 feet away.

The reason that all informed Bush administration officials thought this was acceptable was best summarized six weeks after the OLC memo’s publication by then-CIA Counterterrorism Center Director Cofer Black, when he famously wrote to a joint congressional inquiry: “After 9/11 the gloves came off.” Indeed, immediately after Zubaydah was captured, Bush asked CIA Director George Tenet a question that would guide how detainees should be treated: “Who authorized putting him on pain medication?” As Ali Soufan, the FBI interrogator of Zubaydah for three months after his capture, later wrote: “Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.” However, counterterrorism officials believed that such lawfully gathered information was insufficient and, just days after the completion of the OLC memo, Zubaydah’s torture began in Thailand. The practice soon spread to the other black sites. As a CIA source explained to journalist James Risen, “Abu Zubaydah’s capture triggered everything.”

What about the politicians outside of the executive branch who by law are supposed to be “fully and currently informed” about U.S. intelligence activities and programs, and provide continuous oversight of them? The chairs and vice chairs of the Senate and House intelligence committees, as well as Senate and House leadership, were briefed 17 times about the enhanced interrogation techniques — including waterboarding — between September 2002 and December 2005, when President Bush signed the Detainee Treatment Act. (It is disputed which leaders actually attended which briefings.) How forthcoming and specific the CIA briefers were remains another inexplicable mystery of the post-9/11 era.

Republicans such as Sen. Richard Shelby and Rep. Porter Goss (who would go on to head the CIA), respectively claim to have received a “full account of the techniques,” and have said that “there was a pretty full understanding of what the CIA was doing.” Meanwhile, Democrats, including Sen. Bob Graham and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, respectively contended later to “not have any recollection of being briefed on waterboarding or other forms of extraordinary interrogation techniques,” or said they were told that such techniques “could be used, but not that they would.” Either knowledgeable Republicans and Democrats consented to CIA torture without objection, or they allowed a highly dysfunctional relationship between Langley and the intelligence committees to persist, preventing effective oversight. That, or they are lying about what they actually knew.

Intelligence officials claimed that the enhanced interrogation techniques were limited to 30 detainees (it was certainly more, possibly over 130), and they belittled the harm that was inflicted. A March 4, 2003, Wall Street Journal article described how intelligence officials overseeing interrogations “at Bagram and Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba can even authorize ‘a little bit of smacky-face’… ‘Some al Qaeda just need some extra encouragement,’ the official says.” Among the more enraging aspects of this sentiment, beyond describing torture with callousness, is that the CIA’s inspector general’s review of detention activities between September 2001 and October 2003 found “instances of improvisation and other undocumented interrogation techniques.” Thus, the interrogators were not just carrying out the orders laid out in the OLC memo, but expanded its scope as they saw fit. Of course, most of those unfortunate victims were not al Qaeda members, but merely Afghan farmers or low-level militants sold out by their rivals to the nearest U.S. soldiers, as Anand Gopal demonstrates in his masterful book on Afghanistan during that era.

The reason that government officials’ recent tolerance for torture must be remembered is that (ignoring the routine domestic terroristic acts wholly omitted from national security debates) the United States could again experience some serious international terrorist attack at some point. In response, what previously unlawful and unthinkable counterterrorism policies will government officials now endorse and defend?

As I noted two weeks ago, when the United States conducted its 500th non-battlefield targeted killing since 9/11, it is a quite easy for the once unimaginable to become commonplace. On June 22, 2004, President Bush declared: “We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being.”

But, of course, he did order torture (as he later explicitly stated in his 2010 memoir) and it was in fact a clear reflection of America’s values at that time, as expressed by our elected leaders in the executive and legislative branches. The less we reflect upon how officials allowed the previous torture era to occur, the more likely that it — or an era where equivalent counterterrorism abuses are endorsed — will be repeated.

John Moore/Getty Images

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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