CIA Ignored Its Own Lessons in Turning to Torture After 9/11

For decades, the CIA has known and acknowledged that torture doesn't work. Yet that's what it sought in the aftermath of 9/11.

One of the detainee interrogation rooms,
Guantanamo Bay, CUBA: One of the detainee interrogation rooms, in a plywood building, at the deteriorating Camp X-Ray, long ago abandoned for more modern facilities at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo, Cuba, 25 April 2007. US Military officials list about 385 current detainees of various threat levels and nationalities being held on the US base in Cuba capured in the US war on terror. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

In November 2001, when CIA officials began researching the usefulness of torture to get quick, actionable intelligence for stopping another catastrophic attack on the United States, they were ignoring the agency’s own record and lessons showing that coercive techniques often yield little useful information and more often than not produce false leads.

It wasn’t the first time that the top U.S. spy agency chose to use such techniques, the Senate Intelligence Committee report issued Tuesday shows. Despite the agency’s acknowledged failures in using coercive interrogation techniques, its officers returned to such methods in both the 1980s and again in 2001.

Six days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when President George W. Bush issued a secret order authorizing the CIA to capture and detain terrorism suspects, the agency had interrogation standards that eschewed torture and coercion.

And yet, inexplicably, the CIA turned to torture anyway, as the agency’s officers and America’s political leaders were under intense pressure to foil any future terrorist attacks. A November 2001 draft memorandum prepared by the CIA’s lawyers argued that its agents could claim that “torture was necessary to prevent imminent, significant, physical harm to persons, where there is no other available means to prevent the harm,” according to the Senate report.

Based on past practices and lessons learned, the agency had in fact concluded that “inhumane physical or psychological techniques are counterproductive because they do not produce intelligence and will probably result in false answers,” according to the Senate report, which cited a January 1989 correspondence from the agency to William Cohen, who then was vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Cohen, a Republican from Maine, later became President Clinton’s defense secretary before retiring in early 2001.

“Physical abuse or other degrading treatment was rejected not only because it is wrong, but because it has historically proven ineffective,” Richard Stolz, the CIA’s deputy director of operations, testified before the Senate Intelligence panel in 1988 as part of Congress’s investigations into human rights abuses committed by CIA-trained military units in Honduras.

The techniques the CIA and the U.S. Army Green Berets used in training numerous Latin American militaries in the early 1980s were embedded in the agency’s Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual, which was itself borrowed from an even earlier manual the spy agency developed after World War II and one that lasted into the 1960s, called KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation. The declassified portions of both manuals are available on the website of George Washington University’s National Security Archive.

Some of the coercive techniques described in the KUBARK manual, including “arrest, detention, deprivation of sensory stimuli through solitary confinement or similar methods, threats and fear, debility, pain, heightened suggestibility and hypnosis, narcosis and induced regression,” were disavowed by the CIA in the aftermath of the agency’s three-year interrogation of Yuri Nosenko, a KGB agent who defected to the United States in 1964 but was suspected of being a Soviet mole.

Nosenko’s prolonged interrogation included “sensory deprivation techniques and forced standing,” and in a Sept. 15, 1978, congressional hearing, CIA officer John Limond Hart testified that it left him profoundly shaken. “It has never fallen to my lot to be involved with any experience as unpleasant in every possible way as, first, the investigation of this case, and, second, the necessity of lecturing upon it and testifying,” he reportedly said. “To me it is an abomination, and I am happy to say that … it is not in my memory typical of what my colleagues and I did in the agency during the time I was connected with it.”

Despite that testimony, in the early 1980s, the CIA included KUBARK techniques in the Human Resource Exploitation manual used to train Latin American militaries, according to the Senate report.

The CIA never really took on interrogation as a core mission, which might partly explain its episodic reliance on unproven coercive interrogation techniques, said Robert McFadden, a senior vice president at the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm.

Although CIA case officers were the top professionals in their field, “in my career and tenure as a counterintelligence officer and special agent I wasn’t aware of CIA colleagues or officers having an interrogation mission, or any of the officers I worked with having any formal interrogation training,” said McFadden, who was one of the agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the FBI involved in investigating the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.

The skill involved in interrogating a suspect in a terrorism case differs from recruiting spies, McFadden said. Although some skills may be common to both case officers and interrogation specialists — like understanding what motivates a human being — knowing how to extract information from a detainee takes time to learn and develop, McFadden said.

At the NCIS agents are trained to interrogate suspects in a range of scenarios from felony criminal cases to espionage and terrorism cases, McFadden said. “It involves training in a basic agent course and a very well-developed mentoring program and we go through years where we have a supervisor watch and hone and help us gain experience to become effective interrogators.”

When President Barack Obama ordered the closing of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program in 2009, the agency once again gave up its role in interrogations. Obama created the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, also known as HIG, which includes experts from several U.S. intelligence agencies but is overseen by the National Security Council.

The new group — not the CIA — has interrogated terrorism suspects including Ahmed Abu Khatallah, a suspect in the attack on the U.S. Embassy compound in Benghazi, Libya.

Still, McFadden and his colleague Ali Soufan — chief executive of the Soufan Group, and a former FBI special agent who investigated the USS Cole bombing as well as being involved with the early interrogation of al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah — are “mystified why the decision process” allowing the CIA to take on coercive interrogations in 2001 occurred without expert interrogators being consulted, McFadden said.

Paul J. Richard/AFP

Gopal Ratnam is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering the White House, the Pentagon and broader national security issues. A native of India,Gopal has covered topics ranging from child-labor law violations and the automotive industry to the international arms trade, the politics of weapons purchases, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has reported from dozens of countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently he was the Pentagon reporter for Bloomberg News. Twitter: @g_ratnam