Government & Politics

CIA brutalized terror suspects for little intelligence gain, Senate finds

Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein was pursued by reporters Tuesday on Capitol Hill in Washington as she arrived to release a report on the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques at secret overseas facilities after the 9/11 terror attacks.
Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein was pursued by reporters Tuesday on Capitol Hill in Washington as she arrived to release a report on the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques at secret overseas facilities after the 9/11 terror attacks. AP

The CIA held at least 119 people in secret overseas prisons — some of whom were innocent — and subjected many to gruesome interrogations that didn’t lead to any high-level terrorists — including Osama bin Laden — and were more vicious than the agency disclosed to policymakers and the public, said a long-awaited Senate report released Tuesday.

Some $40 million and five years in the making, the report described in disturbing detail the mistreatment meted out by untrained CIA officers, some with histories of violence. The abuse included detainees being interrogated for days on end, hooded and dragged naked across floors while being beaten, threatened with death, deprived of sleep for up to a week, and subjected without medical reason to “rectal rehydration” and to “rectal feeding” with a puree of humus, raisins, nuts and pasta with sauce.

The Senate Intelligence Committee report also suggested that the CIA waterboarded more than the three people who the agency has admitted subjecting to the simulated drowning procedure. The use of the procedure on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, amounted to a “series of near drownings,” according to internal CIA documents cited by the report.

At least two detainees also died, one from a beating and the other from suspected hypothermia.

The report, based on a review of some 6.3 million pages of top-secret CIA cables, emails, reports and other documents and photographs, amounted to the most comprehensive account of the CIA’s now-defunct interrogation program. It harshly repudiates assertions by former President George W. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney and other former and current senior officials that special methods were needed to obtain vital intelligence that could not be found by other means, that detainees were treated legally and never tortured, and that life-saving information was gained.

None of the CIA’s political masters, however, was held accountable in the report for the roles they played in one of the darkest chapters of the U.S.-led war on terror.

A senior Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity as a matter of policy, questioned the need to reopen a criminal investigation that was closed by the Justice Department in 2012 for lack of “admissible evidence,” even though the committee chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said for the first time in the report’s foreword that CIA personnel broke U.S. law and violated international treaties against torture, charges that weren’t leveled in the document itself.

“CIA personnel, aided by two outside contractors, decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations and our values,” she wrote. “It is my personal conclusion, under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured.”

The findings by the Democrat-led committee painted a portrait of the nation’s premier espionage agency operating a cruel, ineffective and money-wasting interrogation operation that cost more than $300 million, produced intelligence that could have been found elsewhere and seriously marred the United States’ international standing. The CIA misrepresented to the White House, Congress and the American public how the program was run, the interrogation methods, the number of detainees it held and the information it gained, according to the report.

While stopping short of calling it bribery, the report said the CIA paid millions of dollars in cash to foreign officials to encourage their governments to host — or agree to expansions of — the secret “black site” prisons where the agency confined at least 119 detainees between 2002 and 2007. On at least four occasions, the CIA had another country hold detainees who agency officials themselves conceded “did not meet the . . . standard for detention.”

At least 26 detainees did not meet the legal guidelines for detention. They included Abu Hudhaifa, who was subjected to ice-water baths and 66 hours of standing sleep deprivation before he was released after “the CIA discovered he was likely not the person he was believed to be.”

Human rights organizations called on the Obama administration to investigate and prosecute officials responsible for the abuse of CIA detainees.

“Torture is always criminal and can never be justified,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch.

In an emailed statement summarizing a response to the report that it provided to the committee last year, the CIA acknowledged that it exaggerated the value of some intelligence collected by the program. But it defended the program’s effectiveness in breaking up terrorist plots and providing information on al-Qaida that’s still valuable.

“Interrogations of detainees on whom EITs were used did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives,” CIA Director John Brennan said in a statement, referring to the enhanced interrogation techniques. “The intelligence gained from the program was critical to our understanding of al-Qaida and continues to inform our counterterrorism efforts to this day.”

President Barack Obama, who’d previously described the CIA’s interrogation methods as torture, didn’t use the term in a statement in which he expressed the hope – as he’s done before – that the report “can help us leave these (interrogation) techniques where they belong — to the past.”

While praising personnel of the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies for the sacrifices they’ve made to keep the nation secure, Obama said some of the actions taken after 9/11 were “contrary to our values,” and that he’d ordered them stopped almost as soon as he assumed office.

The report “reinforces my long-held view that these harsh methods were not only inconsistent with our values as a nation, they did not serve our broader counterterrorism efforts or our national security interests,” he said. “Moreover, these techniques did significant damage to America’s standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners.”

In one major finding, the report said that the CIA misleadingly stated that it had obtained from detainees subjected to the techniques information on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, an al-Qaida operative whose identification and tracking led the agency to the hideout in Pakistan where bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011. But, the report continued, the committee found that the agency already had information on al-Kuwaiti “prior to and independent of information from CIA detainees.”

“CIA detainees who were subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques withheld and fabricated information about” al-Kuwaiti, the report said.

The findings are the product of an investigation launched by the committee in 2009 into the CIA’s so-called Rendition, Detention and Interrogation Program, which Bush secretly authorized a week after the 9/11 attacks. It involved abducting suspected al-Qaida operatives based overseas who were flown to the agency’s secret prisons, where they underwent so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.

The probe was conducted by staffers of the committee’s Democratic staff — Republican staffers stopped participating after several weeks — who focused on the use of the techniques on 20 detainees.

Based on descriptions of the techniques provided by the CIA, the Bush Justice Department produced opinions legalizing the 10 methods, which included wall-slamming, sleep deprivation, stress positions and waterboarding. The report found that the CIA misled the Justice Department in detailing how the procedures would be used and that CIA officers and contractors went far beyond what was described to the Justice Department.

Moreover, the committee uncovered a photograph from a secret prison where the CIA claimed the procedure wasn’t used that showed a waterboard — an inclined plank hinged on an upright stand — surrounded by buckets of water. The photograph suggested that individuals other than Mohammed, Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged Saudi mastermind of the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, underwent the procedure, said the report, adding that CIA couldn’t explain the presence of the “well-worn” waterboard at the site.

The CIA’s first detainee, Hussein, a senior al-Qaida operative from Saudi Arabia who used the nom de guerre Abu Zubaydah, was the first to be waterboarded, even though the report said he had cooperated and provided valuable intelligence to FBI and CIA officials before being subjected to the procedure, including identifying Mohammed as the chief planner of the 9/11 attacks. He was waterboarded 83 times.

“The waterboarding technique was physically harmful, inducing convulsions and vomiting. Abu Zubaydah, for example, became ‘completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth,’” said the report, quoting internal CIA documents. CIA interrogators told him “that the only way that he’d leave the facility was in” a coffin-shaped box in which he periodically was confined, it said.

“Abu Zubaydah frequently ‘cried,’ ‘begged,’ ‘pleaded’ and ‘whimpered,’ but continued to deny that he had any additional information on current threats,” said the report.

The brutal tactics took a toll on U.S. personnel.

CIA email traffic in August 2002, for instance, revealed that U.S. officials serving in a secret overseas facility code-named by the committee as Detention Site Green — believed to have been located in Thailand — were increasingly upset over the treatment of Abu Zubaydah.

“Today’s first session had a profound effect on all staff members present,” and Aug. 8, 2002, CIA email reported. “Several on the team profoundly affected . . . some to the point of tears and choking up.”

The report also detailed the mistreatment of detainees at another site that the committee code-named Cobalt, which opened in September 2002 and eventually housed more than half of the 119 detainees.

The report said CIA officers used unauthorized interrogation techniques. These included placing pressure on a detainee’s artery, conducting mock executions, blowing cigar smoke into a detainee’s face and using cold water.

The CIA appointed an inexperienced junior officer to oversee the detention center, where detainees were held in total darkness “and constantly shackled in isolated cells with loud noise or music and only a bucket for use for human waste,” said the report, which added that the agency’s chief of interrogations referred to Cobalt as “a dungeon.”

Detainees were led around naked or were shackled for extended periods with their hands over their heads. They were subjected to what CIA officials called a “hard takedown.” In the case of an Afghan detainee named Gul Rahman, about five CIA officers rushed into his cell, dragged him outside, cut off his clothes, secured him with Mylar tape and slapped and punched him forcefully. The officers then ran Rahman along the corridor, dragging him through the dirt floor when he fell.

Rahman later died in November 2001, reportedly of hypothermia. The agency declined to take action against the officer involved. The second detainee who died was Abdul Wali, an Afghan who was beaten to death in June 2003 by a CIA contractor, David Passaro. Passaro was convicted of assault in a U.S. court.

The report found that many detainees who were subjected to the interrogation techniques and kept in extended isolation developed “psychological and behavioral issues, including hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia and attempts at self-harm and self-mutilation.”

Bush, who signed a secret order authorizing the detention program a week after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, wasn’t filled in on the interrogation techniques until 2006, although someone in the White House canceled a CIA briefing that was planned for him in 2002, according to the report.

The committee’s minority Republicans disputed that assertion, saying in their rebuttal that Bush wrote in his autobiography that he was filled in on the CIA’s specific interrogation techniques in 2002, although they admit that CIA documentation about when that briefing took place “is contradictory and incomplete.”

Republicans also took issue with the report’s finding that the CIA impeded congressional oversight of the program.

“From 2002 to 2008, the CIA provided more than 35 briefings to (Senate Intelligence Committee) members and staff, more than 30 similar briefings to (House Intelligence Committee) members and staff, and more than 20 congressional notifications.”

The CIA paid more than $80 million of a $180 million contract with a firm founded by two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jensen, who were contracted, despite a lack of qualifications, to design the “enhanced interrogation techniques” and interrogated some of the agency’s most valuable detainees. The pair had been associated with a U.S. military program that taught U.S. troops how to evade capture, resist torture and escape from enemy prisons.

Feinstein took to the Senate floor for about an hour to detail the findings of the investigation.

“History will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say, ‘Never again,’” Feinstein said. “The CIA’s actions a decade ago are a stain on our values and our history. The release of this report cannot remove that stain, but releasing this report tells the world that America is big enough to admit to its mistakes.”

At the same time, she released a 524-page declassified summary of the more than 6,700-page top-secret report.

In his statement, Brennan acknowledged that “the detention and interrogation program had shortcomings and that the agency made mistakes,” which he said stemmed chiefly from how unprepared the CIA was to carry out what he described as an unprecedented mass detention and interrogation effort in the war to dismantle al-Qaida.

While the CIA found “common ground” with some of the Senate committee’s findings, Brennan said, “We part ways with the committee on some key points.”

He said the intelligence gleaned from the interrogations had been used to thwart attack plots, capture terrorists and save lives. And he balked at the committee’s conclusion that CIA officials had tried to hide the extent of the program from the Bush White House, Congress and the public.

In its summary of its 2013 response to the report, the CIA conceded that some of the exaggerated value of the intelligence collected by the program was reflected in a September 2006 speech in which Bush acknowledged its existence for the first time.

However, the CIA described the report as an inaccurate account of the interrogation program.

“There are too many flaws for it to stand as the official record of the program,” the agency said.

“We cannot vouch for every individual statement that was made over the years of the program, and we acknowledge that some of those statements were wrong. But the image portrayed in the study of an organization that — on an institutional scale — intentionally misled and routinely resisted oversight from the White House, the Congress, the Department of Justice and its own (inspector general) simply does not comport with the record,” it said.

The CIA maintained that the information collected during interrogations was crucial in detecting terrorist plots.

“The sum total of information provided from detainees in CIA custody substantially advanced the agency’s strategic and tactical understanding of the enemy in ways that continue to inform counterterrorism efforts to this day,” the agency said.

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