Why America will torture again
The Senate's torture report is meant to teach us a lesson. But with no real accountability, what's to stop the CIA from repeating its mistakes?
After years of research and investigation, followed by more years of delays and roadblocks, the Senate report on the CIA torture program has finally been released. As I've been writing for months, the basic outline of the results were known in advance: the CIA tortured a lot of people, accomplished nothing by it, and lied through its teeth to defend itself and the program.
However, the sheer weight of all the horrifying details contained in the report, coupled with the credibility of its presentation, gives it a new and devastating impact. In particular, the grotesque and lawless incompetence of it all puts what's at stake here in stark relief: the rule of law, and the security of American democracy. And, unfortunately, the report does little to change the fact that both these things will remain under threat well into the future.
Before we dig into the details, a few facts to keep in mind. First, the use of torture in the Bush era was not limited to the CIA. The military also tortured people in Iraq, most notoriously at Abu Ghraib prison, and in Afghanistan in various places (though the CIA was often involved in those incidents as well). Second, torture was not only a tool of interrogation. It was also used to brutalize people into spying for the U.S. occupation, and to create false reports of a link between Iraq and al Qaeda to justify President Bush's war of aggression. Finally, the report itself has been fairly heavily redacted, and we're only seeing the executive summary (the full version is over 6,000 pages). By no means is this the full picture. As a former interrogator at Abu Ghraib put it, "I assure you there is more."
On to the three main qualities that characterize the CIA's behavior in this appalling era of U.S. history. Fair warning: this is going to be very ugly.
1. Brutality I've been studying CIA abuses for quite some time now, but I was still shocked at the depths of the depravity in this report. Here are a few samples.
CIA waterboarding was brutal in the extreme:
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." Internal CIA records describe the waterboarding of Khalid Shaykh Mohammad as evolving into a "series of near drownings." [p. 3]
The CIA repeatedly raped people in its custody. When detainees refused water or attempted self-harm in protest at their treatment, one officer wrote that anally raping them with fluids and food was an effective route to behavioral control: "[w]hile IV infusion is safe and effective, we were impressed with the ancillary effectiveness at rectal infusion on ending the water refusal in this case." One detainee was so brutally raped that his anus and colon were permanently damaged [p 100]:
Another detainee was threatened with sexual abuse of his family [p. 70]. This may have been a result of the CIA hiring interrogators with "workplace anger management issues" or those who "had reportedly admitted to sexual assault." It refused to vet those people [p. 59].
The CIA tortured at least one detainee to death. He was named Gul Rahman, and after being abused with "sleep deprivation, auditory overload, total darkness isolation, and rough treatment," he was left overnight with nothing but a sweatshirt and froze to death. Afterwards, the CIA lied about Rahman's death, then recommended the local station chief get a $2,500 bonus for "consistently superior work" [pp. 54-55].
As Andrew Sullivan wrote, "This is Nazi-level criminality and brutality. This is unimaginable sadism." It's no wonder some of the CIA officers were so disturbed they requested transfers out of the program.
2. Incompetence The CIA obtained practically no intelligence from torture, and stymied no pending attacks as a result. The report is very clear on this point. Staffers on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) examined 20 cases the agency has held up as justification for it program, and found all of them flawed and highly misleading. As Ali Soufan (an experienced FBI interrogator) points out, the torture program was "designed by bureaucrats with no experience with al Qaeda, by people who had never met a terrorist, let alone interrogated one."
But perhaps even worse than that was the sheer carelessness that marked every aspect of the program. The report reads something out of Mobutu's Zaire, chronicling an interrogation program that was run with little regard for even the most basic office management. Here are some examples.
The CIA tortured a detainee — a man named Ramzi bin al-Shibh — without even asking him to cooperate first, an initial interrogation that was used as a "template" [p. 76-77].
The CIA detained numerous innocent people:
Of the 119 known detainees, at least 26 were wrongfully held and did not meet the detention standard in the September 2001 Memorandum of Notification (MON). These included an "intellectually challenged" man whose CIA 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 CIA sources, and two individuals whom the CIA assessed to be connected to al Qaeda based solely on information fabricated by a CIA detainee subjected to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques. Detainees often remained in custody for months after the CIA determined that they did not meet the MON standard. CIA records provide insufficient information to justify the detention of many other detainees. [p. 12]
The CIA tortured some of their own informants by accident. Two men repeatedly tried to contact the CIA to provide intelligence and inform the agency of their whereabouts. But after being taken into custody, they were tortured for 24 hours anyway, because the messages they sent were not translated until after the interrogation had begun [p. 133].
The CIA leadership was repeatedly warned by its own members about the program: "CIA officers regularly called into question whether the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques were effective," concluding they didn't produce good intelligence [p. 2]. Needless to say, their warnings were not heeded.
The CIA paid $80 million to two consultant psychologists to design and later run the bulk of the program even though they had no experience in interrogation or terrorism. Outsourcing at its finest.
If you ever wanted to know what an interrogation program run by a profoundly stupid alcoholic sociopath with a wide sadistic streak would look like, this is it.
3. MendacityThe report concludes that the CIA lied constantly about this program, to everyone.
The CIA lied to President Bush about the effectiveness of torture [p. 203]. The agency also lied to the Department of Justice, telling the Office of Legal Counsel that no senators had objected to the program. But some — including Ron Wyden of Oregon and John McCain of Arizona — had [pp. 4-5, 447].
Numerous CIA officials, including Directors George Tenet, Michael Hayden and Porter Goss [pp. 444-445], lied to Congress, mostly about the effectiveness or extent of the program. The report concludes with a 37-page appendix carefully explaining how Hayden's April 12, 2007, testimony before SSCI was riddled with falsehoods.
The CIA lied to the American people by manipulating the media. The agency did this, naturally, by illegally leaking selective classified information that portrayed the program in a positive light [pp. 8-9].
This is only a tiny fraction of the horrors and deception contained in this report. And again, if anything, it probably understates the atrocities.
A quick note about the critics of the report, which include the CIA, Republicans on the SSCI who drafted a dissenting report, and various Bush-era officials who were involved in the program, like Dick Cheney and Jose Rodriguez. They all say in one way or another that the report is wrong. The problem with giving these people an honest hearing is that there is obviously a lot of self-interest and self-preservation involved. The fact is that the SSCI's credible documentation fits well what we know about torture from outside investigations and detailed academic studies. It's safe to discard the torture apologist arguments that this program was lawful or effective.
The big question is what this means for the future. Torture is extremely illegal (no matter what Bush's Justice Department said) — but as the blog emptywheel points out, so is perjury, making false statements as a government employee, and obstruction of justice, all of which has continued up to this year. (It is worth keeping in mind that there is no statute of limitations on torture that is known to risk or cause serious injury or death.) Any halfway competent prosecutor would be able to roll up half the agency with those tools and this report.
But the only person who has gone to jail over this program is the man who exposed it in the first place: John Kiriakou, for leaking classified documents. Nobody gets prosecuted when they leak classified information to win public support for war crimes, but a decent and honorable whistleblower got 30 months in federal prison.
It's time to start treating the CIA for what it is: a clear and present danger to the United States as a democratic nation. The CIA has proved time and again that it is a rogue institution that follows its own destructively idiotic instincts — and the post-9/11 era has been no different.
A legislature with even the slightest scrap of dignity or self-respect would at a minimum immediately undertake a complete reorganization of the security apparatus, followed by a truth and reconciliation commission. Better yet, an official war crimes tribunal.
But we're not going to do that. Republicans overwhelmingly support torture as affirmatively good policy, which means the only change we'll see with the incoming Congress is more deference to CIA goons. The executive won't punish anyone, either — President Obama, to his shame, has already ruled that out, again. And much of the mainstream media is incapable of treating this subject seriously. John Yoo, author of the worst legal memos in American history justifying the torture program, gets a respectful hearing on Morning Joe. Michael "37 pages of lying" Hayden gets kid glove treatment in Politico.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the SSCI, says the point of the report is to prevent torture from ever happening again. But without any accountability, it's just as likely that America will torture again in the future.