America’s shame

The U.S. Senate’s report reveals that the CIA’s inhumane torture regime “to save American lives” had the blessings of the administration but produced very little intelligence.

Published : Dec 24, 2014 12:30 IST

President George W. Bush at the CIA headquarters in Langley on March 3, 2005, with CIA Director Porter Goss.

President George W. Bush at the CIA headquarters in Langley on March 3, 2005, with CIA Director Porter Goss.

“They tortured the corpse

until dawn broke down

and the rooster rose up in protest.

They thrust nails in its flesh

They whipped it with electric cables.

They dangled it from the ceiling fan.

When the torturers were finally tired

and took a break,

the corpse moved its little finger,

opened its wounded eyes,

and muttered something.

Was it asking for water?

Did it perhaps ask for bread?

Was it cursing them or asking for more?”

“The Corpse”, Sargon Boulus

(translated from Arabic by Sinan Antoon)

ON December 9, on the eve of Inter-national Human Rights Day, the United States Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence released a bombshell. Long anticipated, the 600-page executive summary of the committee’s 6,700-page study of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Detention and Interrogation Programme was nonetheless startling. Descriptions of torture, what the U.S. government called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs), lay across the body of the report. The Select Committee’s Chair, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, did not hide behind euphemisms such as EIT. “It is my personal conclusion,” she wrote in the foreword, that “CIA detainees were tortured.” The word “torture” is significant. The U.S. is a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture (1984). If its own government agencies suggest that its personnel committed acts of torture, then it is obligatory to investigate this further and to bring charges against the perpetrators. That is the implication of what has become known as the Torture Report.

Reaction to the report was along partisan lines. Former Vice-President Dick Cheney, who promised to conduct the “War on Terror” in the “dark side”, said it was “full of crap”. Veterans of the George W. Bush administration, who authorised the techniques of torture, lined up to denounce the report and its implications. George Tenet, who was CIA chief at the time of the torture, described the report as “biased, inaccurate and destructive”.

In 2007, when he was promoting his memoir At the Center of the Storm , Tenet told a television channel: “We don’t torture people. Let me say that again to you, we don’t torture people, OK?” That level of touchiness was once more on display from the Bush administration officials, many of whom would be culpable of crimes against humanity for their decisions.

One of the reasons for the Senate pursuing this investigation was that in 2007, the CIA destroyed its videotapes of the interrogation sessions. Destruction of evidence would have made it difficult to prove the extent of torture. Without the tapes, the Senate report depicts the torture through CIA cables and interviews with CIA officers.

A week before he left office, Bush told a journalist, “I firmly reject the word ‘torture’.” His administration approved a set of “techniques” that it would call EIT, but not torture. The U.S. government paid $81 million to two psychologists, James Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen, to develop a set of techniques for interrogation of “high-value” detainees. These techniques included sleep deprivation, cramped confinement, threats made against family members, and waterboarding. Abu Zubaydah, for instance, “spent a total of 266 hours (11 days, 2 hours) in the large (coffin-sized) confinement box and 29 hours in a small confinement box, which had a width of 21 inches, a depth of 2.5 feet [0.76 metres] and a height of 2.5 feet. The CIA interrogators told Abu Zubaydah that the only way he would leave the facility was in the coffin-shaped confinement box.”

Gul Rahman, who was tortured in the Salt Pit (Detention Site Cobalt), an abandoned brick factory north of Kabul, suffered 48 hours of sleep deprivation, with loud music playing throughout in total darkness. The CIA chief at Cobalt called his prison “the Dungeon”. When the CIA officers got angry with Gul Rahman, they ordered that he be shackled to the wall. “The next day, the guards found Gul Rahman’s body. An internal CIA review and autopsy assessed that Rahman likely died from hypothermia, in part from having been forced to sit on the bare concrete floor without pants.”

The death of Gul Rahman begs the question of the number of people who died in CIA custody. This cannot be determined. As the report notes: “The CIA maintained such poor records of its detainees in country [Afghanistan] during this period that the CIA remains unable to determine the number and identity of the individuals it detained.”

Others did not deserve to be in CIA custody. Someone with a vendetta against Arsala Khan sold him to the CIA as the person who helped Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora. “After 56 hours of standing sleep deprivation, Arsala Khan was described as barely able to enunciate, and being ‘visibly shaken by his hallucinations depicting dogs mauling and killing his sons and family’.” CIA cables note that Arsala Khan “stated that [the interrogator] was responsible for killing them and feeding them to the dogs”. After a month of torture and four years of incarceration, Arsala Khan was released. He was lucky. Alex Gibney’s 2007 film Taxi to the Dark Side tells the story of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver who was picked up, tortured and killed. He had no connection with any terrorist organisation.

The report details how the CIA went “to school” on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the self-styled architect of the 9/11 attacks. The CIA waterboarded KSM 15 times, “a series of near drownings”. Waterboarding, first used by the U.S. military in the war against the Philippines in the early 20th century, is a recognised form of torture by the U.N. and even the U.S. State Department (in its criticism of such use in Tunisia in 2005, where it says that “submersion of the head in water” is a form of torture). When KSM was moved to Detention Site Blue (an abandoned airbase at Stare Kiejkuty near Szczytno in north-eastern Poland), the CIA headquarters in Langley pushed the team to waterboard him more often. “The requirements coming from home,” wrote the medical officer, “are really unbelievable in terms of breath and detail.”

When KSM’s associate Majid Khan went on hunger strike, the CIA decided to use feedings as a means to torture. Nasogastric tubes, which Majid Khan had accepted, were removed, and the CIA developed a more aggressive treatment regimen “without unnecessary conversation”. Majid Khan was then subjected to involuntary rectal feeding and rectal hydration, which included two bottles of Ensure [a nutrition drink]. Later that same day, Majid Khan’s “lunch tray”, consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins, was “pureed” and rectally infused. Majid Khan attempted suicide on numerous occasions, including using a filed toothbrush to cut his skin at the elbow joint. Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch was a defence attorney with the Office of Military Commissions in the U.S. Defence Department, who served as counsel for Salim Hamdan, a detainee at the Guantanamo prison. “The U.N. Convention Against Torture defines torture, in brief, as any act that causes severe mental or physical pain or suffering,” she told me. “There’s no doubt that much of what was done to detainees in the CIA programme fits that definition.” Another Guantanamo prisoner’s attorney, Reprieve’s Alka Pradhan, concurs. “All of those ‘techniques’ are torture, without question, under the Convention Against Torture and any reasonable person’s concept of torture.”

Did the torturers know it was torture? The Senate report notes that many of the CIA agents sent to conduct the interrogations had no experience in these techniques. The station chief in Kabul, in fact, was a junior officer who was utterly out of his depth. Those who went to conduct the torture, the CIA already knew, included “individuals, who, among other issues, had engaged in inappropriate detainee interrogations, had workplace anger management issues, and had reportedly admitted to sexual assault.” Senior members of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons “were ‘wow’ed” by the prisons because they had seen nothing like this before: “constant white noise, no talking, everyone in the dark, with the guards wearing a light on their head when they collected and escorted a detainee to an interrogation cell, detainees constantly being shackled to the wall or floor and the starkness of each cell.” When the CIA acting general counsel read a highly critical report on torture by the International Committee of the Red Cross, he said that it “actually does not sound that far removed from reality”.

In 2002, Abu Zubaydah was tortured at Detention Site Green, a prison known as Cat’s Eye, near Bangkok, Thailand. CIA emails include evidence that even their officers were disturbed by what they had to do. One wrote, “It is visually and psychologically very uncomfortable.” Another wrote, “It seems the collective opinion that we should not go much further.” This was on August 8, 2002, four days after the torture programme began. It would, of course, only intensify in its brutality. That same day, a CIA cable noted, “Several on the team profoundly affected. Some to the point of tears and choking up.” The next day, two or three CIA officers were “likely to elect transfer”. Two days later, the CIA officers who sent the tapes of the interrogation to Langley noted, “prepare for something not seen previously”.

The journalist Jane Mayer’s book The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals (2008) had already demonstrated the complicity of the Bush administration in the torture regime. Jane Mayer lays out how critics of the torture policies found themselves on the margins and how Bush’s close legal associates, such as the Torture Memo author John Yoo, disregarded international law to promote torture. When Alberto Mora, General Counsel of the U.S. Navy (host of the Guantanamo prison), asked Yoo if he thought that the President had the authority to order torture, Yoo answered, “Yes.” It was unequivocal. In the Senate report, the CIA’s lawyer John Rizzo says that the White House lawyers, such as Yoo, worried that if U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell found out about the torture, he “would blow his stack”. Not only did Bush administration officials such as Yoo know that what they had authorised was torture, but they tried to hide it from others in the administration. One of the great limitations of the Senate report is that it puts the onus of the torture on the CIA. The rot goes all the way to the top. In his memoir, Decision Points , Bush recounts how he personally authorised waterboarding for KSM.

Was torture effective? The second half of the report asks the simple question, was the torture effective? The answer in the report is a resounding no. The Bush administration and the CIA had claimed that the torture had “saved American lives”. The Senate report looked at the eight most significant plots that the CIA claimed to have thwarted by the use of torture. Close, forensic analysis of each of these showed that, in each case, “the CIA’s representations to be inaccurate and unsupported by CIA records”. Actionable intelligence came in many cases from interrogations using conventional “rapport building” techniques, something stressed by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) interrogator Ali Soufan in this report but also in Jane Mayer’s book. Such useful intelligence was also garnered by electronic intelligence and from the materials seized by raids in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The actual torture produced very little new intelligence, as far as the Senate report demonstrates.

A 1989 CIA letter noted: “Inhumane physical or psychological techniques are counterproductive because they do not produce intelligence and will probably result in false answers.” The CIA torture programme once more proved that axiom. Both KSM and the Indonesian militant Hambali fabricated information in order to escape the worst kind of torture. Hambali was asked about a plot to recruit pilots to fly a second set of aircraft into tall buildings on the U.S. west coast. CIA interrogation and torture of Hambali yielded what seemed to be a trove of information. Later, Hambali told a CIA interrogator in Bahasa Indonesian, “He had provided the false information in an attempt to reduce the pressure on himself and to give an account that was consistent with what [Hambali] assessed the questioners wanted to hear.” The CIA’s three top “high value” detainees—KSM, Abu Faraj al-Libi and Khalid bin Attash—“provided information the CIA assessed to be fabricated and intentionally misleading”. Torture did not clarify their information; it muddied it. The most catastrophic example of false intelligence secured through torture was when the CIA turned Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi over to Egyptian intelligence in 2002. Tortured in the presence of CIA officers, al-Libi said that Al Qaeda had links to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a fabrication that helped the Bush administration justify its war against Iraq.

Human Rights Watch’s Andrea Prasow says that asking about the effectiveness of torture is the wrong question. “Sometimes torture might produce accurate information,” she told me. “Sometimes it won’t. And it will always be impossible to know which is which. Experienced interrogators say time and again that harsh methods cause detainees to shut down and prevent future cooperation, and that time is wasted on useless leads. And of course, torture is clearly illegal and most would say immoral.”

Will there be accountability? Ben Emmerson, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, called for prosecution of those who committed torture. “The fact that these policies revealed in this report were authorised at a high level,” he said, “provides no excuse whatsoever. Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability.”

The Senate report affirms that countries in Europe and Asia collaborated with the U.S. to create “black sites” for the torture. The countries implicated—but not named—in the report are Afghanistan, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Thailand. The countries in Europe are of most interest since there has been traction there for investigation and sanction against torture. Wolfgang Kaleck, General Secretary of the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, told me: “In Europe we will continue with our cases against U.S. torture in our national courts.” Lawsuits against Poland, Lithuania and Romania are already in process, including the European Court of Human Rights procedures for these countries’ failure to “conduct effective investigations”, write tge legal scholars Andreas Schüller and Morenike Fajana. If there is to be accountability, it is more likely to come through Europe than directly from the U.S.

Andrea Prasow says it is high time the Barack Obama administration reopened criminal investigations. Alka Pradhan believes that there is room for lawsuits against U.S. officials who are shown in the Senate report to have lied to the U.S. public. It is unlikely that the Obama administration will act. One of the less commented parts of the report is that Obama’s White House cited “executive privilege” to withhold 9,400 CIA documents from the Senate Committee. This is a little gesture to show that Obama has no appetite for a proper account of what happened.

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