Six months after the Central Intelligence Agency first captured a suspected high-level al-Qaida figure in early 2002, it opened a potential can of worms by briefing several Senators about new policies for detaining and aggressively interrogating such captives. The Senate Intelligence committee chairman, Bob Graham (D-Fla.), responded by sending the agency multiple requests for additional information.
No problem, CIA officials decided, according to a report about the program finally published by the committee’s Democrats on Tuesday after years of back-and-forth argument over its release. Knowing that Graham was retiring in January 2003, the agency simply deferred additional congressional briefings until after he had left. That decision stemmed from what the CIA’s liaison to Congress depicted in an internal email at the time as a desire to “get off the hook on the cheap.”
Thus began what the Intelligence Committee report portrays as a sustained CIA effort to block potential scrutiny of an exceptionally secretive and unquestionably brutal program using what became known as EIT, or enhanced interrogation techniques, that even some internal CIA documents said encompassed torture.
According to the controversial report, the agency’s effort to shield the initiative from accountability persisted through 2005, when the CIA made a series of claims to the Justice Department about interrogations that were “incongruent” with its actual program, and 2007, when then-CIA director Michael Hayden allegedly made roughly three dozen “inaccurate” statements to the committee. The false claims by the agency produced a series of key legal opinions by the Justice Department that supported the program’s continuation, the report states.
In between, according to the report, the agency repeatedly lied to the media, to the National Security Council, to lawmakers and to the State Department about the program’s scope, its methods and its effectiveness. At the helm of this effort: A group of roughly three to four dozen CIA officials privy to all its workings, who had either wrongfully convinced themselves it was succeeding or willfully decided to exaggerate its accomplishments.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the committee’s current chairwoman, said in a lengthy Senate floor speech unveiling the 2012 report that the CIA’s actions were “a stain on our values and our history.”
CIA director John Brennan, in a statement also released on Tuesday, acknowledged that the agency made mistakes and said “we did not always live up to the high standards that we set for ourselves and that the American people expect of us.” But he disputed that the agency “systematically and intentionally misled” Congress, the executive branch and the public, even though the CIA acknowledged it sometimes made claims that were inaccurate or imprecise.
“Despite some flaws in CIA’s representations of effectiveness, the overall nature and value of the program…were accurately portrayed to CIA’s Executive and Legislative Branch overseers, as well as the Justice Department,” the agency said in a statement posted on its website. It also said the program “did produce valuable and unique intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives.”
Republicans from the Senate committee said in a lengthy minority report that they agreed with the CIA, and accused the Democrats of conducting a flawed and biased review of the program. But the Democrats said their report, based on a review of more than 6 million pages of material, merely reveals that the CIA’s internal records show that using EIT “was not an effective means of acquiring information or gaining cooperation from detainees.”
Many of the darker details of the CIA’s interrogation program – including one detainee’s death from hypothermia, the repeated use of a simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, and threats to harm detainees’ relatives —have leaked out over the past decade.
But the report adds a few more: Naked detainees were hooded and dragged up and down corridors while being punched or slapped at one prison. Some of the CIA officers involved in interrogations had “histories of violence and abusive treatment of others,” it states. President Bush himself expressed discomfort when shown a picture of a detainee in diapers who was chained to a ceiling and forced to defecate on himself. And a summary by the CIA inspector general of a private interview with then-CIA director George Tenet said he believed in 2005 that “if the general public were to find out about this program, many would believe we are torturers.”
The bulk of the report, however, contains fresh information about how hard the CIA worked to block any independent review of the program and protect it from criticism.
The key CIA deceptions and rear-guard actions included the following, according to the report:
In July 2002, CIA attorneys told a group of lawyers for the National Security Council, Justice Department and FBI that they had retained expert personnel who possessed extensive interrogation experience to oversee the program. But the CIA station chief in the country where the first CIA prison was created said in an internal 2003 email that officials writing interrogation reports “did not know what was required of them, analysts were not knowledgeable of the target, translators were not native Arab speakers,” and the prison chief had little field experience.
Anticipating criticism, the CIA’s general counsel in 2002 sought – and obtained – an exemption from a presidential directive requiring humane treatment of detainees, and in early 2003, the White House press secretary was privately advised to avoid using the words “humane treatment” while describing Taliban or al-Qaida detainees.
In July 2003, the CIA’s general counsel told top officials at the White House that detainee Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been waterboarded 119 times and Abu Zubaydah had been waterboarded 42 times. But the actual frequency was 183 and 83 times, respectively. The discrepancy was relevant because the Justice Department’s legal approvals did not countenance such frequent use of the technique.
The same month, senior administration officials privy to the EIT program chose not to brief then-Secretary of State Colin Powell about it out of concern that he might “blow his stack,” an e-mail stated. In two countries where secret CIA prisons were established, the CIA told foreign leaders not to mention the presence of the detainees to the U.S. ambassadors there. In other countries with prisons, the CIA told U.S. ambassadors not to discuss the program with their superiors at the State Department.
In July 2004, the CIA told the Justice Department that it was not using nudity as a form of humiliation, when it was; it said detainees were only being doused with water, when they were being immersed; it said their hands were being shackled for no more than two hours above their heads, when the shackling was often for more extended periods; and it said that detainees were diapered only for hygiene, when it was actually a deliberate tool of humiliation, according to the CIA’s own documents.
Also in 2004, State Department officials told the International Committee of the Red Cross that it supported ICRC access to all detainees. But the CIA, at the same time, was urging officials in one of the countries where it was housing detainees not to allow an ICRC visit.
Concerns about the program expressed by CIA officers, analysts, interrogators and doctors throughout this period “were regularly overridden by CIA management,” with few corrective measures, according to the report.
When the agency was pressed by its inspector general in May 2004 to conduct an independent examination of the program, it asked two of its own top officials to help conduct the review, and their conclusions were based on documents containing “inaccuracies regarding the effectiveness and operation of the CIA program,” the report states. The inspector general declared the review inadequate and warned that “we have found that the Agency over the decades has continued to get itself in messes related to interrogation programs for one overriding reason: we do not document and learn from our experience – each generation of officers is left to improvise anew, with problematic results.”
CIA officials claimed in a 2005 letter to the Justice Dept. that the water used in dousing was not cold; that sleep deprivation was halted when it caused swelling of lower extremities; and that detainees were bathed in light. In fact, the water was often cold, sleep deprivation was extended, and detainees were sometimes held in total darkness. The Justice Department responded to the CIA’s claims in May 2005 by approving the continued use of EIT.
Then-CIA director Michael Hayden told the Senate committee in April 2007 that interrogators did not deliberately withhold medical care – but internal CIA records that it did. He said only detainees suspected of knowing about attacks against the United States or its interests or the whereabouts of Bin Laden were subjected to EIT, but the report says CIA records show otherwise. He said the enhanced interrogation techniques were all used previously in U.S. military training, but they were not. He said on-site interrogation observers could call off the use of EIT, but officials in Washington ordered their continuation in some instances, over the objections of those present. He said he was unaware of any CIA personnel expressing concerns, but CIA records show some were moved to “tears and choking up” after viewing waterboarding.
Anna Lusthoff, a spokesman for Hayden, said “we do not have a statement to share” from the former CIA director on the Senate report’s allegations. But the CIA, in its official response to the report, acknowledged that his testimony “contained some inaccuracies, and the Agency should have done better in preparing the Director” for the session. The CIA added that there was, however, no “intent on the part of the Agency or Director Hayden to misrepresent material facts.”
National security reporters and researchers Douglas Birch, Alexander Cohen, and Julia Harte contributed to this article.
Help support this work
Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.