“I want to be absolutely clear with our people and the world. The United States does not torture” – George W. Bush
On December 9, 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a heavily-redacted, 525-page executive summary of its 6,700-page report on the CIA’s use of torture on terrorism suspects during the administration of President George W. Bush. As reported by The Intercept in December 2015, a year later the full torture report had not been made available to the public; further, the report has seemingly remained unread by most government officials. Regardless, one senator has called for the recall of all copies of the report – inspiring fears that it may be buried or destroyed, largely unread.
As noted by The Intercept, the full torture report was delivered to high-ranking individuals in executive agencies such as the Department of Justice (DOJ), Department of State and the CIA. The CIA has reportedly made “very limited” use of the report.
According to a November 2015 letter written by Senators Dianne Feinstein (chair of the Intelligence Committee at the time of the report’s creation) and Patrick Leahy, the DOJ “refuse[d] to allow executive branch officials to review the full and final study. [...] The legacy of this historic report cannot be buried in the back of a handful of executive branch safes, never to be reviewed by those who most need to learn from it.”
The torture report was six years in the making. The full version of the report and the more than six million pages of CIA documents used to produce it remain classified and unavailable for public inspection. President Obama, who campaigned on promises of increased public oversight, withheld another 9,400 pages of CIA documents from scrutiny by Senate investigators, and the U.K. asked that certain references to its involvement in the CIA torture program be redacted.
Even so the redacted executive summary is damning, concluding, among other things, that the CIA used torture even on cooperative suspects and that the torture techniques were ineffective as a unique source of actionable intelligence.
U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Jim Risch criticized the release of the summary, claiming it could “endanger lives of Americans overseas, jeopardize U.S. relations with foreign partners, potentially incite violence, create political problems for our allies, and be used as a recruitment tool for our enemies.” Thus far, though, none of those dire predictions have come to pass.
The summary of the torture report covered several general themes. For example, that the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” were ineffective and produced no “ticking time bomb” information that could be used to save lives; that the CIA gave Congress, the White House, the Justice Department, the State Department, the Department of Defense, the media, the public and the CIA’s own inspector general “extensive inaccurate information” about its interrogation program; that the CIA misrepresented the brutality of interrogation techniques, downplaying what was clearly torture that proved fatal or nearly fatal to several prisoners; and, lastly, that the CIA’s management of the program was deeply flawed and inadequate. Management of the program included the use of two highly-paid, privately-contracted psychologists who had no knowledge of Middle Eastern languages or culture to develop interrogations, implement them and assess the success of the techniques and their results.
Although the exact cost of the torture program is unknown, there was evidence of a minimum budget of $480 million. A significant portion of that amount went to private contractors, who made up 85% of the staff working in the program.
There is also evidence that CIA officials paid millions of dollars in “gifts” to officials in foreign countries to obtain permission to set up “black sites,” facilities used to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects. The CIA is known to have run black site prisons in Afghanistan, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Thailand. [See: PLN, Sept. 2015, p.24; Sept. 2012, p.28]. The torture program also paid out millions of dollars for medical care for terrorism suspects subjected to enhanced interrogations.
Costs for the construction and maintenance of the black site facilities exceeded $300 million; at least two were built but never used because the host countries backed out. Some compensation money was also paid to people who were wrongfully detained. For instance, German citizen Khaled al-Masri received $17,000 upon his release after it was determined that he was the innocent victim of a case of mistaken identity. That was a paltry sum considering that he was effectively kidnapped, held incommunicado for many months and tortured before begin dumped in an Eastern European country where he had to make his way home without identity papers.
At least 26 people detained by the CIA at black sites did not meet the agency’s own criteria for detention, or 22% of all the terrorism suspects known to have been detained under the program.
A report issued by the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) in 2013 estimated that the CIA’s black site torture program processed at least 136 prisoners with the support of 54 nations (which provided or facilitated transportation, allowed the operation of black sites or provided interrogation assistance). The executive summary of the torture report came close to affirming OSJI’s number, acknowledging 119 prisoners. [See: PLN, Aug. 2015, p.24].
The first post-9/11 terrorism suspect detained by the CIA was Abu Zubaydah, who was transported to Thailand in 2002. The CIA then hired contract psychologists James Elmer Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen to design an interrogation program, paying them $1,800 a day to develop enhanced interrogation techniques. As a result, Zubaydah was subjected to methods of torture such as controlled drowning – also known as waterboarding – which nearly killed him.
In April 2002, Mitchell and Jessen suggested using sensory deprivation on Zubaydah. Three months later they proposed a full dozen enhanced interrogation techniques that had been used at the U.S. Air Force’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school, where both psychologists had worked prior to the CIA torture assignment. Those techniques included “(1) the attention grasp, (2) walling [smashing a handcuffed person’s body against the wall by pushing them from behind], (3) facial hold, (4) facial slap, (5) cramped confinement, (6) wall standing, (7) stress positions, (8) sleep deprivation, (9) waterboarding, (10) use of diapers, (11) use of insects, and (12) mock burial.”
The prevailing idea was to produce a “level of helplessness” that would break down a prisoner’s resistance to providing information. According to the torture report’s executive summary, prisoners – whether they actually knew the desired intelligence or not – gave their interrogators false information so the torture would stop, at least temporarily. Zubaydah ultimately proved not to have the information that interrogators sought.
When some CIA officers contacted the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia to question the legality and utility of the torture techniques, they were told to stop challenging the program.
Soon, more prisoners arrived at CIA black sites and were subjected to enhanced interrogations. Through the recommendations of Mitchell and Jessen, the torture methods inflicted on Zubaydah were used as a “template” for those used on other prisoners. Both Mitchell and Jessen publicly admitted their involvement in the CIA torture program in June 2016 but denied they had created it.
One of the prisoners to follow Zubaydah was Janat Janat Gul, received from a foreign ally in July 2004. From the beginning, intelligence marking Gul as a terrorism suspect was questionable. In October 2004, the man who had denounced Gul recanted. Nonetheless, Gul was tortured under the bizarre reasoning that, if he denied the intelligence provided by his denouncer while under torture, it would disprove the reliability of that source of intelligence.
The CIA’s torture methods occasionally turned lethal. One such case was that of Gul Rahman, held at an Afghan black site code-named “Cobalt.” In November 2002, after being uncooperative, Rahman was shackled to the wall of his cell wearing nothing but a sweatshirt. His uncooperative behavior followed “48 hours of sleep deprivation, auditory overload, total darkness, isolation, a cold shower and rough treatment.”
Rahman was found dead, most likely due to hypothermia, the next day. He had been forced to sit on the cold concrete floor of his cell without pants.
No CIA personnel were charged or disciplined for Rahman’s death; in fact, the CIA approved a plan to strip detainees naked in a 45°F room about a month after Rahman died. Rahman’s interrogator even received a $2,500 cash bonus for “consistent superior work.”
Dilawar Yaqubi, an Afghan farmer and taxi driver, was taken to the Bagram Airfield Base in Afghanistan on December 5, 2002. Following five days of torture he was declared dead; his legs had been “pulpified.” His interrogators claimed to have been operating within the guidelines promulgated by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Yaqubi’s plight was made into a 2007 Oscar-winning documentary, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which established his innocence.
Government officials who visited black sites were often shocked. Federal Bureau of Prisons officials toured the Colbalt site and said they had “never been in a facility where individuals were so sensory deprived.” A CIA official said one Colbalt prisoner “literally looked like a dog who had been kenneled.”
The CIA’s torture methods were later expanded to include “rectal rehydration” and “rectal feeding,” which occurred “without any evidence of medical necessity.” The violent insertion of the rectal devices caused chronic hemorrhoids, an anal fissure and a “symptomatic rectal prolapse” in prisoner Mustafa al-Hawsawi.
CIA medical officials were impressed with the use of rectal hydration, not as a medical procedure but as “a means of behavior control.” The use of excessive force during rectal exams performed at Colbalt was investigated by the CIA though nothing came of the inquiry.
Detainees formerly held at the Bagram Airfield Base in Afghanistan, the location of several black site prisons, probably including the infamous Colbalt site, have alleged that dogs were used to sexually assault them. Those allegations were confirmed by a former Canadian soldier and private security contractor known only as “Jack,” through interviews published in former German parliament member Juergen Todenhöfer’s book, Thou Shalt Not Kill.
While defending many of the methods used on Bagram prisoners, Jack loathingly described how the dogs were brought into a room where detainees were tied face-down on chairs.
“If the prisoners did not say anything useful, each dog got a turn on them,” Jack stated. “After procedures like these, they confessed everything. They would have even said that they killed Kennedy without even knowing who he was.”
Unfortunately, the CIA’s use of torture is nothing new. In 1964, CIA Saigon station chief Peter DeSilva initiated a counter-terrorism program known as “Operation Phoenix,” which involved the use of terror to combat terror. Under that program, Vietnamese civilians whose names appeared on “black lists” could be kidnapped, tortured, detained without trial for two years or simply murdered based on the word on an anonymous informant. The program included a quota of 1,800 neutralizations per month and was infamously misused by corrupt security officers, police, politicians and racketeers.
These abuses extended beyond the people alleged to be Viet Cong to include their families, neighbors and friends. The program was also used as a tool of coercion, with the threat of being denounced if the person did not do what the government official requested.
Torture methods used in Operation Phoenix were similar to those later used at CIA black sites – such as electric shocks, controlled drowning, beatings, rape and mutilation.
The majority of people detained in Operation Phoenix came from “sweeps,” essentially dragnets cast out in an area of operations that brought in everyone within that area. As has been the case with the CIA’s more recent foray into the torture of terrorism suspects, although all Operation Phoenix prisoners were classified as enemies, many were innocent.
In 2014, when the Senate Intelligence Committee declassified the redacted summary of the CIA torture report, Senator Feinstein stated the full report would be preserved for later declassification. But a shift in the Committee’s leadership portends a different future – one likely to result in the report being buried or destroyed.
In January 2015, Senator Richard Burr, the Republican chair of the Intelligence Committee who succeeded Feinstein, sought the recall of all copies of the full report previously circulated to executive agencies. He cited fears that the report may be obtained by the public or press through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Executive agencies are subject to FOIA requests, while legislative bodies are not. However, undermining Burr’s concerns, FOIA contains a number of exemptions that bar public access to certain documents – including classified materials.
Nevertheless, the American Civil Liberties Union is seeking the full CIA torture report through litigation based on a FOIA request. As the Obama administration declined Senator Burr’s demand for the return of copies of the report held by executive agencies, it’s possible that the full report may one day make its way into the hands of the American people.
If the full version of the torture report is ever released, it may strengthen reform efforts. Human Rights Watch issued its own report in December 2015 that presented possible ways to prosecute those responsible for the CIA’s torture program. Human Rights Watch relied solely on information obtained from the torture report’s redacted executive summary. Should the full 6,700-page report or its millions of supporting documents ever see the light of day, someone may actually be held responsible for the many atrocities documented therein. But given the historic lack of prosecutorial interest in holding government officials accountable for their misconduct, we’re not placing any bets.
Sources: www.usatoday.com, www.qz.com, www.nytimes.com, www.huffingtonpost.com, www.forbes.com, www.theguardian.com, www.listverse.com, www.thepeopleshistory.com, www.lobelog.com, www.alternet.org, www.theintercept.com, CNN
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