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“An Affront To Our National Values”: The Gigantic Disaster Of The CIA’s Torture Program

The Senate Intelligence Committee released the executive summary of its report on the CIA’s use of torture in the years after the September 11 attacks, which took place at “black sites” in foreign countries (the full report can be read here). While we’ve known a good deal about this for some time, many of the details are new, and I want to focus attention on a few of them to make a particular point about this program and how we’re debating it today.

The picture the CIA itself and Bush administration officials have always tried to paint of the torture program is one of highly trained professionals using carefully considered, perfectly legal techniques that were limited and humane, and produced valuable intelligence that directly saved American lives. When you read the Senate report, however, you see something very different: people who essentially had no idea what they were doing.

Their task was urgent, and their fear was genuine, but in that urgency and fear they brutalized prisoners, withheld information and in some cases lied outright to other agencies of government (including Congress, the State Department, and the White House), and generally made a mess of things. There’s no other way to put this: the torture program was a gigantic disaster; if this weren’t a family newspaper I’d use a word that starts with “cluster.”

First, let me quote from the executive summary of today’s report, about one of the black sites:

Conditions at CIA detention sites were poor, and were especially bleak early in the program. CIA detainees at the COBALT detention facility were kept in complete darkness and constantly shackled in isolated cells with loud noise or music and only a bucket to use for human waste. Lack of heat at the facility likely contributed to the death of a detainee. The chief of interrogations described COBALT as a “dungeon.” Another senior CIA officer stated that COBALT was itself an enhanced interrogation technique. At times, the detainees at COBALT were walked around naked or were shackled with their hands above their heads for extended periods  of time. Other times, the detainees at COBALT were subjected to what was described as a “rough takedown,” in which approximately five CIA officers would scream at a detainee, drag him outside of his cell, cut his clothes off, and secure him with Mylar tape. The detainee would then be hooded and dragged up and down a long corridor while being slapped and punched.

One of the detainees at this site was left overnight shackled to the wall and naked from the waist down in near-freezing temperatures. The next morning he was found dead of hypothermia.

Now let me cite a couple of the specific cases. This an email from a medical officer present for the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah:

The sessions accelerated rapidly progressing quickly to the water board after large box, walling, and small box periods. [Abu Zubaydah] seems very resistant to the water board. Longest time with the cloth  over his face so far has been 17 seconds. This is sure to increase shortly. NO useful information so far.. ..He did vomit a couple of times during the water board with some beans and rice. It’s been 10 hours since he ate so this is surprising and disturbing. We plan to only feed Ensure for a while now. I’m head[ing] back for another water board session.”

In addition to waterboarding, Zubaydah was subjected to extended use of stress positions, which are designed to produce excruciating pain. At the end of the intensive period of interrogation, CIA officers declared the torture a success — not because Zubaydah had actually given up information on upcoming attacks, but because the officials decided they had completely broken his will and satisfied themselves that he had no such information to give.

Quite naturally, what concerned interrogators most was the prospect of future attacks. However, in multiple cases, they were faced with prisoners who were cooperative and supplied intelligence on things like the structure of al-Qaeda, but if the prisoner said he had no information about upcoming attacks, that would be taken as proof that he should be tortured further.

A significant amount of the report focuses on the site known as Cobalt, which is described not only as a horrific “dungeon” but a place where personnel rotate in and out and few seem to have any idea what they’re doing. Here’s the result of a visit there by a military legal advisor:

The U.S. military officer also noted that the junior CIA officer designated as warden of the facility “has little to no experience with interrogating or handling prisoners.” With respect to al-Najjar specifically, the legal advisor indicated that the CIA’s interrogation plan included “isolation in total darkness; lowering the quality of his food; keeping him at an uncomfortable temperature (cold); [playing music] 24 hours a day; and keeping him shackled and hooded.” In addition, al-Najjar was described as having been left hanging — which involved handcuffing one or both wrists to an overhead bar which would not allow him to lower his arms — for 22 hours each day for two consecutive days, in order to “‘break’ his resistance.” It was also noted al-Najjar was wearing a diaper and had no access to toilet facilities…According to the CIA inspector general, the detention and interrogation of Ridha al-Najjar “became the model” for handling other CIA detainees at DETENTION SITE COBALT.

But it wasn’t always the on-site interrogators pushing the interrogations to be more brutal. In one case cited by the report, the interrogators judged that a detainee named Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was implicated in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, was being cooperative and forthcoming, based on their interactions with him and the fact that he was giving information on things like the structure of al-Qaeda. But he claimed that he didn’t have any information on upcoming attacks. The interrogators’ superiors at CIA headquarters wrote to them, “it is inconceivable to us that al-Nashiri cannot provide us concrete leads…. When we are able to capture other terrorists based on his leads and to thwart future plots based on his reporting, we will have much more confidence that he is, indeed, genuinely cooperative on some level.”

In other words, the idea that the prisoner simply didn’t have information on upcoming attacks was inconceivable to them. So they sent an untrained interrogator known for his temper to the site, who proceeded to do things like threaten the prisoner with a gun and an electric drill.

When that also failed to produce information on upcoming attacks, a contractor psychologist visited and created a new interrogation plan, based on yet more brutal techniques. This led the CIA’s chief of interrogations to inform his colleagues that he was retiring. In an email, he wrote, “this is a train wreak [sic] waiting to happen and I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens.” Eventually, everyone concluded that al-Nashiri didn’t have any information on upcoming attacks.

That’s just a bit of what’s in the report. One other interesting detail that jumped out at me was that on a couple of occasions, interrogators used mock executions, a favorite psychological torture technique of the Iranian regime.

We should note that many in the CIA dispute the details, particularly whether they were dishonest in their dealings with other agencies. What seems beyond dispute, however, is that the United States of America initiated a program of torturing prisoners that was planned and executed by people who knew next to nothing about interrogation.

As John McCain — who was subjected to some of these same torture techniques as a prisoner of war in Vietnam — said about this report: “The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow. It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. It is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us. But the American people are entitled to it, nonetheless.” Many in his party don’t share that belief.

And even the White House can’t seem to bring itself to call this by its true name. Today I was on a background call with a group of senior administration officials, and they were asked repeatedly why they seemed so reluctant to use the word “torture,” even after President Obama admitted that “we tortured some folks.” One official replied, “We’re not going to go case by case in a report like this and try to affix a label to each action.” But they do affix a label: “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which they used again and again, accepting the euphemistic label the Bush administration affixed to it.

The White House certainly deserves credit for ultimately supporting the release of this report (even if they seemed reluctant to do so). For all the protestations of the CIA, Bush administration officials, and their supporters, a few things are beyond dispute. George W. Bush and the people who worked for him made torture the official policy of the United States government. The program that carried out their wishes was an unholy mess. It was an affront to all the values that this nation is supposed to stand for. And it made it much easier for terrorist groups to recruit new adherents.

And there are a lot of people talking on television, writing op-eds, and even running for office who sound like they’d be only too happy to do it all over again.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; The Plum Line, The Washington Post, December 9, 2014

December 10, 2014 Posted by | CIA, Terrorism, Torture | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“All Were In The Moral Sewer”: Don’t Let The Bush Administration Off The Hook For Torture

There’s a new report out today from McClatchey on the CIA’s torture program based on that Intelligence Committee report. They got a closer look at it than journalists have before, so there are some more details. But there’s a danger in how this could be interpreted that will serve to let people who were complicit in the torture program off the hook, so we need to be careful about how we deal with this information. But first, here are their bullets:

  • The CIA used interrogation methods that weren’t approved by the Justice Department or CIA headquarters.
  • The agency impeded effective White House oversight and decision-making regarding the program.
  • The CIA actively evaded or impeded congressional oversight of the program.
  • The agency hindered oversight of the program by its own Inspector General’s Office.

And now to put this in context:

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel found that the methods wouldn’t breach the law because those applying them didn’t have the specific intent of inflicting severe pain or suffering.

The Senate report, however, concluded that the Justice Department’s legal analyses were based on flawed information provided by the CIA, which prevented a proper evaluation of the program’s legality.

“The CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice, impeding a proper legal analysis of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program,” the report found.

Several human rights experts said the conclusion called into question the program’s legal foundations.

“Proper legal analysis” my ass. This paints a picture that is completely at odds with everything else we know about what was going on in the Bush administration at the time. The report would have us believe that Bush administration lawyers came up with a reasonable, well-grounded definition of torture that allowed the CIA to interrogate people in an “enhanced” way, but the CIA went rogue and tortured their prisoners. I’m sorry, but that’s a joke.

The truth was this: the administration wanted to torture people. Lawyers in the White House Counsel’s office, then run by Alberto Gonzales, wrote a series of memos justifying it, using positively laughable logic and arguments sending a clear message to any official who might have a prisoner in their custody that you could do just about anything you wanted to him, and we’ll back you up by saying it wasn’t really “torture.” For instance, the infamous “Bybee memo” argued that it’s only torture if you’re acting with “specific intent” to cause pain and suffering, and if the causing of pain and suffering isn’t the intent for its own sake, but rather that using the pain and suffering to extract information is your intent, then presto, you’ve only tortured with “general intent,” and therefore you haven’t actually tortured. Bybee also wrote that though the statute forbidding torture mentioned the infliction of “severe” pain, we could construe pain to be “severe” only if it rose “to the level of death, organ failure, or the permanent impairment of a significant bodily function.” In other words, if I take a pair of pliers and tear out your fingernails, then I haven’t actually inflicted “severe” pain on you, because you’re still alive, your organs are intact, and you can still use your fingers. And therefore there hasn’t been any torture.

And that wasn’t even the only one; there was another infamous memo from John Yoo arguing that, in effect, if the president orders it, it’s not torture. This is the kind of “legal guidance” the CIA was getting from the White House. So the idea that they just went too far and exceeded the legal justification for what they were doing is baloney. The CIA may have been lying about what kinds of intelligence the torture was yielding, and they may even have been lying about exactly what methods they were employing. But everything they did—every waterboarding session, every use of stress positions, every use of sleep deprivation, and even every impromptu beat-down that may have occurred—happened because George W. Bush, through the lawyers who reported to him, told the CIA that it was A-OK to torture prisoners.

Bureaucratic conflicts between agencies are certainly of interest to historians. But the last thing we should ever do is let a report like this make us absolve anyone of responsibility for the torture program. The President, the Vice-President, the lawyers, the CIA—they all dove into that moral sewer together.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, April 11, 2014

April 12, 2014 Posted by | CIA, Torture | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Defending Enhanced Interrogation”: The Question Torture Apologists Can’t Answer

There may not be much point in trying to relitigate the torture question from the Bush years, but every once in a while that era’s torture apologists come back around to make their case, and there is one vital question I’ve never heard any of them answer: How do the defender’s of “enhanced interrogation” (perhaps the most vulgar euphemism since “ethnic cleansing”) define torture? I’ll explain more in a moment, but this was prompted by an op-ed in Sunday’s Washington Post about the film Zero Dark Thirty by Jose Rodriguez, a CIA officer who has defended the administration’s torture program on many occasions. Since I haven’t seen the film I can’t say anything about the way it depicts torture, but Rodriguez takes the opportunity to say this: “I was intimately involved in setting up and administering the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ program, and I left the agency in 2007 secure in the knowledge not only that our program worked — but that it was not torture.” And why aren’t the things the CIA did—which included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and the use of “stress positions,” which are used to cause excruciating pain without leaving a mark—torture? Here’s the closest Rodriguez comes to an explanation:

Detainees were given the opportunity to cooperate. If they resisted and were believed to hold critical information, they might receive — with Washington’s approval — some of the enhanced techniques, such as being grabbed by the collar, deprived of sleep or, in rare cases, waterboarded. (The Justice Department assured us in writing at the time that these techniques did not constitute torture.) When the detainee became compliant, the techniques stopped — forever.

You see, they had a memo saying that what they were doing wasn’t torture, so there you go. And when the detainee became compliant, they stopped! It obviously can’t be torture if it ends when the subject is broken, right?

Here’s the question I’ve never heard someone like Rodriguez answer: Can you give a definition of torture that wouldn’t include waterboarding, stress positions, and sleep deprivation? I have no idea what such a definition might be, and I have to imagine that if they had any idea they would have offered one. Because here’s the definition of torture you’d think everyone could agree on: Torture is the infliction of extreme suffering for the purpose of extracting information or a confession. That’s not too hard to understand. The point is to create such agony that the subject will do anything, including give you information he’d prefer not to give you, to make the suffering stop. That’s the purpose of waterboarding, that’s the purpose of sleep deprivation (which, by the way, has been described by those subjected to it in places like the Soviet gulag to be worse than any physical pain they had ever experienced), and that’s the purpose of stress positions. The “enhanced” techniques that were used weren’t meant to trick detainees or win them over, they were meant to make them suffer until they begged for mercy.

So to repeat: If what the Bush administration did wasn’t torture, how would its apologists define the term?


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, January 7, 2013

January 9, 2013 Posted by | National Security | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“When Advantages Matter More Than Humane Ideals”: Does Mitt Romney’s Religion Condone Torture?

Nobody asked Governor Mitt Romney or President Barack Obama about torture during Monday night’s “foreign policy debate”—but someone should have.

Because recently disclosed Romney campaign documents are raising new questions about the candidate’s position, and the recent appointment of a Spokane, Washington LDS bishop who in his professional life as a psychologist pioneered so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” after 9/11 has raised new questions about whether Mormonism condones torture.

Washington newspapers are reporting that Bruce Jessen was called and “sustained” (or approved) to serve as bishop by his Spokane-area congregation in mid-October.

In late 2001, Jessen and James Mitchell (both clinical psychologists with no previous interrogation or intelligence training; both members of the LDS Church) were contracted by the CIA to develop “enhanced interrogation techniques” and to train interrogators during what one source describes as “brutal interrogations that effectively unfolded as live demonstrations.” Together, Jessen and Mitchell came to be known as the “Mormon mafia.”

Other LDS people involved in the development of Bush-administration torture tactics include Jay Bybee, who supervised and signed John Yoo’s 2002 “Torture Memo” effectively authorizing the United States’ use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in Iraq; and Timothy Flanigan, deputy White House counsel who participated with Alberto Gonzalez in Bush’s “War Council” and testified before a Senate panel that waterboarding and other torture techniques should not necessarily be “off-limits” and that “inhumane can’t be coherently defined.”

When dozens of religious leaders and organizations issued a 2005 statement calling on the Bush administration to rule out torture as anti-biblical, the LDS Church through a spokesman issued a statement “condemning inhumane treatment of any person under any circumstance.”

Romney, however, appears to be lining up with Jessen, Mitchell, Bybee, and Flanigan.

Last month, the New York Times disclosed a September 2011 memo drafted by Romney’s advisors advocating the resumption of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” initiated under President George W. Bush but banned by President Barack Obama on his second day in office.

In a December 17, 2011 Town Hall meeting, Romney said, “I will not authorize torture.” But at the press conference after the Town Hall meeting, when a reporter asked him if he considered waterboarding to be torture, Romney responded “I don’t.”

Romney’s stance led one UN official to warn last week that his election would amount to “a democratic mandate for torture.”

While some LDS media observers have denied a pattern of Mormon involvement in torture, others in the Mormon community have called for closer consideration of this serious moral and ethical matter.

And it does matter. It matters because unlike in most contemporary American religious communities, Mormons are routinely expected to assess their own moral “worthiness” to participate in religious rites and to serve in their local congregations—including in positions of pastoral responsibility such as bishop (which both Governor Romney and Mr. Jessen have served). And moral worthiness in Mormon communities is now widely framed in terms of highly individualistic choices like payment of tithes, sexual chastity, and observance of restrictions on consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and coffee.

It matters because it points to grave underdevelopment in the public morality and political theology of contemporary Mormonism. As Mormon Studies expert Professor Patrick Mason has told RD, Mormonism has “no systematic theology” on issues like human rights or poverty or war. Its view of morality is “highly individualized.”

And the torture issue matters to the question of how Romney will govern. We’ve consistently seen that the candidate will be essentially values-neutral in his approach to foreign and economic policy and centered on defending and promoting the interests of large institutions that reward loyalty. The chain of command and tactical advantages matter more than time-honored humane ideals. That’s a disposition Romney has in common with Jessen, Mitchell, Bybee, and other Mormons who have been in a position not only to support torture but to develop and implement it.

Once again, the issue is not that Mitt Romney is unduly influenced by his faith. It’s that his faith has little influence when it comes to some extremely serious moral questions.


By: Joanna Brooks, Religion Dispatches, October 23, 2012


October 24, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Dare Cheney Criticize Obama For Taking Out A Terrorist

By near-universal  account of those who condemn terrorism, the killing of jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki  was a good thing. This was a man believed to be behind the attempted Christmas  Day, 2009 bombing of a U.S. aircraft over American soil. It was a man U.S.  officials say was trying to blow up American cargo planes by putting explosives  into the packages on the planes, a man believed to have been hatching plans to  poison fellow Americans.

Al-Awlaki was killed last week in Yemen in a drone strike,  not only  ridding the world of a dangerous terrorist, but depriving al-Qaeda of  a  powerful recruiter.

And Dick Cheney wants President Obama to apologize for  it.

The irrepressible former vice president sees the killing  as  justified, to be sure. He’s just mad because he thinks Obama is  hypocritical  for criticizing what the Bush administration, in almost  comically euphemistic  terms, described as “enhanced interrogation  techniques” used on imprisoned  al Qaeda suspects. As Cheney told CNN’s State  of the Union:

They’ve agreed they need to be tough and  aggressive in defending the  nation and using some of the same techniques that  the Bush  administration did. And they need, as I say, to go back and reconsider   some of the criticisms they offered about our policies.

The self-centeredness of the comment is astonishing. A  key al-Qaeda  subject is killed, and Cheney is thinking about what it means for  the  reputation of the previous administration? If we’re demanding apologies   here, why not demand apologies from the people who are screaming about  the  budget deficit now after voting for laws and wars that vastly  increased the  budget deficit? And the al-Awlaki killing doesn’t have  anything to do with  waterboarding. We don’t know whether al-Awlaki was  found because of “enhanced  interrogation techniques.” There are surely  legitimate questions to be asked  about whether and why a U.S. citizen  should be targeted, either on U.S. soil or  abroad. But hypocrisy isn’t  the issue here.

Former President Bush has been gracious and quiet as his  successor  takes on the problems of the economy and national security. If Bush  has  disagreed with what Obama has done, he’s kept it to himself—something   that is not only just good manners for a former president, but in the  specific  arena of national security, important to giving a sense of  continuity in front  of the international audience. How unfortunate that  Cheney cannot behave in the  same way.


By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, October 3, 2011

October 3, 2011 Posted by | Conservatives, Foreign Policy, GOP, Homeland Security, Neo-Cons, Politics, Republicans, Right Wing | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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