Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

'Torture report' a testament to CIA incompetence

I'm reading through the Senate Intelligence Committee 600-page report on the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" program, but I'm already struck by a couple of things.

The first is the truly amateurish, slapdash nature of the torture program. The adoption of that tactic was not the result of some carefully thought-out agency process in which they sought the best way to get necessary intelligence and reluctantly settled on torture. That process never occurred. It also wasn't motivated by frustration that legal, humane forms of questioning weren't producing the answers they needed to protect the country. Torture wasn't their last resort, it was their first resort, perhaps driven by a perceived need to "get tough."

In addition, the "program" was devised not by interrogation experts but by two private-sector psychologists on contract with the CIA. As the committee reports: "Neither psychologist had any experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialized knowledge of al-Qa'ida, a background in counterterrorism, or any relevant cultural or linguistic expertise...."**

Yet those two psychologists became the key to the entire program, displacing and overriding CIA and FBI personnel with decades of experience in successful interrogation techniques. The two "personally conducted interrogations of some of the CIA's most significant detainees," according to the report, and "in 2005 they formed a company specifically for the purpose of conducting their work with the CIA. Shortly thereafter, the CIA outsourced virtually all aspects of the program. In 2006, the value of the CIA's base contract with the company formed by the psychologists with all options exercised was in excess of $180 million; the contractors received $81 million prior to the contract's termination in 2009."

And once implemented and underway, the program was never reviewed for effectiveness, despite what appears to have been considerable doubt and criticism voiced by the military, by the FBI and from within the agency. The military refused to provide doctors to oversee the health of detainees, and the FBI refused to participate in interrogations.

The incompetence is further documented in the report's finding that CIA headquarters didn't know even basic things about the program that they themselves were supposed to be running, including how many detainees they had, where they had them, and who was torturing them. According to the Senate report, more than 20 percent of the CIA's detainees did not meet the agency's own standards for being detained and the CIA knew it, but it kept them anyway because, well, they couldn't think of what else to do with them.

The head of one overseas detention site where "high-value" detainees were being held and interrogated complained that "managers seem to be selecting either problem, underperforming officers; new, totally inexperienced officers or whomever seems to be willing and able to deploy at any given time," resulting in "the production of mediocre or, I dare say, useless intelligence."

In addition, the report documents that the CIA tortured innocent people, and that people died as a result of their treatment. One man, left naked on a dungeon floor, froze to death. In a footnote, the report notes:

"One senior interrogator  told the CIA (inspector general) that 'literally, a detainee could go for days or weeks without anyone looking at him,' and that his team found one detainee who, 'as far as we could determine,' had been chained to the wall in a standing position for 17 days.' According to the CIA interrogator, some of the CIA detainees ... "'literally looked like a dog that had been kenneled.' When the doors to their cells were opened, 'they cowered.'"

And then there's the matter of the effectiveness of torture, which is perhaps best addressed through the example of Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi arrested in Pakistan in March 2002 and suspected of strong ties to Osama bin Laden. Here's the narrative in the Senate report:

"After Abu Zubaydah was rendered to DETENTION SITE GREEN on March XX 2002, he was questioned by special agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who spoke Arabic and had experience interrogating members of al-Qa'ida. Abu Zubaydah confirmed his identity to the FBI officers, informed the FBI officers he wanted to cooperate, and provided background information on his activities.

That evening, Abu Zubaydah's medical condition deteriorated rapidly and he required immediate hospitalization. Although Abu Zubaydah was largely unable to communicate because of a breathing tube, he continued to provide information to FBI and CIA officials at the hospital using an Arabic alphabet chart. According to records, the FBI officers remained at Abu Zubaydah's bedside throughout this ordeal and assisted in his medical care. When Abu Zubaydah's breathing tube was removed on April 8, 2002, Abu Zubaydah provided additional intelligence and reiterated his intention to cooperate.

During an April 10, 2002, debriefing session, conducted in the hospital's intensive care unit, Abu Zubaydah revealed to the FBI officers that an individual named "Mukhtar" was the al-Qa'ida "mastermind" of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah identified a picture of Mukhtar provided by the FBI from the FBI's Most Wanted list. The picture was of Khalid Shaykh Mohammad (KSM), who had been indicted in 1996 for his role in Ramzi Yousef's terrorist plotting to detonate explosives on 12 United States-flagged aircraft and destroy them mid-flight over the Pacific Ocean.

Abu Zubaydah told the interrogators that "Mukhtar" was related to Ramzi Yousef, whom Abu Zubaydah said was in an American jail (Yousef had been convicted for the aforementioned terrorist plotting and was involved in the 1993 World Trade Center terrorist attack).

Zubaydah told the FBI officers that "Mukhtar" trained the 9/11 hijackers and also provided additional information on KSM's background, to include that KSM spoke fluent English, was approximately 34 years old, and was responsible for al-Qa'ida operations outside of Afghanistan."


All of that and more, in just a few days, under questioning by experienced FBI interrogators without resort to torture or coercive activities. Yet that questioning was halted at the insistence of the CIA, which immediately began to subject Abu Zubaydah to the "enhanced interrogation" outlined by its contract psychologists.

Tellingly, when the CIA tried years later to justify its subsequent torture of Abu Zabaydah, which included 83 waterboarding sessions, it tried to attribute the valuable intelligence gleaned by the FBI to its own, far harsher and illegal interrogation. As the report concludes:

"In providing the "effectiveness" examples to policymakers, the Department of Justice, and others, the CIA consistently omitted the significant amount of relevant intelligence obtained from sources other than CIA detainees who had been subjected to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques — leaving the false impression the CIA was acquiring unique information from the use of the techniques."


More to come, I'm sure.


** The two had experience overseeing the U.S. Air Force's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program to teach U.S. military personnel how to handle torture if captured.

As the report notes:

"In May 2003, a senior CIA interrogator would tell personnel from the CIA's Office of Inspector General that (the psychologists' approach) was based on resisting North Vietnamese "physical torture" and was designed to extract "confessions for propaganda purposes" from U.S. airmen "who possessed little actionable intelligence." The CIA, he believed, "need[ed] a different working model for interrogating terrorists where confessions are not the ultimate goal."

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.