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Senate releases controversial report on CIA torture

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Critics say its release will result in violence against the U.S.

The Central Intelligence Agency tortured prisoners without authorization, lied about it to government officials, manipulated the media to gain public support, and impeded virtually all efforts at oversight, according to a controversial and long-awaited Senate report released Tuesday.

The CIA specifically deceived former president George W. Bush, the U.S. Congress, and the Department of Justice about their secret and illegal global torture program begun immediately following 9/11, the report asserts.

The Senate report is vast, encompassing thousands of pages of information, much of which remains classified and redacted from the version released Tuesday.

A summary of the report’s findings, which were leaked earlier this year, include:

  • CIA torture techniques “did not effectively assist the agency in acquiring intelligence or in gaining cooperation from the detainees.” The agency is said to have exaggerated the value of intelligence their interrogations produced, a lie meant to argue for allowing even more brutal interrogation.

  • In addition to lying to government officials about the effectiveness of torture, the CIA manipulated the media by leaking classified information that made it seem like torture was extremely effective in gaining new intelligence.

  • In reality, they did not effectively evaluate the value of the results of their torture program.

  • Detainees were subjected to torture without authorization from the Department of Justice or even CIA headquarters.

  • The CIA kept poor records of even the number of prisoners they possessed and held individuals “who did not meet the legal standard for detention.”

  • The CIA lied about the conditions prisoners were kept in.

  • The CIA lied to, impeded, and “actively avoided” the “oversight and decision-making” of the White House, Congress, and the CIA’s Office of Inspector General.

  • Internal critiques and objections to the program were ignored.

  • The CIA’s torture program “complicated, and in some cases hindered the national security missions” of other agencies.

  • CIA personnel who committed violations were rarely held accountable.

  • The program damaged America’s reputation and came with enormous cost, “both monetary” and otherwise.

“[The report] highly critical of the CIA’s actions, and rightfully so,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), wrote in the report’s introduction. “Reading them, it is easy to forget the context in which the program began—not that the context should serve as an excuse, but rather as a warning for the future.”

It is worth remembering the pervasive fear in late 2001 and how immediate the threat felt. Just a week after the September 11 attacks, powdered anthrax was sent to various news organizations and to two U.S. Senators. The American public was shocked by news of new terrorist plots and elevations of the color-coded threat level of the Homeland Security Advisory System. We expected further attacks against the nation.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) said that while much of the information in the report is already known, new information on countries and partners who helped the U.S. conduct torture is included in the documents, putting those countries and individuals at risk of “serious damage.”

“What will be new tomorrow is the references to our partners, people that helped, places that were willing to hold prisoners,” he said yesterday. “There’s nothing there are going to glean from the stand point of what the American response was. This is a report that will really expose a lot of the cooperation we have around the world.”

An unnamed U.S. intelligence official told the Associated Press that Congress was warned of “the heightened potential that the release could stimulate a violent response.” Security at American installations around the world is being raised after “some indications” of “greater risk” following the report’s release, a White House spokesman told BBC News.

The report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) is over 6,300 pages long, took over four years to produce, and cost over $40 million. The heavily redacted version released Tuesday is 525 pages.

The Intelligence Committee report directly contradicts the dogma repeated time and again by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who said that frequent torture “produced phenomenal results for us.”

Earlier this year, the CIA admitted it hacked into Senate computers as the body compiled this report on “enhanced interrogation” techniques, a controversy that seemed to quickly fade into nothingness despite initial outrage. When previously asked about the suspected hack, CIA chief John Brennan publicly said, “We wouldn’t do that.” He later admitted they would.

The long report has been finished since Dec. 2012. It has been in the process of redaction to make ready for public consumption for months.

The classified report comes in three sections: A history of the CIA’s interrogation program, the intelligence produced by the program, and then the specific methods used by the agency. The unclassified report provides a basic summary.

The report states the agency lied to the Bush administration, other government officials, and the public by using even more brutal torture methods than they let on, acted in some cases without oversight, and lied again about the usefulness of information found out through torture.

Multiple officials have told Al Jazeera that the report “found that some of the harsh measures authorized by the Department of Justice had been applied to at least one detainee before such legal authorization was received.”

A decade of American torture authorized by Bush included physical assaults, mock burial, deliberate hypothermia, waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, deprivation of solid food, and forced nudity. Over 100 detainees have died in American custody but few have been subject to any scrutiny or transparency at all.

Torture—specifically, mock burial and waterboarding—led Ibn Sheikh Al-Libi, an al Qaeda training camp director, to tell the CIA in 2002 that Iraq and Al Qaeda were working as a team with deadly chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

Al-Libi likely told his captors false information in the hopes that the torture would end. That’s the exact behavior that U.S. military and law enforcement handbooks predict when they explain that torture consistently yields unreliable information. Victims will say anything in order to make the pain stop.

Still, Bush and his administration offered Al-Libi’s story as proof that when making the case for a 2003 war in Iraq: Saddam Hussein was not only working with al Qaeda, the president said, but they had deadly chemical weapons that had to be destroyed.

None of it turned out to be true.

Parts of the CIA’s torture program operated in secret prisons known as “black sites” around the world. Prisoners were seized and then often held “incommunicado and unacknowledged” in what the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), among others, described as a vast violation of “a variety of international human rights and humanitarian laws defining minimum due process rights.”

While many of the details of the program remain secret—or have even been deliberately destroyed—this report is the most thorough official investigation into nearly a decade of American torture so far.

“What happened broke faith in the Constitution,” Senator Mark Udall recently told Esquire, as part of his push for the report’s release. “It’s made our challenge much greater when it comes to facing the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. And it is morally repugnant. When this report is declassified, people will abhor what they read. They’re gonna be disgusted. They’re gonna be appalled. They’re gonna be shocked at what we did. But it will lay a foundation whereby we don’t do this in the future. That’s been my goal. That’s been my mission.”

The legality and morality of the CIA’s post-9/11 program has long been contested and criticized both in the U.S. and around the world.

In the program’s defense, former President Bush and his allies have relied on the dual-weapons of secrecy and appeals to patriotism.

“We’re fortunate to have men and women who work hard at the CIA serving on our behalf,” Bush said on CNN this Sunday. “These are patriots. Whatever the report says, if it diminishes their contribution to our country, it is way off base. I knew the directors, I knew the deputy directors, I knew a lot of the operators. These are good people, really good people, and we’re lucky as a nation to have them.”

The New York Times reports that Bush and former CIA officials have been in communication recently, with intelligence officials going so far as to “privately reassure” the president’s team that “they did not deceive them.”

Torture was officially put off the table in January 2009 when a then-newly elected Barack Obama issued an executive order stating that all individuals in U.S. custody be treated in accordance with domestic and international law—i.e., not tortured—“in order to improve the effectiveness of human intelligence gathering, to promote the safe, lawful, and humane treatment of individuals in United States custody and of United States personnel who are detained in armed conflicts.”

Obama, however, has continuously declined to investigate or prosecute any illegality. Instead, he’s repeatedly stated his preference to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards” and has promised to protect CIA agents “who acted reasonably and relied upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that their actions were lawful.”

In lieu of presidential action, we have this report.

Obama’s refusal to use his power as president to punish torturers has earned him the scorn of many on the Left who view Bush’s “enhanced interrogation” program as perhaps in lowest moment in a decade that they view as downright abyssal.

“We tortured people unmercifully,” Retired General Barry McCaffrey said in 2009 of the Bush program. “We probably murdered dozens of them during the course of that, both the armed forces and the CIA.”

Read or download the full report below:

This story is developing

Photo via CIA (PD) | Remix by Jason Reed

Patrick Howell O'Neill

Patrick Howell O'Neill

Patrick Howell O'Neill is a notable cybersecurity reporter whose work has focused on the dark net, national security, and law enforcement. A former senior writer at the Daily Dot, O'Neill joined CyberScoop in October 2016. I am a cybersecurity journalist at CyberScoop. I cover the security industry, national security and law enforcement.