The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture

On September 11, 2001, I was nine years old. Halfway through the morning, the day school for nerdy kids that I was attending at the time told us that parents’ evening–scheduled for that night–was cancelled, and gave us all letters to take home. Thrown by a change in routine, we demanded to know why. No one would tell us much of anything, but a fifth grader at recess let slip something about a terrorist attack in New York. I had a very limited grasp of terrorism as a concept; I had watched a Mary-Kate and Ashley movie where they trained as spies and had to go through a training simulation involving “terrorists” wielding guns that produced nothing more threatening than bubbles. I couldn’t understand why a clearly harmless bubble-gun incident in a place a million miles away (we lived in Virginia) was such a big deal. My mother, to her immense credit, explained everything to me as straightforwardly as possible when she picked me up that afternoon. She gave me names (al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, World Trade Centre) that became part of the fabric of my childhood. She didn’t lie. When we got home, she let me watch the television coverage that was playing on loop on all the major networks, or at least she did until they started showing the jumpers, and the audio of the helicopter pilots, swearing and weeping as they tried and failed to save someone, anyone, from the top floors. It was a defining day in my childhood–hell, in my life–but I didn’t realize the extent of that until a few Christmases ago, when I was back home for the holidays and sorting through a bunch of old notebooks. I found one that I’d had as a nine-year-old: in the middle of it, I’d covered pages and pages with drawings of stick people leaping from burning buildings.

I mention this to emphasize that trauma–even trauma you don’t know about–causes people to do and justify things they would never ordinarily consider. Dianne Feinstein, who was the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, notes this in her foreword to the Committee’s report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program:

I have attempted throughout to remember the impact on the nation and to the CIA workforce from the attacks of September 11, 2001. I can understand the CIA’s impulse to consider the use of every possible tool to gather intelligence and remove terrorists from the battlefield…Nevertheless, such pressure, fear, and expectation of further terrorist plots do not justify, temper, or excuse improper actions taken by individuals or organizations in the name of national security…Instead, CIA personnel, aided by two outside contractors, decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of US law, treaty obligations, and our values.

This may be all you need to know. The story of foreign-hosted “blacksites”, renditions, the water board, and so on, is familiar to us now. I would recommend, however, that if you’re a US citizen, or the citizen of a country that participates in friendly diplomatic relations with the US (because there are implications attached to the countries you choose to be friendly with), you make an effort to read the whole thing. Some of it may surprise you.

For instance: there were eight “enhanced interrogation techniques” approved by the Department of Justice in 2002, including various versions of slapping, the water board, and “walling”, whereby an interrogator wraps a towel around a detainee’s neck (to prevent whiplash, apparently) and slams him into a concrete wall. Sleep deprivation, particularly standing sleep deprivation, where you shackle a detainee’s hands above his head for hours so that his discomfort prevents him from sleeping, was also approved. So far, perhaps, so legal: unsavoury, perhaps, but not actually negligent. Except for this: CIA cables and records suggest that the officials conducting these interrogations had often been neither trained nor certified as CIA interrogators. What that means, practically speaking, is that detainees were being physically harmed by people who had never been taught how to create the balance between discomfort and pain. Discomfort may be inflicted; “lasting physical or psychological damage” may not. In theory, techniques like walling and sleep deprivation only cause discomfort. (I would argue this, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume it to be the case.) In practice, detainees did suffer physical damage (like Abu Zubaydah, whose gunshot wound sustained during capture was allowed to become dirty and infected as a result of prioritising his interrogation over his medical care.) Two detainees who had each sustained a broken foot were shackled in the standing sleep deprivation position, forcing them to put weight on their injured feet. “Rectal rehydration” was used on several detainees, such as Ramzi bin al’Shibh, who went on hunger strike. The rehydration was applied in such a way as to cause injuries that, one medical official reported, are congruent with those caused by sexual assault; indeed, since forcible anal penetration constitutes rape, you could easily argue that the CIA engaged in retributive rape of detainees on hunger strike. In addition, the officer in charge at Detention Site COBALT (a code name; this was a “black site” prison hosted by an unnamed foreign government) was a junior CIA official who had previously been assessed as immature, violent, and unstable. Under this officer’s command, one COBALT detainee, Gul Rahman, died, probably of hypothermia after having been shackled to a freezing concrete floor wearing only a shirt. No reprimands were issued; the officer in question received a $2,500 bonus for “consistent good work”.

All of this is horrible enough, but public and media opinion, as well as government policy, during the mid-2000s was mostly positive about the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation techniques. This was due primarily to what the Report calls “inaccurate representations” from the CIA during briefings to other government offices. In common parlance, this is known as “lying”. The two most frequent justifications for the use of enhanced interrogation were: 1) it produced information that could not have been acquired in any other way, and 2) the information thus acquired “disrupted terrorist plots” and “saved hundreds or thousands of innocent lives”. These assertions are demonstrably untrue. Cited instances include the Karachi Plot, which was uncovered by Pakistani law enforcement before the CIA took custody of any of the detainees involved, and the Jose Padilla/”dirty bombs” plot, which the CIA was investigating before its detention and interrogation program even started. Additionally, the idea that information gathered through enhanced interrogation saved lives is, in many cases, inaccurate: the “Second Wave” plot, for instance, was judged by CIA analysts to be “amateurish”, “defective”, and probably infeasible at the time it was uncovered. (It was not, by the way, uncovered thanks to the use of enhanced interrogation techniques.)

The great virtue of the formal Senate Intelligence Committee Report is that it backs up its findings with thousands of footnotes and the dedicated bibliographical rigour of an academic paper, whilst also maintaining an engaging and totally non-emotive narrative flow. No reasonable person can accuse this document of being propaganda or of being politically biased; the Committee is bipartisan, composed of both Republicans and Democrats, and the research involved sorting through over six million pages of documents in a CIA-approved facility. It was not undertaken lightly, nor is it attempting to prove a point. Its scrupulously legalistic language affirms this, but it remains readable (something I was worried about; I don’t absorb large amounts of statistics very well.) It is a piece of work of which the US Government can (for once) be proud, and reading it constitutes a civic duty–we’re lucky that Melville House publishers have volunteered to bring it to the trade paperback market. Don’t miss it.

N.b.: Due to the potentially controversial nature of this post, I’ll be monitoring the comment thread and reserve the right to remove comments (or freeze the thread). This is not because I want to censor anyone’s right to free speech; it’s because the law does not oblige me to put up with other people’s bile.

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5 thoughts on “The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture

  1. Kirk says:

    Brilliant post! Congressional committee reports can be a difficult read if only for the dryness. It is an interesting report and I hope it informs US policy.

    • Ha, yeah, I’m actually still trawling through the minor stuff at the end (mostly to do with CIA Office of Public Affairs’ relationships with the media), and it’s getting a little tough. The writing in the report is amazingly clear, though, I’ve been very impressed. I hope it will inform policy too–would be such a waste of effort if it didn’t.

  2. Good post! Did you read the print copy or the one available online free from the government? If you read the print, is there stuff there that isn’t in the online version? I’ve been telling myself that I really don’t need to read it, but really I do. This is stuff we need to know.

    • I read the print version–Melville House produces it in trade paperback for about 8.99. I would imagine that both versions are the same, but it’s way easier to flip to the footnotes in the print version, and they clarify a lot of the specifics as well as providing CIA cable or email comms sources for virtually every statement the report makes. It’s a long haul, but I’d encourage you to read it–maybe just the summary points and the central section if you’re busy, but definitely worth it.

      • Thanks! I was going to download the PDF but now I think I will borrow a print copy from the library. I’m buried under books at the moment, but hopefully I will be able to do it soon.

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