Jared Del Rosso on the Torture Debate and the CIA Report

Jared Del Rosso

“The report offers, at last, a peak at the CIA’s own documentary record. What we find is what critics of the program have long known we’d find. Not the mastery or enhancement of violence, but torture.”—Jared Del Rosso

The following post is by Jared Del Rosso, author of the forthcoming Talking About Torture: How Political Discourse Shapes the Debate:

On Tuesday, December 9, 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee released the executive summary of its report on CIA interrogations during the war on terror. The Committee’s investigation began in 2009. The report, more than 6,000 pages in total, was completed in late 2011 and approved by the Committee in December 2012. For the better part of the last two years, the Committee has been negotiating the release of the summary with the CIA. The Agency provided a response to the investigation in 2013, and the Committee incorporated some of that response into its report. Since then, the Committee and the CIA have been hashing out what would be redacted in the summary. The negotiations were frequently bitter, and they delayed the release of the document for several months.

All this is to say that the report is long overdue. It’s been over a decade since the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs inaugurated the “torture debate.” Since then, public attention to torture has come in fits and starts with the release of investigations, memos, emails, an interrogation log, and, of course, photographs.

In Talking about Torture: How Political Discourse Shapes the Debate, I show that U.S. politicians are especially responsive to the release of documents produced by the country’s own interrogators and soldiers. This includes the Abu Ghraib photographs, which military police at the facility in Iraq took with personal cameras. The impact of the photographs is well-known. But other documents also influenced the debate. In December 2004, the Bush administration released FBI emails describing military practices at Guantánamo. Earlier in the year, military officials and investigators had assured Congress that serious instances of detainee abuse were isolated to Abu Ghraib and that there had only been a few, minor instances of abuse at Guantánamo. The emails, however, undermined this claim. One described an agent’s observations of detainees “chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves and had been left there for 18, 24 hours, or more.” One detainee “was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night.” The release of the FBI emails and, later, the military’s interrogation log of Mohammed al Qahtani directly contradicted what high-ranking military officials had said about interrogations at Guantánamo and emboldened congressional democrats, who had previously treaded carefully around the facility and the administration’s role in promoting the abuse and torture of detainees.

The FBI’s emails, the military’s interrogation log, and the Abu Ghraib photographs share several qualities that make them particularly potent as evidence of torture. Most obviously, all were created by the U.S.’s own agents. Governments often discredit human rights organizations or detainees alleging torture as biased or outright liars. This can’t be said of the country’s interrogators and soldiers, who have virtually no incentive in publicizing their colleagues’ human rights violations.

But these documents share other qualities. The Abu Ghraib photographs had such a great impact because they revealed the brutally cruel, if not sadistic, reality underlying the euphemistic rhetoric of American interrogation. The FBI emails and the military’s interrogation log similarly eroded the credibility of the claim that interrogations at Guantánamo were professional and restrained. In them, detainees appear utterly broken; military interrogators appear amateurish. (For instance, al Qahtani’s log documents that military interrogators put on satirical puppet show and hung pictures of “swimsuit models” around his neck.)

This is where the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report comes in. Advocates of “enhanced interrogation” frequently juxtapose the CIA’s program with Abu Ghraib. The latter was unauthorized, disorganized sadism. “Animal House on the night shift,” as James Schlesinger famously put it. CIA interrogations, on the other hand, were well-organized, professional affairs. “Enhanced interrogation” techniques, advocates claim, were only used as a last resort against uncooperative detainees who possessed vital information. The Agency never used the techniques to punish detainees. And they always stopped using practices like waterboarding as soon as detainees surrendered the information they were protecting. This usually happened quickly. Advocates claim that Abu Zubaydah broke after thirty seconds of waterboarding and Khalid Shiekh Mohammed resisted for just a minute and a half.

Advocates of these practices have been able to get away with making these claims for so long because the CIA’s interrogation program has been so well protected. The CIA destroyed videotapes of its use of waterboarding, denying the American public the sort of evidence about the practice that the Abu Ghraib photographs provided of military torture. Direct, first-person accounts have been guarded as well. Until the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, the primary accounts were those offered by the Agency’s former director, Michael Hayden, and a mostly sympathetic agent, John Kiriakou.

Drawing on the CIA’s own documentary record, the Senate Intelligence Committee report reveals that “enhanced interrogation” bears little resemblance to the professionalized, restrained program that advocates claim it was. Several main players in the program were undertrained or lacked any meaningful background in interrogation. Agency interrogators often turned to “enhanced” techniques immediately after taking detainees into custody, not as a last resort. CIA headquarters ordered reluctant interrogators to continue employing “enhanced” techniques on a detainee who the interrogators had determined was compliant and cooperative. Agents punished one detainee who did not refer to interrogators as “sir” by subjecting him to “enhanced interrogation.” The practices were also far more brutal than advocates admit. Abu Zubaydah’s first waterboarding sessions appears to have been two-and-half-hours long, during which he “coughed, vomited, and had ‘involuntary spasms of the torso and extremities.” A later session left him unresponsive, water bubbling out of his mouth. Khalid Shiekh Mohammed’s waterboarding devolved, according to a medic who witnessed it, into a “series of near drownings.”

It is already apparent that, in the short term at least, the Intelligence Committee’s report will not settle the debate about the nature, legality, and effectiveness of CIA torture. Polling conducted soon after the report’s release found that a majority of Americans believed that torture could be justified, and the usual suspects—former Vice President Dick Cheney, former CIA director Michael Hayden, and former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen—continue to argue that the CIA’s interrogation program was legal and saved American lives. But the report offers, at last, a peak at the CIA’s own documentary record. What we find is what critics of the program have long known we’d find. Not the mastery or enhancement of violence, but torture.

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