5 Appalling Takeaways From the Senate’s CIA Torture Report

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An IKONOS satellite image of a facility near Kabul, Afghanistan taken on July 17, 2003. A Washington Post on November 2, 2005 refers to this facility as the largest CIA covert prison in Afghanistan, code-named the Salt Pit.
Photo: IKONOS/Space Imaging Middle East/Reuters/Corbis

The newly released 500-plus-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report delivers a scathing critique of the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation programs, revealing previously unknown abuses, deceptions of the media, and attempts to avoid Congressional oversight. The summary is based on millions of documents surveyed over five years and is just a fraction of the length of the full, still-classified, 6,000-page report.

Among the horrors detailed in the Senate report: Waterboarding, a torture mechanism that brings the subject to the verge of drowning, was far more popular than the CIA had let on; “rectal feedings” and “rectal hydrations” were used to strip detainees of any measures of autonomy; and a particularly damning segment of the report notes that the CIA did not punish an agent who killed a detainee in the course of interrogations. 

In a statement posted to the White House website, President Obama called CIA officers “patriots” and said that we are “safer because of their heroic service and sacrifices.” “As I have said before, our nation did many things right in those difficult years,” the statement reads. “At the same time, some of the actions that were taken were contrary to our values.”

Another statement, issued by CIA director John Brennan, contests the report’s findings that torture did not yield productive intelligence, and that the agency deliberately tried to keep Congress out of the loop, while conceding “that the detention and interrogation program had shortcomings and that the Agency made mistakes.”

Below, Intelligencer rounded up five of the most damning revelations from this report.

1. The "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" went beyond what the agency ever admitted.
The report indicates that the CIA downplayed both the number of people affected by techniques like waterboarding, and the scope of the enhanced interrogation techniques. It paints a picture of large-scale abuse and irresponsibility.

One detainee, Abu Zubaydah, was waterboarded nearly to death:

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On top of waterboarding, prisoners were subjected to sleep deprivation in a standing position, often for days at a time. Some of them even had to do such things while injured.

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At least once, 9/11 attacks mastermind KSM was subjected to rectal rehydration “without a determination of medical need, a procedure that the chief of interrogations would later characterize as illustrative of the interrogator’s ‘total control over the detainee.’”

2. The interrogators were poorly screened and basically untrained.
These revelations shatter the image of CIA agents and contractors as noble public servants who, even if they sometimes exceed their rights, are fundamentally trying to keep us safe. Not only did many of the first interrogators get no training in how to deal with detainees, screening apparently let people with anger issues and with histories of sexual assault handle some of the most important prisoners for our national security. Worse, these people were allowed to use their own judgement during interrogations and torture sessions with detainees.

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3. Torture didn’t really provide great intelligence.
Whole sections of the report are dedicated to debunking claims that torture led to great intelligence gains that led to important wins in the war on terror. One of the most interesting is that about the information that led to the tracking of Osama bin Laden, where the Senate report says most of the information was given up by someone who had not been tortured:

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It also states such methods were inefficient in dealing with 9/11 attacks mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohamed:

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Worse, in other cases the agency apparently continued torturing, long after as much compliance as could be expected had been elicited:

4. The CIA did everything it could to avoid critical oversight.
In one email, the report notes that the CIA didn’t have a full briefing of programs not to avoid the press, but because “it is clear to us from some of the runup meetings we had with [White House] Counsel that the [White House] is extremely concerned [Secretary of State] Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s going on.” Instead of dealing with criticism, concerns, and their consequences, the CIA and the Bush White House instead chose to leave those with pesky consciences out of the loop. (Condoleezza Rice later made sure Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld each got a 25-minute briefing, rather than leaving them cold.)

And, in one of the more surprising revelations, the report claims that the CIA didn’t even brief then-president George W. Bush on the torture techniques until April 2006.

Other parts of the Senate report detail time after time that the CIA misrepresented the successes of its torture program to members of the media with the intent of swaying public opinion. (And, they also detail petty CIA squabbles with the FBI over who gets credit.) In one instance, the report notes that information about the efficacy of torture in getting information from Abu Zubaydah, one of the program’s first prisoners, is “incongruent with CIA interrogation records.”

It gives the same assessment of CIA interrogation success claims given to Ronald Kessler for his book. “The statements in the revised text on the “successes” attributable to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques were similar to CIA representations to policymakers and were incongruent with CIA records,” the report concluded. It states that after receiving the false information, Kessler amended his book to say that politicians and journalists “have made careers for themselves by belittling and undercutting the efforts of the heroic men and women who are trying to protect us,” and that “[t]oo many Americans are intent on demonizing those who are trying to protect us.”

5. The CIA tortured innocent people — including, accidentally, its own informants — and killed at least one detainee.
Probably owing in part to the scope of the program, and in part to the haste with which it was put together, there were quite a few hiccups along the way. Estimates say 26 of the 119 known detainees — a full quarter of the program — were wrongfully detained. “These included an ‘intellectually challenged’ man whose CIA detention was used solely as leverage to get a family member to provide information, two individuals who were intelligence sources for foreign liaison services and were former CIA sources, and two individuals whom the CIA assessed to be connected to al-Qa’ida based solely on information fabricated by a CIA detainee subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques,” the report says.

A pair of CIA sources were tortured through sleep deprivation before the agents realized they were good guys and finally read their messages. “After both detainees had spent approximately 24 hours shackled in the standing sleep deprivation position, CIA Headquarters confirmed that the detainees were former CIA sources. The two detainees had tried to contact the CIA on multiple occasions prior to their detention to inform the CIA of their activities and provide intelligence.”

Sometimes, the interrogations went even further, including at least one that resulted in the death of the detainee. The agent was not punished.