CIA Bruised By Probes Of Prisoner Abuse
The portrait of the CIA that emerges from a newly released report into its terrorist interrogation program shows a chaotic effort by an agency struggling to cope with a wide array of urgent and often uncomfortable missions.
Over time, the interrogation program became more regulated and bureaucratic. But a 2004 report by the CIA's inspector general describes an effort that was thrown together quickly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when officials feared more attacks could be imminent.
The report shows how senior CIA officials in Washington were closely involved in devising the rules and monitoring the results of interrogations closely — and how they pushed hard for results.
But ever since it became public, the CIA's program has been dogged by allegations of torture and abuse. On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder appointed federal prosecutor John Durham to look into a number of specific cases.
The new investigation is a blow for an agency that has been battered by a wave of uncomfortable disclosures about its operations overseas.
'Life Or Death For The Agency'
It has watched the new Office of the Director of National Intelligence take over many of the responsibilities that used to be in the CIA's purview. And CIA officials now have to respond to another potentially wide-ranging investigation.
"This is kind of life or death for the agency," says a former senior intelligence official.
President Obama on Monday decided to formally strip the CIA of its lead role in interrogations, creating a new office that will be overseen by the White House and managed by the FBI.
For many at the CIA, who never relished their role in running prisons, the changes actually come as something of a relief.
"The CIA had no interest in housing this initiative, and the agency's glad to be out of the detention business," says a U.S. official familiar with the matter.
Crucial Intelligence, But At A Cost
CIA officials say the interrogations yielded crucial intelligence about al-Qaida over the years. In all, at least 98 detainees were held in CIA custody between 2002 and 2006, about 30 of whom were subjected to harsh interrogation techniques. But, the officials add, they now have a number of other tools to go after the terrorist network.
The interrogation mission was never an easy one for the CIA, which in 2001 had little recent hands-on experience with interrogations or holding prisoners.
"In effect, they began with almost no foundation, as the agency had discontinued virtually all involvement in interrogations after encountering difficult issues with earlier interrogation programs in Central America and the Near East," the report pointed out. "Inevitably, there also have been some problems with current activities."
At the beginning, the CIA turned to its lawyers. CIA lawyers were drafting legal papers before the CIA had a single prisoner in its custody. They also asked Justice Department lawyers to weigh in on the definition of torture.
As the program developed, the legal discussions involved detailed specifics about interrogation techniques, such as exactly how long each waterboarding session would last. Officials even had psychologists draw up detailed profiles of top detainees to build a case that harsh interrogations would not cause lasting mental harm.
Lack Of Legal Oversight
But in the early months, it is not clear that these detailed rules always reached the operatives conducting the interrogations. "No formal mechanisms were in place to ensure that personnel going to the field were briefed on the existing legal and policy guidelines," the inspector general found.
The report documents a wide range of unauthorized and improvised techniques, including the use of guns and electric drills in interrogation rooms and the staging of a mock execution. Many of these incidents took place before the CIA issued its formal guidelines for interrogations and detentions in January 2003.
But reports about information obtained during the interrogations were read very closely at CIA headquarters, often by officials who had never witnessed interrogations first-hand.
Desk-bound analysts in Washington were charged with devising questions for interrogators to ask detainees. But the inspector general's report noted that the intelligence on al-Qaida was limited, and there were few knowledgeable analysts who spoke the right languages.
"This lack of knowledge led analysts to speculate about what a detainee 'should know,'" the report concluded. "When a detainee did not respond to a question posed to him, the assumption at headquarters was that the detainee was holding back and knew more; consequently, headquarters recommended resumption" of the enhanced interrogation techniques.
A Glimpse Into The Role Of Senior CIA Officials
Many of the details in the report were blacked out, particularly concerning the role of senior CIA officials in the program.
But it does offer a window into the questioning of al-Qaida suspect Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded at least 83 times in a one-month period. After many sessions, the interrogation team was ready to stop the harsh measures. But senior officials from the CIA's Directorate of Operations in Washington objected, insisting that Zubaydah was still withholding information.
"It generated substantial pressure from headquarters to continue use" of the harsher measures, the report said. "The decision to resume use of the waterboard on Abu Zubaydah was made by senior officers of the DO." After these officials witnessed a waterboarding session, they decided that the harsh techniques were no larger needed.
After the inspector general's report was issued internally, CIA officials worked to adopt almost all of his recommendations, which mostly involved adding additional safeguards and monitoring mechanisms.
As time went on, the program became more bureaucratic. Interrogators had to sign forms saying they had read the list of approved techniques and would not exceed the boundaries.
For every session, there were multiple people participating. "If anyone has a concern, they could call 'knock it off,' and they would stop," says a former senior intelligence official. "If they couldn't resolve it, they would send it directly to headquarters."
In The End, More Training And More Qualified Interrogators
The CIA also established a formal training program. Interrogators had to complete a mandatory four-week course that included more than 250 hours of instruction on the techniques and their limits. There was even a psychological screening process for interrogators to "minimize the risk that an interrogator might misuse any technique," according to a 2007 Justice Department memo.
By the time the program suspended in 2006, the interrogators had become quite professional. Their average age was 43, and many had advanced degrees in psychology.
When the overseas CIA prisons were emptied in 2006, the remaining high-value detainees were transferred to the U.S. military-run prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The CIA then worked to restart an interrogation program to question newly captured al-Qaida figures. It asked the Justice Department to approve the use of six so-called enhanced techniques, down to six from the original 10. In particular, the CIA wanted to be able to use sleep deprivation, which, according to a Justice Department memo, CIA officials judged "to be the most indispensable to the effectiveness of the interrogation program."
Between 2007 and 2009, at least two prisoners were interrogated by the CIA before being transferred to Guantanamo, but the program was never as active as before.
When President Obama announced in January that all future interrogations would be subject to the rules of the U.S. Army Field Manual, it marked the effective end of the CIA's interrogation program.
"On the 22nd of January when the president said use the Army Field Manual for everybody, we looked around and said we are out of the interrogation business," says a former senior intelligence official. "We did this because we had certain authorities" to use enhanced techniques, the former official adds. "If we don't have those authorities, we don't need to be doing this."
But the CIA says it will remain deeply involved in the new High-Value Detainee Interrogation Office, and the number two official will come from the CIA.
"The CIA took active part in the work of the task force, and its substantive counter-terrorism knowledge will be critical to the conduct of future debriefings," says CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano.
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