Mark Danner has been writing in these pages about the use of torture by the US government since the first years after September 11, 2001. Following the release in December 2014 of the Senate’s report on the CIA torture program, Hugh Eakin spoke to Danner for the New York Review blog about some of the most startling findings of the investigation and what it reveals about the continued political debate surrounding the program. This is a shortened version of the interview, which can be read in full at nybooks.test/u/k.
Hugh Eakin: Nearly six years ago, you published the secret report by the International Committee of the Red Cross documenting the CIA’s torture of more than a dozen “high-value” detainees. And now we have the Senate’s extensive investigation of the torture program itself. What are some of the most revealing findings of the Senate report?
Mark Danner: There is a lot in the executive summary that we already knew but that is now told in appalling detail that we hadn’t seen before. The relentlessness, day in, day out, of these techniques—walling, close confinement, water dousing, waterboarding, the newly revealed “rectal rehydration,” and various other disgusting and depraved things—and the totality of their effect when taken together is recounted in numbing, revolting detail. The effect can only be conveyed by a full reading, through page after awful page of this five-hundred-page document, which is after all less than 10 percent of the report itself.
What I think is strictly speaking new is, first, how amateurish the torture program was. It was really amateur hour, beginning with the techniques themselves, which were devised and run by a couple of retired Air Force psychologists who were hired by the CIA and put in charge though they had never conducted an interrogation before. They had no expertise in terrorism or counterterrorism, had never interrogated al-Qaeda members, or anyone else for that matter. When it came to actually working with detained terrorists and suspected terrorists they were essentially without any relevant experience. Eventually, the CIA paid them more than $80 million.
The second revelation is the degree to which the CIA claimed great results, and did so mendaciously. Sometimes the attacks they said they had prevented were not serious threats in the first place. Sometimes the information that actually might have led to averting attacks came not from the “enhanced interrogation techniques” but from other traditional forms of interrogation or from other information entirely. But what the report methodically demonstrates is that the claims that had been repeated for years and years about having obtained essential, lifesaving intelligence thanks to these techniques are simply not true. And the case is devastating.
H.E.: This was a central question the Senate investigation was looking at, wasn’t it? The issue of whether actual intelligence was gained from torture. In essence, “Was it worth it?”
M.D.: From the beginning the CIA had claimed that these techniques were absolutely essential to saving the lives of thousands or even tens of thousands of people. Those claims have been made by many people and it is another revelation of the report that we see CIA people, notably the lawyers, raising these claims before the program even existed. The lawyers seemed to be thinking, “This is the only way we’re going to get away with this.” There is a quote in the report that people would look more kindly on torture—that is the word used—if it was used to stop imminent attacks. This was the so-called “necessity defense,” which, as the CIA lawyers put it, could be invoked to protect from prosecution “US officials who tortured to obtain information that saved many lives.” This idea was there right from the inception of the program.
H.E.: So the CIA is already using the word “torture” in the earliest documents the Senate committee looked at?
M.D.: This is before the program even began, in the weeks after September 11, 2001, when CIA lawyers and other officials are talking about using torture. And they use the word.
H.E.: And there aren’t any detainees at this point.
M.D.: This is near the beginning of the Afghanistan campaign, and they didn’t have anyone, certainly not anyone considered “high-value.”
H.E.: Do we get any closer in the report to an original decision by the Bush administration or the CIA to use torture?
M.D.: No, but we do get a hint that there wasn’t such a moment. You expect that government officials who make the momentous decision to introduce an officially sanctioned torture program in the United States would have a series of serious meetings in which they would analyze the history of interrogation as it has been used by different government agencies. They would consult with allies who have a history of using these and other techniques, about what works and what doesn’t. They would make a general study of what is necessary and what is not. They would consult with legal experts. They would do a number of things.
In this case, as far as we can tell, most of these things were not done. We find a bare minimum of policy discussion. We know the CIA did very little if any research about what would work and what wouldn’t. We see no decision tree springing from the felt actual need to do torture in specific cases, beginning with prisoners in hand who are unwilling to talk. Talk of torture itself—the wisps of the discussion, the ghostly mentions of the word—start very early after September 11, when “high-value” detainees are generally not available, let alone refusing to talk.
H.E.: We think of Vice President Dick Cheney as the torture program’s most vocal defender. Is there new insight into his involvement at the beginning? Or of other members of the executive branch?
M.D.: Cheney was the dominant player in the critical argument about the Geneva Conventions, whereby the administration concluded that captured members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban would not be considered POWs according to Geneva standards—and, most important, that Common Article Three, which mandates a minimum level of treatment for all detainees, and thus in effect prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, would not apply either. (The Supreme Court later rejected this judgment.) So we already knew the vice-president was very much engaged with the question of whether or not we could do these things.
Where he first comes into the actual discussion of techniques of interrogation is unclear. Because the Democratic majority on the committee agreed to limit the report to the CIA, we really don’t have definitive answers on who made critical decisions within the executive branch and when they made them. We have an essential report from the Office of Professional Responsibility in the Department of Justice about how torture was approved. We have an extensive and immensely valuable Senate Armed Services Committee report from 2008 about how the military used torture. And now we have this report, or rather this executive summary of a report, about how the CIA used torture. There are a dozen or so reports about different aspects of Abu Ghraib and the torture practiced there. But we still have no report on how decisions were made about torture in the executive branch, which is obviously critical.
The White House, including the offices of the president and the vice-president, and the National Security Council—these three vital areas of decision-making still have not been examined. And there’s a reason for that. The Republicans refused to sign on to the Senate investigation unless these areas were put beyond the committee’s mandate. The original vote by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to pursue the CIA investigation in 2009 was 14–1, and they got the Republicans on board by agreeing not to look at the executive.
As it is, most of the Republicans jumped ship and abandoned the report anyway. Now, in their own 167-page summary of their “minority views,” they attack the report for “faulty analysis, serious inaccuracies, and misrepresentations of fact” and argue that the program was essential to gaining vital intelligence that saved many lives. But they present no convincing evidence.
H.E.: What about the CIA leadership? One figure who seems central in some of the documentation is the CIA’s former acting general counsel, John Rizzo, who I take it was involved in the program from the outset and stayed in that position through 2009.
M.D.: Rizzo, along with other CIA lawyers, seems to have been the point person on most of these things. And he wasn’t an outside guy. He’d been at the CIA since the late 1970s, in the counsel’s office. He’d had a career in the CIA. And he also was a main author of the 2001 Memorandum of Notification to the president that gave the CIA broad power to do this—even though it apparently didn’t specify any specific interrogation techniques. (The president, according to the intelligence committee report, was not briefed in detail on the actual techniques until 2006.)
H.E.: Again, this is right after September 11?
M.D.: Yes, George W. Bush signed the Memorandum of Notification on September 17, 2001. It’s the key document and it has never been made public. Even though everyone takes it for granted that it was the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice that permitted the torture program through its so-called “torture memos” that “legalized” torture the following summer, the original authorization seems to have come from the Memorandum of Notification, a presidential document drafted by the CIA itself.
H.E.: For so long in the public perception, the Office of Legal Counsel has been understood as a central instrument in the torture program. The report shows that the lawyers in that office who drafted the “torture” memos were themselves sort of duped too, is that correct?
M.D.: Yes. And indeed that would be an obvious avenue for investigation and possible prosecution, though the Obama administration shows no interest in pursuing it. The CIA was actually misleading the Department of Justice. The report shows that the information given to the DOJ by the CIA in order for the DOJ to make its determination in the summer of 2002 that these techniques were legal was misleading and wrong; notably, that the techniques were not applied as described but much more brutally, especially waterboarding. John Yoo, the author of the original torture memo, already told the Office of Professional Responsibility during its investigation that if waterboarding was performed as it was described in the press he would not have judged it legal. And the report shows that indeed the CIA performed the technique in a much more brutal manner than it admitted to the Department of Justice lawyers.
This kind of corruption through mendacity has continued, and we see it clearly now, in this cheerleading society organized by the CIA, consisting mostly of ex-officials, who have come out publicly not only to defend the agency but also to defend torture itself. The CIA is not supposed to be lobbying for torture in the public realm. That’s not what the billions of dollars the taxpayers give it are supposed to be spent on.
H.E.: So the CIA is already talking about torture before they have a suspect in mind, and then when they do finally have a suspect, a few months later—Abu Zubaydah—this radical course seems to be projected onto him.
M.D.: Abu Zubaydah is the crucial case. He was captured in March 2002 in Pakistan. He had been badly wounded and had to be hospitalized, but very soon he was questioned by two experienced FBI interrogators using traditional “rapport-building” techniques and he did yield up a good deal of information. In the view of the FBI interrogators he was compliant and cooperative, and the information he gave during those initial weeks of talking to the FBI—that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (aka “Mukhtar”) was the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks, and that a man revealed to be José Padilla was plotting to become a so-called dirty bomber—is the very information that is cited by the CIA to bolster their claim that they got information through torture from Abu Zubaydah. The report confirms what the FBI interrogators had long claimed: that Abu Zubaydah revealed both these pieces of intelligence during the initial FBI interrogation, conducted, without torture, by using traditional methods.
H.E.: The FBI interrogators were fluent Arabic speakers and deeply knowledgeable about al-Qaeda. And they got Abu Zubaydah to talk through traditional interrogation methods?
M.D.: These were the standard FBI protocols—excluding torture—that had long been used, but the FBI interrogator Ali Soufan was not only experienced with al-Qaeda, he was by many accounts the best interrogator in the government. He had interrogated al-Qaeda suspects in the USS Cole bombing.
H.E.: Abu Zubaydah had been captured by the CIA. How was it that the FBI interrogated him first?
M.D.: It’s interesting. He was the CIA’s prisoner. He was taken to a black site in Thailand run by the CIA. Initially, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center didn’t send anyone to interrogate him because, according to Soufan, they didn’t believe it was Abu Zubaydah. So there was this initial delay, which allowed the FBI to start on the job of the interrogation.
Only when the CIA realized it was really Abu Zubaydah did they start to send their own people. And among these were the former military psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who, now working as CIA contractors, actually conducted that interrogation, and were eventually paid more than $80 million for their efforts. There was this period when they overlapped with the FBI, and Ali Soufan, who recognized them as rank amateurs, objected strenuously. The FBI eventually pulled out of the interrogation entirely. And this is another reason the program was such a disaster. Because of it you have the people in the government who know the most about interrogating al-Qaeda members not even taking part.
H.E.: And when the decision to start using torture is made, the Bush administration is on some level directly involved in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah?
M.D.: Right after they captured Abu Zubaydah, Bush talked about him publicly, at a fund-raiser in Greenwich, Connecticut. And already in Newsweek, in April 2002, there was an article about whether Abu Zubaydah was cooperating or not. And though they are all blind quotes you can pretty much pick out which are from the CIA and which from the FBI. There’s this amazing bureaucratic tug of war and it’s being played out in real time in the press. Here’s this guy at this black site in Thailand, and meanwhile, both bureaucracies are fighting it out in Newsweek about whether he should be tortured. It’s astonishing. Officials from the two agencies are being quoted, the FBI saying they’re getting a lot from the prisoner and the CIA saying they’re not getting anything, even as Abu Zubaydah is being interrogated at a black site.
But what is fascinating is what seems to have led the CIA to resort to this improvised, amateurish program. It was the utterly mistaken conviction that Abu Zubaydah was withholding information about attacks that would have killed thousands of people. So here we come back to the same theme of actionable intelligence, needing to use these techniques to find out about plots that would threaten thousands of people. So we are back to the raison d’être of the program itself.
H.E.: It sounds like a tautology. They have to torture Abu Zubaydah so that he will reveal a “ticking time bomb,” and they need that revelation to justify the use of torture. And the use of torture is based on the fact that he hasn’t revealed any such plot.
M.D.: All came from the conviction that Abu Zubaydah has knowledge of plots to kill thousands of people, and that conviction stems from an absolutely mistaken idea of who Abu Zubaydah is. The CIA officers are convinced that Abu Zubaydah is the third or fourth man in al-Qaeda; they are convinced he is this very important guy who would have this vital information on current planning. But he’s not. He’s not even a member of al-Qaeda. In fact, he was basically something like a travel agent for al-Qaeda, which meant of course he had a lot of useful information. But because the CIA was convinced that he was at the pinnacle of the organization, they thought that even though he seemed to be cooperating with these FBI interrogators, he was actively witholding what they really needed: information about an impending “threat.”
Eventually, as I’ve described in these pages, he was put under forced sleep deprivation for 180 hours and waterboarded eighty-three times.* It’s extraordinary that the last two times—the eighty-second and eighty-third waterboardings—were imposed on the direct orders of officials at CIA headquarters, over the strenuous objections of the interrogators who were performing them. The interrogators judged that Abu Zubaydah was completely compliant: he just had nothing to give up.
It’s an epistemological paradox: How do you prove what you don’t know? And from this open question comes this anxiety-ridden conviction that he must know, he must know, he must know. So even though the interrogators are saying he’s compliant, he’s telling us everything he knows—even though the waterboarding is nearly killing him, rendering him “completely non-responsive,” as the report says—officials at headquarters were saying he has to be waterboarded again, and again, because he still hadn’t given up information about the attacks they were convinced had to be coming. They kept pushing from the other side of the world for more suffering and more torture.
And finally, grudgingly, after the eighty-second and eighty-third waterboardings, they came to the conclusion that Abu Zubaydah didn’t have that information. So when they judged the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on him a “success,” what that really meant was that the use of those techniques, in this brutal, appalling extended fashion, had let them prove, to their satisfaction, that he didn’t know what they had been convinced that he did know. It had nothing to do with him giving more information as he was waterboarded. The use of these techniques let them alleviate their own anxiety. And their anxiety was based on complete misinformation, complete ignorance about who this man actually was.
You see this in the report again and again. You see that CIA headquarters is absolutely convinced that these people know about pending attacks. And what the torture proves is that they don’t know it. And mostly the reason for this is that information about current attacks was very, very tightly held. That’s the way terrorist organizations work. They’re cellular structures, with information distributed on a need-to-know basis. And unless you manage to capture the person about to conduct the attack, or Osama bin Laden, you are going to have a very hard time finding people who know about current attacks.
H.E.: There are moments of clarity in the report where CIA interrogators are conceding, internally, that we know astonishingly little about who these guys are. And yet this huge machinery of torture was put into place and defended at all costs.
M.D.: We translated our ignorance into their pain. That is the story the Senate report tells.