The full extent of the CIA’s interrogation and detention programmes launched in the wake of the September 11 terror attack was laid bare in a milestone report by the Senate intelligence committee on Tuesday that concluded the agency’s use of torture was brutal and ineffective – and that the CIA repeatedly lied about its usefulness.
The report represented the most scathing congressional indictment of the Central Intelligence Agency in nearly four decades. It found that torture “regularly resulted in fabricated information,” said committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, in a statement summarizing the findings. She called the torture programme “a stain on our values and on our history”.
“During the brutal interrogations, the CIA was often unaware the information was fabricated.” She told the Senate the torture program was “morally, legally and administratively misguided” and “far more brutal than people were led to believe”.
The report reveals that use of torture in secret prisons run by the CIA across the world was even more extreme than previously exposed, and included “rectal rehydration” and “rectal feeding”, sleep deprivation lasting almost a week and threats to the families of the detainees.
The “lunch tray” for one detainee, which contained hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts and raisins, “was ‘pureed’ and rectally infused”, the report says. One detainee whose rectal examination was conducted with “excessive force” was later diagnosed with chronic hemorrhoids, anal fissures and rectal prolapse. Investigators also documented death threats made to detainees. And CIA interrogators, the committee charged, told detainees they would hurt detainees’ children and “sexually assault” or “cut a [detainee’s] mother’s throat”.
At least one prisoner died as a result of hypothermia after being held in a stress position on cold concrete for hours. At least 17 detainees were tortured without the approval from CIA headquarters that ex-director George Tenet assured the DOJ would occur. And at least 26 of the CIA’s estimated 119 detainees, the committee found, were “wrongfully held.”
Some CIA officers were said to have been reduced “to the point of tears” by witnessing the treatment meted out to one detainee.
The findings prompted a call from a UN special human rights rapporteur for prosecutions of those in the CIA and the Bush administration responsible for the torture programme.
Responding to the report, Barack Obama said the US owed a “profound debt” to the CIA but accepted that some of its techniques were “contrary to our values”.
“These harsh methods were not only inconsistent with our values as nation, they did not serve our broader counterterrorism efforts or our national security interests. Moreover, these techniques did significant damage to America’s standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners. That is why I will continue to use my authority as president to make sure we never resort to those methods again.”
The Senate report ignited a political storm as it was published by the Democratic majority in its last few weeks before surrendering control to the Republican-dominated chamber elected last month.
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Loyalists of former president George W Bush, whose administration presided over the torture programme, immediately launched a website aimed at rebutting the report’s central findings.
The names of other countries – including Britain – who cooperated with the US programme by assisting the rendition of suspects were redacted from the published report.
Asked about British involvement, David Cameron said the question that a parliamentary inquiry was “dealing with all those issues” and that he had issued guidance to British agents on “how they have to handle these issues in future”
“Torture is wrong, torture is always wrong. Those of us who want to see a safer and more secure world, who want to see extremism defeated, we won’t succeed if we lose our moral authority, if we lose the things that make or systems work and countries successful,” the prime minister said.
The Senate committee published nearly 500 pages of its investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme during the Bush administration’s “war on terror”. The full report is over 10 times longer, but the declassified section is dense with detail and declassified communications between the officials involved.
CIA headquarters in McLean, Virginia. The majority of the 6,000-page classified torture report remains classified. Photograph: Larry Downing/Reuters
The Senate report squarely rebuts CIA claims that the use of such methods generated intelligence that prevented further terrorist attacks and therefore saved lives. Feinstein said its investigators had not found a single case where that was true. Detainees who underwent torture either disclosed nothing, or supplied fabricated information, or revealed information that had been already been discovered through traditional, non-violent interrogation techniques.
The torture revealed in the report goes beyond the techniques already made public through a decade of leaks and lawsuits, which had found that agency interrogators subjected detainees to quasi-drowning, staged mock executions and revved power drills near their heads.
At least 39 detainees, the committee found, experienced techniques like “cold water dousing” – different from the quasi-drowning known as waterboarding – which the Justice Department never approved.
Contractor psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen played a critical role in establishing the torture program in 2002. In the report, both Mitchell and Jessen are identified by the pseudonyms Swigert and Dunbar. A company they formed to contract their services to the CIA was worth more than $180m, and by the time of the contract’s 2009 cancellation, they had received $81m in payouts.
The committee’s findings, which the CIA largely rejects, are the result of a four-year, $40m investigation that plunged relations between the spy agency and the Senate committee charged with overseeing it to a historic low.
The investigation that led to the report, and the question of how much of the document would be released and when, has pitted chairwoman Feinstein and her committee allies against the CIA and its White House backers. For 10 months, with the blessing of President Barack Obama, the agency has fought to conceal vast amounts of the report from the public, with an entreaty to Feinstein from secretary of state John Kerry occurring as recently as Friday.
Republican House intelligence committee chairman Mike Rogers warned America’s allies were predicting its release would “cause violence and deaths”. After publication Rogers said: “Though it is wholly appropriate for the congressional intelligence committees to conduct rigorous review of classified programs, I fear that publicizing the details of this classified program – which was legal, authorized and appropriately briefed to the intelligence committees – will only inflame our enemies, risk the lives of those who continue to sacrifice on our behalf, and undermine the very organization we continuously ask to do the hardest jobs in the toughest places.”
CIA director John Brennan, an Obama confidante, conceded in a Tuesday statement that the program “had shortcomings and that the agency made mistakes” owing from what he described as unpreparedness for a massive interrogation and detentions program.
But Brennan took issue with several of the committee’s findings.
“Our review indicates that interrogations of detainees on whom EITs were used did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives. The intelligence gained from the program was critical to our understanding of al-Qaida and continues to inform our counterterrorism efforts to this day,” Brennan said.
“EITs”, or “enhanced interrogation techniques”, is the agency’s preferred euphemism for torture.
International condemnation was swift. Ben Emmerson, the United Nations rapporteur for counter-terrorism, commended the White House for resisting pressure not to publish the report but said action must now be taken.
“The individuals responsible for the criminal conspiracy revealed in today’s report must be brought to justice, and must face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes. The fact that the policies revealed in this report were authorised at a high level within the US government provides no excuse whatsoever. Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability,” he said.
So far the only former CIA official in jail for the use of waterboarding, John Kiriakou, was prosecuted for disclosing information to reporters.
Obama banned CIA torture upon taking office, but the continuing lack of legal consequences for agency torturers has led human rights campaigners to view the Senate report as their last hope for official recognition and accountability for torture.
Though the committee released hundreds of pages of declassified excerpts from the report on Tuesday, the majority of the 6,000-plus page classified version remains secret, disappointing human rights groups that have long pushed for broader transparency. Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat who lost his seat in November, has flirted with reading the whole report into the Senate record, one of the only tactics to compel additional disclosures remaining.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid weighed in to back the report. “Today, for the first time, the American people are going to learn the full truth about torture that took place under the CIA during the Bush administration,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “The only way our country can put this episode in the past is to confront what happened.”
“Not only is torture wrong but it doesn’t work,” said Reid. He said torture “got us nothing except a bad name”.
But Republican members of the intelligence committee questioned the report in their own 100-page document. They wrote “procedural irregularities” had negatively impacted the study’s “problematic claims and conclusions” and accused Democrats of bias and faulty analysis.
The Republicans specifically disputed the report’s claim that torture had failed to provide actionable intelligence and claimed “aggressive” interrogation of Zubaydah led to the capture of al-Qaida associates and the disruption of a plot aimed at hotels in Karachi, Pakistan, frequented by American and German guests.
In a statement, James Clapper, director of national intelligence, said he could not recall a report “as fraught with controversy and passion as this one”.
He said the officers who participated in the program “believed with certainty that they were engaged in a program devised by our government on behalf of the president that was necessary to protect the nation, that had appropriate legal authorization, and that was sanctioned by at least some in the Congress.” But he said “things were done that should not have been done”.
“I don’t believe that any other nation would go to the lengths the United States does to bare its soul, admit mistakes when they are made and learn from those mistakes. Certainly, no one can imagine such an effort by any of the adversaries we face today,” said Clapper.