WASHINGTON — A scathing report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday found that the Central Intelligence Agency routinely misled the White House and Congress about the information it obtained from the detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects, and that its methods were more brutal than the CIA acknowledged either to Bush administration officials or to the public.
The long-delayed report, which took five years to produce and is based on more than 6 million internal agency documents, is a sweeping indictment of the CIA’s operation and oversight of a program carried out by agency officials and contractors in secret prisons around the world in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It also provides a macabre accounting of some of the grisliest techniques that the CIA used to torture and imprison terrorism suspects.
Detainees were deprived of sleep for as long as a week, and were sometimes told that they would be killed while in U.S. custody. With the approval of the CIA’s medical staff, some CIA prisoners were subjected to medically unnecessary “rectal feeding” or “rectal hydration” — a technique that the CIA’s chief of interrogations described as a way to exert “total control over the detainee.” CIA medical staff members described the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, as a “series of near drownings.”
The report also suggests that more prisoners were subjected to waterboarding than the three the CIA has acknowledged in the past. The committee obtained a photograph of a waterboard surrounded by buckets of water at the prison in Afghanistan commonly known as the Salt Pit — a facility where the CIA had claimed that waterboarding was never used. One clandestine officer described the prison as a “dungeon,” and another said that some prisoners there “literally looked like a dog that had been kenneled.”
During his administration, President George W. Bush repeatedly said that the detention and interrogation program, which President Barack Obama dismantled when he succeeded him, was humane and legal. The intelligence gleaned during interrogations, he said, was instrumental both in thwarting terrorism plots and in capturing senior figures of al-Qaida.
Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney and a number of former CIA officials have said more recently that the program was essential for ultimately finding Osama bin Laden, who was killed by members of the Navy SEALs in May 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The Intelligence Committee’s report tries to refute each of these claims, using the CIA’s internal records to present 20 case studies that bolster its conclusion that the most extreme interrogation methods played no role in disrupting terrorism plots, capturing terrorist leaders — even finding Bin Laden.
The report said that senior officials — including former CIA directors George J. Tenet, Porter J. Goss and Michael V. Hayden — repeatedly inflated the value of the program in secret briefings both at the White House and on Capitol Hill, and in public speeches.
Moments after the report was released Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, gave a lengthy speech on the Senate floor describing the tumultuous history of her investigation and calling the CIA interrogation program “a stain on our values and our history.”
“Releasing this report is an important step to restoring our values and showing the world that we are a just society,” she said.
Speaking after Feinstein, McCain told the Senate that the American people “have a right...to know what was done in their name.”
Describing the practices outlined in the report as torture, McCain said that such techniques “[produce] more misleading information than actionable intelligence.”
As Feinstein was preparing to speak, the CIA director, John O. Brennan, issued a response that both acknowledged mistakes in the detention and interrogation program and angrily challenged some of the findings of the Senate report as an “incomplete and selective picture of what occurred.”
“As an agency, we have learned from these mistakes, which is why my predecessors and I have implemented various remedial measures over the years to address institutional deficiencies,” Brennan said.
But despite the mistakes, he added, “the record does not support the study’s inference that the agency systematically and intentionally misled each of these audiences on the effectiveness of the program.”
The entire report is more than 6,000 pages long, but the committee voted in April to declassify only its 524-page executive summary and a rebuttal by Republican members of the committee. The investigation was conducted by staff members working for Democratic senators on the committee.
The New York Times and other news organizations received an advance copy of the report and agreed not to publish any of its findings until the Senate Intelligence Committee made them public. The Times did not receive an advance copy of the Republican rebuttal.
Many of the most extreme interrogation methods — including waterboarding — were authorized by Justice Department lawyers during the Bush administration. But the report also found evidence that a number of detainees had been subjected to other, unapproved methods while in CIA custody.
The torture of prisoners at times was so extreme that some CIA personnel tried to put a halt to the techniques, but were told by senior agency officials to continue the interrogation sessions.
The Senate report quotes a series of August 2002 cables from a CIA facility in Thailand, where the agency’s first prisoner was held. Within days of the Justice Department’s approval to begin waterboarding the prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, the sessions became so extreme that some CIA officers were “to the point of tears and choking up,” and several said they would elect to be transferred out of the facility if the brutal interrogations continued.
During one waterboarding session, Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” The interrogations lasted for weeks, and some CIA officers began sending messages to the agency’s headquarters in Virginia questioning the utility — and the legality — of what they were doing. But such questions were rejected.
“Strongly urge that any speculative language as to the legality of given activities or, more precisely, judgment calls as to their legality vis-à-vis operational guidelines for this activity agreed upon and vetted at the most senior levels of the agency, be refrained from in written traffic (email or cable traffic),” wrote Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., then the head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center.
“Such language is not helpful.”
The Senate report found that the detention and interrogation of Zubaydah and dozens of other prisoners were ineffective in giving the government “unique” intelligence information that the CIA or other intelligence agencies could not get from other means.
The report also said that the CIA’s leadership for years gave false information about the total number of prisoners held by the CIA, saying there had been 98 prisoners when CIA records showed that 119 men had been held. In late 2008, according to one internal email, a CIA official giving a briefing expressed concern about the discrepancy and was told by Hayden, then the agency’s director, “to keep the number at 98” and not to count any additional detainees.
The committee’s report concluded that of the 119 detainees, “at least 26 were wrongfully held.”
“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-Qaida based solely on information fabricated by a CIA detainee subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques,” the report said.
Many Republicans have said that the report is an attempt to smear both the CIA and the Bush White House, and that the report cherry-picked information to support a claim that the CIA’s detention program yielded no valuable information. Former CIA officials have already begun a vigorous public campaign to dispute the report’s findings.
In its response to the Senate report, the CIA said that to accept the Intelligence Committee’s conclusions, “there would have had to have been a yearslong conspiracy among CIA leaders at all levels, supported by a large number of analysts and other line officers.
“This conspiracy would have had to include three former CIA directors, including one who led the agency after the program had largely wound down,” it added.
“We cannot vouch for every individual statement that was made over the years of the program, and we acknowledge that some of those statements were wrong. But the image portrayed in the study of an organization that — on an institutional scale — intentionally misled and routinely resisted oversight from the White House, the Congress, the Department of Justice and its own OIG simply does not comport with the record,” the statement said. OIG stands for Office of Inspector General.
The battle over the report’s conclusions has been waged behind closed doors for years, and provided the backdrop to the more recent fight over the CIA’s penetration of a computer network used by committee staff members working on the investigation. CIA officers came to suspect that the staff members had improperly obtained an internal agency review of the detention program over the course of their investigation, and the officers broke into the network that had been designated for the committee’s use.
Most of the detention program’s architects have left the CIA, but their legacy endures inside the agency. The chief of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center said during a meeting with Brennan, the current CIA director, in April that more than 200 people working for him had at one point participated in the program.
According to the Senate report, even before the agency captured its first prisoner, CIA lawyers began thinking about how to get approval for interrogation methods that might normally be considered torture. Such methods might gain wider approval, the lawyers figured, if they were proved to have saved lives.
“A policy decision must be made with regard to U.S. use of torture,” CIA lawyers wrote in November 2001, in a previously undisclosed memo titled “Hostile Interrogations: Legal Considerations for CIA Officers.”
The lawyers argued that “states may be very unwilling to call the U.S. to task for torture when it resulted in saving thousands of lives.”
The Intelligence Committee report describes repeated efforts by the CIA to make that case, even when the facts did not support it. For example, the CIA helped edit a speech by Bush in 2006 to make it seem as if key intelligence was obtained through the most brutal interrogation tactics, even when CIA records suggested otherwise.
In 2002, the CIA took custody of Abu Zubaydah, who was brought to Thailand. There, two CIA contractors named James E. Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were in charge of the interrogation sessions, using methods that had been authorized by Justice Department lawyers. The two contractors, both psychologists, are identified in the Senate report under the pseudonyms Grayson Swigert and Hammond Dunbar.
The program expanded, with dozens of detainees taken to secret prisons in Poland, Romania, Lithuania and other countries. In September 2006, Bush ordered all of the detainees in CIA custody to be transferred to the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and after that the CIA held a small number of detainees in secret at a different facility for several months at a time — before they were also moved to Guantánamo Bay.
Obama spoke expansively about the Senate report in August, saying that any “fair minded” person would believe that some of the methods that the CIA used against prisoners amounted to torture. He said he hoped that the report reminded people that the “character of our country has to be measured in part not by what we do when things are easy but what we do when things are hard.”
At the same time, Obama said that he understood the pressure that the CIA was under after the Sept. 11 attacks, and that “it is important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had.”
Taken in its entirety, the report is a portrait of a spy agency that was wholly unprepared for its new mission as jailers and interrogators — but that embraced its assignment with vigor. The report chronicles millions of dollars in secret payments between 2002 and 2004 from the CIA to foreign officials, aimed at getting other governments to agree to host secret prisons.
Cables from CIA headquarters to field offices said that overseas officers should put together “wish lists” speculating about what foreign governments might want in exchange for bringing CIA prisoners onto their soil.
As one 2003 cable put it, “Think big.”
Saying her words ‘‘give me no pleasure,’’ Feinstein summarized the committee’s seven-year effort to uncover and evaluate the truth about CIA interrogation methods and whether they worked.
Feinstein’s conclusions were unequivocal: The harsh interrogation methods didn’t work, she said, and the tactics were ‘‘far more brutal than people were led to believe.’’