The CIA Torture Report Is a Carnival of Horrors
Spies beat prisoners and subjected them to ‘rectal feeding’
The padlocked cell was painted white. Four halogen lamps bathed the room, making it impossible to sleep. Inside the room a naked man sat shackled to a chair.
His interrogators wore black clothes, balaclavas and goggles—making them impossible to identify. They blasted rock music. They work for the CIA.
The man is Abu Zubaydah—a Saudi national and suspected Al Qaeda terrorist. The CIA held him in a black site. We don’t know where. The location and country are blacked out in the new report from the Senate Intelligence Committee describing the CIA’s torture program.
At first, the agents kept Zubaydah in isolation for 47 days. His whole world was composed of the cell’s white walls, the glare of the halogen lamps and the constant, blaring rock music. If he cooperated, the interrogators switched his chair for a more comfortable one.
Just before noon on Aug. 4, 2002, agents entered the cell, put a hood over his head and slammed him into the wall. They asked questions. When he didn’t answer the way they wanted, they slapped him.
Six hours later, the waterboarding started.
CIA cables reveal that Abu Zubaydah’s body would spasm during the torture. He was hysterical. At one point, liquid bubbled up “through his open, full mouth,” according to one dispatch.
The medical officer present during the interrogations took notes.
“Longest time with cloth over his face has been 17 seconds,” the officer wrote. “This is sure to increase shortly. No useful information so far … He did vomit a couple of times during the waterboard with some beans and rice.”
“It’s been 10 hours since he ate so this is surprising and disturbing,” the medico wrote. “We plan to only feed Ensure for a while now. I’m head[ing] back for another waterboard session.”
Between sessions, which occurred two to four times per day for 20 days, the agency kept Abu Zubaydah confined in a coffin-size box. A bullet wound he sustained during his capture became infected.
What happened to Abu Zubaydah is just one of many violent episodes from the CIA’s torture program. The report—which the Senate released on Dec. 9—describes Agency operatives holding prisoners in dungeons and dragging the men through corridors while beating them.
The spies also subjected their captives to “rectal feeding”—injecting hydrating fluids through prisoners’ rectums. They kept prisoners awake for more than week at a time. Some detainees went mad and mutilated themselves.
The report details the CIA’s use of torture in a worldwide network of secret prisons, or “black sites.” In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the CIA built a network of prison camps with the involvement of 54 countries, out of the sight of the public and even many within the United States government.
The Agency sent many detainees to allied countries, whose own intelligence agencies tortured them, thus obviating the need for Americans to do so themselves. But the report also reveals new and frightening details about direct CIA involvement in torture.
The Dec. 9 release of the 480-page executive summary—the full report is more than 6,000 pages and is still classified—is the result of a six-year battle between the Senate Intelligence Committee, the CIA and the White House. Both the CIA and the executive branch pushed for redactions in the report.
The timing of the release is not random. Democrats favoring disclosure—plus several Republicans—control the committee and approved the report’s release. They acted before Republicans take control of the Senate majority and the Intelligence Committee in January.
Meanwhile, the CIA and numerous ex-officials are pushing back against the report with documents and a Website of their own.
“The report released today by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence does damage to U.S. national security, to the men and women of the Central Intelligence Agency and most of all to the truth,” former CIA director George Tenet said in a statement.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican and the committee’s vice chairman, plus five other senators have also spoken out against the report.
The senators claimed the study made no suggestions as to how to improve the intelligence community. They said the report’s conclusions are misleading and based on poor methodology. No one had enough time, they said, and the committee neglected to interview key witnesses.
They also attacked the committee as a political sideshow. “We found indications of political considerations within the study,” the senators wrote.
“For example, the study uses out-of-context quotes from certain minority members to suggest incorrectly that they supported certain positions taken by the study,” the senators wrote in a statement.
The minority view also rails against the idea that torture didn’t save any American lives and provided no worthwhile intelligence. But while it’s true that the committee didn’t interview any torture victims or agency officials, it did read through millions of documents, memos and secret intelligence cables to draw its conclusions.
That’s how the committee learned what happened to Abu Zubayda. But despite the grotesque abuses of the prisoner’s human rights—among others—the CIA didn’t get anything out of it, according to the report. “The use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation,” the report states.
“While being subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques and afterwards, multiple CIA detainees fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence,” the report adds. “Detainees provided fabricated information on critical intelligence issues, including the terrorist threats which the CIA identified as its highest priorities.”
The report describes the program’s history, beginning with former Pres. George W. Bush authorizing the CIA to detain terrorists six days after the 9/11 attacks—via a classified covert action memo—and cutting them out of Geneva Conventions protections five months later.
Until the program “effectively ended” in 2006 as the public began learning of the abuses, the CIA withheld information on torture from Congress, the Department of Justice and the White House, according to the report.
The agency sought ways to avoid prosecution under existing anti-torture laws and lied to “select members of the media to counter public criticism, shape public opinion, and avoid potential congressional action to restrict the CIA’s detention and interrogation authorities and budget,” the report states.
Because the torture program was secret, the CIA kept the prisoners away from other agencies involved in protecting the homeland. The agency didn’t allow the FBI near prisoners held at black sites, limiting the FBI’s ability to investigate terrorist threats.
The CIA also engaged in its own dark diplomacy, making deals with foreign leaders to host black sites and telling the American ambassadors to those countries after the fact—then ordering the ambassadors not to disclose the prisons to their superiors at the State Department. But some ambassadors in countries with black sites had no idea.
This is all quite horrible. But that torture is ineffective—and even counter-productive—is partly beside the point. It’s immoral. As journalist Marcy Wheeler noted, acquiring actionable, truthful information via torture was also not the strategy.
The point of torture was, in part, to physically and psychologically break prisoners. One reason is that broken prisoners make better recruits for potential double agents. And acquiring false information—extracted through torture—can also serve to support false narratives pushed by some within the government.