By Gabrielle Simeck ’18
On December 9th, 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report detailing the Central Intelligence Agency’s interrogation program after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The committee took five years to draw up the report and its conclusions were based on over 6 million documents. The report included details regarding enhanced interrogation techniques, behavior of interrogators and CIA personnel, and conditions at the many secret CIA prison facilities. Moreover, the report suggested that the CIA used the media repeatedly to create the sense that enhanced interrogation techniques were providing necessary information to prevent terrorist attacks and to capture known terrorist operatives.
The report detailed the development of the current system as well as the horrific conditions at the CIA’s secret prisons. Six days after 9/11, President Bush signed a secret memo authorizing the CIA to pursue and capture terrorists working with Al Qaeda. The memo gave no specific orders for where captured detainees should be held, how they should be questioned, or how they should be treated. Initially, the CIA considered creating a network of overseas prisons which would be comparable to maximum-security prisons within the United States. CIA officials imagined a network of overseas prisons which would conduct interrogations in accordance with the United States Army Field Manual. Detainees would have the same rights and protections as American prisoners held in military prisons. CIA lawyers wrote in November, 2001, that overseas prisons would “be tailored to meet the requirements of US law and the federal rules of criminal procedure.” However, this system upholding human rights and the United States’ commitment to justice was not implemented.
Quickly moving away from the first proposed system, CIA lawyers began considering ways to legally justify enhanced interrogation techniques even before opening the first secret detainment facility, arguing in memos that “states may be very unwilling to call the U.S. to task for torture when it resulted in saving of thousands of lives.” This desire to justify the use of torture led to repeated efforts by CIA officials to “make it seem as if key intelligence was obtained through the most brutal interrogation tactics, even when CIA records suggested otherwise.” The CIA eventually implemented these tactics at a series of “black sites.” In March 2002, United States personnel captured suspected Al Qaeda official Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan. President Bush chose to send Zubaydah to a secret prison in Thailand, where he was held in isolation for 47 days and subject to harsh questioning, including water-boarding. Soon after Zubaydah’s questioning ended, the CIA opened a prison called the Salt Pit in Afghanistan. Conditions at this facility were horrific. Prisoners lived in absolute darkness; all windows were blackened. One prisoner reportedly was chained while standing for 17 days. According the report, a delegation from the Bureau of Prisons assessed conditions at Salt Pit in November 2003, and concluded that the conditions were humane and sanitary. During the last days of the Bureau’s visit, a CIA guard found a detainee, Gul Rahman, dead in his cell. Rahman died of hypothermia. The report does not indicate whether members of the Bureau delegation possessed knowledge of the detainee’s death, but officials never returned to Salt Pit or visited another CIA prison facility. The delegation discussed their findings during a debriefing meeting with the CIA, stating “they have never been in a facility where individuals are so sensory deprived, i.e., constant white noise, no talking, everyone in the dark.” The CIA later expanded the interrogation program, holding dozens of detainees and opening secret prisons in Poland, Romania, Lithuania, and other countries. Between 2004 and 2006, the CIA sent millions of dollars in secret payments to foreign officials in an attempt to convince other governments to “agree to host secret prisons.” In September 2006, President Bush made an order to send all CIA detainees to the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where interrogators continued to use enhanced interrogation techniques.
The political response to the report’s release has fallen along partisan lines. Many Democrats aimed to criticize the former Bush Administration and distance themselves from the officials responsible for the secret facilities. Republican Party members stated that the report represents a national security risk and has a partisan bias against the Bush administration. There is one notable exception: Senator John McCain. McCain directly refuted his close Republican ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham, who stated in a response to the report that, “terrorism is on the rise, and our enemies will seize upon this report at a critical time. Simply put, this is not the time to release the report.” McCain spoke for nearly 15 minutes on December 9th, upholding the veracity of the report and denouncing the use of torture. Senator McCain was a Prisoner-of-War and spent over 5 years in a Vietnamese prison where he endured torture. “It is a thorough and thoughtful study of practices that I believe not only failed their purpose — to secure actionable intelligence to prevent further attacks on the U.S. and our allies— but actually damaged our security interests, as well as our reputation as a force for good will in the world,” McCain stated.
The Senate Intelligence Committee report discusses more than the questionable legality of enhanced interrogation techniques and the CIA’s secret prison facilities; it also suggests that the CIA’s legacy poses many problems moving forward for American officials. For many Americans, torture is a shaky ethical choice even when used to extract information to save lives. However, the report questions the CIA’s success in using torture to discover new sources of information regarding terrorist operatives, especially in the “hunt” for Osama Bin Laden. Furthermore, the CIA’s choice to torture has created many previously overlooked consequences. First, 26 out of a total of 113 detainees were reportedly innocent and “wrongfully held.” Second, the CIA held detainees in horrific conditions for years without a trial or formal arrest. Third, some intelligence officials report that the conditions at the secret prisons may have actually increased potential terrorist threats. A former FBI agent, Ali H. Soufan, said “imagine if we didn’t go down that road. Imagine. We played into the enemy’s hand. Now we have American hostages in orange jumpsuits because we put people in orange jumpsuits.” Thus far, the Obama administration has endeavored to move past the CIA’s history and to change the United States’ behavior in future. However, choosing to move forward without delivering justice or prosecuting those who broke international and domestic laws sets a dangerous precedent. As Senator McCain stated before Congress, “the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights.” If the United States is to truly move beyond its history of torture, the US government must hold those responsible for the CIA program and those who violated international law accountable for their actions.
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