The intelligence community on Tuesday unleashed a vigorous defense of its work in fighting terrorism, with the CIA releasing documents and former officials making impassioned arguments to challenge a Senate committee’s findings that the agency had tortured detainees in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Current and former CIA officials went on a media blitz to make sure their side was included in the public debate sparked by the release of a long-awaited Senate Intelligence Committee report that found that the CIA’s now-defunct detention and interrogation program was far more brutal than it had been portrayed and didn’t yield information to thwart attacks.
In a series of TV interviews, newspaper columns and online forums, CIA officials and sympathizers offered variations of the same basic rebuttals: that the harsh techniques were authorized under the law, effective in gleaning intelligence and known to and approved by officials in Washington who were briefed dozens of times.
CIA Director John Brennan said in a statement that “the detention and interrogation program had shortcomings and the agency made mistakes,” which he said stemmed chiefly from how unprepared the agency had been to carry out what he described as an unprecedented mass detention and interrogation effort in the fight to dismantle al Qaida.
But while the CIA has “common ground” with some of the Senate committee’s findings, Brennan said, “we part ways with the committee on some key points.” He maintained that intelligence gleaned from the interrogations was used to disrupt attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives. And he balked at the committee’s conclusion that CIA officials had tried to hide the extent of the program from Congress and the public.
“While we made mistakes, 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 statement said.
The CIA received some backup from the six Republicans on the Intelligence Committee, who issued their own “minority report.” It complained that the Democrat-driven probe had cost American taxpayers more than $40 million and “diverted countless CIA analytic and support resources.”
The Republican lawmakers also said the findings were riddled with errors and rife with political bias. Committee staffers never interviewed a single witness, they said, and failed to correct factual and analytical mistakes identified by a CIA review in June 2013 and raised repeatedly during 60 hours of meetings with agency personnel later that year.
The CIA’s previously unpublished June 2013 response to the report, released Tuesday, admitted errors in the handling of the program but fiercely defended the techniques. Stretching for more than 100 pages, with reams of footnotes and citations, the rebuttal was pulled together by what the agency described as a handpicked group of analysts and managers, none of whom played a supervisory role in the interrogation program.
The team was asked to “dive deep,” according to the document, and it emerged with the conclusion that the Senate report “tells part of the story” of the controversial program but shouldn’t stand as the official record because the investigators didn’t interview CIA officials involved in the program and showed “an apparent lack of familiarity” with how the agency analyzes intelligence.
Intelligence officials agreed that the CIA was overwhelmed by the scope of the detention and interrogation effort, resulting in “significant lapses in the agency’s ability to develop and monitor its initial detention and interrogation activities.” The agency also agreed that it didn’t have enough interrogators with vital language skills or enough experience handling and interrogating detainees.
The CIA document included other failings it now recognizes, such as struggling to come up with a prisoner-transfer policy, not analyzing the program’s effectiveness and allowing a conflict of interest by having the designers of interrogation techniques evaluate their effectiveness. It acknowledged detaining “some individuals under a flawed interpretation of the authorities granted to CIA” and falling short when it came to holding officials accountable for “poor performance and management failures.”
“Unfortunately, it took Rahman’s death in CIA custody to focus management’s attention,” the CIA paper said, referring to Gul Rahman, a suspected militant who was stripped and chained outdoors and eventually died in CIA custody at a secret prison in Afghanistan in 2002.
That episode, the CIA paper suggested, ushered in more centralized management and a new set of guidelines for handling detainees that dramatically cut down on interrogators using banned tactics.
From 2003 to 2012, the CIA convened six accountability proceedings to review the conduct of 30 personnel, 16 of whom were sanctioned for using unapproved interrogation techniques or for detaining men who didn’t meet the required standard for capture.
In the rebuttal, the CIA complained that the Senate report exaggerated how often and for how long the “improvised” techniques continued, arguing that only “isolated cases” were reported after the introduction of the new guidelines. And those cases were reported and investigated, sometimes even by the Department of Justice.
The CIA also said the report overstated how often unauthorized techniques were used, because some of the methods – such as cold water dousing and sleep deprivation – “were categorized as standard techniques at the time and did not require headquarters’ permission for each use.”
The rebuttal criticizes the Senate investigators for ignoring all the times that no enhanced techniques were used because detainees were cooperative or other approaches worked better.
On the matter of whether useful intelligence could have been obtained by other methods, the CIA simply dismisses the question as “unknowable.”
The rebuttal said the CIA had found no evidence to support the conclusion that the agency had resisted oversight and deliberately misrepresented the program to Congress and the White House. But it acknowledged that there were instances when the program was represented in a manner that was “inaccurate, imprecise or fell short of agency tradecraft standards.”
The CIA was most emphatic when defending the value of the intelligence gleaned from detainees who endured sleep deprivation, waterboarding and threats of sexual assault or death. The agency said such interrogations were vital to obtaining information that had prevented attacks and led to the capture of high-profile terrorists, such as the 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
The agency bristled at the committee’s finding that intelligence on the courier for Osama bin Laden who eventually led U.S. authorities to his hideout had been gathered prior to and independently of the CIA interrogation program. The agency countered that the existing information “was insufficient to distinguish him from many other bin Laden associates until additional information from detainees put it into context and allowed the CIA to better understand his true role and potential in the hunt for bin Laden.”
In the case of detainee Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded more than 80 times, the CIA took issue with the report’s assertion that he’d given up the most valuable information during the FBI’s gentler “rapport-building” style of interrogation. The agency contends that the FBI officers “were part of an around-the-clock effort” conducted jointly with the CIA to weaken Abu Zubaydah’s resolve by using sleep deprivation and other harsh measures.
“The FBI learned about Jose Padilla during this period of sleep deprivation,” the CIA rebuttal said, referring to a U.S. citizen who was detained in 2002 in a so-called “dirty bomb” plot. Padilla was eventually convicted in a Miami federal courtroom and is in prison.
The Republican response also mentioned Padilla’s case, saying Abu Zubaydah had identified Padilla as an al Qaida operative to the FBI after five days of sleep deprivation. He was also subjected to nudity, sensory deprivation and a liquid diet.
“Thus, all information provided by Abu Zubaydah subsequent to his return from the hospital on April 15, 2002, was obtained during or after the use of enhanced interrogation techniques and cannot be excluded from supporting the CIA’s effectiveness,” the Republicans wrote.
Republicans said they had no doubt that the CIA’s detention program had saved lives and played a vital role in weakening al Qaida. “When asked about the value of detainee information and whether he missed the intelligence from it, one senior CIA operator told members, ‘I miss it every day,’ ” they wrote. “We understand why.”