There is a tape recording somewhere, unless the Central Intelligence Agency has destroyed it, that captures the sound of a man named Nazar Ali crying. He was a prisoner in a secret C.I.A. prison, in a foreign country where terrorists were supposed to be interrogated. But Nazar Ali, whom a Senate Select Intelligence Committee report, part of which was released on Tuesday, suggests has a developmental disability—it quotes an assessment of him as “intellectually challenged”—was no sophisticated Al Qaeda operative. It is not even clear, from what’s been released of the report, that his interrogation was an attempt to gain information, or indeed that he was properly interrogated at all. According to the report, his “C.I.A. detention was used solely as leverage to get a family member to provide information.” A footnote later in the report, where his name appears, explains that Nazar Ali’s “taped crying was used as leverage against his family member.” Left unexplained is what the American operatives did to make this man cry. Did they plan ahead, preparing recording equipment and proddings, or did they just, from their perspective, get lucky?
That audio may be long erased or destroyed, as ninety-two videotapes documenting waterboarding were. The unauthorized running of those videotapes through an industrial shredder, in 2004, put in motion the production of the Senate report. (The Washington Post has a graphic guide to its twenty key findings.) It took nine years and cost forty million dollars, largely because the C.I.A. and its allies pushed back, complaining about unfairness and, finally, warning darkly that Americans would die if the world knew what Americans had done. Senate Republicans eventually withdrew their staff support. The Obama Administration has largely enabled this obstruction. The opponents of accountability nearly succeeded. In another month, a Republican majority takes control in the Senate, and they might have buried the report for another decade, or forever. As it is, only a fraction has been released—the five-hundred-page executive summary of a sixty-seven-hundred-page report—and it is shamefully redacted. But there are things the redactions can’t hide, including that the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration lied, in ways large and small. One telling example has to do with the number of people held in the secret C.I.A. prisons. General Michael Hayden, as director of the C.I.A., regularly said that the number was “fewer than a hundred.” By that, he meant ninety-eight—and, when he was informed by others in the Agency that there were at least a hundred and twelve, “possibly more,” he insisted that they keep using the number ninety-eight. The report released today lists the number, for the first time, as a hundred and nineteen. Of those, twenty-six were held wrongly—that is the C.I.A.’s own assessment; the number may be greater—either because there was no real evidence against them or because of outright Hitchcockian cases of mistaken identity. There’s a footnote where the report mentions the twenty-six who “did not meet the standards for detention.” Footnote 32, the same one that outlines the motives for holding Nazar Ali, has a devastating litany, starting with “Abu Hudhaifa, who was subjected to ice water baths and 66 hours of standing sleep deprivation before being released because the CIA discovered he was likely not the person he was believed to be,” and including many others, such as,
Gul Rahman, another case of mistaken identity.… Shaistah Habibullah Khan, who, like his brother, Sayed Habib, was the subject of fabrications.… Haji Ghalgi, who was detained as “useful leverage”…. Hayatullah Haqqani, whom the CIA determined “may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time”…. Ali Jan, who was detained for using a satellite phone, traces on which “revealed no derogatory information”.… Two individuals—Mohammad al-Shomaila and Salah Nasir Salim Ali—on whom derogatory information was “speculative”.… and Bismullah, who was mistakenly arrested … and later released with $[redacted] and told not to speak about his experience.
The image of the footnote, below, gives a sense of both the scope of what went wrong and what we still don’t know; it is riddled with redactions.
What is also disturbing is what the C.I.A. didn’t know, or ignored. According to the report, “In December 2003, a CIA Station overseeing CIA detention operations in Country [redacted] informed CIA Headquarters that it had made the ‘unsettling discovery’ that the CIA was ‘holding a number of detainees about whom’ it knew ‘very little.’ ” The report notes that at two sites, called Cobalt and Gray in the report, there were, for certain periods, almost no detailed records—and that, on the whole, the records got less detailed as time went on. Cobalt was also given, as a “warden,” an inexperienced officer on his first foreign tour whose prior assessments had focussed on his “lack of honesty, judgment, and maturity.” At Cobalt, a prisoner who was among the wrongly held died of hypothermia. According to the report, a chief of interrogations described Cobalt as a “dungeon.” Another visitor said that a prisoner there “literally looked like a dog who had been kenneled.” A delegation from the Federal Bureau of Prisons was said to have been “WOW’ed” by the level of sensory deprivation. The prisoners at Cobalt, meanwhile, were said to be of “medium value.”
This was part of a pattern; the report found that officers with questionable records and histories of violence were often placed in exactly the wrong sort of location for someone like that: playgrounds of impunity. They were joined, more and more, by contractors who had no real experience interrogating anyone—nor did they have appropriate linguistic skills or deep knowledge of either the culture or of Al Qaeda. In 2008, contractors comprised eighty-five per cent of the interrogation workforce. (“Company Y” has already billed the C.I.A. $1.1 million dollars as part of an “indemnification” agreement that pays its legal expenses related to the program through 2021.) The interrogations were not sophisticated intelligence gathering; they were people hammering away and swinging with the vague hope that something would emerge. Secrecy serves to hide incompetence, too.
The interrogators didn’t know the languages that would have been useful for real intelligence, but they did come up with a lexicon of their own: “walling,” which meant slamming a person against a wall; “rough takedown,” in which a group would rush into a cell yelling, then drag a detainee down the hall while punching him, perhaps after having “cut off his clothes and secured him with Mylar tape”; “confinement box,” an instrument to make a prisoner feel he was closed in a coffin (the box came in large or small sizes); “sleep deprivation,” which might mean being kept awake for a hundred and eighty hours before succumbing to “disturbing hallucinations”; the ability to, as the report put it, “earn a bucket,” the bucket being what a prisoner might get to relieve himself in, rather than having to soil himself or being chained to a wall with a diaper (an “image” that President Bush was said to have found disturbing); “waterboarding,” which often itself seems to have been a euphemism for near, rather than simulated, drowning; “rectal rehydration as a means of behavioral control”; “lunch tray,” the assembly of foods that were puréed and used to rectally force-feed prisoners.
This is what the talk of family could look like: “CIA officers also threatened at least three detainees with harm to their families—to include threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to ‘cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat.’ ” The interrogation of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri included “implying that his mother would be brought before him and sexually abused.”
Agents and officials at every level were “rarely reprimanded or held . . . accountable,” even in a case in which a prisoner died. The report notes instances in which “accountability recommendations” were overruled by higher-ups, in one case because the director had said that he “believes the scale tips decisively in favor of accepting mistakes.” The issue in that case was the mistaken-identity imprisonment and abuse of Khaled el Masri, a German used-car salesman who had the bad luck of having a name similar to that of a terrorist. The C.I.A. kept him for months after realizing that he was the wrong man, and then dumped him by the side of the road. When he got home, he found that his wife had moved away. Apart from the ethical issues, the incident created diplomatic difficulties with Germany. Which mistakes are worth accepting is not a matter for intelligence agencies and executives to decide on in private—not when the moral standing of a country is at stake. At the very least, there has to be a discussion afterward. What the report will truly show the world now, in 2014, is not what we’ve done but how we come to terms with it. We’ve missed too many opportunities already. When a devastating International Committee of the Red Cross report came out in 2007—six years after 9/11, and after the worst days of the program were past—the C.I.A.’s acting general counsel said that it “actually does not sound that far removed from reality.” But, rather than embracing it, the agency’s leadership disparaged it as a pack of falsehoods. The attacks on the Senate report have been building for years.
There are two major areas of the report that will be heavily debated: Was there any good intelligence that came of the torture? The report says no—not anything that couldn’t have been achieved by other means, and a lot of bad, fabricated information that people shouted out to stop the interrogations—and adds that the C.I.A. has not been honest about this point. The second is who knew, and who authorized, what, and when. There the Senate may oversell its own obliviousness; a lot of people in the government have a great deal to answer for.
Some of the few chastisements of C.I.A. personnel documented in the report came when the committee questioned the legality, practicality, or morality of all this—and, it’s worth noting, some members did. The report also records a remarkably revealing moment, in 2003, when “a public statement by the White House that prisoners in US custody are treated ‘humanely’ caused the CIA to question whether there was continued policy support for the program and seek reauthorization from the White House.” When it heard the word “humanely,” in other words, the Agency was not sure it knew what the President was talking about. It may no longer have recognized itself.