What's Missing from the CIA Docs

Why is the Obama administration using heavy, retro-Bush era blackouts in a newly released CIA report? John Sifton combs through hundreds of pages for clues about the spread of torture and the marquee names who okayed it six years ago.

08.25.09 6:38 AM ET

The CIA and the Department of Justice on Monday issued a slew of Bush-era documents about the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. But it’s difficult to know what they say: Many key sections of the most important documents contain heavy redactions.

A quick review of the releases: First, the CIA released a copy of the long-awaited report of John Helgerson of the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General, focusing on CIA detention and interrogation issues. Second, the CIA released two “papers”—essentially internal CIA intelligence reports—discussing information supposedly obtained from the interrogation of CIA detainees. (Former Vice President Dick Cheney requested these documents be released earlier this year. He insists the documents will vindicate him by showing that the CIA program was vital and produced important information. From an initial reading, it appears Cheney’s hopes are misplaced.) Third, late on Monday, the Department of Justice released several documents from the Office of Legal Counsel, reauthorizing the use of the CIA program in 2006 and 2007.

Also late on Monday, the Department of Justice released several documents sent to OLC from the CIA in mid- to late 2004 describing how the CIA interrogation program worked in practice, containing new chilling details about how interrogators actually implemented the program on actual detainees. No doubt these new details will be hashed over in the coming days.

The biggest news Monday was the extent to which the Obama administration is keeping information about the CIA program secret.

The documents comprise hundreds of pages, and contain several new facts and revelations about CIA involvement in abusive detentions and interrogations.

Several new facts emerge in the OIG report. We learn, for instance, that CIA interrogators working in the “High Value Detainee” (HVD) program at times went beyond even the permissive boundaries set by the Bush-era White House: They threatened detainees with death, conducted mock executions, threatened to rape detainees’ mothers, and kill their children. Attorney General Eric Holder has now appointed a special prosecutor to investigate these excesses. (It seems the Obama administration is sticking to its guns about not investigating “authorized” techniques.)

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There are also disturbing details about how the program began. The report confirms earlier allegations that the CIA started cooking up its torture tactics in late 2001, before any HVDs had even been captured, bringing in psychologists from the now-infamous SERE program, which teaches military personnel how to handle abusive interrogations by enemies.

The report also details serious issues with non-HVD interrogations in Iraq and Afghanistan, including cases of detainees’ deaths.

We also learn that hours of videotaped interrogations, including portions showing detainees being waterboarded, were missing even from the tapes that the inspector general viewed in 2003, before the CIA destroyed all the tapes in late 2004.

And we learn that the inspector general is unable to determine whether the information gained from any of the interrogations was the result of the use of aggressive techniques or whether it could have been obtained anyway.

Best of all, the report confirms and expands on information from an April 2009 Senate report detailing that Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General John Ashcroft helped provide after-the-fact approvals for an expansion of the CIA program from late 2002 through 2003, a point that may be their legal undoing.

But the biggest news Monday was the extent to which the Obama administration is keeping information about the CIA program secret.

The simple fact is that the OIG report contains heavy, retro-Bush era blackouts. And the content of what is redacted is serious business indeed.

The heavy redactions begin on page 25-27 of the report: A whole section is completely deleted that appears to concern the origins of the program or possibly CIA guidance on the capture of detainees. (The section alternatively may discuss the CIA’s early reliance on rendition to third countries like Egypt.) There are also significant redactions in a section discussing the training of interrogators.

Worse, the main portions of the report discussing the interrogations of HVDs Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, and Khalid Shaikh Mohammad are also heavily redacted.

To be sure, details emerge about the use of unauthorized techniques on some of these detainees, including the use of a power drill and handgun to frighten Nashiri. And the inspector general raises concerns about waterboarding methodology, pointing out that the technique actually used differs from the method as it is described in OLC legal authorizations. (Legal analysis apparently comes down to subtle differences about how the detainees’ mouths and noses were covered, how much water was used, and how often.)

But the discussion of the “authorized” techniques is more redacted. Another major blacked-out section occurs at pages 31-35: From the context it appears to discuss issues at CIA black sites for HVDs. And two whole pages of background information on the capture of HVDs are redacted at pages 38-40. Why is so much about the HVD program blacked out?

The worst comes at pages 45-68: A full 23 pages of information about detention and interrogation at other CIA detention sites is entirely redacted, save one sentence, 23 pages of issues, observations, critiques, and other facts—information the CIA inspector general believed was important and relevant to mention in a review of CIA operations—all blacked out. The extent of the redactions is startling. It is difficult to see the release Monday as an exercise in transparency when the version of the report offers up pages and pages of inky, obsidian nothingness.

With that said, however, there are some striking new pieces of information. One of the most important parts of the report comes not with grisly details of waterboarding or the program’s excesses with power drills or threats of rape, but confirmations and new revelations about White House involvement in approving the expansion of the CIA interrogation program in the summer of 2003.

To review, it is already known that the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs) was initially approved for one detainee (and one detainee only): Abu Zubaydah. It appears that senior Bush administration officials were intimately involved in that approval in mid-2002.

Yet as the OIG report makes clear, EITs were also later used on other detainees: Nashiri in November 2002 and KSM in March 2003. (The techniques were presumably also used on CIA detainee Ramzi Bin al-Shaiba after his arrest in September 2002.) How could this EIT “expansion” occur, when there was no legal authorization for it?

The OIG report speaks of how the CIA general counsel, John Rizzo, “continued to consult with the [Department of Justice] as the CTC Interrogation Program and the use of EITs expanded beyond the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. This resulted in the production of an unsigned document entitled, ‘Legal Principles Applicable to CIA Detention and Interrogation of Captured Al-Qa’ida Personnel’” dated June 16, 2003. From another document released Monday, a 2004 letter to the CIA from Jack Goldsmith, then head of the OLC, it appears that the June 16 document was a set of “bullet points” representing a “concurrence” of views by the CIA and OLC.

These are remarkable pieces of information. It was previously unclear how the expansion of torture from Abu Zubaydah to other detainees occurred and whether it was formally authorized at the time. Now we know more: The inspector general is saying that in late 2002 the CIA expanded the use of EIT techniques on other detainees without any real or formal authorization from OLC. The report, unfortunately, glosses over the point, describing the EIT expansion like an organic or natural process, like a weather pattern moving in from Canada. But the facts are there: The CIA began torturing additional detainees in late 2002, without any real approval for the expansion of EITs (beyond the Abu Zubaydah interrogation). True, the report says the CIA “consulted” with OLC during this period, but it is clear from later parts of the report and from the 2004 Goldsmith letter that no formal opinion was issued or promulgated authorizing the use of EITs on other detainees until at least June 2003, well after most of the worst abuse had occurred. This is a point with major legal ramifications—without formal authorization, how can anyone involved in the subsequent authorization assert that their actions were legally authorized?

We also learn from the report that the principals of the National Security Council—including Cheney—took part in this after-the-fact cover-up authorization at a meeting on July 29, 2003. On page 24, the report states:

“On 29 July 2003, the DCI and General Counsel provided a detailed briefing to selected NSC Principals on CIA’s detention and interrogation efforts involving ‘high value detainees’ to include the expanded use of EITs. According to a Memorandum for the Record prepared by the General Counsel [John Rizzo] following that meeting, the Attorney General [John Ashcroft] confirmed that DoJ approved of the expanded use of various EITs, including multiple applications of the waterboard. The General Counsel said he believes everyone in attendance was aware of exactly what CIA was doing with respect to detention and interrogation, and approved of the effort.” [Emphasis added.]

And by “everyone in attendance” we’re talking marquee names. According to a May 2009 Senate report that I wrote about previously, the attendees of that July 2003 meeting included CIA’s George Tenet and Rizzo and key Bush administration officials Rice, Ashcroft, John Yoo, Alberto Gonzales, and Cheney. (According to both Monday’s OIG report and the May 2009 Senate report, senior CIA officials later briefed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell on the program, in September 2003.) According to Rizzo’s office, none of the persons in any of these briefings in July or September 2003 “expressed any reservations about the [CIA] program.”

It’s hard to “express reservations” when the train has left the station.

John Sifton is a private investigator and attorney based in New York City. His firm, One World Research, carries out research for law firms and human rights groups, including in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. He has conducted extensive investigations into the CIA interrogation and detention program.