The CIA said it would only torture detainees to psychologically break them, according to a previously-unreported passage from a 2007 Justice Department memo. It’s a claim that’s at odds with how congressional investigators say the agency really handled captives in the early days of the war on terror.
And it’s not the only eye-opening assertion found in newly declassified portions of Bush-era documents on the CIA’s use of torture. A second document says that the CIA believed itself to be legally barred from torturing others countries’ detainees—but not from using so-called enhanced interrogations on its own captives.
In a passage from a 2007 memo by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, the CIA said it would only subject detainees to harsh techniques, such as waterboarding, in order to break a detainee down to the point where he would no longer withhold information. The interrogations weren’t designed to get answers to specific questions; in fact, the agency interrogator “generally does not ask questions... to which the CIA does not already know the answers,” the memo states.
But that claim is contradicted by the agency’s actual record, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the government to disclose the portions of the document.
“The CIA claimed that it had the ability to torture its captives to the precise point where they would become compliant and produce useful, accurate information,” Dror Ladin, an ACLU attorney who reviewed the documents, told The Daily Beast. “As we know from the Senate [Intelligence Committee] report [on torture], these representations were not remotely accurate. Instead, the CIA would brutalize prisoners in search of answers they didn’t have, leading desperate prisoners to fabricate information.”
After a lengthy investigation of the CIA program, the Senate Intelligence Committee found that “CIA interrogators asked open-ended questions... to which the CIA did not know the answers, while subjecting detainees to the enhanced interrogation techniques.”
The CIA took that approach with Abu Zubaydah, an al Qaeda operative who was captured in Pakistan in March 2002 and is one of three CIA detainees who was known to be waterboarded. According to the committee’s report, his interrogation “focused on him being told to provide ‘the one thing you don’t want me to know,’ and remained a central figure of the program.”
The committee excoriated the integration program and found that it didn’t produce useful intelligence. President Obama has called the techniques that the agency deployed under his predecessor “torture,” and the CIA has abandoned them.
The passage from the 2007 memo, authored by Steven Bradbury, the former head of the Office of Legal Counsel, for the CIA’s top lawyer, John Rizzo, was released under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the ACLU. While much of that memo, and others from the office, had previously been declassified and published, the group had fought to have more passages revealed.
The documents “are significant because they deepen the public’s understanding of how the Office of Legal Counsel went so far astray during the torture program,” Ladin told The Daily Beast. “These memoranda demonstrate the legal contortions that OLC lawyers engaged in to repeatedly reauthorize, under a shifting set of rationales, an obviously unlawful torture program.”
The CIA rejected claims that it systematically misled the Department of Justice to secure approval of its program through 2007.
The “CIA continues to stand by its response to the [Senate] study, which was publicly released in December 2014. CIA’s response addressed many of topics that are now being reexamined by virtue of the release of documents under” the Freedom of Information Act, CIA Spokesperson Ryan Trapani explained to The Daily Beast.
In a December 2014 memo in response to the study, the CIA asserted:
“The Study’s conclusions fail to note the general trend that, beginning in April 2003, as interrogators became more knowledgeable, as it became easier to use information from one detainee to get more from another, and as our understanding of the effectiveness of various techniques grew, CIA’s interrogations gradually relied less on coercion.”
The documents also reveal the lengths the CIA went to persuade the Justice Department that the program was useful and wouldn’t cause long-term harm.
Newly disclosed passages in a 2002 memo regarding the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah show that the agency asserted he was mentally strong enough to withstand the pain of enhanced interrogation.
At the time, the CIA interrogators were seeking the Justice Department’s legal guidance on placing Abu Zubaydah in a “cramped confinement box with an insect.” A newly revealed passage shows that the agency specifically wanted to prey on his fears in order to make him more compliant: “Your goal in doing so is to use his fears to increase his sense of dread and motivate him to avoid the box in the future by cooperating with interrogators,” the memo states.
While it had been previously known the CIA was aware Abu Zubaydah was afraid of insects, this is believed to be the first time that officials have been on record saying that they intended to exploit that fear in order to make their detainee more cooperative.
The newly revealed passages also show that Abu Zubaydah’s captors conducted what they deemed a “comprehensive psychological profile” and determined that he “has no history of mental health problems.” The CIA said it came to that conclusion based on Zubaydah’s diaries, observations of him in captivity, and “intelligence and press reports.”
“Your profile further emphasizes that, in addition to his excellent mental health history he is quite resilient,” the memo notes, adding that Zubaydah had a “durable support system through his faith, the blessing of religious leaders, and the camaraderie he has experienced with those who have taken up the cause with him.”
The ACLU’s Ladin called that assessment “absurdly inaccurate and self-serving... crafted so that psychologists and lawyers could each create a fiction that torture was harmless and legal.”
Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at Center for American Progress, told The Daily Beast that the reasoning offered in the documents “are rationalizations” that undermine the U.S. argument that it is fighting an immoral enemy.
“How can we say what you stand for is horrible when in fact you are doing horrible things?” Korb asked.
The documents raise further questions about how the CIA attempted to legally defend the program. A newly revealed footnote in a 2005 memo shows that the CIA acknowledged it had a long-standing policy against using torture during interrogations. But, the agency told the Justice Department, it didn’t apply to the post-9/11 program because that ban “pertains only to participation in interrogations of detainees not in United States custody and therefore is not implicated by the program under consideration.”
In other words, the CIA considered itself barred from helping other nations torture prisoners, but not from conducting brutal interrogations of its own prisoners.
In the early 1980s, the CIA had started training foreign intelligence services on interrogation techniques, but the agency terminated the practice in 1986 following allegations of human rights abuses in Latin America. The agency established a policy “to neither participate directly in nor encourage interrogation” involving “mental or physical torture,” and said that “there must be firm intelligence or operational justification for participation in interrogation and reasonable assurances that no human rights violations will occur,” the memo states.
At the time, the CIA and the Justice Department didn’t characterize the interrogation techniques as torture and had concluded that the use of physically coercive methods, including waterboarding, didn’t violate U.S. law or treaty obligations. It’s not clear why, then, the agency felt compelled to justify the program by distinguishing it from earlier banned practices if officials didn’t see the interrogation techniques they had authorized as torture.
There’s new information, as well, about perhaps the most notorious CIA detainee, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has been described as the architect of the 9/11 attacks. As early as 2005, the CIA had told the Justice Department that Mohammed “personally murdered” Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter whose decapitation was recorded and subsequently released, according to one memo. Mohammed is currently imprisoned at Guantanamo, and while he would later claim at a 2007 hearing to have killed Pearl, at the time there were doubts about his credibility. The memo suggests, however, that the CIA was certain that Mohammed was to blame.
The latest batch of documents isn’t just about past practices. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for the resurrection of torture against suspected terrorists—a position condemned by many intelligence experts. Studying the ways the CIA justified its tactics—and what information came from them—are worth revisiting in the run up to the 2016 election, observers said.
“To the extent we have a candidate who has said we should return to those tactics, we should discuss the moral legal issues and overall effectiveness” of enhanced interrogation tactics, Paul Pillar, a former chief of analysis at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and current professor at Georgetown University, told The Daily Beast. “That is good reason to debate these things.”
As recently as March, during a Face the Nation interview, Trump said he supports torture because “we have to beat the savages.” In the past, Trump has suggested he supports waterboarding, saying nobody is sure if it is indeed a form of torture. President Obama has said that it is.
The new information about CIA practices is unlikely to change minds about the program, Pillar said. Those who believe the tactics went against U.S. values and norms will still feel that way reading the latest ACLU-obtained documents.
“For people not bothered by the torture, they will say this was part of a well prepared approach to interrogation,” Pillar said.