Summarizing the Torture Report

I personally know only one person who has read all 499 unclassified pages of the Senate Select Subcommittee on Intelligence’s Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, popularly known as the “torture report”. It’s available here if you want to take a look or start reading.

In lieu of those 499 pages, you might read this excellent interview given by Mark Danner. He’s the Chancellor’s Professor of English and Journalism at the University of California at ­Berkeley and James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College. Danner has become an expert on the so-called “War on Terror”. He knows what he’s talking about. Some selections:

The relentlessness, day in day out, of these techniques … and the totality of their effect when taken together is recounted in numbing, revolting detail. The effect can only be conveyed by a full reading, through page after awful page of this five-hundred-page document, which is after all less than 10 percent of the report itself.

What I think is strictly speaking new is, first, how amateurish the torture program was. It was really amateur hour, beginning with the techniques themselves, which were devised and run by a couple of retired Air Force psychologists who were hired by the CIA and put in charge though they had never conducted an interrogation before. They had no expertise in terrorism or counterterrorism, had never interrogated al-Qaeda members or anyone else… They were essentially without any relevant experience….

The second revelation is the degree to which the CIA claimed great results, and did so mendaciously. Sometimes the attacks they said they had prevented were not serious in the first place. Sometimes the information that actually might have led to averting attacks came not from the enhanced interrogation techniques but from other traditional forms of interrogation or other information entirely. But what the report methodically demonstrates is that the claims about having obtained essential, lifesaving intelligence thanks to these techniques that had been repeated for years and years and years are simply not true. And the case is devastating….

Because the Democratic majority on the committee agreed [with the Republican minority] to limit the report to the CIA … we still have no report on how decisions were made in the executive branch…

What is fascinating is what seems to have led the CIA to resort to this improvised, amateurish program. It was the utterly mistaken conviction that Abu Zubaydah was withholding information about attacks that would have killed thousands of people….

The CIA officers are convinced that Abu Zubaydah … is this very important guy who would have this most vital information on current planning. But he’s not. He’s not even a member of al-Qaeda…. But because the CIA was convinced that he was at the pinnacle of the organization, they thought that even though he seemed to be cooperating with these FBI interrogators, he was actively withholding what they really needed: information about an impending “threat.”

Eventually … he was put under forced sleep deprivation for 180 hours and waterboarded eighty-three times….So even though the interrogators are saying he’s compliant, he’s telling us everything he knows—even though the waterboarding is nearly killing him, rendering him “completely non-responsive,” as the report says—officials at headquarters were saying he has to be waterboarded again, and again, because he still hadn’t given up information about the attacks they were convinced had to be coming….

And finally, grudgingly, after the eighty-second and eighty-third waterboardings, they came to the conclusion that Abu Zubaydah didn’t have that information. So when they judged the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah a “success,” what that really meant was that the use of those techniques, in this brutal, appalling extended fashion, had let them prove, to their satisfaction, that he didn’t know what they had been convinced that he did know. It had nothing to do with him giving more information…. The use of these techniques let them alleviate their own anxiety [which] was based on complete misinformation. Complete ignorance about who this man actually was….

This kind of corruption through mendacity has continued, and we see it clearly now, in this cheerleading society organized by the CIA, consisting mostly of ex-officials, who have come out publicly not only to defend the agency but also to defend torture itself  … which used to be illegal, which used to be anathema, has now become a policy choice.

It’s a deeply perverse situation that goes beyond the original choice to use torture itself. It’s also a result of the ambivalent way this choice was treated by Barack Obama… Though President Obama formally abolished torture with an executive order …, his refusal to … approve investigations, prosecutions … means that only his signature on that executive order stands between us and the possibility of more torture in the future. If this issue is raised in the Republican primaries in 2016, I’d expect that most politicians on that stage will declare themselves firmly in favor of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” We may not torture now, but because torture has become a recognized policy choice, it is perfectly conceivable that our political masters, depending on who they are, might well decide to do so in the future. This is where we find ourselves, a dozen years after Abu Zubaydah first was strapped down to that waterboard.

We sometimes hear that America was traumatized by the 9/11 attack. But that’s not true. It wasn’t America as a whole that was traumatized. What happened was that Americans who were already especially fearful of the outside world became even more fearful, and Americans with the worst instincts, people like Dick Cheney, were freed to act on those instincts. We didn’t all go off the deep end, but many of us did. Now it’s up to the rest of us to exert control over the worst and weakest among us.