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Amid New Interrogation Details, Detainee Unit Created

August 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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With the release of CIA documents about harsh interrogation methods, the Obama administration announced a new panel that will oversee the questioning of terrorism suspects.

RAY SUAREZ: There was news today on how the U.S. has and will handle terror suspects. The Obama administration announced plans to oversee a new unit to interrogate detainees, shifting oversight from the CIA.

That came on the same day newly declassified CIA documents gave details of past interrogation methods. The report alleges CIA agents threatened to kill the children of the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Another detainee was told his mother and family would be sexually abused in front of him.

To investigate some of those older cases, the Justice Department appointed federal prosecutor John Durham to lead a probe of possible anti-torture violations during the Bush administration.

To begin our lead story, I’m joined by Mark Hosenball of Newsweek.

Welcome to the program.


RAY SUAREZ: Does the content of the documents released today take us much beyond what we already knew in the years after the September 11th terrorist attacks?

MARK HOSENBALL: Not hugely. It certainly doesn’t take us hugely beyond what we knew following the release earlier this year by the Obama administration of those Justice Department memos, which actually told the CIA what enhanced interrogation techniques they could use and how to carry them out.

RAY SUAREZ: So it fills in the picture some more?

MARK HOSENBALL: It fills in the picture, and it goes somewhat beyond those Justice Department memos, in that it says that the CIA, in violation or in excess of these Justice Department memos, used some of the techniques that you talked about, mock executions. They threatened the detainee with a drill and a gun. They went with the drill “bzz,” to imply that they were going to attack him with it.

They did threaten to kill the children of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. They threatened to sexually assault or at least implied that they would stage sexual assaults of the children — or, sorry, of the female relatives of Abdul Rahman al-Nashiri, the one who was threatened with the drill and the gun, who was the alleged mastermind of the Cole bombing in 2000.

They also describe additional abuses of the procedure which the Justice Department called waterboarding, which was approved by the Justice Department, but then canceled by the CIA and the Bush administration. They say that this was used something like 83 times on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and 183 times on Abu Zubaydah, and it was in some cases used — that these people were subjected to much more extensive and lengthy drips of water than the people who planned this scheme had originally suggested.

So, you know, there’s additional information in here about the CIA’s misuse of these techniques, but the general outlines, I guess, we already knew.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, these events that are being described, when did they happen? How long ago were the facts that make up this report gathered?

MARK HOSENBALL: As I understand — well, the — the report itself was completed in 2004, May 2004, and given to the Justice Department and to selected members of Congress at that time. The report covers basically the period following September 11, 2001, to about 2003, when the most — the harshest of these interrogation techniques was abandoned, or 2004, anyway.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, why was it released now?

CIA opposed release of report

Mark Hosenball
People were prescient in worrying that this program would come back and get them and come back and haunt them at some point.

MARK HOSENBALL: Because succeeding CIA directors, particularly Porter Goss, Michael Hayden in the Bush administration and other Bush administration officials, had vehemently argued that it shouldn't be released. They say that the report was turned over to career prosecutors at the Justice Department for review to see whether anybody should be prosecuted.

There was some disciplinary action taken as a result of the report being sent around. There was some people prosecuted at any rate through the military system. There was one CIA contractor prosecuted for killing a guy in Afghanistan. That's mentioned in this report. But the prosecutors apparently were unable to make other cases out of this.

Now the Justice Department is asking a prosecutor who's already been reviewing the destruction of some videotapes that the CIA made at some of these executions, some of these interrogations, excuse me, to -- they're asking this prosecutor reviewing the destruction of the tapes to see whether there is any prosecutions further merited for the abuse of these techniques.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, there's a lot in here that you can't see, in some sections, page after page of blacked-out documents. Is there any understanding of what was in here that's considered too sensitive for the public to know about?

MARK HOSENBALL: We don't know. I mean, how can you know?

RAY SUAREZ: Because there are some stories that begin, the story of a particular informant, and it begins, "We picked him up here. We talked to him about this." And then everything after that is...

MARK HOSENBALL: We don't know why. I mean, there could be informants still somewhere in the system. There could be informants quite possibly who were transferred to third countries, in a process called rendition, and abused there.

There could also be sensitive information in there about the locations and officers from the CIA who were -- you know, where this program took place that they don't want to come out. They certainly don't want to embarrass foreign governments which might have hosted some of these detention centers any more than they've already been embarrassed.

My guess is that it may well be that some of these extensively blacked-out passages may relate to people who were ultimately transferred to foreign custody.

RAY SUAREZ: Tantalizingly, there's one section where agents talking amongst themselves talk about how they already understand some of what they're doing may be illegal, may go too far. "In 10 years, they'll still be talking about it," one said, "but we have to do it now." And then everything following that, for pages, is gone.

MARK HOSENBALL: Again, this is a debate amongst themselves. It's clear from un-redacted portions of this that people at the CIA were very, very nervous about -- that this would could back and bite them at some point, that they would be pursued by human rights organizations, put on international lists of war criminals.

And, you know, these are some of the issues that are out there now facing some of the people involved in this, facing the CIA as an institution. And, you know, so people were prescient in worrying that this program would come back and get them and come back and haunt them at some point.

New director straddles the issue

Mark Hosenball
It's pretty clear that Panetta was against the impaneling, as it were, of this new prosecutor or the extending of the mission of this prosecutor to investigate these events.

RAY SUAREZ: There's a new director at the CIA, Leon Panetta. Was he against the release of these documents?

MARK HOSENBALL: It's unclear. It's pretty clear that Panetta was against the impaneling, as it were, of this new prosecutor or the extending of the mission of this prosecutor to investigate these events.

Panetta had been kind of ambiguous, at least in terms of his public statements and even his private messages, as to whether he's strongly opposed to release of documents like this or not. Some cases it's looked like he's been in favor of releasing documents like this; in other cases, it's looked like he's been against it. I think he's trying to straddle the issue here.

I mean, certainly, previous CIA directors like General Mike Hayden and George Tenet have strongly expressed the view that this stuff shouldn't have been released. Panetta hasn't been quite as strong in saying that publicly, anyway.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark Hosenball of Newsweek, thanks a lot.


RAY SUAREZ: Judy Woodruff has more on the CIA report and what it may mean for future interrogations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What had been a classified controversy -- how terror suspects are handled -- now could end up in public trials in federal court. But what are we to make of today's revelations, and what will be the effect on U.S. intelligence-gathering in the future?

For that, we turn to David Ignatius, a columnist for the Washington Post, and Jane Mayer, staff writer for the New Yorker magazine. She's also the author of "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals."

Thank you both for being with us. Both of you cover this area all the time. So my first question is, compared to, I guess, what you'd call, Jane, acceptable methods of interrogation, just how egregious are these methods we're hearing about today?

JANE MAYER: Well, I think the problem for everyone is that, when you look at this report, what you're looking at is, in essence, a crime scene. It's very hard to get away from the fact that things like death threats and mock executions are specifically identified as torture under the Convention against Torture and, therefore, are illegal, and they're considered very major crimes.

So the problem for the Obama administration, which inherited this report and the question about what to do about it, is that it's a red flag to any prosecutor. It's very hard to ignore this, when you've taken an oath of office that says you're going to execute the laws and uphold the Constitution.

So they've got to somehow do something with this. I was interviewing Larry Tribe, a law professor, who said, you know, it's hard to do nothing about this when you see it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much beyond what is accepted and what's been done do these methods go?

Report revisits old cases

David Ignatius
The Washington Post
We now have an image of a CIA interrogator standing with a power drill next to somebody he's interrogating. I find that particularly horrific, because that's a technique that's been used in torturing people in Iraq.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, they add new detail to what we politely, euphemistically called "enhanced interrogation techniques," so we now have an image of a CIA interrogator standing with a power drill next to somebody he's interrogating. I find that particularly horrific, because that's a technique that's been used in torturing people in Iraq.

One interesting thing about this debate is that the inspector general's report that was completed in 2004, five years ago, was submitted earlier to Justice Department prosecutors for review. It was reviewed by career prosecutors in Alexandria. They were not political Bush administration appointees, but career prosecutors.

They looked at this. And with the exception of one case involving a contractor, they decided that no cases could be brought based on this new evidence that we're looking at today.

Holder came in, new guy, and he says, "I want to read the report again." And he is said to have been shocked by the language. In effect with what he's done today, he is reopening something that was already handled by career prosecutors.

The (inaudible) he is not impaneling a grand jury. This is not a full criminal investigation. It's simply a review of the facts. And the stress is, there may be no prosecutions. But it is interesting and troubling to people at the CIA that something that was already decided not prosecutable is now maybe prosecutable.

JANE MAYER: All I was going to say was, that is true that there was nothing done with these earlier referrals. There were some 22 cases that were sent by the CIA itself as things that needed to be looked into further.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is based on what came out in 2004?

JANE MAYER: Right. And the Justice Department never acted. They did bring this one prosecution, but they actually -- they also never dismissed the cases exactly. These things just kind of moldered away. It was in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S. attorney's office.

I mean, there are people who suggest that, while the career prosecutors decided not to prosecute, they were working for a political appointee, Paul McNulty, who was the assistant U.S. attorney in charge of that office, who was very much a political player, who actually wound up having to resign later in the Bush administration for other political problems. So there are people who suggest maybe this Justice Department wasn't going to be completely independent about investigating itself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Holder, the attorney general, David, has announced -- he's announced this prosecutor, but today you had the ACLU and other civil liberties group saying he's not going far enough, it should be a much more comprehensive investigation.

DAVID IGNATIUS: He is not announcing a special prosecutor, and that's what the ACLU and some others would have liked to have seen. What he's announcing is something -- the White House view of this is this is as little as he could realistically have done.

He's announcing that a preliminary review of possible criminal action will be conducted by a tough career prosecutor, John Durham. And when I say tough, I mean somebody who's very familiar with national security issues. And he will then decide whether this should be referred for prosecution.

So it's some steps away from prosecution. We shouldn't make the mistake of thinking, "Here it goes."

JUDY WOODRUFF: The other piece of this, Jane -- and you both have referred to this, and we heard Ray discussing it -- is this announcement from the administration that there's going to be this new interrogation unit created that will be under not the CIA anymore, but under the FBI, under the watch of the National Security Council.

JANE MAYER: It's interesting...

JUDY WOODRUFF: So taking this away from the CIA, what's the reaction going to be there to this?

Taking authority away from the CIA

Jane Mayer
The New Yorker
To some extent, this is bringing the CIA back to its earlier role traditionally, before 9/11, but still it's taking authority away from the CIA.

JANE MAYER: Well, you know, I mean, the CIA is going to have a role, but it's not going to have control, so in some ways it is a little bit of a slap in the face at the CIA and all that it had done during the Bush years when it was, for the first time in agency history, really jailing suspects and itself interrogating. That really isn't the role that the CIA had in the past.

So to some extent, this is bringing the CIA back to its earlier role traditionally, before 9/11, but still it's taking authority away from the CIA. It's also -- the new rules for interrogation are going to make the CIA use only techniques that are allowed for the military. They're not going to have any special dispensation to do enhanced interrogation techniques, so you're basically seeing them kind of knocked down to just having to act like everybody else.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how is this new system going to be different, David, based on what we're knowing now?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, we'll have to see. I don't know how much we will actually see. But the new system will be administered by the Justice Department. The FBI will be the lead agency. CIA officers will be part of the teams.

The idea is to have sort of flying squads that are available any time one of 25 or 30 high-value targets is identified. You send the special interrogation experts out to do the interrogation.

My conversations today with the people who know the CIA tells me that the feeling out there is kind of, "Let this cup pass from our lips." You know, they are sick of this interrogation issue. They were in many cases reluctant to get into it in the first place.

This has been a nightmare for them. Careers have been destroyed. Officers feel like their lives have been wrecked. And I think the career people there say, "Fine, you know, if the FBI wants to do this, let them have it."

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the effect on the agency going forward? I mean...

DAVID IGNATIUS: The argument really ought to be the effect on the country. We need a strong intelligence service. A strong intelligence service needs intelligence from detainees. Will this system get good intelligence that will keep us all safer? And we don't know, but it's a new way to go.

I guess the only thing that worries me is putting it so directly under the White House, having the White House running interrogation programs, that seems a little odd to me.

JANE MAYER: Well, a senior official over at the White House who did a background briefing basically said today it's the NSC that's going to be coordinating it, but they seem to be...

JUDY WOODRUFF: The National Security Council.

JANE MAYER: The National Security Council. As David says, this is sort of a hot potato that nobody wants to hold on to, and they pretty quickly were saying today, it's not really the White House who's going to be running it. Suddenly it's stuck over at the FBI. So nobody enjoys this particular role, I think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And very quickly, the stories today here and there about Leon Panetta maybe leaving, maybe not?

DAVID IGNATIUS: I think Leon Panetta likes the job that he has. He's been in some hot arguments with the White House, with the administration about what to release.

I'd just note that, you know, Leon Panetta's wall behind his conference table is a portrait of Richard Helms. Richard Helms was famous for saying, "Let's get on with it." And I think that's probably Leon Panetta's feeling tonight. "Let's get on with it."

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, well, we are going to get on with it now, with the show. Thank you both very much for being with us. David Ignatius, Jane Mayer, thank you.