Voices from the “Dark Side”: The CIA Torture Debate


(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

December 10, 2014

With the release of a Senate investigation into the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation” following 9/11, the debate around torture has retaken center stage.

In an executive summary of the 6,000 page-report, Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee found that the CIA misrepresented the extent, severity and effectiveness of some of the CIA’s most extreme interrogation techniques, including sleep deprivation, “rectal rehydration” and waterboarding.

In response, members of the Bush administration have rushed to rebut the report. Former Vice President Dick Cheney called the investigation’s main findings “a bunch of hooey,” while George W. Bush told CNN that the nation is “fortunate to have men and women who work hard at the C.I.A. serving on our behalf.”

The investigation drew a similar rebuke from three former CIA directors and three former deputy directors — all of whom served while the program took place. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published on Wednesday, they wrote:

[The report’s] claim that the CIA’s interrogation program was ineffective in producing intelligence that helped us disrupt, capture, or kill terrorists is just not accurate.

The agency’s current director, John Brennan, also issued a defense, saying in a statement, “The intelligence gained from the program was critical to our understanding of Al Qaeda and continues to inform our counterterrorism efforts to this day.”

Since 9/11, FRONTLINE has spoken to several key players in the debate over the CIA’s use of torture. In these excerpts from our archives, they describe the role of enhanced interrogation — how it came to be, and whether or not it worked.

The move towards “enhanced interrogation”

I think they wanted the maximum flexibility for the president to win the war. And if you’re a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention, you can only be asked questions, and you cannot be treated any differently based on whether you answer them or not … I think this is an important thing about why the Geneva Conventions don’t really work for fighting a non-state terrorist organization. The primary commodity, the primary weapon in this war with such an elusive enemy is information. And the most reliable source of information comes from the people in Al Qaeda you captured. The need for information from individual detainees is not as important in a normal nation-state world, where you can observe the other side’s army and you know where their capital is; you know where their territory is. You have satellites and things, reconnaissance where you can determine what’s going on with the other side. You can’t do that in a war against Al Qaeda because they don’t have territory, population or cities. And so the way to stop future terrorist attacks pretty much comes from getting information from them.

Who said it? John Yoo, who as a member of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice from 2001-2003, helped shape the Bush administration’s legal rationale for enhanced interrogation. Read more…

The reason the enhanced interrogation program came to be in concept was a few months after 9/11, when the CIA first began capturing and holding very high-level Al Qaeda officials, beginning with a man named Abu Zubaydah. Abu Zubaydah made it clear shortly after his detention and confinement, after days of regular sorts of questioning, that he simply was not going to say anything else, and that he made it clear in his own smug and arrogant way that there were certain things he knew that were going to happen, but he wasn’t going to tell his inquisitors, and they couldn’t make him. That gave the impetus to coming up with, if legally possible, a set of techniques that would work on someone like that, who was thought to likely have information about a possible next imminent attack on the homeland.

Who said it? John Rizzo, a veteran CIA attorney who signed off on the agency’s most controversial interrogation programs. Abu Zubaydah, the Senate report notes, was subjected to waterboarding on multiple occasions following his capture in Pakistan in 2002, and in one instance the technique left him “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” Read more…

Did “enhanced interrogation techniques” work?

I have a problem with that term. “Enhanced” should [mean] “better.” “Enhanced.” I think it’s not better; it’s worse interrogation techniques. … They hit the glass ceiling with waterboarding. So what do you do? You do it again and again and again: with Abu Zubaydah, 83 times; with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, 183 times. When you repeat a tactic on an individual 183 times, do you think the technique is working? Because if it’s working, you don’t need to do it 183 times. This is just logic.

Who said it? Ali Soufan, a former FBI interrogator who resigned from the bureau in 2005 after criticizing the CIA for failing to share intelligence he says may have prevented the 9/11 attacks. Soufan interrogated some of the highest-profile Al Qaeda detainees using a less coercive method. Read more…

I do think that the program, without question, yielded as a result of these techniques extraordinarily valuable intelligence. I don’t think anyone could seriously argue that. I noticed that in the wake of the Osama bin Laden takedown, the administration, sometimes grudgingly, seemed to concede that the CIA’s interrogation program played a role in the long trail of evidence that ultimately led to [Osama Bin Laden].

To me, the more intriguing question — and I think unknowable question — is, could the same information have been elicited without the use of these extraordinarily controversial techniques? And, as I say, I think that is ultimately unknowable.

Who said it?  John Rizzo, who helped design and approve the CIA’s interrogation program and secret prison system as deputy counsel of the agency. Read more…

In Al Qaeda’s training manual, there’s a part on interrogation. And it says that any brother subjected to strong physical torture is only obligated to keep to the truth for 72 hours, because nobody can withstand physical torture after that, generally … So I don’t think you had to inflict a lot of pain on somebody to get information.

I think what [interrogators] found themselves in was a conundrum, and it was timing. They had to get this right away. That’s what I think led them to some of these more robust interrogation techniques. Generally speaking, it doesn’t work.

You will get some information, though. Listen, if somebody’s going to sleep-deprive me, or if somebody’s going to beat me in my midsection or suffocate me or make me do whatever, I think it would take 10 minutes, because I know that I can spin a pretty good story and probably give up some information that they would consider vital. But in point of fact, once I leave the group, everything that I have, everything that I know is obsolete.

Who said it? Jack Cloonan, an FBI special agent who investigated Al Qaeda starting in the mid-1990s, and served at Guantanamo Bay until 2002. Read more…

The point is the war or the campaign against terrorism can be a long one, and that the opposition, whether it be Al Qaeda, or whether it be Iraq, doesn’t play by the Marquis de Queensbury rules. Therefore, the U.S. in some areas has to take off the gloves. And I think that’s entirely appropriate. I think we do have to take off the gloves in some areas, but within balance, and at the right time and the right way, and for the right reason and with full understanding of what the consequences of that might be. …

Sometimes there are actions that we are forced to take, but there need to be boundaries beyond which we are going to recognize that we’re not going to go because we still are Americans, and we are supposed to be representing something to people in this country and overseas. So the dark side has its limits.

Who said it? John Brennan, CIA director since 2013. Brennan worked closely with CIA director George Tenet from 1999-2004, and led the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center from 2004-2005. Read more…

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