Dianne Feinstein: The CIA “Cannot Shove the Laws Aside”
When Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was first briefed by CIA Director Michael Hayden on the agency’s interrogation program, it “was very tepid,” she recalled. “I recall he even listed one as the tummy slap.”
As the nation would eventually learn, CIA interrogation went much further then just tummy slaps. Detainees were waterboarded, stuffed alive inside coffin-sized boxes, chained to walls and made to stand for days, threatened with cordless drills and subjected to forced rectal feeding.
Much of what’s known about the agency’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” was revealed in a damning 2014 report by Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, then chaired by Feinstein. Not only did the CIA’s interrogation program break U.S. law, the report concluded, it was detrimental to national security and mostly ineffective. It also didn’t help find Osama bin Laden, as some have claimed.
Not surprisingly, the report ignited a political firestorm that continues to reverberate. Critics have lambasted the study as an inaccurate, error-filled political document, but Feinstein defends its findings, and argues that publishing it was essential to avoid repeating history.
“It was important because only with it being released you couldn’t hide from it,” said Feinstein. “You had to confront it. And once you confront it, you must, if you’re an American with the values we all share, say, ‘Never again. This is not what the United States of America is all about.'”
In the below interview with FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore, Feinstein talks about her work on the report, the political fallout and why she says the 9/11 attack “doesn’t justify what happened” at the CIA.
This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Feb. 4, 2015.
Let’s talk first about the first briefing, September 2006. You of course have been on the Intelligence Committee since 2001. What did you know up until that point?
The briefing was very tepid. It was done by [former CIA Director Michael Hayden] and he listed the techniques. I recall he even listed one as the tummy slap. We went back and verified that in the transcript. And so it all appeared to be pretty benign. As I later came to understand, the question was how you use these techniques, in what combination and over what period of time that turn them from one thing into a distinctly brutal thing.
… What was the concern when you see those first reports, that the CIA was being disingenuous? …
The way the program was described to us — and then the way that original first report done under the auspices of Sen. [Jay] Rockefeller’s [D-WV] leadership described — it was mind-blowing, it was two different things. You could say that the initial report to us about what was going on was extreme minimization, and to a sense struck at this old adage of whether you tell truth to power.
There is a great line that if you accept a lie, at some point it becomes the truth, and that’s increasingly a problem, I think, as we look at this, because the CIA, when it comes before an oversight committee, essentially has to tell the absolute truth.
On Dec. 7, 2007, the New York Times reporter [Mark] Mazzetti writes this piece about the destruction of the [interrogation] tapes. … What are you thinking when you’re reading that or when you’re having a discussion with your staff immediately after?
I think there is surprise. I think there is a realization: Whoa. Why were tapes destroyed? There is only one reason why they were destroyed, because certain people wanted that information never to be available. If the techniques were what were described to me there wouldn’t be a worry. Clearly, the techniques were not what was described to us …
Give me an understanding from your point of view who John Rizzo is and the role that he played.
He was the top lawyer for the CIA and therefore had some degree, a considerable degree of responsibility, to see that what was given to the Department of Justice to write opinions was the correct information. And that is a problem. He probably sent what he received, but the point is that the CIA did not accurately ever describe what was going on. So, legal opinions were written based on mistaken information.
… So, the investigation. Tell us a little bit about what was set up, how it was set up to begin the investigation, why is it done in an offsite location, what the location looked like, how many people were involved. Give us a little background on the beginnings of the investigation.
The beginning of the investigation really was to develop an understanding with the CIA as to what it would be. So we set about developing a letter agreement that would be entered into by both sides as to what the strictures were, what the protocols were, what the specifics were. And we did that. And that was signed by Director [Leon] Panetta and by myself. I was then chairman.
And so staff were appointed. We wanted to do it in our headquarters, which is secure, and information would come through on computers and that information could be taken on a walled-off computer by us where it looked to be relevant by our staff, and then they could go back and study it.
Well, that was not to be. The CIA chose a location in another state and hired a slew of contractors to go through every piece of paper that came through those big computers, after which the staff could glance at it, because over 6 million pages came through. So, the staff could glance at it, if it was relevant take it, put it in our walled off computers. Accidentally, along the line, material would come not relevant. If the staff took it in the computers they would return it, whatever it was, but they were looking for relevant material.
… Give us an understanding of sort of like how daunting a task it was because of the enormity of the documentation.
I can measure it in terms of circles under eyes and tired looks, because the staff was extraordinarily diligent, spent long hours, worked weekends, worked nights, and, you know, to make sense of all these millions of pages is difficult. …
And where did it happen?
It happened in Virginia.
We wanted to do it in our headquarters, which is secure and which was imminently possible, but they wanted it in a building that they had and could essentially hire the monitors who were the contractors who were brought in to carefully guard every piece of paper that came through to us. And also provide the computers, both the big computers where the information came in, as well as our walled-off computer, which incidentally our computers were never supposed to be invaded with exception of technical expertise if there was a problem.
What is the reaction to what is being found initially? What are you thinking? What are they saying?
With Abu Zubaydah it was very stark, because there were essentially 17 days of terrible treatment, and it went 24/7. And prior to that time, Abu Zubaydah had been interrogated by the FBI, I believe specifically it was Ali Soufan, an FBI interrogator who knows how to do it, who was able to befriend him, help him with his injuries, and get quite a bit of information from him. The CIA then took him and put him into these EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques] and he had dozens of waterboardings, just terrible stuff, and came close to death at a couple of points, and really provided no new information.
He is their first big fish that they say. You’re reading this probably early in the process. What are you thinking about the investigation at that point, the role that you guys are playing, and how important it is?
The treatment of Zubaydah to a great extent was present in that first report that was done on the two detainees, [Abd al Rahim] al Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah. And so when all of us read that, we were horrified, because the 17 days were actually spelled out in that report, and that’s when we realized that something had run amuck. And then when we looked into it, and we found out how the CIA hired two contractors who had no experience in interrogation, no experience with counterterrorism, no experience with Al Qaeda, no understanding of the language, to be the sole contractors who ran the program — and as a matter of fact at one point I believe 85 percent of the people doing this were contractors, and then they had an enormous conflict of interest, because they then reported on the effectiveness of what they were doing, and not an independent body. So what the CIA did was contract out the carrying out of this, which never, never should happen.
We believe that this was an inherently governmental function and we knew it was sensitive, we knew it was difficult, that you don’t hire contractors to disengage yourself from any wrongdoing.
… Just give a short sort of description of anything that came out of the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [KSM] interrogations or that paperwork that you think is important to bring up.
I think what’s important to know is that waterboarding KSM 183 times did not work. And essentially by the CIA’s own standard of why they did this, they did not receive otherwise unavailable actionable intelligence, and that came from somewhere else. …
When does the question of morality come up in any of this from what you saw?
It obviously comes up with us, the first time we see what is actually happening, and that would be in that initial report of the study on al Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah. Then we knew something was really wrong. Now, the question then was to look how deep, how far does that wrongness go, and that was the rest of this very difficult endeavor. …
But, see, this is the thing, the CIA is powerful. I understand why. I understand the job they do is a hard job. I know they protect this nation. I understand the trauma following 9/11. We were all traumatized. And the urge to stop any other attack, because there was also information which said there was a second attack on the West Coast which would involve the Library Tower building in Los Angeles, perhaps the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. So I understand that the CIA had a job to do to try to get as much information, that if there was going to be another attack to prevent it from happening. There is no question in my mind about that.
The question really is how it was done — that it wasn’t well controlled, well managed, that the truth wasn’t told about it, and that it went really off the tracks, because it wasn’t really effective. Now, why wasn’t it effective? When you have this particular culture, I think, with strong ideologic leanings, with the belief that they want to die in the course of what they’re doing, because then they go to Allah, using force in this manner is not effective. …
Explain to me in your point of view of how important it is to get the facts right on this. Why is this so important? …
… I think to his redeeming virtue, the director has admitted that this was egregious conduct. Our point was to document it so that it would never happen again. And this is the good thing about Americans. We admit our mistakes. And that’s the strength of this democracy. We’re not always right. We weren’t right here. This was a bad chapter. It was understandable following 9/11. That doesn’t justify what happened.
How did the committee get their hands on the draft version of the Panetta review? What was it and what was the significance?
As I understand it, the Panetta review one day just came through amidst a tranche of materials, and when the team saw it, they obviously saw it as being relevant. They transferred it to the walled-off computers, and then at a later time they went back and read it and found it to really coincide with what we were finding. That was the strength, because, in a sense, it became the team’s insurance. And then when the CIA came into our computers and took it out, fortunately they had another copy, and they took that copy to secure it, and it’s secured today.
Why did it need to be secured?
Because it would have disappeared.
And the proof of that is what? What was the history that led you to believe that?
The fact that they had been in our computers on two occasions before and took out 870 documents one time and 50 documents the second time. And I might tell you, there is some 9,000 documents that we have never been able to obtain. …
And that is an important critical thing about the American intelligence community. They must work under law. You cannot shove the laws aside. And this is difficult, because they’re an agency whose tradecraft is deception, whose tradecraft is self-protection of the brotherhood. So, they defend each other, and I understand that. But we’re an oversight committee and that doesn’t mean you’re a drinking buddy. What it means is that you have to look at it with a critical eye. If something is wrong you have to say so. Sometimes we don’t have authority, but even saying that there is a certain thing that is happening that we disagree with has an impact. …
In 2011 we get Osama bin Laden. The CIA, Vice President [Dick] Cheney are very forceful in stating that this in fact justified the use of EITs. Your thoughts at the time? …
I obviously asked the staff, and what they had found in their investigation was it didn’t come from the EITs. …
But the use of the capture as proof by the CIA that their program worked?
It was wrong. And you see, that’s where truth comes in. It’s very easy not to tell the truth. It really is, because you want to support your people, you want them to be effective, and even the smallest glimmer, you know, is probably exaggerated. But it was wrong.
There is another sort of story out there about how the CIA was very good at what they were selling, that they created to some extent a myth of the effectiveness of these programs. They had to prove that it worked once they were so deeply into it. They were advisers on the Hollywood film Zero Dark Thirty. Talk to me a little bit about the dangers of this, of using the media, of spinning, overemphasizing the effectiveness of this program and how that was done and why that was done.
Again, this is Hollywood making a movie. And I think for the CIA to ever participate in Hollywood making a movie is a big mistake, because people tend to believe what they see on the screen, even if it isn’t correct, even if it isn’t the truth, even if it’s false.
What were they doing? Were they selling a myth? Why were they doing it?
I can’t answer why. All I can say, it was a mistake.
Because the danger of it is what?
The danger is that you present a totally false picture all over the world. And I think we have gone through this period of extreme macho — I think we’re still going through it. It started with 24. You can watch these television shows that are incredible and fast-moving and action-packed and people seem to respond to that, and I think there is a very macho image that comes through.
I walked out of Zero Dark Thirty, candidly. We were having a showing and I got into it about 15, 20 minutes and left. I couldn’t handle it.
Because it’s so false.
And the fact that the CIA was partially involved with it, responsible?
The report is released. You talked a little bit about the battle over releasing it. How important was it that this report was released?
It was important because only with it being released you couldn’t hide from it. You had to confront it. And once you confront it you must, if you’re an American with the values we all share, say: “Never again. This is not what the United States of America is all about.”
The CIA, of course, disagreed with what was in the report and was very vocal. Hayden was out there. The vice president was out there, again Vice President Cheney, disagreeing with important parts of the report. Your thoughts about that and the importance in this situation that the Panetta report was also out there?
Everybody has a right to say what they want to say about it. There is no question. Obviously I disagree with what the vice president has said. I disagree with a lot of things that were said, and I tell people, “Please look at the report and look at the documentation.”
The reaction of the Obama White House to all this. … You were not supported very much by this administration in the investigation, in the review. What is going on and your attitude about the reaction of the way the Obama administration dealt with the release of the information?
The Obama administration said they were against torture, that they didn’t like it, that this would never happen again on his watch. I very much appreciate that. I am very much aware that it could happen on somebody else’s watch. And so what we are doing is we are looking at the laws that exist, the Detainee Treatment Act, the Conventions Against Torture, and we are preparing a statute which will prevent this from ever happening again, provided it can pass both houses, which may well be difficult, as easy as it sounds, just because it’s very difficult in this particular arena, I think, to be critical when such grievous harm was done to America.
I think most people’s urge is strike back, stop it from ever happening again. I understand that, but the thing that makes this country great is that we don’t do that. We’re not Nazi Germany. We don’t torture people. We don’t waterboard them 183 times until they nearly stop breathing. We don’t put them in coffins and attach them to walls for like 100 hours. We don’t do those kinds of things. And what seemed like a very benign program originally in the EITs that were outlined to us in 2006 obviously turned out to be anything but that because of the way it was carried out.
John Rizzo says the program was defined to Congress … they approved it, they had no problems with it. In fact, the thing they asked us was, can’t you do more?
I wasn’t in those meetings. I guess it was what they call the “Big Eight” or the “Big Six.” I can tell you what was described to us in 2006, four years after this all began, the description was so mild. See, it all depends on exactly what you tell the oversight committee, how truthful it is, how fulsome it is, exactly what you’re doing, how many people you’re doing it to, what the strictures are that you follow.
And the fact of the matter is when this program was started there were black sites. People were put in those black sites. Some of them were really not credentialed to be there at all. So mistakes were made. There was no overall tight management of the program, supervision of the program, accurate reporting of the program. So, there were so many mistakes made and you have to look at it as a whole.
And I think when the leadership was briefed they didn’t know any of that. They just knew that there were certain enhanced interrogation techniques that were going to be used and it was out of context. But when it’s in context and you see it going 24/7, it’s a totally different story.
In the report they’re not named, but there are individuals who are responsible for the program. Has the CIA reprimanded them? What has happened to the people who were involved in creating the program?
To my knowledge, nothing has happened to them. This is one of the very disappointing parts. As a matter of fact, I know one of them was even promoted. So, this is very disappointing.