Mark Udall: The U.S. “Treated People in Inhumane, Terrible Ways”


May 19, 2015

When news leaked in 2007 that the CIA had destroyed videotapes showing secret interrogations of suspected Al Qaeda operatives, Mark Udall said his antenna went up.

“It sent a strong signal,” the former Democratic senator from Colorado told FRONTLINE. “… I had to be very, very skeptical going forward of what the CIA said they’d done and why they had done it.”

Udall was a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence during its investigation of the CIA’s so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The Senate’s report would conclude that the CIA’s program broke U.S. law and was not effective in gaining critical intelligence.

Udall told FRONTLINE that when he saw documents that outlined the CIA’s interrogation tactics, he “physically felt sick.”

“I realized that we had paid a small group of individuals an enormous amount of money to conduct the torture, that the torture wasn’t effective, that we had in fact treated people in inhumane and terrible ways,” Udall said.

While the release of the Senate report was initially stalled due to political wrangling, Udall said he would “keep all options on the table” to ensure the report’s contents were released — including reading them on the Senate floor.

In the below interview with FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore, Udall talks about the Senate’s report, the legacy of the CIA’s controversial program and how he feels it compromised American values.

This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Feb. 6, 2015.

Let me take you back a little bit to September 2006. You’re in the House at this point. But President George W. Bush gives a speech where he, for the first time, unveils the program. What was your basic overview of what was said at that point to the American public?

When President Bush gave that speech, he confirmed the rumors that had been circulating. I served on the Armed Services Committee in the House at that time, and I was deeply involved in and committed to finding a way to defeat terrorism and terrorists, but I also have a strong civil libertarian streak. I also have a deep commitment to human rights and I knew historically that whenever societies, including our own, had used torture, they were diminished by those actions. I also knew that torture didn’t work.

And so, when he gave his speech, I wouldn’t say I was excited in the traditional sense of being excited, but I was heartened by the fact that we had a chance to set the record straight, to once again commit to our principles and to doing the right thing, even when it was hard. And it was hard. We’d been attacked on 9/11. The world was chaotic. There were people that had it out for us.

But I knew in the long run, when you stand on the Bill of Rights, and you stand up for what America represents to the world, that was going to be the way we would prevail in this effort against terrorism. So I was, at that point I was, all right, good, we’ve come clean. America is always stronger when we come clean.

… Did you feel that Congress was given the straight story on this? Or did you feel that maybe there had been some evading the oversight committees?

I felt there’d been some evasions. I felt that the oversight committees, although I didn’t sit on those committees, had not been fully informed. … But again, the CIA and the intelligence community at its core is about keeping secrets. And in a society that’s a democratic society, you’re going to constantly have this tension between a democratic, open, transparent set of actions and secrecy. And that’s why oversight is so important, because if the people are going to have faith in our form of government, the most secret agencies and institutions have to be as transparent as possible.

Dec. 7, 2007, The New York Times breaks the story about the shredding of the interrogation videos. Take us back. How important was that article, and what tremors did that start?

My antenna went up. A lot of people’s antenna went up. The rationale that the CIA presented was laughable. Their rationale was: We have this documented on paper. We know what happened. We don’t need the videotapes. It’s actually outrageous …They’re indefensible. And it’s that simple, it’s that straightforward.

“The CIA and the intelligence community at its core is about keeping secrets. And in a society that’s a democratic society, you’re going to constantly have this tension between a democratic, open, transparent set of actions and secrecy.”

For me, it sent a strong signal that I had to be very, very skeptical going forward of what the CIA said they’d done and why they had done it. I hated to go to that place, because there are a lot of very dedicated, patriotic, hardworking, honest members of the CIA and the intelligence community. Thousands, as a matter of fact. But if the leadership of the CIA was going to condone this kind of activity, that sent a very worrisome signal.

… Let’s go to the investigation. How and why does the investigation begin?

The investigation begins — and I wasn’t on the committee at that time, but learned a lot about the history — out of concern by leaders in both parties, most notably Sen. [Jay] Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein (D-Calif.), [Republican] Sen. [Kit] Bond of Missouri, and others. And there’s a sense that whether you agree with some of the discussions about torture and its effectiveness, that the separation of powers concept is at risk here, that the CIA is evading its constitutional responsibilities, that they’re not giving the committee the straight story. And therefore, the committee needs to get to the bottom of it.

And they do what many of the oversight committees have done historically, which is create a special effort to investigate what happened. And that was above board. It made sense. It had the potential, if it was done right, to lead us to the truth, but also create a form of healing. And then in the end, recommendations would be generated to ensure that this wouldn’t happen in the future.

So I think the investigation started on an up note, in a bipartisan note, with a sense that this was truly the right thing to do.

And former CIA Director Michael Hayden of course offers, after the destruction of the tapes, they come to the Senate, they offer to show some of the documents. And those documents, as it’s been defined, were somewhat shocking. And that’s what led to the further investigation? Explain that.

Yeah. And I think to my own experience when I first read what was then the compilation a number of years later of those documents. They’re shocking documents. They’re troubling. They’re disgusting. There’s a whole suite of adjectives that aren’t positive adjectives that come to mind. I physically felt sick when I read what we’d done in the name of freedom and in the name of the American ideals.

And again, I think Democrats and Republicans alike thought this is not what we represent. This is not how we can behave. This actually weakens our country. This’ll weaken our intelligence operations. But we’ve always known as a country, when you get the truth out, we’re strengthened by the truth. It’s not easy, it’s difficult. We’re criticized. But that’s what’s unique about America historically.

So that’s why I’ve been so troubled by the leadership, past and present, of the CIA today. It’s easy to hew to our principles when times are easy. But when you’re faced with real challenges, that’s when you stand by our principles. …

… So what happens? You got like five staff members. It’s decided that the investigation has to take place in an offsite facility. Give me a little bit of how it all develops and how the investigation is scheduled, and then the huge dump of documents that takes place.

… In the beginning, it was by the book. Wouldn’t call it pro forma. But the staff was over there. I knew they were working very hard. I knew that the report would eventually reach the committee’s purview. And I assumed that people were operating in good faith and that the fact that the Congress was utilizing its oversight powers, that would be respected by the CIA, and the leadership of the CIA would, again, see not just the utility, but the value in getting to the bottom of what happened.

Why wasn’t this done in the Hart Building?

In retrospect, you could argue that it should have been. But I think, again, the committee was taking the CIA’s word. The committee wanted to operate in good faith. I think there was a sense that the CIA would operate in good faith as well.

And the system as it was set up was figured to be a standalone computer system? Why was the Senate satisfied with the situation?

In retrospect, certainly, it would have been a lot smarter and we would have made a real statement about our oversight rule had we just said: We’re going to have this investigation happen in the Hart Building, in our facility. It’s secure. That’s where it’s going to be. We have the oversight authority. You are required to work with us. You’re required to follow our dictates in certain settings. This is one where that applies.

A lot of staff involved?

Not that many staff, just less than a dozen. There was a core group. I mean, literally, they’d give up six years of their lives in many respects to comb through all that material, 6 million documents, millions and millions of footnotes in the final product, six-and-a-half thousand pages.

… You’ve been involved in other congressional investigations. How would you define this one compared to others?

My knowledge of history in the Congress puts this at the top of the list in the sense of the time it took, the staff involvement, and then the resistance of the executive branch to getting the job done. I don’t know if the Warren Commission faced this kind of resistance. I think the Church Committee toiled, but they toiled in the open. The public support was broad and wide as those disclosures became more and more public. There’s an argument that perhaps if we had conducted this more in the public eye, we might have seen it finished in a more expeditious manner.

The other thing is, clearly, as you look back, there was an attempt to slow-walk this at a whole series of junctures. I want to be charitable. I’m beyond puzzled. Why not get it out? Why not clarify what happened? Why not cleanse the wounds? Why not then move forward and strengthen the intelligence community’s operations by being disclosive?

Instead, the CIA, I would argue, has made this worse. They’ve damaged their reputations — the leaders have, not the rank-and-file members — by prolonging this and making this so difficult to get into the public square.

Who was slow-walking it and what was their fear?

It’s hard to know. Certainly when you see the campaign that former CIA directors put in place to undercut the report, even over these last months, you have to look at the leadership of the CIA. You have to look at some of the leadership in the former administration, most notably Vice President Cheney.

And the CIA is effective in a lot of ways. They run covert operations. They collect data. They analyze that data. They’re well aware of the use, utility of psy-ops, psychological operations. They’re well aware of how you use propaganda. And there are elements of those techniques in the planned response of the CIA to the release of this report.

I hate to say that. It is a free country. You can make your case. But this was well planned. There were people who wanted, again, to prevent the conclusions of this report from being broadly understood and read.

Are you hearing of what the staff is finding? What’s your reaction to some of what was being found out about Abu Zubaydah?

… With all due respect to some of the Senators on the committee, this wasn’t at the top of their list for any number of reasons. We would get briefings every once in a while, but the process was unfolding slowly and quietly. If you were interested, as I was, you certainly could access the initial reporting and the initial insights of the committee staff were generating. I had detailed my staff member to keep me up to date as to what she was learning and she was hearing. So I periodically would look at what the report was beginning to determine. And the more I read, the more I wanted to pay really close attention to it.

“I physically felt sick when I read what we’d done in the name of freedom and in the name of the American ideals.”

And in particular, I realized that we had paid a small group of individuals an enormous amount of money to conduct the torture, that the torture wasn’t effective, that we had in fact treated people in inhumane and terrible ways. It, for me, became a cause. It became a effort that I made sure I carved out time to follow.

But I would say, for the committee more broadly, with everything else going on, from drone strikes to the Arab Spring to you name it all over the world, this was in the mix, but it wasn’t the number one item on the committee’s agenda when we would meet on a weekly basis.

But the things they were finding about Abu Zubaydah, what do you think was surprising?

That we waterboarded him … and yet the best information we generated was a result of the humane treatment that was extended him early on. I was stunned by his capacity to endure what we did to him. …

And your first thoughts when you heard about the two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, being brought on and basically designing the program. … What were your thoughts about that?

I gotta tell you. I was so outraged when you read those accounts. The FBI was having enormous success. … And for some reason, when I saw the amount of money that we were giving these two gentlemen and the people who worked with him, that tipped me over the edge. To this day, I can’t even think about it. It’s just so outrageous that we paid them that amount of money to torture people. And it put a stain on our history that’s going to be very hard to remove.

Why that specific element of this?

… I don’t know, none of it sits well with me, but the fact that they were paid this enormous amount of money to come up with ways in which to torture and treat fellow human beings in an inhumane way, and in the process undercut what we represent as Americans — it will gall me for the rest of my life. It will stick in my throat for the rest of my life. It’s just, it’s so un-American. It was so wrong. It did not have to happen.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, KSM, what were we learning from the KSM interrogations, and what were your thoughts? What was the most important?

What we learned from the KSM interrogations proved the point that people will tell you what you want to hear. People will tell you what they think you want to hear. People will just tell you anything in order to get it to stop.

What we learned from the KSM interrogations was, once again, that when you humanely — that doesn’t mean you treat them like they’re at a five-star hotel, but you treat them humanely, you try and connect with them emotionally and in other ways — they ultimately and eventually will share information with you.

We also tortured people in order to find out that they didn’t have information. We tortured people who were helping us before we began to torture them. It’s astonishing. It was like it was the default activity — we’re going to torture whoever we have in our hands because that’s what we think is going to get us the information. History would show you the opposite, and the direct experience we were having with these detainees proved the point. …

The CIA to this day says this was not torture, that this was legal. This was legally defined by the Office of Legal Counsel [OLC], that these tactics were legal. They had the writ of both the Justice Department and the White House to move ahead with these programs. What’s your view of that inability or unwillingness to even use the term torture?

The interpretation of law, obviously, is always somewhat subjective. And at that time, the OLC and certain individuals, I believe under great pressure, issued rulings that arrived on a number of senior officials’ desks that this was not torture, that these were legitimate enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs). That still to me is a euphemism for torture.

And that’s why it’s so important that we clarify in the law that waterboarding is torture; that subjecting people to days and days of sleeplessness is torture; that tying someone on the floor of a cell, to the wall, unclothed and subject him to temperatures that are close to freezing is torture. Let’s call a spade a spade, to use an old saying.

And that’s an unfortunate part of the history here, is that some smart lawyers came up with legalistic language to give cover to people to torture people who are in our custody.

The report seems to point to the fact that this was a CIA-initiated program with the backing certainly of the White House and the president and vice president at that point, but that the information that was given to the OLC tainted the record to some extent, to push it towards defining it as legal. What’s your take on that?

My take is, yeah, there were a small group of people in CIA who decided this was the way they were going to proceed. They ignored a lot of what we’ve learned over history about the effectiveness of torture. They ignored some of the legal history. And once they began to do these activities — render people, as you know, to black op sites all over the world — they then realized that they needed to have some cover. And they worked by directing information into the OLC and other legal offices that in the end was going to get them the results that they wanted, were going to get them the rulings that they wanted. …

And the kind of information they were passing along was what?

They passed on information suggesting that torture was working and that it wasn’t really what some people might think in a Hollywood context as torture. We weren’t pulling out people’s fingernails or undertaking some of the horrible things that happen in Iraq, for example, using power drills on people, burning people with cigarettes. This sort of stuff of the movies. But that they passed on information to the legal community that it was actually working. …

How was it being sold and why did the report find that that to be misleading?

It was misleading both in the information that was provided as to what the detainees were providing as far as insights into what was happening around the world, and it was also — in a sense, it was civilized torture. It was an American version of torture. Torture, nonetheless.

That’s one of the key findings of the study. You have to read carefully and really look at it, and look at all the examples, but there was misinformation coming from the field about what the torture was developing in the way of information. And that went to superiors, who then shared that with the legal experts, who then wrote their interpretation of the law to support what was happening in the field.

… Where do you see the focus of the responsibility should lie?

I think you’ve got to start with the headquarters operation that was receiving the reports from the field and chose to ignore them or chose to believe what they wanted to believe, and then forward that on to the legal experts to then draw their legal interpretation. So that’s where I would focus my eye on how this all began to develop the wrong kind of momentum. But I think there were a lot of winks being exchanged.


Between the field, between headquarters and in between the lawyers who were charged with understanding what was happening and what the legal overview would be.

… So the committee comes across this draft version of the Panetta review. How does that happen? What is the Panetta review? And why is it important?

The Panetta review is a set of documents that are comprehensive and thorough, contrary to what’s been said about them, that Leon Panetta initiated to get an internal understanding of what happened as the committee was doing its work. I just want to underline that the Panetta review is a comprehensive and thorough set of documents. It should be declassified. It confirms what the committee staff and the committee study determined.

The CIA itself, internally, came to a set of conclusions: There was misinformation, that torture didn’t work, that, in fact, we may have generated information that was not only not helpful, but was misleading and may have taken us down roads down which we didn’t need to travel. The Panetta review is, if you will, the same side of the same coin of the study that the committee eventually generated.

For those reasons, it was very threatening to the CIA. It’s why I only can conclude that CIA went into our computers a year ago to try and find out how we had that study. It’s striking and stunning that the [CIA Director John] Brennan response to the committee’s study was completely in opposition to the Panetta review. And it shows that the CIA, in the end, chose to lie. It showed, in the end, that Director Brennan didn’t want to come clean. It showed, in the end, that Director Brennan was going to do everything he could to stall and delay and obfuscate the ultimate report conclusions.

The review that Leon Panetta generated came to the committee staff through the same portal that the other 6 million documents came to the committee staff. The CIA leadership was unaware that it had come to the committee. Hence, their effort to try and retrieve or pull it back last year.

“It was like it was the default activity — we’re going to torture whoever we have in our hands because that’s what we think is going to get us the information. History would show you the opposite, and the direct experience we were having with these detainees proved the point.”

It’s unclear whether the study was sent to the committee by someone who quietly wanted the committee to have it and knew that under Director Brennan we would not be given the study, or whether it was part of the just general document delivery process, and that the people reviewing the documents for the CIA believed that it was a legitimate set of documents that should be given to the committee. That’s not clear.

In other words, did a CIA employee leak it to the committee? Or did the group of — there was a group of contractors that were reviewing all these documents for the CIA. Did they see it as a legitimate set of documents that should be in the hands of the committee? And probably important ultimately to know what happened there.

But the most important thing is that the Panetta review confirms all of the conclusions and all of the information that the committee study, which is now declassified, also generated.

The multi-hundreds of pages of the response that the CIA put out disagrees with the Panetta review. The story is Panetta review as a work in progress. It’s got opinions in there that are not evaluated and OK’d by leadership afterwards. What’s your response to that?

My response is, having looked at the Panetta review, that it is thorough, that it ought to be declassified, and then let’s let the public, let’s let the experts, let’s let people who know how important this is look at the Panetta review, compare it to the Brennan response, compare it to the committee’s declassified report. And I know the Panetta review will stand on its own. …

How do you hear about it and what do you think?

The first time I heard about it was when I prepared for a hearing late in 2013. The general counsel of the CIA was leaving. And the CIA had a nominee who appeared before the committee in open session. I asked that nominee — indirectly, because I had an obligation and responsibility to comply with my oath about the Panetta review in a direct way — will it be released? Will it be made available to the committee? Because I knew the importance of it. …

Did one of your advisors say we just found —

Yeah, my staff member on the committee in one of my daily briefings said: “Here’s a development you should know about. It has come to the committee’s staff attention that there is a review commissioned, the Panetta review, that involves a lot of documents that basically confirms what we are now concluding. … It’s a powerful document, because the CIA itself was saying that this is what happened.

And I would say this, too, because when you read the report initially, like I did, in a classified setting, your eyes bulge. You’re astonished that this is what we did in the name of our country. You can’t quite believe we went to the techniques that were used. It just, it’s un-American. It’s not what we say we do. And they weren’t effective.

There’s always a little doubt – OK, is that really the set of conclusions we should draw? Is that really what happened? Are we missing something? Because I’m not over there every day. I’m not living and breathing and eating and sleeping with all of this information.

So when the Panetta review was revealed to me, it confirmed that this was a very serious breach of our moral and legal values. It confirmed to me that we weren’t traveling down the road; in fact, we were on the right path and we needed to be stalwart. We needed to maintain our commitment to this report seeing the light of day.

… What did that Panetta review prove that had also been found by your staffers?

It proved that the fundamental conclusions, which were beginning to be solidified as the report was drafted, were spot on. It confirmed that the Senate Intelligence Committee wasn’t on a vendetta against the CIA. It confirmed that the Senate Intelligence Committee’s work was legitimate. It confirmed that we need to get the story out because we had tortured people in violation of our values. It confirmed that the information was wrong. It confirmed that, in effect, we may have so damaged these potential informants that our national security was lessened, not enhanced.

I mean, it’s a seminal document. It’s an explosive document in many ways. And I’m going to continue to call for it to be declassified until it is declassified. Because it will affirm the important work that the Senate Intelligence Committee did.

So why have they denied the release of the full Panetta review?

All I can conclude is they don’t want the public to understand that what they did was illegal, it was immoral and it was ineffective.

On Jan. 15, 2014, Brennan sits down with the leadership of the committee and admits the CIA searched the computers. They read the emails. Then they sent the Department of Justice the criminal referral. What did you guys find out? How did you first hear about it?

I knew about it probably before some members of the committee because I was making this a priority. My staff member on the committee kept me updated almost on a daily basis of the latest developments. And when I heard from her that it looked like, based on computer forensics and the actions of the CIA, that they had gone into the computers, my jaw dropped. And I also didn’t know immediately all of the ramifications of this, but pretty quickly it became apparent to me that the CIA was forgetting the lessons of history.

We had the Church Committee charged with looking at what the CIA had done, and the Church Committee’s core thrust was separation of powers must be protected and defended. The Congress wasn’t going to take a back seat. The Congress was not going to be intimidated by the CIA or any of the other agencies that operate in secret. It takes some courage. You want to believe the CIA. You know, with all the gadgetry and all the agents and all the romance around intelligence gathering, you want to believe them, you want to give them the benefit of the doubt. …

When Brennan … acknowledged that the CIA had gone into the computers, there was a lot of outrage on the committee on both sides of the aisle. There were a lot of members of the committee who were astonished, who expressed deep displeasure. That doesn’t mean that everybody in the committee, to be fair, thought that the study itself should have been undertaken, that the CIA was totally out of bounds in what it did. There were members of the committee who take more of the side of the CIA than not.

But the way in which this had occurred and the way in which John Brennan presented it really concerned many, many members of the committee. There was a lot of conversation about whether we should have confirmed John Brennan. There was a lot of conversation about his veracity. There was a lot of conversation about his style. There was a lot of conversation about whether he should continue to lead the CIA.

Then he goes out a few weeks later and basically denies that the CIA went into the computers and blamed the committee staff, tried to push it back on to Chairwoman Feinstein. At that point, I came to the conclusion that John Brennan could no longer lead the CIA, because he was saying one thing to us in private, the oversight body, with a long history of working with the CIA, and then he was going out in public and demonizing the committee and setting an entirely different narrative, which was only going to extend the conflict and the tension and the misinformation.

Was there actually an actual invasion of the office themselves?

I can’t confirm that one way or another. Let me say that again. I can’t confirm that one way or another. But in the virtual world of computers, even if you’re not there physically, but you’re there with your electronic fingerprints, you’re there with your electronic reach, I would suggest that there’s no difference.

But it would be important ultimately to know, did the CIA actually go into those rooms? And I’m sure they have the capability of entering those rooms, given they were on site, given there’s no lock that probably couldn’t be picked by CIA experts. Literally or figuratively. …

And you guys are not the kids running around in the streets demonstrating. This is the Senate of the United States of America.

It’s why the leadership in the Senate got involved. In particular, Sen. [Harry] Reid (D-Nev.) himself does not have a lot of confidence in Director Brennan to this day. It’s why Sen. Reid supported Sen. Feinstein’s historic speech in the spring. It’s why Sen. Reid, I believe, would have worked with me if in fact the CIA was going to be successful in preventing this report from being declassified by end of this Congress. I would have gone to the floor of the Senate to use whatever power I had to read the entire report into the record. Sen. Reid had my back.

Brennan is the closest adviser to President Obama on these issues, on national security issues, on the war against terrorism, on NSA issues, on CIA issues, on the drone program, everything else. This is the president who came into office and his first executive order was to end torture. What’s going on here?

… For the life of me, I can’t understand why he’s been so badly served by the people around him. I’m not disappointed in the president. I’m disappointed in the people who serve him and serve us. He did issue an executive order. He knows that torture undermines us morally, legally, and it’s ineffective. There’s still time to put it to rights.

But whatever reason, John Brennan has the president’s ear. John Brennan has the president’s confidence. And to this day, I don’t understand why that’s the case. …

I do think the best thing that could happen would be for John Brennan to step down, for the CIA to start anew, for the CIA to reset their expectations and their culture. And I see the way that you do that is to put new leadership in place.

Is this a situation where the president is between a rock and a hard place? He needs the CIA to fight his battles. He didn’t want to lose their confidence.

… Yes, the president is, as all presidents, between a rock and a hard place. But if you take the long view, which is that we need to have the strongest intelligence operations in history, to have the strongest intelligence operations in history, you need the support of the American people. You need to have the complete faith of the Congress. You need to have separation of powers respected.

And the way you do that is not to obfuscate and stall and delay like they’ve done when it’s come to this report. It’s to get it out there and to understand over the reach of history, this will be seen as a courageous and important set of actions. And it will in the end strengthen the CIA, and, by extension, strengthen our country.

… The killing of Osama bin Laden … at this point, the CIA and certainly Vice President Dick Cheney and others from the Bush administration come back and are very vocal at saying: “See? This proves EIT programs, the programs of the CIA, worked.” What were your thoughts when you were listening to this after the very successful operation to get Osama bin Laden?

My initial response was, all right, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, but I’m going to do my homework. I think it is, as a policymaker, incumbent on me to review the assumptions and then the conclusions that I draw. …

Very quickly, given the resources I had, it came to my attention that, no, the courier that we’d identified that led us to Osama bin Laden had been identified through other means. And that in fact, this was another example of an overreach, of the CIA making a case based on faulty information, much like the way in which the field operators said to the headquarters, “We’re getting information that’s useful,” but over time the field operations said, “No, it’s really actually not very useful.”

But by that point, it’s lodged in the public mind that torture helped us get Osama bin Laden, and Osama bin Laden is the ultimate enemy. And we were all gratified that we brought him to justice. Not an American that wasn’t. I have to confess, that was cagey on the part of those who want to continue to make the case that torture’s legitimate and we should use it. But when you look at the facts and you look at the information that developed, the fact that we tortured somebody did not result in the capture and then ultimate death of Osama bin Laden.

So what is going on here? Is this capturing of history? Is this myth making?

This is myth making. These are the people who condoned the use of torture trying to do all they can to make sure that history treats them kindly. Now, there are some true believers in that group. And I guess I have to grant them their true beliefs. But their true beliefs shouldn’t inform the way in which we treat detainees. Their true beliefs shouldn’t give America a green light to torture people, shouldn’t have given us a green light to torture people, and certainly going forward shouldn’t give us a green light to leave that on the table.

That’s my biggest concern, is that we are not clear about what we did and how it didn’t work, that we will leave a door open to use torture again in the future. And you will see the same story told, the same effects, the same undercutting of America’s moral and legal standing, and the same undercutting in the intelligence community’s important role.

But this myth making went beyond the fact that it was true believers providing their point of view. It went to the point of the CIA working with Hollywood to advise them and help them in the making of Zero Dark Thirty.

That is clear. And again, there are the myths around the CIA. There’s the romance. There’s the, all of the spy stories we love to read; count me in. And I think the CIA, certain individuals in the CIA took advantage of that opening to, if you will, seduce Hollywood into the narrative in Zero Dark Thirty, suggesting that torture played an important role in finding and then killing Osama bin Laden. So that’s lodged in the public mind now, and it’s again a form of psy-ops. It’s [a] form of propaganda. It’s a form of making the case so that the general public believes this is what happened, when in fact the facts don’t prove that to be the case.

Did you see Zero Dark Thirty?

I have seen Zero Dark Thirty, yeah. And when I saw Zero Dark Thirty, my heart sunk, because I know the story. My heart sunk because I know it’s harder to make the case I’m making today than it is to make the case that, well, we got some bad guys. They’re evil people. We can do whatever we want to them to get the truth, because of what they did to us.

The report dissects in minute detail 20 different plots, 20 different situations, scenarios where the CIA had based these plots, defined these plots as proof of the effectiveness of the achievements of the program. What did the report find?

The report found that there were other information sources and other events that had generated all the information that led to the disrupting of these plots without question. The report showed that there may have been some information developed through torture that it might have been helpful, but that information had already been generated. And it was information that we could count on.

I want to again remind everybody that there’s a lot of studies that show that when you torture people, you get a real mixed bag of information, and you don’t know what is true and what isn’t true, given the physical pain and the emotional stress that you put people under. And when you actually interrogate people in these other well-known and legitimate ways, the information you generate, you can depend on. Information when you torture people is really, really suspect.

Now, that sounds utilitarian, and that sets aside the discussion of the legal and moral ramifications of torturing people. But it should be in the mix of the discussion if you’re even going to make the case that you ought to use these objectionable techniques to develop information.

But [former CIA acting counsel] John Rizzo tells us: “We wouldn’t have gone forward all these years with this program if it wasn’t achieving things.” What do you say to that defense?

I would say to Mr. Rizzo: Mr. Rizzo, you’re a lawyer. You also have a moral center. You know that as a society we have on a number of occasions determined that we’re not going to use torture. We’ve made that clear legally. We’ve made it clear morally. And we have been misled as well on a pragmatic basis too many times with information that was generated through torture.

I would have expected you and others in the agency to say we’re not going to go down that road. It’s tempting, but it’s a false choice. We can be secure, but we can also stand behind our values. …

There was a fight, tooth and nail, here by elements of the government to prevent [the Senate report] from being released. Take us into that fight a bit, and why it was released, and how difficult that process was.

It was touch and go to get this report released. It became even higher stakes after the election this fall, because clearly there are enough opponents of the report in the new Congress that’s been just seated, that unless this administration was willing to push very, very hard on the new Congress, the report could have been buried for a number of years to come, perhaps even decades.

So once the election was concluded and it was obvious that both Houses would be majority controlled by the Republican Party, that we had to get the report released.

There’d been lot of work over the summer doing the detailed work of redactions and pseudonyms and ways in which you protect, when you declassify a report, sources and methods. That condensed timeframe between the election and Jan. 2, which is when the new Congress takes its seats, meant that there had to be a lot of work done.

“When you look at the facts and you look at the information that developed, the fact that we tortured somebody did not result in the capture and then ultimate death of Osama bin Laden.”

And in particular, there was a focus on the use of pseudonyms. In many, many previous reports, pseudonyms have been used broadly — the Abu Ghraib report, for example, in the Iran-Contra report. Pseudonyms were used because if you don’t have pseudonyms, you can’t track individuals and you can’t see who’s responsible and who plays a role in all these various settings.

That was a deep concern of mine. … But I do believe the report, as it is redacted, and we removed a lot of the redactions, can at least give you a general lay of the land.

We’re going to continue to advocate for the full release of the full report. And I would like to see pseudonyms eventually included in that report. Because you will see that it was just a few individuals in the CIA who performed this way. You will see it’s a few individuals that have behaved this way. It does not impugn the reputation of the thousands of hardworking CIA employees. That to me seems to be an opportunity for the CIA and all of us when it comes to the further declassification of all these reports.

I would tell you though, back to the question, that it was still in question whether the report would be declassified by the end of the Congress. And to not be immodest, I do believe that my willingness and my commitment to go to the floor of the Senate and reading the entire report into the record, if necessary, was a part of why the report was declassified.

The CIA then comes out and their response is there’s factual mistakes all through it. There were no interviews with anybody in power. It was partisan. What was your take on their response?

It was bipartisan in its genesis; it was bipartisan in the support in the committee at the end of 2012, when the report was accepted and the committee made it clear we would move forward to declassify it. There are always factual errors in any kind of a report. This report minimized those factual errors. It’s another reason I would have asked, and still ask the CIA to be involved and help us fix those factual errors. Don’t prevent the report from being released. It’s a way to distract people’s attention.

The interviews were not undertaken because, of course, of the legal involvement of the CIA and the Department of Justice. And the irony there, of course, is that if this hadn’t happened in the first place, and/or if the CIA had been more willing to work with the committee, there was probably a way to arrange for those interviews.

So again, it was another, in my opinion, distraction. …

One other comment I want to run by you. Vice President Cheney in defending the program after the summary report comes out, says it’s full of crap.

He actually used that word, right?

Yeah. But then he asks, “How nice do you want to be to the murderers of 3,000 Americans?” What was your reaction to that comment?

I want to be respectful of Vice President Cheney. I don’t know him well. I respect his public service. But I just think he’s flat out wrong here. He has his ideology. He has his history. And he believes what we did was right. He believes what we did was necessary. I don’t think history’s going to stand by his side.

Brennan’s comments afterwards, he states the program was effective. He states that it was useful information had been gotten, the CIA didn’t mislead officials. And in fact what he does is leaves the door open for possible future use. When you heard what he said, what was your reaction?

It brought up for me the reasons that this is so important. This is not about the past. This is about the present, and this is about the future. And if Director Brennan wants to leave open the door for torture in the future, I think he’s just flat-out wrong. And I think it’s why society needs to have a broad debate. It’s why we need to release the Panetta review. It’s why the president has to strengthen the executive orders when it comes to the use of interrogation techniques. It’s why we have to have much stronger laws.

And it’s, frankly, why I think Director Brennan has to step down. He continues to want to believe the myth that these practices work, when all of the experience and all of the information proves otherwise. And it’s just a fundamental difference I have with Director Brennan. And I don’t relish. It’s not personal for me. I just think if you look at history through the last number of decades and you look at the recent history and you look at the conclusions of the report and you listen to people who were there, like [former FBI interrogator] Ali Soufan, you can’t come to the conclusions that Director Brennan comes to.

… Why did the CIA ignore the FBI efforts?

I don’t know whether it was agency rivalry. I don’t know whether it was “We know best.” For the life of me, it’s one of the questions that ought to be answered, because when we’re in a situation in the future where we need to generate intelligence quickly, we want to know the best and the most effective practices.

I do go back to this team of academics that somehow had seduced the CIA into thinking they knew it all, this small group of people who must have made a phenomenal sale to the CIA leadership that what they were going to do would be effective, would be humane and wouldn’t be torture.

And so, again, it comes down to individuals and decisions that individuals make. And isn’t that always what history is about?

Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Former Digital Editor



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