For late August, with even the President on vacation, last week was a surprisingly newsworthy. It was a time that George Tenet, John Yoo, and certain other Bush administration officials must have been dreading: Not only was the long-suppressed 2004 report of the CIA Inspector General finally released, but Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he was naming a federal prosecutor to look into Bush-era interrogation abuses.
The two developments were closely linked. The Inspector General’s report described, in unprecedented detail, a range of serious interrogation abuses that violate US federal law. In announcing the preliminary investigation, Holder specifically cited the report, and news reports had previously indicated that Holder’s decision to open the investigation was strongly influenced by his repulsion at the abuses the report described.
The report, which examined the CIA’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation program, was deemed “Top Secret” when it was originally circulated in April 2004, back when nearly everything about the CIA’s treatment of prisoners was hidden from public view. Since that time, former detainees have come forward and described their treatment; journalists and human rights organizations have named the locations of CIA “black sites”; and the US government has publicly acknowledged that the CIA waterboarded detainees in its custody.
Still, even after abundant information about the CIA program had come to light, the Inspector General’s report remained hidden. Although a version of the report was released last year in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, it was so heavily redacted as to be almost useless.
It took another year of ACLU litigation, and a federal court order, to convince the government to release the present document. The result is one of the most definitive official accounts to date of the CIA’s abusive interrogation practices.
What We Learned
Although large sections of the Inspector General’s report were blacked out (one of my colleagues complained that printing the report killed a toner cartridge), the report still provided a wealth of new information.
Among the revelations are that CIA operatives subjected prisoners held in secret detention to mock executions, brandished a gun and an electric drill before one detainee, threatened to kill another prisoner’s children, “buttstroked” an Afghan teacher in front of 200 Afghan students, and told a detainee (the same person who had faced the gun and the drill) , “We could get your mother in here.”
While those were unauthorized techniques, the authorized techniques were also quite appalling. According to the report, the CIA proposed the use of eleven “enhanced interrogation techniques,” known by those familiar with them as EITs, that included “walling” (slamming prisoners into walls), cramped confinement (putting them in cramped boxes), depriving them of sleep for up to 11 days, and subjecting them to waterboarding. Waterboarding—used 183 times on one prisoner—has long been prosecuted as torture in US courts.
The report also documents a few bizarre moments, like-cigar smoke-blowing incidents reminiscent of a 1930s gangster movie, and the CIA’s interest in placing a “harmless insect” in a box with a suspected terrorist. In describing the use of cold showers and cold cells for interrogation purposes, it recounts what apparently passes for a philosophical musing at the CIA: “[———–] observed that cold is hard to define. He asked rhetorically, ‘How cold is cold?'”
What We Still Don’t Know
If we live long enough to see the report’s full declassification, we may learn a lot more. Some 35 pages of the 109-page report were almost entirely blacked out, including long sections on waterboarding. During the ACLU’s extended struggle to obtain the report’s release, CIA officials reportedly fought to redact its most sensitive (and probably most embarrassing) sections.
Notably, the recommendations section of the report—about three pages—is entirely blacked out. Apparently the Inspector General said something more than “Keep up the good work.”
There are also a couple of paragraphs in the report that CIA officials may have fought to keep in: those that mention congressional oversight (or the lack of it). According to the report, the leadership of the House and Senate intelligence committees were briefed about the CIA’s interrogation practices in the fall of 2002, and again in February and March 2003. The CIA’s General Counsel told the Inspector General’s Office that none of the participants at the latter briefing “expressed any concern about the techniques or the [CIA] Program.”
What the Perpetrators Worried About
With the report’s release, Attorney General Holder appointed federal prosecutor John Durham to open a preliminary investigation into whether federal crimes were committed in connection with the interrogation of detainees overseas. Durham, who was named last year to investigate the destruction of CIA interrogation videos, is already quite familiar with the CIA’s detention and interrogation practices.
Given the severity of the crimes that were committed, the possibility of a criminal investigation could not have come entirely as a surprise. Indeed, the Inspector General’s report describes how, even back in 2004, the issue was on some operatives’ minds. “A number of [CIA] officers expressed concern that a human rights group might pursue them for activities [————————————————],” the report states.
It also relates that one operative “expressed concern that one day, Agency officers will wind up on some ‘wanted list’ to appear before the World Court for war crimes stemming from activities [————————].”
One longs to know precisely what “activities” were mentioned—what activities could merit redaction even when so many other abuses were revealed. But the operatives who expressed these fears were wrong. What concerns human rights groups, much more than the individual abuses of low-level operatives, is how crimes were authorized at the most senior levels.
Attorney General Holder should avoid the temptation of low-level scapegoating as well. The worst crimes committed in connection with the CIA’s interrogations overseas were the crimes committed in Washington.
JOANNE MARINER is a human rights lawyer living in New York and Paris.