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Senate report on U.S. torture: What’s new, and what’s missing

The report details an enormous abuse of prisoners that is a radical departure from the U.S. laws, international commitments and practices over the last 50 years.

A Guantanamo detainee's feet are shackled to the floor inside the Camp 6 high-security detention facility at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base.
REUTERS/Michelle Shephard

Gen. Colin Powell told the future. Perfectly. On Jan. 26, 2002, then Secretary of State Powell watched as President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were moving to adopt torture to interrogate prisoners. He wrote a distressed memo [PDF], making numerous points, including these: 

  • It will reverse over a century of US policy and practice in supporting the Geneva conventions and undermine the protections of the law of war for our troops …
  • It has a high cost in terms of negative international reaction, with immediate adverse consequences …
  • It will undermine public support among crucial allies …
  • It may provoke some individual foreign prosecutors to investigate and prosecute our officials and troops …
  • We will be challenged in international fora (UN Commission on Human Rights, World Court, etc.)

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has released a summary of its investigation of a CIA program of interrogation by torture [PDF]. The 500-page summary is less than 10 percent of the 7,000-page report that, in turn, is based on 6 million pages of classified documents. It is a few drops of truth distilled from an ocean of lies.

What is new? Previous reports of U.S. torture have focused on the Defense Department. The CIA is immune to the Freedom of Information Act. The new report details an enormous abuse of prisoners that is a radical departure from the U.S. laws, international commitments and practices over the last 50 years.

The Senate Report shows that torture does not work, as predicted by CIA and Defense Department studies that began after World War II and continued to a report commissioned by President George W. Bush’s own Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. The Senate is blunt: “Therefore, zero intelligence reports were disseminated based on information provided by … detainees known to have been subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques” [p. 18]. The CIA kept and tortured prisoners who had no information. It used torture as a first approach — psychologically destroying them so that they could not talk when the abuse ended.

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The program was inept. The government paid $80 million to a consulting firm led by two executive psychologists who had never previously conducted interrogations, had no cultural or political expertise [p. 32]. They designed the torture and ignored all the expert interrogational science. The interrogators were untrained. Abusive interrogators were not screened out. Employees were not held accountable for crossing the line even when the prisoner died.

The report shows the costs of this program. Financial costs were about $600 million. CIA personnel protested; some were emotionally damaged by the abuse. Our relations in counterterrorism with allies became strained as the torture came to light. Countries stopped cooperating with us. Insanity ruled. The report says that in one instance, citing international law, the secretary of state demanded that a country allow the Red Cross to see the political prisoners in that  country. “At the time, however, the detainees [the] Country was holding included detainees being held in secret at the CIA’s behest [p. 16].” The prisoners, most of whom were innocent or dupes, were destroyed psychically.

Vague about executive responsibility

What is missing? The report is vague about who had the executive responsibility. It is not believable to state that a CIA director could get $500 million, build a network of international secret prisons, and manage brutal interrogation techniques in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values. The idea that this was a rogue CIA operating independently is a “the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions” fairy tale.
Dr. Steve Miles

Condoleezza Rice, in her capacity of national security advisor, authorizes specific brutal CIA interrogations. At one point, for example, “after the CIA’s presentation, Vice President Cheney stated, and National Security Advisor Rice agreed, that the CIA was executing Administration policy in carrying out its interrogation program. The National Security Council principals at the July 2003 briefing initially concluded it was “not necessary or advisable to have a full Principals Committee meeting to review and reaffirm the Program.” “A CIA email noted that the official reason for not having a full briefing was to avoid press disclosures, but added that: ‘it is clear to us from some of the runup meetings we had with [White House] Counsel that the [White House] is extremely concerned [Secretary of State] Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s been going on [p. 70].’ ” 

What else is missing? There are thousands of missing CIA documents that the White House has stonewalled the Senate for six years of President Barack Obama’s administration. There are missing emails and videotapes and missing bodies of deceased prisoners.


The report is fascinating. It stands with the Pentagon Papers and the Church Report on CIA abuses of the mid-1970s.

The report is stomach-turning. There is new information about gruesome techniques for our war against terror. Prisoners were given “rectal feedings” that painfully expand their colons with liquid. CIA personnel told prisoners that “their loved ones would be harmed or even raped [p. 487].”  People were kept shackled and sometimes hanging from a bar for 22 hours per day and naked and hooded in cold cells with buckets. We doused people with refrigerated water and putting them naked in cool rooms [p. 105]. At least one prisoner was kept in a box 21 inches by 30 inches by 30 inches. We used beatings and mock executions.

Lies, and more lies

The report is frightening. The CIA’s Office of Public Affairs constructed a complete program of domestic propaganda. It used leaks and background briefings to claim that brutal interrogations produced invaluable intelligence that saved countless lives. It led and misled journalists and authors, who were told of countless terrorists who were caught and of specific bombings and dirty bombs, germ warfare, hijackings, locating terrorists that were achieved. The media insiders were stroked and told to cite the CIA person as an “official knowledgeable” rather than as CIA. The agency never went after people who were authorized leaks for its propaganda. It did, however, lean on the real journalists who dug up truth.

The CIA lied to the Department of Justice that was trying to find out if lines were crossed. It lied to Congress. It refused to allow congressmen on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to visit its secret prisons be told about the nature and scope of the interrogation. It lied about the number of prisoners. It lied about the deaths of persons who underwent torture. Faced with subpoenas, documents disappeared and videotapes were destroyed.

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CIA Director Peter Goss, one of several CIA directors to oversee the torture program, testified to Congress in 2006.

“This program has brought us incredible information. It’s a program that could continue to bring us incredible information. It’s a program that could continue to operate in a very professional way. It’s a program that I think if you saw how it’s operated you would agree that you would be proud that it’s done right and well, with proper safeguards.” Contrasting the CIA program to the abuse of prisoners in U.S. military detention at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Goss stated that the CIA program “is a professionally-operated program that we operate uniquely … . We are not talking military, and I’m not talking about anything that a contractor might have done … in a prison somewhere or beat somebody or hit somebody with a stick or something. That’s not what this is about.”

It was all lies — the CIA, our government, was lying to us.

What now?

What should be done now? The full Committee Study of CIA abuses of prisoners during the war on terror should be released. A similar study of the Department of Defense torture program should be commissioned.

The United States has done irreparable harm to the Convention Against Torture (which we ratified under President Ronald Reagan) and the Geneva Conventions, which we helped write and then ratified under President Dwight Eisenhower. We must restore the rule of law by joining the other nations of the world in ratifying the Treaty of Rome and the International Criminal Court. 

Steven H. Miles, MD, a professor at the Center for Bioethics, University of Minnesota, is the author of “Oath Betrayed: America’s Torture Doctors.” He serves on the Center for Victims of Torture‘s board of directors.


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