The greatest success of the CIA's torture program was the apprehension of a man who thought he could make a hydrogen bomb by tying a plastic bucket filled with uranium to a rope and swinging it around his head for 45 minutes.
That sentence is not a mistake, or an exaggeration, but it is slightly misleading: The CIA always said that was the greatest success of its torture program. But the truth, it turns out, is that to apprehend a man that the CIA itself called "cockamamie" and one who should "keep his day job," the agency didn't need torture at all, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into the CIA's use of torture during interrogations.
There's little doubt that Jose Padilla should probably be in jail for something. He attended an al-Qaeda terrorist training camp, and he apparently did want to carry out a terrorist attack. (The US government called his bucket-swinging plan the "dirty bomb" plot—you might remember it from the summer of 2002.) He had the phone numbers of al-Qaeda members. But no one took him seriously. A CIA official once wrote that "even KSM [the al-Qaeda mastermind of 9/11] says Padilla had a screw loose."
Fill a standard-size bucket with liquid uranium. Attach a rope to the bucket. Now swing the rope around your head as fast as possible
Meanwhile, for years, the CIA claimed the capture of Padilla—who was caught because he was already on a terrorist watch list, and because another suspect told government officials about him days before the suspect's torture, and because he was generally bad at being a terrorist—was the direct result of "enhanced interrogation."
"The capture of, and the thwarting of terrorist plotting associated with Jose Padilla, is one of the eight most frequently cited examples provided by the CIA as evidence for the effectiveness of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques," the Senate's report stated.
Padilla relied on an internet article, "How to Build an H-Bomb," to hatch his plan. That should have been the first sign that the threat wasn't serious, and the CIA seemed to realize that.
"The CIA and Lawrence Livermore National Lab have assessed that the article is filled with countless technical inaccuracies which would likely result in the death of anyone attempting to follow the instructions, and would definitely not result in a nuclear explosive device," an internal email, revealed in the report, stated.
In other words, the agency thought the article was a complete joke. Which, actually, it was.
"How to Build an H-Bomb" was written in 1979 for a little-known progressive magazine called Seven Days by journalist, author, and activist Barbara Ehrenreich and several of her colleagues. It was intended as satire, and, yes, a protest piece, because the US government censored an article in The Progressive, another publication, called "The H-Bomb Secret." That article detailed the process of enriching uranium (you should steal it, the article says) into A-bombs and then into H-bombs.
"Both in solidarity with The Progressive and in defense of free speech, we at Seven Days decided to do a satirical article entitled 'How to Make Your Own H-Bomb,' offering step-by-step instructions for assembling a bomb using equipment available in one's own home," Ehrenreich wrote on her blog in 2009 (she did not respond to my attempt to contact her). "The satire was not subtle. After discussing the toxicity of plutonium, we advised that to avoid ingesting it orally, 'Never make an A-bomb on an empty stomach.'"
we had a government so vicious and impenetrably stupid that it managed to take my freedom of speech and turn it into someone else's living hell
The passage from the article cited by the Senate torture report is perhaps the most ridiculous:
"First transform the gas into a liquid by subjecting it to pressure. You can use a bicycle pump for this. Then make a simple home centrifuge. Fill a standard-size bucket one-quarter full of liquid uranium hexafluoride. Attach a six-foot rope to the bucket handle. Now swing the rope (and attached bucket) around your head as fast as possible. Keep this up for about 45 minutes," the article stated.
The rest of the satire is equally absurd and more of a commentary on the United States' nuclear weapons and environmental policy than anything that could be construed as real instructions.
Take this, for example:
"After your A-bomb is completed you'll have a pile of moderately fatal radioactive wastes like U-238. These are not dangerous, but you do have to get rid of them. You can flush leftovers down the toilet. (Don't worry about polluting the ocean, there is already so much radioactive waste there, a few more bucketfuls won't make any waves whatsoever.) If you're the fastidious type—the kind who never leaves gum under their seat at the movies—you can seal the nasty stuff in coffee cans and bury it in the backyard, just like Uncle Sam does."
It'd be funny if entire passages of this weren't earnestly being analyzed by the CIA and the US's national laboratories. Even then, it'd still be funny if not for the fact that it was used to legitimize interrogation techniques that included waterboarding, rectal feeding, slapping, threats, sleep deprivation, and noise torture.
There are lots of ways the CIA and the federal government notified the American people that it was keeping them safe in the early 2000s. One of them was this:
"We have captured a known terrorist who was exploring a plan to build and explode a radiological dispersion device, or 'dirty bomb,' in the United States," then-Attorney General John Ashcroft said upon the capture of Padilla on June 10, 2002. The detonation of a "dirty bomb," he said, "not only kills victims in the immediate vicinity, but also spreads radioactive material that is highly toxic to humans and can cause mass death and injury."
This announcement dominated cable news for days, and the CIA had a tally mark to put in the "pro" column of the torture debate. The CIA publicly cited it as a potentially dangerous plot until 2009. Padilla, of course, was also tortured. He was just resentenced to 21 years in prison back in September after an appeals court ruled the original 17-year-sentence was too lenient. He was once deemed mentally unfit to stand trial.
The CIA consistently cited this case and seven others in letters to the White House, Congress, and the public as plots that it had "thwarted" thanks to enhanced interrogation; in all eight of those cases, torture was determined by the Senate committee to be unnecessary or ineffective.
"I am not histrionic enough to imagine myself in any way responsible for the torments suffered by [an accomplice] and Padilla," Ehrenreich wrote. "No, I'm too busy seething over another irony … we had a government so vicious and impenetrably stupid that it managed to take my freedom of speech and turn it into someone else's living hell."