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The Senate Report on CIA Interrogation Is About to Reignite Debate Over the Killing of Osama Bin Laden

People familiar with the still-classified report describe an ongoing debate between the Senate and CIA over whether torture in fact led to crucial intelligence after 9/11.

by Jason Leopold
Nov 7 2014, 2:40am

Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters

A few days before the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, then President George W. Bush gave a speech in the East Room of the White House where, for the first time, he acknowledged that the CIA had been holding more than a dozen "high-value" detainees who were subjected to "tough" interrogation methods at secret prisons "outside of the United States."

Bush cited a number of terrorist plots that were thwarted after high-value captives were subjected to the CIA's interrogation regimen. One was an attempt in 2003 by al Qaeda terrorists to attack the US consulate in Karachi, Pakistan "using car bombs and motorcycle bombs."

In a long-awaited summary of a report on the CIA's detention and interrogation program, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence dissects Bush's September 6, 2006 speech and reveals that the intelligence provided to Bush by the CIA about the Karachi operation was overstated. Interrogators, the summary asserts, could have obtained details about it without resorting to so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EITs).

The Senate is not happy that the CIA censored its report on CIA torture. Read more here.

That's just one example contained in the summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report that Democrats say proves the CIA's interrogation program was a failure and did not produce "unique" and "valuable" intelligence. That's according to a half-dozen people familiar with the document who spoke to VICE News over the past three weeks on the condition of anonymity because the summary is still undergoing a final declassification review.

The Senate Intelligence Committee first completed its study in December 2012 and voted to approve the executive summary for declassification and public release. The report is more than 6,000 pages, contains 37,000 footnotes, and cost more than $40 million to produce; the public will eventually see less than 10 percent of the document when the 500-page executive summary is released. According to the Congressional Record, the report is divided into three volumes with different focuses: a comprehensive history of the interrogation program; the value of the intelligence it revealed; and the claims about its nature and effectiveness made by the CIA to Congress, the Justice Department, and the media.

Although the Senate Intelligence Committee's report scrutinizes both Bush's talking points and public comments by other top officials in his administration about the efficacy of the program, it does not hold them responsible for sanctioning it. However, people familiar with the report told VICE News that the executive summary of the Senate report includes a lengthy history of the program that explicitly states the program was authorized in September 2001 through a directive known as a presidential finding.

The Senate report promotes the narrative that the CIA deceived the Bush White House into permitting the agency to use the controversial interrogation techniques against certain captives. This, despite the fact that former Vice President Dick Cheney admitted in 2008 that he personally "signed off" on the waterboarding of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and two other high-value captives because he "thought that it was absolutely the right thing to do."

"This is why the SSCI [Senate Select Committee on Intelligence] report is flawed and is not a full historical overview of the EIT program," said one person familiar with it. "Who in their right mind would believe that Dick Cheney does not bear any responsibility here?"

To back up its findings, the summary of the Senate report focuses on "efficacy" and aims to answer, once and for all, the question that has been the subject of fierce partisan debate in the US since 9/11: Does torture work?

The report does so by reviewing the cases of 20 high-value detainees who were interrogated at secret black site prisons in Europe. The value of the intelligence the captives provided to interrogators was frequently cited by the CIA to prove that the program was effective.

"It's irrelevant whether torture 'worked,'" said Zeke Johnson, a spokesman for Amnesty International. "We don't ask about the efficacy, for example, of genocide or rape. Torture is immoral and always illegal. The US government must disclose the full truth about the torture program, ensure justice for victims, and end impunity."

The Senate Intelligence Committee concludes that in all 20 cases, the program was ineffective. And in a handful of those cases, it finds that the CIA was more brutal than was previously known.

* * *

According to the Senate report, the detainees cited did not give up "unique" and "valuable" intelligence, meaning information that the CIA would not have been able to obtain through other means, after they were subjected to a dozen enhanced interrogation techniques approved by the Justice Department. The Senate report also states that the CIA misrepresented to Congress the value of intelligence obtained through the use of the techniques in all 20 cases the agency said staved off pending attacks, according to people knowledgeable about the report.

While the report concludes that the "detention and interrogation program damaged the United States' global reputation, and came with heavy costs, both monetary and non-monetary," it fails to draw a conclusion as to why the CIA decided to use the techniques against high-value targets captured after 9/11. 

According to people familiar with the executive summary, the implication some people may be left with is that the techniques were employed for "sadistic" reasons. Moreover, the executive summary does not include a list of recommendations for the CIA should the agency be asked by a future administration to get back into the interrogation business. So the CIA, in its response to the Senate report, came up with its own recommendations in addition to some "lessons learned," according to former officials briefed about it. 

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, has said publicly since her committee began its exhaustive review of more than 6 million pages of documents that the methods the CIA used to interrogate high-value captives rose to the level of torture and violated the Geneva Conventions, which bar cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.

However, the Senate report does not conclude that the CIA violated any domestic or international laws prohibiting the use of torture, contradicting Feinstein's public statements. People familiar with the document say the Senate didn't even use the word "torture" to describe the techniques to which detainees were subjected.

By focusing entirely on efficacy and failing to tackle questions about the legality of the methods, the Senate has now left itself vulnerable to counterpoints from the CIA and former agency officials.

Indeed, according to former CIA officials who spoke to VICE News on condition of anonymity, the CIA's response to the Senate study will cast doubt on the committee's efficacy argument and reignite the debate over intelligence the agency maintains was instrumental in pinpointing the location of Osama bin Laden.

The CIA, which declined to comment for this story, asserts in its response to the committee that the enhanced interrogation sessions of alleged 9/11 co-conspirator Ammar Al-Baluchi resulted in the first disclosure of what was then a closely guarded secret: the identity of bin Laden's courier. The Senate report contains more than a dozen pages about the detainees connected to the bin Laden operation, people familiar with it told VICE News.

The Intelligence Committee had already spent two years investigating the CIA's detention and interrogation program when then-CIA Director Leon Panetta went to Capitol Hill to brief the panel about the May 2011 operation that lead to the covert operation in which Navy SEALs killed the al Qaeda leader at his compound in Abottabad, Pakistan.

Panetta informed lawmakers that Al-Baluchi and another al Qaeda operative named Hassan Ghul underwent enhanced interrogation sessions, and that both men gave up the name of bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmed Al-Kuwaiti. Prior to the use of the methods, Al-Baluchi and Ghul only speculated that Al-Kuwaiti could have been someone who interacted with bin Laden. A third detainee, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was subjected to 183 waterboarding sessions, but did not reveal the courier's identity.

Up to 2,100 photos of US soldiers abusing prisoners may soon be released. Read more here.

In his recently published book, Worthy Fights, Panetta wrote: "Harsh interrogation did cause some prisoners to yield to their captors and produced leads that helped our government understand Al Qaeda's organization, methods, and leadership. At bottom, we know we got important, even critical intelligence from individuals subjected to these enhanced interrogation techniques. What we can't know — what we'll never know — is whether those were the only ways to elicit that information."

But the Senate report vehemently disputes the CIA's account. In an April 30, 2012 fact sheet, Feinstein said the CIA "did not first learn about the existence of the UBL [bin Laden] courier from detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. Nor did the agency discover the courier's identity from detainees subjected to coercive techniques…. Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location, through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program."

The Senate and CIA utilized the same classified CIA documents to reach their different conclusions. 

* * *

One former CIA counterterrorism official, briefed about the agency's response to the Senate committee, said the CIA will argue that the Senate report purports a vast "conspiracy" that extended through multiple directors from the Bush and Obama administrations about the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation techniques as it pertains to intelligence used to locate and kill bin Laden.

"The point the agency is making is, Do you believe the Senate's conspiracy, or that EITs worked?" the former official said.

Retired Air Force psychologist James Mitchell, who has been credited with being the architect of the CIA's enhanced interrogation program — he's bound by a non-disclosure agreement he signed with the government and does not confirm, deny, or discuss his role in the program — said that his understanding of "the purpose of the enhanced interrogation program was to get the detainee to be willing to engage with a debriefer or a targeter who was asking a question, and that it wasn't designed so that you would ask questions about actionable intelligence… while the detainee was experiencing the enhanced interrogation program."

In other words, Mitchell is saying the enhanced interrogation program was akin to a good cop, bad cop act. For example, a "bad cop" might use EITs on a detainee, then leave the room. A "good cop" might then enter the room and, without the use of any kind of force, get answers from the detainee, who had just been subjected to EITs. If the bad cop and good cop submit separate reports, it would appear on paper that the EITs were ineffective because the bad cop didn't get the answers — the good cop did.

And the Senate would have used that intel in compiling its report.

"If you could go in and read the individual pieces of intel that were written as a result of the debriefings and the interrogations, what would that look like in the database?" Mitchell says. "What that would look like is that all the actionable intelligence came from the good cop just like you would expect, and you wouldn't see a lot of actionable intelligence leading to things like capturing bin Laden coming from the enhanced interrogation program because it wasn't designed to do that."

Mitchell is named in the report but it's unclear how he will be identified when the executive summary is released. 

* * *

In its response to the report, the CIA will stand behind the representations it made to Congress about the intelligence it collected in 18 of the case studies, and it will note that some form of intelligence the agency obtained in all 20 cases was still of value, former officials knowledgeable about the CIA response said. The officials also noted that the agency will admit it was unprepared to undertake the program during its inception, and that mistakes were made.

'Comprehensive' CIA torture report won't name well-known architects of torture program. Read more here.

The alleged plots that were thwarted through the use of interrogation techniques that the Senate report challenges can be found in a declassified five-page document from the Office of Director of National Intelligence titled "Summary of the High-Value Terrorist Detainee Program." The committee's report says the CIA could have gathered the intelligence about those pending attacks — the veracity of some the Senate questions — through other means that did not include the use of such methods.

Feinstein has said her committee's report is the "definitive review" of the CIA's interrogation program. But neither the committee nor the CIA have records of the briefings former CIA Director George Tenet and other CIA officials gave to committee leaders in 2002 and 2003, when the CIA said the interrogation program started, according to people familiar with the Senate study.

The committee's executive summary, however, singles out Michael Hayden, who became CIA director in 2006 and is a staunch defender of the use of EITs. He is accused of lying to the panel during a briefing nearly a decade ago when he sought to revamp the CIA's interrogation program.

People familiar with the executive summary said the committee obtained records about Hayden's briefings and carefully reviewed what he told committee members. The report concludes that the former CIA director erroneously told the committee that there were fewer than 100 detainees held captive by the CIA when in fact that number was higher. (The committee's full report says the CIA detained 119 men). Hayden is also criticized for telling the committee that the enhanced interrogation program was "humane." The committee's report concludes that Hayden misrepresented the scope of the program and was not being truthful. Hayden did not respond to VICE News' request for comment.

Other former CIA officials singled out for criticism in the executive summary include James Pavitt, the CIA's former deputy director of operations who resigned in 2004; John McLaughlin, a veteran CIA official who served as deputy director and acting director after Tenet resigned; John Rizzo, the CIA's former general counsel; and Jose Rodriguez, the Director of the National Clandestine Service who ordered the destruction of more than 90 interrogation videotapes, one of which showed a high-value captive being waterboarded. The destruction of the videotapes is what led the Senate Intelligence Committee to launch its review in March 2009. 

Although he is identified in the Senate report, the committee did not level any criticism against Stephen Kappes, who was deputy director of the CIA while the interrogation program was up and running. Kappes allegedly played a role in covering up the death of a detainee who froze to death in 2002 at a CIA operated prison in Afghanistan called the "Salt Pit." The death of the detainee is highlighted in the Senate report.

Kappes had been Feinstein's choice to head the CIA after Barack Obama was sworn in as president in 2009. Feinstein is on record stating she would not support Panetta's nomination unless Kappes was named as his deputy, a position he served in until 2010. One former CIA official said Kappes is "Feinstein's boy," suggesting that he was spared criticism because of his close relationship with the Intelligence Committee chairwoman.

Tom Mentzer, a spokesman for Feinstein, said the senator would not discuss the report before it is released. 

The committee's executive summary also accuses the CIA of interfering with Congress's oversight during the early days of the program by refusing to turn over documents and refusing to grant some committee members access to the black site prisons it operated. But former CIA officials said the agency's refusals were based on orders it received from the Bush White House.

VICE News has learned that the Senate committee is hoping to release its report as early as next week, when the US sends a delegation to Geneva, Switzerland where it will submit a report on compliance with the International Convention Against Torture. The release of the executive summary would be an effort to show "some form of accountability," one person familiar with the declassification negotiations said.

The goal may be difficult to achieve if Feinstein, the White House, and the CIA cannot reach an agreement over the use of pseudonyms, which has delayed the release of the report for months. Last Friday, Senator Ron Wyden issued a statement saying the CIA's "call to black out all pseudonyms from the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on torture would be unprecedented — and represents an unacceptable effort to obscure key facts. This report is about mistakes, misdeeds, and falsehoods that were repeated over a period of years. If you don't know whether they were repeated by different officials each time, or by the same officials over and over, you really don't know the full story. A lot of officials are intent on burying the full story, but getting the truth out is the only way to keep all of this from happening again."

The committee has also been battling with the CIA and White House over the use of real names of CIA officers who were part of the program and are no longer undercover. Some of the officers the panel wants to name continue to work for the agency and were promoted into senior positions by Obama administration officials.

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold