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U.S. Torture: A Catastrophic Intelligence Failure on Every Level

The people the CIA tortured didn’t need a Senate report to confirm their abuse.

December 11, 2014

Cross­pos­ted on Defense One.

In a last ditch effort to delay the Senate Select Commit­tee on Intel­li­gence’s report detail­ing the CIA’s rendi­tion, deten­tion, and inter­rog­a­tion programs, U.S. intel­li­gence offi­cials raised public alarms that it might spark anti-U.S. viol­ence around the world. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who suppor­ted releas­ing the docu­ment, conceded this result was possible, and “perhaps likely.” Brutal­ity and injustice have predict­able consequences, partic­u­larly where account­ab­il­ity for such crimes has been denied.

The ques­tion for these worried intel­li­gence offi­cials is why they didn’t predict this and other poten­tial harms to national secur­ity before adopt­ing torture and cruel treat­ment as offi­cial govern­ment policies. Indeed, these govern­ment offi­cials often dismissed concerns of crit­ics that warned that torture would under­mine our national secur­ity efforts.

Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the Amer­ican Civil Liber­ties Union, says that the need to hold govern­ment offi­cials account­able under­lined the ACLU’s invest­ig­a­tion into U.S. inter­rog­a­tion prac­tices back in 2003:


What became clear from the hundreds of docu­ments the ACLU obtained through its Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act lawsuit, now confirmed by the Senate report, was not just that the govern­ment had offi­cially approved the mistreat­ment and abuse of detain­ees, but that there was signi­fic­ant dissent within the govern­ment about these prac­tices. In fact, Jaffer explains that it was the most exper­i­enced inter­rog­at­ors who most often raised objec­tions.


But it didn’t take an exper­i­enced inter­rog­ator to know that torture would be inef­fect­ive and coun­ter­pro­duct­ive. Basic research could have sufficed. The notori­ous 1963 CIA KUBARK manual on coer­cive inter­rog­a­tions contains frank warn­ings about the limits of these tech­niques. It says that while subjects under phys­ical or psycho­lo­gical duress may yield, “Their abil­ity to recall and commu­nic­ate inform­a­tion accur­ately is as impaired as the will to resist.” Further, it says death threats have “often been found to be worse than useless,” and that intense pain “is quite likely to produce false confes­sions.”  KUBARK’s justi­fic­a­tion for using these tech­niques anyway was that “[c]onfes­sion is a neces­sary prelude to a [coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence] inter­rog­a­tion,” and that only someone pushed to the point of delu­sions would falsely confess to being a Soviet spy. Count­less inter­ven­ing stud­ies of false confes­sions in coer­cive police inter­rog­a­tions, publicly avail­able before the CIA initi­ated its torture program, have shown the oppos­ite.

Intel­li­gence offi­cials were on notice that al-Qaeda oper­at­ives were trained to exploit evid­ence of abuse in custody for propa­ganda and recruit­ing purposes. Brit­ish offi­cials seized a purpor­ted al-Qaeda train­ing manual in May 2000, which included detailed advice on how to resist torture, and instruc­tions for report­ing abuse as a means of under­min­ing crim­inal prosec­u­tions based on coerced confes­sions. Know­ing al-Qaeda used evid­ence of torture to demon­strate the ille­git­im­acy of the govern­ments they opposed should have provided an incent­ive to prohibit abuse in U.S. deten­tion and inter­rog­a­tion facil­it­ies, and to oper­ate them in as trans­par­ent a fash­ion as possible.

The decision to adopt torture as offi­cial policy repres­ents a cata­strophic intel­li­gence fail­ure on every level. Tactic­ally, it produced unre­li­able inform­a­tion, handed terror­ists a recruit­ing tool, put Amer­ic­ans in captiv­ity at greater risk, fueled anti-Amer­ican senti­ment around the world, and under­mined inter­na­tional cooper­a­tion on coun­terter­ror­ism issues. Stra­tegic­ally, it under­mined domestic law and inter­na­tional coven­ants prohib­it­ing torture, damaged rela­tion­ships with our allies, and destroyed our moral author­ity on human rights issues. Tyrants and dictat­ors around the world will no doubt use the Bush legal memos to justify their own torture programs against polit­ical dissid­ents and human rights activ­ists.

The moral, legal and polit­ical rami­fic­a­tions for those who tortured and those who approved torture will continue. While U.S. courts remain closed to victims of U.S. torture and abuse, foreign courts are step­ping into the breach, prosec­ut­ing CIA agents and compens­at­ing torture victims. As our allies are being held respons­ible for their assist­ance to CIA activ­it­ies, our continu­ing fail­ure to do the same becomes more intol­er­able.

And of course, the harm done to Amer­ic­ans’ secur­ity contin­ues to be felt as our troops brace for more viol­ence.

But as Jaffer suggests, these diffi­culties were “not just fore­see­able but fore­seen.” Refus­ing to hold account­able the offi­cials who ignored sound advice from know­ledge­able insiders only increases the injury and the result­ing public anger. After all, we’ve seen anti-U.S. viol­ence around the world over for more than a decade. It is cynical for intel­li­gence offi­cials to suggest that the release of a report about CIA torture might now inflame such hostil­it­ies when the torture itself has long been a major part of the prob­lem.

The people the CIA tortured didn’t need a Senate report to confirm their abuse, and they have not been nearly as derel­ict in talk­ing about it as the CIA’s congres­sional over­seers. The facts of torture, even the excru­ci­at­ing details, have long been disclosed. The U.S. govern­ment is the only entity that pretends the evid­ence of torture remains a state secret. As the ACLU argued, while trying to obtain justice for victims of CIA rendi­tion, deten­tion and inter­rog­a­tion prac­tices, the only place torture still cannot be discussed is a U.S. courtroom.

It is long past time to lift the offi­cial veil of secrecy over U.S. torture programs that only succeeds in prevent­ing account­ab­il­ity. Congress has the power and the respons­ib­il­ity to release its full 6,000-page invest­ig­a­tion of the CIA rendi­tion, deten­tion, and inter­rog­a­tion program. This release should include the CIA’s internal exam­in­a­tion of the torture program, known as the “Panetta Review,” which Sen. Mark Udall says contra­dicts the CIA’s published rebut­tal to the Senate report. Through account­ab­il­ity, we can insure that torture never becomes offi­cial U.S. policy again.

As we enter a new phase of conflict in the Middle East based largely on intel­li­gence assess­ments of poten­tial threats to U.S. secur­ity, we must ensure that intel­li­gence agen­cies are weigh­ing the long-term effects of their actions. Employ­ing coun­terter­ror­ism meas­ures that increase anti-Amer­ican viol­ence just isn’t intel­li­gent.

To watch Jameel’s entire inter­view, click here. To read an edited tran­script of Jameel Jaffer’s inter­view, click here. The ACLU torture data­base is here.