Inside the CIA’s torture chambers

December 11, 2014

Nicole Colson analyzes the Senate report documenting the use of torture by the CIA--and explains why none of those connected to it are likely to face justice.

"THIS GOVERNMENT does not torture people."

Turns out that George W. Bush's indignant pronouncement in 2007 was a bald-faced lie.

We've known that for quite some time, of course. Since 9/11, there has been a steady stream of reports about the brutality inflicted on detainees of the U.S. government, including those "rendered" to black-site prisons around the globe, where they could be more easily tortured by foreign governments, as well as CIA operatives and other intelligence personnel.

However, with the release of the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA use of torture--nearly 600 pages in all, and still less than 20 percent of the full, heavily redacted document--we've been given a staggering picture of the horrors inflicted on detainees at the hands of their American captors.

Various scandals, leaks and media reports since the September 11 attacks made it clear years ago that the CIA and U.S. military personnel routinely engaged in torture--euphemistically described with terms like "enhanced interrogation techniques." What's different about the Senate report is its description of just how depraved the torture methods were--and how useless torture was in extracting any information of value from supposedly "high-value" detainees.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney
George W. Bush and Dick Cheney (Eric Draper)

Waterboarding of detainees, the report says, was nothing more than a "series of near drownings," with at least one detainee needing to be medically revived after he stopped breathing. Others were subjected to sleep deprivation for as long as 180 hours, along with severe "stress-and-duress" positions designed to inflict maximum physical pain. One detainee, Gul Rahman, died as a result of hypothermia after being stripped and chained to the wall in his cell at the Cobalt prison in Afghanistan (nicknamed the "Salt Pit").

Conditions at the Salt Pit were so dire, according to the report, that they led to "psychological and behavioral issues, including hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia and attempts at self-harm and self-mutilation." Detainees were kept in total darkness in isolated cells, while loud music played constantly.

At least five detainees were subjected to "rectal rehydration" and/or "rectal feedings"--humiliating and painful assaults that in at least one case included administering a pureed lunch to a detainee through an enema. These "procedures" were in no way medically necessary, as was claimed.

Adding to the psychological torment of detainees, interrogators sometimes threatened to rape or kill their family members, including their children. Some of those in charge of detainees, the report admits, "had workplace anger management issues" and had "reportedly admitted to sexual assault."

According to the New York Times, Dr. Bruce Jessen and Dr. James Mitchell, former military psychologists, helped advise the CIA on the use of waterboarding and other torture methods. For their "expertise," Jessen and Mitchell were well compensated:

In 2006, the value of the CIA's base contract with the company formed by the psychologists with all options exercised was in excess of $180 million; the contractors received $81 million prior to the contract's termination in 2009. In 2007, the CIA provided a multiyear indemnification agreement to protect the company and its employees from legal liability arising out of the program. The CIA has since paid out more than $1 million pursuant to the agreement.

THE SENATE report details a litany of abuses that would have been at home during the Spanish Inquisition.

But then again, these practices are nothing new. Waterboarding dates back to the Spanish Inquisition and has been used around the globe ever since. Today, Israel uses many of the same techniques as the U.S. against Palestinians because, according to Rania Khalek at the Electronic Intifada, "[t]hese are techniques that are thought to inflict maximum suffering while minimizing the risk that they will leave telltale signs of torture on the victim's body."

As for creating a legal rationale for torture, the CIA again looked explicitly to Israel, the Middle East's dominant colonial-settler state. The torture report documents that the CIA repeatedly cited a ruling by the Israeli high court that in theory outlawed the use of torture, but which in reality created loopholes that legally allow torture when it is employed in the service of stopping an "imminent" threat to life.

The problem with this logic, no matter which government is using it, is that the CIA used torture on detainees who had no knowledge of terrorist attacks. More than 20 percent of the detainees subjected to torture--26 out of 119--were wrongfully held, according to the report:

These included an "intellectually challenged" man whose CIA detention was used solely as leverage to get a family member to provide information, two individuals who were intelligence sources for foreign liaison services and were former CIA sources, and two individuals whom the CIA assessed to be connected to al-Qaeda based solely on information fabricated by a CIA detainee subjected to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques.

Obviously, such detainees can't be described as the "worst of the worst," as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once described them. Instead, they resorted to making up stories to satisfy their CIA interrogators--saying what they believed their captors wanted to hear in order to make the abuse stop.

In one of the biggest blows to the interrogations program, the Senate Intelligence Committee report disputes the claim that Osama bin Laden would not have been found if not for the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" on detainees. In a review of cases where the spy agency claimed that torture techniques produced useful information that wouldn't have been collected otherwise, the report found little connection between this and "counterterrorism success."

In other words, the Senate report underlines the CIA's own opinion prior to 9/11. In a 1989 report to Congress, the agency said that "inhumane physical or psychological techniques are counterproductive because they do not produce intelligence and will probably result in false answers."

PREDICTABLY, THOUGH, the right-wing response to the Senate torture report has been all but apoplectic.

On Fox News, Outnumbered co-host Andrea Tantaros accused the Democrats of using the torture report for partisan reasons, before breaking into incoherent cheerleading:

The Bush administration did what the American public wanted, and that was do whatever it takes to keep us safe...The United States of America is awesome, we are awesome. We've closed the book on it, and we've stopped doing it. And the reason they want to have this discussion is not to show how awesome we are. This administration wants to have this discussion to show us how we're not awesome.

But the response of Democrats was little better. While Sen. Dianne Feinstein is posing as a champion against torture now, having pushed for the release of the report, in reality, she has repeatedly lined up with intelligence officials to keep information about the extent of U.S. torture, as well as spying on U.S. citizens, a secret--including repeatedly arguing in favor of the prosecution of whistleblowers Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

Likewise, despite his promise as a candidate that "If I found out that there were high officials who knowingly, consciously broke existing laws, engaged in cover-ups of those crimes with knowledge forefront, then I think a basic principle of our constitution is nobody above the law," Barack Obama has refused to take action against the torturers.

Obama initially endorsed the idea of a "truth commission" to investigate the CIA's actions, but soon dropped the idea. In 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder closed an investigation into torture (including torture which led to the deaths of at least two prisoners) by announcing that no charges would be brought against any individuals, whether the interrogators who engaged in physical torture or those in the CIA and Bush administration who authorized its use.

As Politico reported:

Despite the White House's claim that Obama "strongly supports" making the report public, the CIA and Obama Chief of Staff Denis McDonough have been wrangling for months with Intelligence Committee chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to limit disclosure of details that Democratic senators say are crucial to understanding the narrative of the program.

The day after the release of the report, the Obama administration went to court to quash a Freedom of Information Act request made by the New York Times to disclose more than 1,700 pages of documents from the Justice Department investigation into the torture of detainees--including documents explaining why no charges were filed.

In a cruel irony, the Huffington Post pointed out that while the Obama administration continues to refuse to prosecute anyone who engaged in torture or authorized its use, there is one person in jail as a result of the torture scandal--former CIA agent John Kiriakou, a whistleblower who is serving a prison sentence for revealing the name of a covert agent to a reporter. "I believe I was prosecuted not for what I did but for who I am: a CIA officer who said torture was wrong and ineffective and went against the grain," Kiriakou said last year.

In response to the Senate torture report, calls for the prosecution of those who engaged in torture are growing internationally. Ben Emmerson, the UN's special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, told the Associated Press that the report shows "there was a clear policy orchestrated at a high level within the Bush administration, which allowed [it] to commit systematic crimes and gross violations of international human rights law...The fact that the policies revealed in this report were authorized at a high level within the U.S. government provides no excuse whatsoever. Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability."

But such accountability is unlikely. The Obama administration is fundamentally committed to the same project as the Bush administration--pursuing a failed "war on terror" and projecting U.S. power around the globe--so there will be no justice for those whose lives were destroyed by U.S. torturers.

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