The U.S. braced for international blowback after revelations that American-held terrorism suspects received more brutal treatment than previously known, from forcible rectal feeding to being hung from iron bars, under a CIA interrogation program that was ended in 2009.
Officials heightened security at U.S. posts worldwide and sought to reassure allies that might be alienated by a report yesterday from Senate Democrats detailing extensive use of harsh interrogation methods. The Obama administration also expressed concern that terrorist groups could seize on its findings in much the way U.S. abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison became a rallying cry for Islamic militants.
Already, President Barack Obama is under pressure from human-rights groups to revisit the question of prosecuting responsible CIA officials -- something his administration said yesterday it wouldn’t do. Other rights activists and global organizations say the findings may fuel civil challenges in the U.S. or criminal cases abroad. Interrogations were carried out in a series of secret prisons in other countries, which the report didn’t identify.
“The individuals responsible for the criminal conspiracy revealed in today’s report must be brought to justice, and must face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes,” Ben Emmerson, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, said in a statement.
The report by Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee marks the most comprehensive assessment of the CIA’s so-called black site detention facilities and “enhanced interrogation techniques” on at least 119 terrorism suspects following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Obama ordered a stop to the Central Intelligence Agency program when he took office in 2009 and supported the report’s release.
“Any fair-minded person looking at this would say that some terrible mistakes were made in allowing these kind of practices to take place,” Obama said in an interview with the Spanish-language Univision network last night.
Lisa Monaco, the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, said the report “puts a period” on a dark chapter in U.S. history. CIA director John Brennan, who was an advocate for the program as a counterterrorism aide under President George W. Bush, retains Obama’s confidence, according to another administration official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
That position may be hard for Obama to maintain. Besides human-rights groups, the president is also facing pressure from some senators in his own party to revisit the decision not to pursue legal action against officials involved in the program.
West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller and Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, both members of the Senate’s panel that released the report, called for the U.S. Justice Department to consider prosecuting CIA employees responsible for brutal interrogations. Federal prosecutors said yesterday they have no intention of reopening the case.
The Justice Department closed an investigation in 2012 into whether CIA interrogators were responsible for the deaths of two detainees without any prosecutions, saying the admissible evidence wouldn’t be sufficient to win a conviction.
Investigators reviewed yesterday’s report and didn’t find new information that warranted reconsideration of charges, the department said in a statement.
In his statement, Emmerson of the UN said the report’s findings show there was a policy orchestrated within the Bush administration that allowed it “to commit systematic crimes and gross violations of international human rights law.”
U.S. intelligence officials said they don’t expect the report to lead to major changes in personnel or policy at the CIA or any other agency, in part because Obama has already barred the use of extreme interrogation methods.
Obama’s reluctance to pursue prosecutions is a missed opportunity for justice, said Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. Even so, she said, his administration has a chance to push for legislation to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
“It’s an opportunity to say illegal wrongs happened but we are going to take the steps to make sure this never happens again,” Margon said.
The CIA did announce recommendations for improving its conduct, including accounting for “lines of authority, resources, the implications of public disclosure, and an exit strategy” for sensitive programs. It also will require enhanced vetting for officers who handle certain tasks, re-validate the legal underpinnings of programs, and expand accountability reviews to include systems and not just individual misconduct.
The agency’s response, topped by a newly public letter from Brennan in July to the leaders of the Senate intelligence panel, included a partial defense of the program. While Brennan wrote that he agrees with Obama that the techniques in question are not appropriate, he objected to the report’s conclusions that they were ineffective and that the agency misled Congress.
The CIA’s efforts “helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives,” Brennan said in a statement. He said the report lacked “valuable context” because committee staff didn’t interview the CIA officers involved.
On the personnel front, the administration’s defense of Brennan, coupled with the departure of most of the other top officials who ran the program, suggests no major changes there either.
Brennan was deeply involved in the interrogation program from the start. He was deputy executive director of the CIA when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. He oversaw analysis of intelligence that the interrogations produced as head of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center in 2003 and 2004 and director of the interagency National Counterterrorism Center in 2004 and 2005.
His ties to Obama are equally deep. He withdrew his name for consideration as CIA director after Obama’s first election in 2008 amid opposition from Senate Democrats for his support of the Bush administration interrogation and rendition policies described in the Senate report.
Nevertheless, Obama named him counterterrorism adviser, a White House job that doesn’t require Senate confirmation, and picked him to head the CIA in 2013. This time he was confirmed.
The Senate panel’s Democrats concluded that the CIA used techniques that differed significantly from those authorized by the Justice Department and described to U.S. policy makers and lawmakers, according to the report.
The severe interrogations weren’t effective and didn’t produce useful information, including -- contrary to claims by supporters of the methods -- intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, according to the report.
Bush based a 2008 speech on inaccurate information provided by the CIA that some of the interrogations had helped thwart terrorist plots such as flying passenger planes into the Liberty Tower in Los Angeles and an airport and buildings in London, according to a redacted version of the report.
At least 26 detainees didn’t meet the standards for being held, according to the report. In the fall of 2002, a detainee died of hypothermia while shackled to a concrete floor. Another was held for 17 days in the dark without anybody knowing he was there.
One detainee was left handcuffed by his wrists to an overhead bar for 22 hours over two consecutive days, the report said. At least five CIA detainees were subjected to what the report called “rectal rehydration” or rectal feeding without medical necessity.
The committee reviewed 20 of the most frequent and prominent examples of interrogation cases that the CIA claimed produced valuable information. None of the cases showed that information was obtained that saved lives or that couldn’t have been gleaned from other means, according to the findings.
CIA and Justice Department officials discussed ways to get around the criminal prohibition on torture, the report said. According to a CIA cable, Justice officials said the law wouldn’t apply because of the absence of any specific intent to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.
Obama said in a statement yesterday that the contents of the report show that the enhanced interrogation techniques are counterproductive to larger national security goals.
“It reinforces my long-held view that these harsh methods were not only inconsistent with our values as a nation, they did not serve our broader counterterrorism efforts or our national security interests,” the president said in a statement.
Monaco said there are “lots of firm and very emotional feelings about” whether the techniques in question were more likely to yield vital information than other forms of interrogation. “One thing that is true,” she said, “is some of these things are inherently unknowable.”
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a message to intelligence community workers that no “other nation would go to the lengths the United States does to bare its soul, admit mistakes when they are made and learn from those mistakes.”
“History will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by laws and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say, ‘never again,’” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and the panel’s chairman.