Simon Carswell: Report leaves little doubt that US tortured detainees

Senate investigation found that, contrary to claims, CIA interrogations failed to save lives

The word "torture" is mentioned on 82 of the 525 pages of a US Senate committee's report into the CIA's use of torture in interrogations of al-Qaeda suspects in the years after the September 2001 attacks.

Anyone in any doubt about whether the spying agency’s conduct, mostly at secret prisons or “black sites” where al-Qaeda suspects were taken, amounted to torture will be left in little doubt after reading the shocking and at times stomach- turning content of this disturbing study.

"While the Office of the Legal Counsel found otherwise between 2002 and 2007, it is my personal conclusion that, under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured," writes Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California and chair of the Senate panel, in a foreword to a report that took five years to complete.

Declassified summary

The released report amounts to just the declassified summary of a larger report running to 6,700 pages, making it the most comprehensive study of CIA techniques in the

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George W Bush

era.

The Senate investigation began in 2009 and involved a review of more than six millions pages of internal CIA records and the cases of each of at least 119 people, captured mostly in Afghanistan and Pakistan and held in the agency's custody.

The committee reached four main conclusions: the interrogation techniques were not effective; the CIA lied to the White House, Congress and the public about their effectiveness and the need for the techniques; the agency's management of the programme was deeply flawed; and the treatment of detainees was far more brutal than previously revealed.

The main question raised is whether these techniques saved lives at a time of an emergency when the Bush administration and the American public feared another attack in the post-9/11 years.

The report’s answer is an unambiguous “No, they didn’t”.

Despite CIA agents saying that techniques were required to source information to prevent another imminent attack, Ms Feinstein, introducing the report on the Senate floor, said that the programme never produced information about a “ticking time-bomb scenario” and in fact produced several false leads.

Ms Feinstein said that 7 per cent of the released executive summary was blacked out, although none of the horrific brutality inflicted on suspects held at secret CIA prisons appears to have been censored.

Beginning with the first CIA detainee, Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian arrested in Pakistan in 2002, suspects were subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques". They were slapped and slammed against walls (a practice known as "walling"), deprived of sleep for up to 180 hours with their hands shackled above their heads, stripped naked and held in confined spaces such as boxes the same size as coffins.

The Senate study found that, contrary to CIA representations, interrogations did not begin with the “least coercive technique possible” and escalated to more coercive techniques only as necessary.

Waterboarding, which simulates drowning, was carried out on detainees causing physical harm and inducting convulsions and vomiting. Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times, one time to the point where he became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open mouth”.

Internal CIA records described the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the self-confessed mastermind of the September 2001 attacks who was subjected to this form of torture at least 183 times, as evolving into a “series of near drownings”.

A technique newly disclosed in the report involved “rectal hydration” where food was pureed and infused through a detainee’s rectum where it was not medically necessary.

Detainees were placed in ice water “baths”. One interrogator told a detainee he would never go to court because “we can never let the world know what I have done to you”.

CIA officers warned at least three detainees that family members would be harmed, sexually abused or murdered.

The techniques were so severe that some detainees showed psychological issues, including hallucinations, paranoia and attempts at self-mutilation.

One detainee attempted to chew into his arm at the inner elbow. Another held at a facility codenamed Cobalt, thought to be the notorious “Salt Pit” black site in Afghanistan, died from suspected hypothermia after being chained, partially naked, to a concrete floor. Other detainees with broken legs and feet were forced to stand in stress-inducing positions for long periods of time.

The CIA was shown to have withheld information about the interrogation techniques from key Bush administration figures. Secretary of state Colin Powell was kept in the dark until September 2003 because, according to a CIA email, the Bush White House was "extremely concerned" that he would "blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what's been going on".

No CIA officer briefed Bush on the interrogations before April 2006, the report said – 2½ years after Mr Powell and secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld were first told at a 25-minute briefing.

Now the American public has been briefed. This report starts shining some light into one of the darkest corners of recent US history.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent