The US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s study reveals the ugly details of the CIA’s institutional amateurishness, obduracy and cynicism.

Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program 

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. US Government Printing Office, 2014. 711 pp.

It has been known for some time that from 2002–7, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) tracked and captured terrorist suspects, held them at various ‘black sites’ outside US territory and therefore not subject to the United States constitution, and employed ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (EITs, as abbreviated by the US government) to try to gain information about terrorist operations. As this report details, their practices included beatings, ‘rectal rehydration’, sleep deprivation, and mock execution, as well as the notorious waterboarding. The agency had been embarrassed by the 11 September 2001 attacks, panicked about possible subsequent mass-casualty terrorist attacks, and was broadly authorised by the United States’ political leadership to take off the gloves. But until the publication in December 2014 of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s study of the CIA detention and interrogation programme – albeit in executive-summary form, and considerably redacted – the public had not been afforded the ugly details of the Agency’s institutional amateurishness, obduracy and cynicism, or of the systematic mendacity of its senior officials.

The study is compelling and devastating. On balance, it lays most of the blame on the CIA because of its senior officials’ baselessly wishful thinking regarding the effectiveness of brutality as a tool of interrogation – indicating that they authorised torture without justification – and their deception about its utility. The committee finds residual fault with the Bush administration for encouraging government lawyers to license the CIA to torture detainees, then certifying the transparently inept and irresponsible analyses by which they did so.

According to the study, the CIA’s institutional background in interrogation was thin, and its preparation for that task poor. The agency itself does not dispute this conclusion. It has been less receptive to the conclusions that its top managers spurned the advice of more experienced agencies like the FBI (which favoured rapport-building techniques) that torture was ineffective and derogated American values; hired thugs with dubious and sometimes criminal backgrounds to complement often ill-trained case officers (p. 59); delegated programme oversight to a pair of former air-force psychologists (with no direct experience as interrogators), whose bespoke company would be given a base contract worth $180 million (p. 168); leaked bogus information to lend credibility to the interrogation programme and quell growing doubts (pp. 401–8); and ignored reports from some case officers that highly coercive measures including waterboarding were counterproductive, ordering them to continue nonetheless (pp. 66–8). Given the documented futility of the CIA’s detention and interrogation effort, it is difficult not to conclude that the agency undertook and perpetuated its covert regime of brutality just to feel useful. The agency even rewarded the officer who caused the death (from hypothermia) of detainee Gul Rahman in November 2002 with a bonus and, later, a promotion (pp. 54–5).

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Jonathan Stevenson is a Professor of Strategic Studies at the US Naval War College and a Survival Contributing Editor.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

February-March 2015

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