ICYMI: We Quickly Summarize the 500+ Page CIA Torture Report For You

December 13th 2014

Mike Vainisi

By now, you've probably heard that the U.S. Senate just released a 500-page report detailing the C.I.A.'s program of enhanced interrogation and torture of detainees in the years after 9/11 earlier this week.

While his party has largely condemned this report's release, Republican Sen. John McCain took to the Senate floor yesterday to give an impassioned defense of the report, arguing it is "a truthful accounting of policies I hope we will never resort to again."

The senator also praised the report's role in informing the public about possible misdeeds in the C.I.A..

"I believe the American people have a right – indeed, a responsibility – to know what was done in their name," McCain said. "They must be able to make informed judgments about whether those policies and the personnel who supported them were justified in compromising our values; whether they served a greater good; or whether, as I believe, they stained our national honor, did much harm and little practical good."

McCain himself was tortured during his five-and-a-half years in a Vietnamese prison camp.

"I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering."

To save you some time, we've curated the major details of the Senate report.

What were the major conclusions of the report?

1. The C.I.A.'s use of enhanced interrogation and torture was a failure.

2. The C.I.A. misled the Bush White House, Congress, and the public about the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation and torture.

3. The C.I.A.'s interrogation methods were far more brutal than the C.I.A. made them seem.

4. The C.I.A. blocked oversight efforts by the White House, Congress, and the Justice Department (among others).

What are these torture stories that everyone is talking about?

The reports says that, for days and weeks at a time, detainees were subjected to stomach-turning torture techniques:

Waterboarding. You may have heard of this one. It involves pouring water on someone's head while they are wearing a hood or some other facial covering. This simulates the feeling of drowning. It induced "convulsions and vomiting" and consisted of a "series of near drownings." Former top Al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded at least 183 times, the report says. He and another detainee, Abu Zubaydah, almost died from waterboarding.

Sleep deprivation. C.I.A. officers kept detainees awake for up to 180 hours, "usually in standing or stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads." The report says that at least five detainees experienced "disturbing hallucinations." Two of those detainees were forced to remain awake anyway.

Rectal rehydration or rectal feeding. You read that right. The report details an example where a detainee was fed a meal through his rectum, and it included hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins. Here's why people are saying that these force rectal feedings are torture in this situation: They were not medically necessary. The officers in charge were using these feedings to exert control on detainees. Journalist Andrew Sullivan has been writing that this amounts to the rape of detainees. Hard to argue with that. 

Did they kill any detainees?

Yes. In November 2002, a detainee was chained to a concrete floor while partially nude. He froze to death. 

His name was Gul Rahman. If that was not bad enough, he was only detained because of mistaken identify. That is, the C.I.A. got the wrong guy. Then let him freeze to death.

C.I.A. leadership took no disciplinary action against the officer who was supervising the facility where this death occurred.

Mistaken identity? So we held people who had nothing to do with terrorism?

Yes. The report says that at least 26 of the 119 known detainees were wrongfully held by the C.I.A.

One of these stories is pretty shocking. The C.I.A. detained an innocent man, who was mentally ill, and held him as leverage against one of his family members.

What other grim details should I know about?

  • Abu Zubaydah lost his left eye while in custody. Zubaydah had been completely broken by the C.I.A. to the point where he obeyed interrogators in a seemingly hypnotic way. "When the interrogator 'snapped his fingers twice,' [Zubaydah] would lie flat on the waterboard" for more waterboarding.
  • Detainees were forced to stand on broken feet.
  • The British army was put on high alert and dispatched to Heathrow airport in London over a false threat concocted by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was being waterboarded. Despite this being bad information, the C.I.A. for years identified stopping this false threat as a "success" that justified continuing the interrogation program. (More on these false reports below.)

The stories do not end with these techniques. Some of the threats made to detainees are stunning.

  • C.I.A. officers threatened at least three detainees with harm to their families. The report says this includes threats of harm to the children of a detainee, threats to "sexually abuse" the mother of a detainee, and a threat to "'cut [a detainee's] mother's throat.'"
  • "The C.I.A. led several detainees to believe they would never be allowed to leave C.I.A. custody alive, suggesting to one detainee that he would only leave in a coffin-shaped box."
  • "One interrogator told another detainee that that he would never go to court because 'we can never let the world know I have done to you.'"

The conditions of the detention were not good either:

  • At one facility, detainees were kept in complete darkness and constantly shackled in small cells, given only a bucket to use as a toilet.
  • At that same facility, detainees were walked around naked for extended periods.
  • Detainees were subject to a 'rough takedown,' which consisted of approximately five C.I.A. officers screaming at a detainee, dragging him outside, cutting off his clothes, and securing him with Mylar tape. "The detainees would then be hooded and dragged up and down a long corridor while being slapped and punched."

Ok, but didn't we get Osama Bin Laden because of intelligence acquired with these methods?

No, according to the report. 

The information that led to Bin Laden's death had either been a) independently procured prior to any information received from interrogated detainees or b) procured from detainees prior to being subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques.

How else were the C.I.A.'s enhanced interrogation methods a failure?

The report has no trouble calling these efforts ineffective at obtaining accurate intelligence.

According to the report, seven of the 39 C.I.A detainees known to be subjected to these techniques produced no intelligence while in custody. Further, some detainees actually provided information of real value before they were interrogated. And then they were tortured afterward.

What's more damning is that not only did these interrogations produce nothing of value -- they actually provided bad information because detainees fabricated stories to stop the interrogation. This led to fake stories serving the basis of investigations into fake threats -- threats the C.I.A. identified "as its highest priorities." (See the Heathrow plot described above.)

How did the C.I.A. mislead everyone by claiming these techniques were working?

To prove enhanced interrogation and torture were working, the C.I.A. falsely claimed that information procured by these methods led to the C.I.A. actually thwarting specific terrorist threats. 

How do the authors of the report know these successes were not due to enhanced interrogation and torture?

Their investigation showed that the C.I.A. wrongly credited enhanced interrogation and torture as the reason why 20 terrorist attacks were stopped.

The report says that, in reality, these thwarted attacks were based on intelligence that was procured from other places or without torture. The C.I.A. misled Congress, however, by "leaving the false impression that the C.I.A. was acquiring unique information from use of [enhanced interrogation and torture] techniques." 

Even worse, "some of the plots the C.I.A. claimed to have 'disrupted'" with enhanced interrogation were plots that -- when analyzed by intelligence and law enforcement officials -- were infeasible and never operational. Reading between the lines, it seems the Committee found claimed successes that were either a) made up or b) plots that never came close to being a real threat.

Why should we believe this report?

That's up to you. Some Republicans are arguing that this report is a partisan Democratic attack on the Bush Administration. The report itself is six years in the making and was produced by the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein. They reviewed six million pages of C.I.A. materials and drew on interviews of C.I.A. officials. 

It should also be noted that Feinstein, who chairs this committee, has had the reputation of being too soft on the C.I.A. Well, that can't be said today.

Former officials in the Bush administration, including President Bush himself, are standing behind the C.I.A. President Bush said the personnel who were with the C.I.A. in those years were "patriots." The report does say, however, that President Bush expressed "discomfort" when he finally found out the details of what had happened.

Who tried to stop this report from being released?

The C.I.A. has tried to keep this report from being released

Did President Obama help with this report?

Actually, he made it harder for investigators. The Obama White House denied access to approximately 9,400 C.I.A. documents related to the program.

From the time he took office, President Obama has said he wants to move forward without fighting old battles over these problems. But, as Timothy B. Lee at Vox pointed out, the Obama administration has not only chose not to investigate and prosecute officials who engaged in torture. They have gone so far as to protect secrecy, having prosecuted a whistleblower, former C.I.A. official John Kiriakou, for leaking information about these incidents. He is serving a 30-month term in prison.

Back up for a second. How did this start in the first place? And when did all of this happen?

After 9/11, the Bush Administration authorized the C.I.A. to detain and interrogate suspected members of al Qaeda and its affiliates. The goal was to procure intelligence regarding terrorist threats to the American homeland. The report details what happened. President Obama discontinued the program when he took office.

The events in the report occurred between late 2001 and early 2009. Put another way, from 9/11 until President Obama assumed office.

Also, today's release is not the full report, which is "more than ten times the length" of what has been made public.

How did it come to this? How could we have done such things?

The climate after 9/11 was much different than it is today. Americans were understandably hysterical. Nearly 3,000 of their fellow citizens had just been murdered in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. A chief criticism of the C.I.A. and our government was that the lack of good human intelligence allowed the attacks to happen, and Americans were demanding action. So, the C.I.A. and the Bush White House sought to ramp up intelligence operations and that included detaining and interrogating suspected members of terrorist organizations. But, as President Obama said today, the C.I.A. crossed the line and compromised American values.