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McClatchy Washington Bureau

CIA official: no proof harsh techniques stopped terror attacks on America

Mark Seibel and Warren P. Strobel | McClatchy Newspapers

last updated: April 25, 2009 09:26:09 PM

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WASHINGTON — The CIA inspector general in 2004 found that there was no conclusive proof that waterboarding or other harsh interrogation techniques helped the Bush administration thwart any “specific imminent attacks,” according to recently declassified Justice Department memos.

That undercuts assertions by former vice president Dick Cheney and other former Bush administration officials that the use of harsh interrogation tactics including waterboarding, which is widely considered torture, was justified because it headed off terrorist attacks.

The risks and effectiveness of waterboarding and other enhanced techniques are at the center of an increasingly heated debate over how thoroughly to investigate the CIA’s secret detention and interrogation programs.

“It is difficult to quantify with confidence and precision the effectiveness of the program,” Steven G. Bradbury, then the Justice Department’s principal deputy assistant attorney general, wrote in a May 30, 2005, memo to CIA General Counsel John Rizzo, one of four released last week by the Obama administration.

“As the IG Report notes, it is difficult to determine conclusively whether interrogations provided information critical to interdicting specific imminent attacks. And because the CIA has used enhanced techniques sparingly, ‘there is limited data on which to assess their individual effectiveness’,” Bradbury wrote, quoting the IG report.

Nevertheless, Bradbury concluded in his May 2005 memos that the program had been effective, although the still secret reports by Inspector General John Helgerson had been disseminated a full year earlier.

Helgerson also concluded that waterboarding was riskier than officials claimed and reported that the CIA’s Office of Medical Services thought that the risk to the health of some prisoners outweighed any potential intelligence benefit, according to the memos.

The IG’s report is among several indications that the Bush administration’s use of abusive interrogation methods was less productive than some former administration officials have claimed.

Even some of those in the military who developed the techniques warned that the information they produced was “less reliable” than that gained by traditional psychological measures, and that using them would produce an “intolerable public and political backlash when discovered,” according to a Senate Armed Services Committee report released on Tuesday.

President Bush told a September 2006 news conference that one plot, to attack a Los Angeles office tower, was “derailed” in early 2002 — before the harsh CIA interrogation measures were approved, contrary to those who claim that waterboarding revealed it.

Last December, FBI Director Robert Mueller told Vanity Fair magazine that he didn’t believe that intelligence gleaned from abusive interrogation techniques had disrupted any attacks on America.

The New York Times first reported Helgerson’s inspector general’s report in November 2005, but details of its contents have remained secret. A version of the report that the CIA turned over to the ACLU in May 2008 in response to a lawsuit consisted primarily of heavy black lines and notations of sections that had been redacted.

A CIA spokesman said Friday that he knew of no plans to release a more complete version.

Jameel Jaffer, the director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said the declassification of the Helgerson report is the subject of a court case before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We hope that we’ll be able to negotiate a less redacted version of that report,” Jaffer said, adding that the release of the Justice Department memos has increased pressure for more revelations.

“It’s a crucial document,” he said. “It will shed light on what kind of measures the CIA was using before August 2002” and whether they exceeded limits imposed by the Justice Department lawyers.

Two of the memos declassified last week, however, cite the IG report at least 34 times, often quoting it verbatim. Those citations provide the first glimpse of the spy agency’s inspector general’s analysis of the interrogation program.

The Bradbury memos that cite the inspector general’s report reveal that officials at CIA headquarters insisted on the repeated waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah, the first prisoner to undergo the technique, even after the interrogators on the scene sought to discontinue the technique.

“According to the IG Report, the CIA, at least initially, could not always distinguish detainees who had information but were successfully resisting interrogation from those who did not actually have information,” Bradbury wrote in his May 30, 2005, memo. “On at least one occasion, this may have resulted in what might be deemed in retrospect to have been the unnecessary use of enhanced techniques.

“On that occasion,” Bradbury continued, “although the on-scene interrogation team judged Zubaydah to be compliant, elements within CIA Headquarters still believed he was withholding information . . . . At the direction of CIA headquarters, interrogators therefore used the waterboard one more time on Zubaydah.”

Bradbury wrote that CIA headquarters dispatched officials to observe that waterboarding session. After that session, “these officials reported that enhanced techniques were no longer needed,” Bradbury wrote, citing the IG report.

Bradbury’s May 2005 memos authorized both waterboarding and a technique called “walling,” in which a prisoner is pushed against a plywood wall, but stressed that the Justice Department was doing so only so long as interrogators stuck to the procedures the CIA had outlined to the Justice Department. “Our analysis assumes adherence to these descriptions and limitations,” Bradbury noted in the May 10, 2005, memo.

The memos, however, also suggest that interrogators went beyond what the Justice Department initially authorized in an Aug. 1, 2002, memo by then-Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee.

Quoting IG Helgerson’s report, then-deputy assistant attorney general Bradbury noted that in addition to waterboarding Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times, some prisoners had been subjected to walling “20 to 30 times consecutively.”

“We previously concluded that the use of the waterboard did not constitute torture,” Bradbury wrote in a May 10, 2005 memo. “We must reexamine the issue, however, because the technique, as it would be used, could involve more applications in longer sessions (and possibly using different methods) than we earlier considered.”

As for walling, Bradbury wrote in the same May 10 memo that the Justice Department’s initial 2002 authorization of walling “did not describe the walling technique as involving the number of repetitions that we understand may be applied.”

Despite the information from the IG’s report, Bradbury subsequently concluded that the techniques weren’t torture.

Among the other details in the IG’s report revealed in the Justice Department memos:

_ Contrary to Bush administration’s insistence that waterboarding carried few risks and that medical concerns were a priority, the CIA didn’t initially seek the help of medical professionals in setting up or carrying out the procedure.

“OMS (the CIA’s Office of Medical Services) was neither consulted nor involved in the initial analysis of the risk and benefits of (enhanced interrogation techniques),” Bradbury wrote in his May 10, 2005, memo, quoting from the IG’s report.

_ The Bush administration erred by depending on a military training program, Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, (SERE) to assess the risks that a suspected terrorist might face when being waterboarded.

“Individuals undergoing SERE training are obviously in a very different situation from detainees undergoing interrogation; SERE trainees know it is part of a training program,” Bradbury wrote, borrowing from the IG report’s conclusion.

_ Waterboarding terrorist suspects also differed substantially from its limited use in the SERE program.

Quoting from the IG report, Bradbury wrote, “The waterboard technique . . . was different from the technique described in the DOJ opinion and used in the SERE training . . . At the SERE school . . . the subject’s airflow is disrupted by the firm application of a damp cloth over the air passages; the interrogator applies a small amount of water to the cloth in a controlled manner. By contrast, the Agency interrogator . . . applied large volumes of water to a cloth that covered the detainee’s mouth and nose.”

Bradbury said the inspector general reported: “OMS contends that the expertise of the SERE psychologist/interrogators on the waterboard was probably misrepresented at the time, as the SERE waterboard experience is so different from the subsequent Agency usage as to make it almost irrelevant.”

After the medical services office became involved in the possible use of waterboarding — a step that didn’t occur until after the inspector general’s report was issued, according to the memos — the technique wasn’t used again.

Waterboarding was rejected in the case of a prisoner who was believed to be a courier between Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist in Iraq, because the suspected courier was obese and complained of chest pressure, even though the CIA thought he might have critical information about plans to disrupt the 2004 U.S. presidential election, according to the memos.

The OMS issued guidelines in December 2004 setting out that the use of the waterboard required the presence of a physician,” Bradbury wrote. Those guidelines, however, were issued more than a year and a half after the last known CIA use of waterboarding.


A copy of the censored inspector general’s report released last year to the American Civil Liberties Union


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McClatchy Newspapers 2009


Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. We’re coming to you from the McClatchy offices in Washington, DC. Pressure’s mounting on President Obama to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether charges should be laid against those responsible for waterboarding. A vigorous defense has been waged by two of those people. Vice President Dick Cheney and Karl Rove have made frequent appearances on TV. Here’s what they’ve been saying.

DICK CHENEY, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: They put out the legal memos, the memos that the CIA got from the Office of Legal Counsel, but they didn’t put out the memos that show the success of the effort. But I know specifically of reports that I read and I saw that lay out what we learned through the interrogation process and what the consequences were for the country.

KARL ROVE, FORMER DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: These are available on the Internet. Anybody can get them. They’re well worth reading. And if you do read them, you’ll be reassured about what your government was doing, but maybe a little concerned that they weren’t doing enough. And the description of the techniques will cause Americans to say, “Is this torture?”

JAY: So that’s the question, not was it illegal. But according to Cheney and Rove, the question is they were effective [sic]. So, joining us now to discuss whether or not there’s evidence of this is Mark Seibel. He’s the managing editor of Thanks for joining us, Mark.


JAY: Now just people should know that this is the way you normally dress, and it’s very formal around here. Okay. You’re on your way to a charity ball.

SEIBEL: That’s right.

JAY: Alright. So the last couple of days, you’ve been pouring over the memoranda that were revealed, disclosed by the Obama administration, where the waterboarding was authorized. What have you found so far?

SEIBEL: Well, one of the things that was interesting to me about the memo was that 34 times, two of the memos cite an inspector general’s report from 2004—CIA inspector general—that has not previously been publicized. And one of the findings of that inspector general’s report, according to these memoranda, is that there was no conclusive evidence that any of the information that was obtained from waterboarding or harsh interrogation tactics actually led to the prevention or stopping of a terrorist attack. And it’s pretty straightforward, and I thought that was unusual.

JAY: So Cheney and Rove talking about show all the memoranda, you’ll see how effective it really was, in fact, it is there to be seen, to some extent, and you’re saying there’s nothing there to be seen.

SEIBEL: I think if they release all the memoranda, there will certainly be memoranda (because there were some written after this inspector general’s report) to say, well, yes, it was effective. But the inspector general’s report, which was the independent assessment of the—the CIA’s own independent assessment of the program, found that there was no conclusive evidence.

JAY: That anything was really achieved by torture.

SEIBEL: That anything was stopped. And, you know, it’s actually, as you read the documents, the ones that were released last week, you see that even though they’re trying to be supportive of the harsh interrogation tactics, that in fact they’re citing 34 times a report that basically said—was highly critical of the program.

JAY: What else did you learn from going over the documents?

SEIBEL: Well, you learn that in spite of the discussion of all the medical care and concern that was taken in this, that in fact during the period that the harsh interrogation procedures, the waterboarding, took place, there were no medical people that had been consulted either on the risk or the effectiveness of the interrogation. We learn with the first prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, that his interrogators on the ground wanted to stop waterboarding him. They thought he was being compliant and that he’d told them everything he knew. But CIA headquarters insisted that the waterboarding continue, and they even sent people down from headquarters to watch the last waterboarding session, at which point they too concluded, “Oh, he’s told us everything he knows.” So we learn that. We learned that the Bush administration’s reliance on the military training program known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape was a very poor predictor of the risks of waterboarding. When waterboarding became public the Bush administration said, “Well, it’s just something we’ve been—. It’s no big deal. It’s something we even do on our own soldiers as training.” But the inspector general said there’s no comparison. In fact, you have people who know they’re being trained for a military thing who are waterboarded in sort of a gentle way, and even that was intolerable. And all the services, except the Navy, have stopped doing it because it’s such a physically demanding thing that they’re putting on their troops. So we learn that the CIA inspector general felt that was a very poor way to decide what the risk was. And, in fact, as you read the memos, you discover that as they went along they discovered there was more and more risk. After the memos, after the report was released, the CIA’s Office of Medical Services got involved in assessing risk in waterboarding, and it is significant that there was no more waterboarding after that. There was even a prisoner captured; waterboarding was considered; they believed he had been a go-between between Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan or Pakistan and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist who at that time was active in Iraq. But they assessed him and said, “Well, he’s obese, he complains of chest pressure. We think waterboarding and would not produce enough information that it’s worth doing it, because it might kill him.” And those kinds of things I don’t think have been very well publicized, you know, in terms of the really very graphic and yet very sterile descriptions that we have of waterboarding.

JAY: So why shouldn’t this inspector general’s report itself be now fully made public?

SEIBEL: Well, I don’t know whether they will. The CIA says there’s no plan to make it public. The ACLU, which has sued to get the report and actually got a report of it in May 2008, that version, which we posted on our website, is basically a bunch of heavy black lines. Occasionally you run across the word “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 conspirator,” just as isolated words, and then the notation that “This section, page 43 to 86, is not being released.” And so, really, nothing has come out on this report. And I think if in fact just the memos were so controversial, I think releasing the report, which some people describe as being the size of two telephone books, will be really, really controversial. So I’m not expecting it unless a judge orders it.

JAY: And one would think Americans do have a right to know whether or not this was effective or not. The whole Cheney-Rove-Bush defense essentially has been that they really did get good information.

SEIBEL: I think if you’re going to release some memos on effectiveness, you have to release all memos on effectiveness, so that you really have something to judge from. You know, I am sure that this Senate Intelligence Committee, as it goes through its investigation, which its chairwoman, Dianne Feinstein, has promised, that I’m sure they will review all of these memos and we will eventually get some judgment on the effectiveness.

JAY: Thanks very much, Mark. Thank you very much for joining us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Mark Seibel oversees McClatchy's foreign bureaus as Chief of Correspondents. Mark was formerly Managing Editor Online for the McClatchy Washington Bureau's website. He joined the bureau in 2003 as the editor in charge of international and national security coverage from The Miami Herald, where he directed two Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting efforts, expanded the reach of the paper's International Edition, and oversaw the paper's independent review of ballots from the 2000 presidential election.