Eleven years after the CIA last waterboarded a terror suspect, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is moving to uncloak its secret report on America’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques in the early years of the war on terrorism, and the U.S. intelligence community is preparing to fight back.
Current and former intelligence officials told The Washington Times they are furious that the Senate panel, headed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, did not interview the senior managers of the interrogation program launched after the Sept. 11 attacks or the CIA directors who oversaw it.
“The truth is they had their foregone conclusions with what they wanted to say in this report, and they did not want the facts to get into the way,” said Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., one of the CIA’s most respected retired officers and who, as head of the Agency’s clandestine service, oversaw the enhanced interrogation program that used sleep deprivation, waterboarding, uncomfortable positioning and other tactics to extract information from high-value al Qaeda operatives.
“The process has been political. It has been ideological. And it is just wrong,” said Mr. Rodriguez, who retired in fall 2007 and later wrote a best-selling book entitled “Hard Measures” that argued that the tactics, which critics have denounced as torture, saved American lives.
U.S. intelligence officials and Senate aides confirm that the Senate Intelligence Committee did not interview former CIA directors George Tenet, Porter Goss and Mike Hayden, nor did the committee staff interview the program’s direct day-to-day managers, like Mr. Rodriguez.
Some of those officials told The Times they were told by Senate aides they weren’t interviewed because they once had been under possible criminal investigation.
But that investigation by a special Justice Department prosecutor was closed out more than two years ago, with no charges filed against any supervisor of the program.
“It is astonishing nobody ever reached out to us to interview us,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “Especially those people who were directors and program managers during that period of time.”
The Intelligence Committee confirmed Monday evening it did not interview the key managers of the program, instead relying on more than 6.3 million pages of contemporaneous documents, emails and cables as well as the CIA’s own prior interviews with more than 100 of its own employees.
“The committee could not conduct interviews because of an ongoing DOJ criminal investigation into CIA activities. Furthermore, interviews were not necessary because of the comprehensive documents available for review, including interview reports of senior CIA officers who carried out the program,” committee spokesman Tom Mentzer said in a statement to The Times.
“In preparing its response to the study, the CIA reached out to its own officials for their perspectives of the program, which were included in the CIA’s response and in meetings with committee staff. These views were considered by the committee in updating the report,” he said.
Mr. Hayden, who ran the CIA from 2006 to 2009, wrote in his regular column Tuesday in The Times that he is disappointed that journalists, op-ed writers and human rights groups got leaks from the report and appeared to have “more access than all but a very few former CIA senior officers whose actions are cataloged there but who have been denied access.”
Mr. Hayden said he, Mr. Tenet, and Mr. Goss, though never interviewed, were offered belated access to the report in late July, but only if they signed a nondisclosure agreement with the Senate committee.
“None of us had any influence on the Agency response other than an understandable plea to make it as robust and honest as possible,” he wrote in his column Tuesday.
On the flip side, Ms. Feinstein is upset that the Obama administration blacked out about 15 percent of the passages in the report for security reasons, redactions that she declared earlier this month undercut the report’s findings.
“I have concluded that certain redactions eliminate or obscure key facts that support the report’s findings and conclusions. Until these redactions are addressed to the committee’s satisfaction, the report will not be made public,” the senator said.
Thrown ‘under the bus’
While the White House and Ms. Feinstein’s staff work through the disputed redactions, current and former senior intelligence personnel are working on their own rebuttals to dispute many of the report’s findings on factual grounds. The CIA produced its own official rebuttal to the report back in June 2013 that is in the process of being declassified.
The brewing storm between the CIA and its Democratic intelligence overseers in the Senate comes at an awkward time.
The Obama administration is pressing the intelligence community to step up its efforts to uncover possible new threats associated with terrorist groups like the Islamic State, which last week beheaded an American reporter who had been captured in Syria, and Boko Haram, which garnered worldwide attention by kidnapping more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria this spring.
“We want our operations people focused on thwarting the next terror attack from very real and imminent threats like IS, and instead they’re looking over their shoulders worried about blind criticism about tactics from a decade ago that were authorized by the president and cleared by the Justice Department and briefed to Congress,” said one senior intelligence official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the official wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.
“It’s not the optimum circumstance for the intelligence community. They’re professionals and will do their job. But you never want them distracted at a critical time like this with leaks from a partisan report,” the official said.
Mr. Rodriguez, likewise, said he has heard from his former colleagues about the weight the impending report is having on them as they do their jobs each day. He declined to discuss the actual findings of the report, citing the nondisclosure agreement he signed.
“These people have mothers, fathers, neighbors and friends, and they have been slandered, been called torturers by the president. And I don’t think the government thinks stuff like this through for the consequences. They are throwing the Agency under the bus right at a time when they need it [the Agency] most,” he said.
Current CIA Director John Brennan has held calls and meetings with current staff and former high-level officials likely to be affected by the report.
Concerns inside the Agency include that some current or former officers will have their safety placed in jeopardy if outed, that methods and sources will be improperly revealed, that information in the report will be used by foreign governments to try to prosecute CIA officers and that the tenor of the report could create a backlash in the Muslim world, resulting in retaliatory protests and attacks against U.S. agencies and personnel.
Mr. Brennan’s message, according to those who have personally heard it, is that he agrees the government early on could have handled the enhanced interrogation program better in some circumstances. But he also has promised to aggressively rebut any disputed information in the report and to defend any individuals from unfair personal attacks.
The CIA’s official rebuttal, completed more than a year ago, contains many of the sentiments that Mr. Brennan has expressed privately to concerned Agency employees. Specifically, while acknowledging shortcomings, it challenges strongly the argument in Ms. Feinstein’s committee report that no valuable intelligence was derived from the enhanced interrogation program, according to sources directly familiar with it.
The estimated 6,700-page Senate report is one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington, its contents leaked in drips and drabs as the investigation stretched out over years.
One of its primary conclusions — reported in a recent New York Times article — is that CIA torture was more common in the period right after Sept. 11, 2001, than previously acknowledged and that the CIA misled Bush administration officials about how widely enhanced interrogations were used and why they were necessary.
McClatchy Newspapers reported in April it was shown the conclusions of the report and that it also declared that the legal underpinnings for authorizing the enhanced techniques were flawed and based on bad information.
Leaks to the news media and op-ed columnists also suggest the report will conclude very little valuable intelligence was derived from tactics like waterboarding, a conclusion the program’s defenders plan to rebut extensively in their counterattack.
In response to questions from The Washington Times, the Senate committee said Monday evening one of its concerns is that some of the intelligence gathered by enhanced interrogation tactics was, in fact, derived from other, less harsh means as well — calling into question the entire underpinnings of the program.
“Intelligence gathered through the detention and interrogation program was also gathered through other methods. CIA sought and received approval from DOJ for enhanced interrogation techniques based on claims that the information gained was not available anywhere else, and those claims were flawed,” the committee said.
Ms. Feinstein makes no apology for pursuing the investigation and has said she is eager to get the report released publicly.
“The bottom line is that the United States must never again make the mistakes documented in this report. I believe the best way to accomplish that is to make public our thorough documentary history of the CIA’s program,” she said earlier this month.
Battle lines drawn
The long-anticipated report is expected to have more historical value than operational impact.
The CIA stopped waterboarding — the most controversial of the tactics because it simulates drowning — back in 2003 after using it one last time on Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. President Obama signed an executive order in early 2009 limiting CIA interrogation tactics to those contained in the Army Field Manual.
The CIA tactics were approved by the Justice Department and President Bush, and Congress received classified briefings on them. And a special prosecutor concluded in 2012 no criminal charges were warranted against CIA managers.
In his final news conference before heading on vacation in August, Mr. Obama said he thinks the intelligence committee did engage in torture after Sept. 11 but that he understood the reasons why and that it was important to learn from the mistakes rather than “feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job those folks had.”
“In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we did some things that were wrong,” the president said. “We did a whole lot of things that were right. But we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values. I understand why it happened. I think it’s important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the twin towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen, and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent.”
Many Democrats and many Republicans, like Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have long ago come to similar conclusions that some of the tactics used in the hysteria after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were wrongheaded and/or possibly amounted to torture.
But the release of the Senate report is certain to worsen already bad blood between the intelligence community and its Senate overseers.
The CIA recently was forced to admit it accessed Senate computers and sought to delete from the committee’s possession a report by former CIA Director Leon Panetta that was critical of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation tactics.
If the redactions issue is worked out, the Senate report is likely to be issued later this fall. The likely battle lines are already drawn in activities that played out over much of August.
Human Rights First, an advocacy group that has enlisted many former military commanders in its campaign against the CIA’s past enhanced interrogation tactics, ran ads in The Washington Post declaring that “The Truth on Torture Is Coming.”
Some of the group’s former military advocates also wrote columns, including retired Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who penned a New York Times Op-Ed comparing the abuses he discovered at the notorious Army prison at Abu Ghraib with the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program.
Gen. Taguba’s op-ed particularly angered some intelligence officials, whose sentiments are summed up by a single line in Mr. Hayden’s Tuesday column. “One might oppose the CIA program, but Abu Ghraib it ain’t,” he wrote.
One of the areas that former and current U.S. intelligence officials plan to counter is the notion that the enhanced interrogation techniques didn’t result in any valuable intelligence and that the tactics were used more often than first acknowledged.
In his book, Mr. Rodriguez challenges the CIA inspector general’s prior conclusion that Mohammed, the Sept. 11 mastermind, was waterboarded 183 times.
Mr. Rodriguez wrote that number, sensational at the time, actually reflected 183 “splashes of water” in the conduct of a handful of waterboarding sessions that Mohammed himself estimated occurred only five times.
The former top CIA officer also recounted in his book how Mohammed initially refused to discuss who killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. But after undergoing the enhanced interrogation regime that included waterboarding, he eventually volunteered that he had committed the 2002 beheading himself.
“We never suggested that the EITs would be a panacea. Once detainees became compliant, that did not mean that they would tell us everything they knew,” Mr. Rodriguez wrote. “They would still try to protect their most cherished secrets.
“But they told us much, much more than they would have otherwise, and often unwittingly, they gave us insights that unlocked the mysteries we wanted to unravel the most,” he added.