More Disturbing Revelations About the CIA Torture Program

The most important thing to read today is this extraordinary report from Matthew Cole of NBC News about one CIA officer, the agency's top expert on al-Qaeda, and her trail of screw-ups and lies with regard to the torture program. Among other things, she was one of the models for the composite lead character in "Zero Dark Thirty," but this is much more disturbing than what was in that film. She is referred to as "the expert":

At one point, she misread intelligence provided by another suspected terrorist, and the faulty information was then used to extract an erroneous admission from Mohammed, often referred to by the acronym KSM, during two days of interrogation in March 2003, the report said.

Majid Khan, who was in Pakistani custody, had stated that Mohammed had sought to recruit "two to three unknown Black American Muslim converts who were currently training in Afghanistan" to carry out attacks on gas stations in the U.S. But in a cable describing the intelligence, the expert incorrectly stated that "KSM was interested in using anyone with U.S. status to assist with this operation," suggesting that Mohammed was seeking to recruit Muslims in the U.S.

She followed up with an email blithely noting that Mohammed would be subject to harsh interrogation as a result: "i love the Black American Muslim at AQ camps in Afghanuistan (sic). ... Mukie (KSM) is going to be hatin' life on this one," she wrote, according to the report.

(After being repeatedly "walled"—slammed into a wall—and then waterboarded, Mohammed told his interrogators that he had, in fact, sought to recruit American Muslims living in Montana to launch the attacks. But he recanted several months later, saying he was "under 'enhanced' measures" at the time and had simply told his captors what they wanted to hear, the report said.)

The CIA's argument that waterboarding and the techniques used in interrogations were effective centered on what the detainees were providing to their debriefers.

On July 16, 2003, the IG interviewed the expert, who told investigators that KSM "provided information that helped lead to the arrest" of five other al Qaeda operatives. The Senate report states, "These representations were almost entirely inaccurate."

Two days later, the expert wrote a memo to the agency's leadership that argued that the CIA's program was a success by any measure.

One of the essential disagreements in the debate we've been having about the CIA's torture program concerns the people who managed it and carried it out (according to Cole's article, this particular agent not only helped oversee the program, she also participated in torture sessions). The torture defenders argue that they were patriotic, highly trained professionals concerned only with their country's safety, reluctantly using some distasteful methods because that was the only way to get the information necessary to save American lives. I've heard some liberals say that they were a bunch of sadists who took the opportunity to act out their darkest fantasies on prisoners. My own view is that the truth is more complicated. Did they think they were doing the right thing and protecting the country? Of course. Were some of them sadists? Probably. Judging from her email, this agent seems pretty psyched about the next torture session she gets to participate in. I'm sure that a lot of them thought they were heroic characters right out of 24, and the horror of what they were doing only intensified that view of themselves as the protagonists of an epic struggle.

Everything we've learned also suggests that they were under intense pressure from above to produce results and had no idea what would produce those results. They had no experience in interrogation, and then a couple of former Army psychologists, who didn't either but obviously talked a great game, came in and told them, "Here's how to get what we want." So they jumped right in.

Finally, once the torture program began, everyone involved had an enormous stake in convincing their superiors, the political leadership, the country at large, and themselves that it was working. They'd been told to sink to unfathomable depths of depravity, and they did so with gusto. If it didn't work, then what would they be left with? Not only professional failure, but the idea that they made unspeakable moral compromises for nothing.  

The story of the phantom Montana Muslim terrorists shows just how clueless they were. There may be nothing that torture is less likely to accomplish than giving you accurate information confirming something you already suspect. It's one thing if you're torturing someone and he blurts out, "We're planning to blow up the Statue of Liberty!" Then you can try to figure out whether that's true and what to do about it. But if you're torturing someone and telling him exactly what you want to hear, like "Are you trying to recruit African-American Muslims in Montana to blow up gas stations?" then of course he's going to say yes. Even if he starts saying no, when you don't believe him and you keep torturing him, he'll figure out pretty quickly what you want.

Did the CIA personnel involved in the torture program understand that? They'd have to be spectacularly stupid not to. But maybe they didn't. Maybe they were so invested in the success of the program that they couldn't entertain the idea that there were ways in which torture was less than useless (in this case, by sending them off on wild goose chases after non-existent plots). So they just kept on going. Here's one last piece of Cole's article:

"There is a horrendous degree of intellectual dishonesty in the building," the former senior official said, referring to the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. "(The expert) suffers from that as well—and you can see it in the report." The former official said he did not believe the expert lied intentionally.

And after her decisions resulted in so many failures, not to mention the kidnapping and torture of at least one innocent man, what happened to her? She got a promotion.

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