Thursday, July 29, 2021

The official student newspaper of Methodist Ladies' College, est. 2020

The Report – Exposing the truth behind the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation”

There are some movies that you don’t find – they find you. I’d been going on a Wikipedia marathon out of sheer boredom when I chanced upon a movie that I could vaguely remember wanting to watch but never got around to. It was called The Report.

The name is simple, innocuous. It reveals nothing specific about the contents of the movie – it is like a blank cover sheet, obscuring whatever lies beyond behind that whitewashed mask. Only when you start reading, or watching, in this case, do you gradually realise the winding rabbit hole you have just dived headfirst into.

The Report recounts the story of a seven-year long investigation into the CIA’s conduct prior to, during and after the War on Terror. It shows this through the eyes of one Daniel Jones, played by Adam Driver, formerly a United States Senate investigator. Jones’ 6700-word report exposed the CIA’s use of torture and other illegal and inhumane methods to extract information from suspected terrorists. It was a report that made a nation look back and ask themselves – do the ends really justify the means?

2007

The New York Times published an article titled “C.I.A. Destroyed Tapes of Interrogations” on December 6, 2007. The tapes in question recorded the 2002 C.I.A interrogations of Abu Zubaydaha and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, two high profile al-Qaeda members. Out of the 90 tapes, 12 showed the use of the so called “enhanced interrogation” technique – a term that would later be revealed to be a euphemism for state-authorized torture. 

This alarmed the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) since they, as the overseers of the United States Intelligence Community, had not even been informed of the tapes’ existence, let alone their destruction. On December 11, the Committee voted to begin an investigation into the allegations, led by none other than the protagonist of The Report, Dan Jones.

2009-2012

The original investigation into the tape destruction ended in early 2009. The findings were, however, disturbing enough that the SSCI voted 14-1 on March 11 to broaden its scope and review the entirety of the CIA detention and interrogation program. While the intention was for the review to consist of both Republicans and Democrats, a parallel investigation initiated by the Department of Justice caused the CIA to forbid any of its members from participating in interviews. Believing that any worthwhile development would be impossible without witnesses, the Republicans withdrew from the investigation.

The noncooperation of the agency forced the remaining Democrats, once again led by Dan Jones, to rely solely on cables, emails and written documents, eventually going through more than 6.3 million pages by the conclusion of the investigation in 2012. Even so, they encountered resistance as the CIA insisted on hiring a contractor to review documents prior to sending them to the investigators (a deviation from standard procedures) and outright refused to provide an additional 9400 requested documents. After 3 years, the final report was approved by a bipartisan vote of 9-6 and was sent to the White House pending Presidential comments.

2013

Unwilling for a report that was highly critical of them be released, the CIA retaliated with? full force, by objecting to as many of the report’s findings as possible. These objections took place over a month from August 2013, during which time Jones resorted to bringing a whiteboard, so that he could write out the timeline of events to point out the contradictions in the agency’s claims. By September, Jones conceded to the chairwoman of the SSCI, Senator Dianne Feinstein, that he was in a stalemate with the CIA. She instructed him to record the discrepancies in the footnotes, and so work on the report continued.

2014

With the new year, the investigative team was faced with yet another obstacle. The existence of an internal investigation by the C.I.A on its torture program was revealed. Named the “Panetta Review”, its conclusions were consistent with the current SSCI report and contrary to the CIA’s official response. Caught out on their lie, the agency attempted to turn the tables against the report by claiming that the SSCI had illegally accessed the “Panetta Review” – they essentially accused Jones of hacking into the CIA classified files. To this, Jones had only one response: “I am really good at Microsoft Word. That’s it.”

The situation further escalated when on March 11, Senator Feinstein confirmed that the committee had copied a portion of the “Panetta Review”, but she claimed this was only done as a preventative measure in case the CIA tried to destroy the document as they did to the tapes. Feinstein further asserted that the agency themselves had illegally accessed the Senate’s computer systems to look for the Review and that they had been removing files from the investigation staff for years. Finally, she revealed that the man who instigated the investigation against the SSCI staff had himself been mentioned by name 1600 times in the report. With such a public accusation levied against the agency, the CIA eventually dropped its plan to have the FBI conduct a criminal investigation into the SSCI and, by July 31, admitted that they had in fact illegally accessed the committee’s computers.

A page from the unclassified portion, showing the extensive footnotes and redactions. Source: US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

During this time, the committee had voted to declassify the executive summary, findings and conclusions of the updated report. This declassified version was received from the Executive Branch on August 1, but, much to the committee’s dismay, it was so heavily redacted that it prevented a clear understanding of the contents. Censored content included all detainee names, CIA officers’ pseudonymous and even the names of the two creators of the Enhanced Interrogation program, despite the fact that they had already been publicly identified.

A 525-page portion of the report was finally released on December 9, 2014. The full report at 6700 pages remains classified.

Findings

The report produced 20 key findings – these can be found in the unclassified summary. In summary, the report concluded that the Enhanced Interrogation program was ineffective and did not fulfil its intended purpose to extract unique information that could have been obtained otherwise. It also revealed that the CIA had lied to the White House, the Department of Justice and the CIA’s Office of Inspector General. The running of the program was also criticised, with the management being described as “fail[ing] to adequately evaluate the effectiveness of its enhanced interrogation techniques” and “rarely reprimand[ing] or [holding] personnel accountable for serious or significant violations, inappropriate activities, and systematic and individual management failures.”

A plethora of examples of torture were also reported on – which I will refrain from listing, as they are extremely disturbing. Suffice to say, it was proven beyond doubt that the brutality of the program far exceeded any possible justifications.

Response

Despite having survived the CIA’s incessant attempts to upend it, the report’s reception showed that many still supported or sought to justify the agency’s actions. While President Obama commented that he was in favour of the declassification of the report, many in his administration opposed it. CIA Director John Brenan maintained the stance that the program had extracted information that otherwise could not have been obtained but agreed with the ban on similar programs, conceding that there had been “shortcomings”.

Members of the Bush administration (during whose tenure the program was most active) were more critical of the report. Three former CIA directors dismissed the report as “essentially a poorly done and partisan attack on the agency that has done the most to protect America after the 9/11 attacks.” John Yoo, the author of the “Torture Memos”, which provided a legal justification for the use of torture, also defended the program, claiming that it had produced information that led to Osama bin Laden’s hideout.

For some, the report came as a shock, and they felt ashamed for their country.  For others, it was nothing more than what they expected from the great, merciless machine that is the United States Intelligence Community. And for the most stubborn or “patriotic”, the idea that the program was simply the result of a nation reeling from the 9/11 attacks remained.

No charges were ever brought on those involved with the program.

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