WASHINGTON — U.S. Senate investigators delivered a damning indictment of CIA interrogations Tuesday, accusing the spy agency of inflicting suffering on prisoners beyond its legal limits and peddling unsubstantiated stories that the harsh questioning saved American lives.
Treatment in secret prisons after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was worse than the government told Congress or the public, said the report from the Senate Intelligence Committee, the first official public accounting after years of debate about the CIA’s brutal handling of prisoners.
Five hundred pages were released, representing the executive summary and conclusions of a still-classified 6,700-page full investigation.
President Barack Obama declared the past practices to be “contrary to our values” and pledged, “I will continue to use my authority as president to make sure we never resort to those methods again.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat and the committee chairman, branded the findings a stain on the nation’s history.
“Under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured,” she declared, commanding the Senate floor for an extended accounting of the harsh techniques identified in the report.
Tactics used included weeks of sleep deprivation, slapping and slamming of detainees against walls, confining them to small boxes, keeping them isolated for prolonged periods and threatening them with death. Three detainees faced the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding. Many developed psychological problems.
But the “enhanced interrogation techniques” didn’t produce the results that really mattered, the report asserts in its most controversial conclusion. It cites CIA cables, emails and interview transcripts to rebut the central justification for torture – that it thwarted terror plots and saved American lives.
In a statement, the CIA said the report “tells part of the story” but “there are too many flaws for it to stand as the official record of the program.”
Some Republican leaders objected to the report’s release and challenged its contention that tough tactics didn’t work.
The interrogation program “helped us identify and capture important al-Qaida terrorists, disrupt their ongoing plotting and take down Osama bin Laden,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, top Republican on the intelligence panel, said in a joint statement.
But Republican Sen. John McCain, tortured in Vietnam as a prisoner of war, welcomed the report and endorsed its findings in the main.
“We gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer,” he said in a Senate speech. “Too much.”
The report, released after months of negotiations with the administration about what should be censored, was issued amid concerns of an anti-American backlash overseas. American embassies and military sites worldwide were taking extra precautions.
Earlier this year, Feinstein accused the CIA of infiltrating Senate computer systems in a dispute over documents as relations between the investigators and the spy agency deteriorated, the issue still sensitive years after Obama halted the interrogation practices upon taking office.
Former CIA officials disputed the report’s findings. So did some Senate Republicans, who accused Democrats of inaccuracies, sloppy analysis and cherry-picking evidence to reach a predetermined conclusion. CIA officials maintain they gained vital intelligence that still guides counterterrorism efforts.
“The program led to the capture of al-Qaida leaders and took them off the battlefield,” George Tenet, CIA director when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks occurred, said in recent days. He said it saved “thousands of American lives.”
Not so, said Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. “It got us nothing except a bad name.”
President George W. Bush approved the program through a covert finding in 2002, but he wasn’t briefed by the CIA about the details until 2006. At that time Bush expressed discomfort with the “image of a detainee, chained to the ceiling, clothed in a diaper and forced to go to the bathroom on himself.”
After al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah was arrested in Pakistan, the CIA received permission to use waterboarding, sleep deprivation, close confinement and other techniques. Agency officials added unauthorized methods into the mix, the report says.
At least five men in CIA detention received “rectal rehydration,” a form of feeding through the rectum. The report found no medical necessity for the treatment.
Others received “ice baths” and death threats. At least three in captivity were told their families would suffer, with CIA officers threatening to harm their children, sexually abuse the mother of one man, and cut the throat of another man’s mother.
Zubaydah was held in a secret facility in Thailand, called “detention Site Green” in the report. Early on, with CIA officials believing he had information on an imminent plot, Zubaydah was left isolated for 47 days without questioning, the report says. Later, he was subjected to the panoply of techniques. He later suffered mental problems.
He wasn’t alone. In September 2002, at a facility referred to as COBALT- understood as the CIA’s “Salt Pit” in Afghanistan – detainees were kept isolated and in darkness. Their cells had only a bucket for human waste.
Redha al-Najar, a former bin Laden bodyguard, was the first prisoner there. CIA interrogators found that after a month of sleep deprivation, he was a “broken man.” But the treatment got worse, with officials lowering food rations, shackling him in the cold and giving him a diaper instead of toilet access.
Gul Rahman, a suspected extremist, received enhanced interrogation there in late 2002, shackled to a wall in his cell and forced to rest on a bare concrete floor in only a sweatshirt. The next day he was dead. A CIA review and autopsy found he died of hypothermia.
Justice Department investigations into that and another death of a CIA detainee resulted in no charges.