By Carolyn Tackett
In a recent interview with BBC’s Hilary Andersson, Buzzy Krongard, CIA executive director from 2001 to 2004, acknowledged that detainees in Guantanamo and CIA black sites were tortured in the wake of 9/11.
When asked whether waterboarding, painful stress positions, and other harsh interrogation tactics were torture, Krongard explained, “Well, let’s put it this way, it is meant to make [the detainee] as uncomfortable as possible. So I assume for, without getting into semantics, that’s torture.”
At the time of the 9/11 attacks, the CIA did not keep trained interrogators on staff. (The CIA eliminated its interrogation program in 1986 after abuses in Latin America came to light.) Nevertheless, the agency did not consult experienced interrogators when developing its program of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Instead, the CIA modeled its tactics after Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training exercises designed to prepare U.S. soldiers to withstand torture methods like those used against U.S. personnel in Vietnam, Korea, and Nazi Germany.
When asked if the CIA’s program was “torture by beginners,” Krongard laughed and responded, “Well we had to do something. So it was learning as you go, and trying to balance efficacy and morality.” He went on to defend the CIA’s approach: “You’re saying we were clueless, right? Well the people whose job it is to tell us, they were clueless too… We were told by legal authorities [the Bush Administration’s Justice Department] that we could torture people.”
Even where some guidelines were in place, the CIA admitted that a serious lack of internal oversight led to use of unauthorized techniques. For example, the CIA approved a technique known as “walling,” where an interrogator repeatedly slams a detainee’s stiffened body against a wall, but required the wall be flexible to maximize fear but minimize the possibility of being charged with torture. In practice, detainees were beaten against concrete.
Countless national security experts agree that torture is not an effective intelligence-gathering tool. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who took the lead on producing and releasing the Senate torture report last year, said, “This program was really poorly done. Poorly managed, poorly carried out. And when the staff really looked at the facts of the cases, examined the cables, the emails, they found there was no actionable intelligence gained. That most of it came from another direction.”
FBI interrogator and al Qaeda expert Ali Soufan said the CIA has dramatically overstated the importance of information gained through “enhanced interrogation.” He explained, for example, that high-value detainee Abu Zubaydah “cooperated literally at the second question” during the FBI’s interrogation. The FBI “got even the information that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind of 9/11 before the CIA people came to the site.”
Torture by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies generated deep resentment in communities around the world, putting U.S. national security at risk. What is now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) gained traction in detainee camps in Iraq, where abuses such as those documented in Abu Ghraib were widespread. ISIL now puts its hostages in the iconic American-style orange jumpsuits, synonymous with Guantanamo, and has reportedly waterboarded captives. Enemies of the United States continue to use U.S. human rights violations (like torture) for propaganda and recruitment. U.S. abuses have also undermined counterterrorism cooperation and diplomatic efforts with other nations.
Torture is an absolute violation of international law and is fundamentally at odds with core American principles. “This is a dark, dark chapter, and it’s a chapter we must learn from. I think the world should learn from it as well,” Senator Feinstein said. “This is not the America that we stand for.” In June, the Senate passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority Senator Feinstein and Senator John McCain’s amendment to solidify the ban on torture and ensure these practices can never be used again.