Secrets, Politics and Torture: Frontline’s Look into CIA Interrogation

Last night, Frontline aired the documentary “Secrets, Politics and Torture,” which takes a chilling look at the creation and implementation of the CIA’s torture program. The documentary reinforces the message of both the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report and the yet-unreleased Panetta review, which demonstrate that the interrogation program was ineffectivemismanaged, and illegal.

The torture program’s main defender is former CIA counsel John Rizzo, but even he seems unsure of where he stands. Initially Rizzo says that he “immediately recognized that this had big time trouble for the CIA written all over it.” Later he defends the techniques and says they were effective, but also claims that he received erroneous information about whether they worked. Alternately defensive and contrite, Rizzo seems to want to be both a mover and shaker and an innocent victim, the orchestrator of a successful counterterrorism strategy and a helpless bystander to a train wreck that only he foresaw.

However he sees himself now, though, it’s clear that Rizzo had a simple objective at the time: rig the system so no one can get in trouble. Rather than create a legal and sustainable interrogation program, he describes how he met with lawyers and White House officials to ensure that the law and the administration would support torture. Right and wrong played little role in his decision-making: “The morality of it, sure, I had views about that. But I did not view that as my primary role.”

While many defenders of the program point to Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation as evidence that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were effective, the documentary shows that any useful intelligence from Zubaydah was actually gained by other means. After Zubaydah was captured and detained in Thailand, the CIA “reluctantly” turned him over to Ali Soufan, an FBI interrogator.

Soufan sought to develop a rapport with the detainee. Zubaydah was immediately cooperative, providing crucial information about alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammad (KSM). However, Rizzo was told that Soufan was too soft on Zubaydah, and the CIA stepped in. Soufan, infuriated by what he saw, was removed from the black site. Zubaydah was then subjected to such extreme treatment that even CIA staff were “profoundly affected, some to the point of tears.” It was clear that the techniques weren’t working, but headquarters insisted they press on, despite the fact that the interrogation team thought it was “highly unlikely” that Zubaydah had any more relevant information.

The later torture of KSM was equally futile. Unlike Zubaydah, KSM was never given the opportunity to cooperate with a professional interrogator. However, after extensive torture he told CIA agents that he had sent an al Qaeda operative to Montana to recruit African Americans. This, of course, was false: KSM simply said what he thought his interrogators wanted to hear. This still didn’t persuade former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin that torture produces unreliable information. He maintains that the CIA learned to tell the difference between the lies and truth to gain intelligence. Not, of course, before the FBI combed Montana for al Qaeda cells, diverting resources that could have been used to track other threats.

Torture’s failure to result in useful intelligence from Abu Zubaydah and KSM shouldn’t come as a surprise. Professional interrogators—including those experienced in interrogating high-level terrorism suspects—agree that torture is ineffective and counterproductive, and that there are more reliable means of gathering intelligence. Military experts also tell us that torture undermines U.S. national security.

After the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that all detainees had to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, Rizzo’s main concern was that many in the CIA, including himself, were vulnerable to prosecution. The ruling also seemed to shake the White House’s confidence. According to the documentary, President Bush called a cabinet meeting where there was almost unanimous support for ending the torture program. Vice President Cheney was a lone voice of dissent. He nonetheless prevailed. Bush publicly defended the program and stated that the United States has not, and does not, ever torture.

If only it were so. “Secrets, Politics and Torture” is just the latest contribution to a continuous flood of information about officially sanctioned torture and the U.S. failure to live up to its ideals. This is yet another reason why we need comprehensive anti-torture legislation to prevent the program from ever being repeated.

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Published on May 20, 2015

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